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Fire Rose (RWBY/Dark Souls)

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by GentlemanMad, May 3, 2020.

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  1. Index: Chapter 1: The Fire Fades
    GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    AN: After reading quite a few RWBY/Bloodborne/Darksouls crossovers, I've decide to write my own as well. Hope you enjoy. I brought this over from my FF.net account.


    Chapter 1: The Fire Fades
    This was not the first time Ruby had been woken up in the middle of the night by nightmare. They had become less frequent over the years, but still occurred from time to time. Sometimes, they are random. Other times, they are triggered by something.

    This night's was random.

    She hated it when they were random. The details of her dream were already slipping away, but the hollow feeling in her chest was less inclined to leave. As much as she tossed, turned, and snuggled into her pillow and sheets, she was too wide-awake to return to sleep now.

    With a frustrated sigh, Ruby sat up in her bed and stared out the window at the clear night sky, the light of the shattered moon shining softly on her. She could not suppress the feeling of longing that welled up in her chest. It was moments like these when she would go visit her mother's grave. Just talking to her made the ache in her chest fade, though she knew it would never fade.

    So, what if daylight was only a couple of hours away. It was still not too late to go visit her grave. It was dangerous, and there were the Grimm that occasionally roamed the forest—even if her dad had just cleared them out again. Her uncle would not be around to save her if things went wrong again, though he was expected to be back from a mission sometime today. Well, not like he can just show up in the nick of time again like some super awesome hero, right?
    Before she knew it, Ruby dressed up and was ready to head out into the night. She took a deep breath as she opened her door and peeked into the hall. It would be okay, she would be very quick about it. Moreover, with her aura unlocked, she would not be completely defenseless.

    As she crept through her home, she could not help but feel grateful for how loud her sister snored; it would help mask any sounds the floorboards made. She winced at the creaking noise the front door made as she opened it. A quick glance over her shoulder settled her fears, as Zwei, their pet corgi, was still asleep on the living room rug.

    The night air was cool and crisp on her skin. She shivered as she drew her cloak around herself. It was now or never. It would only take her a few minutes to reach the cliff where her mother had been buried. She dashed through the trees as fast as she could, constantly glancing about for the telltale red eyes of the Grimm. Luckily, all was quiet with the exception of her footsteps in the underbrush. Ruby let out a sigh of relief as her mother's grave came into sight. She slowed to a walk as she approached the familiar marker, the stone shining softly in the moonlight.

    Just standing here was already easing the tension in her heart. She savored the moment as the night wind blew softly around her. It was so peaceful and quiet. You could not even hear the sounds of insec—

    Snap

    Ruby spun around and felt her breath catch in her throat. Standing in front of her was a large Beowolf. It must have stalked her through the forest. How could she have missed it?

    The large bipedal wolf stalked forward, its bone plating and red eyes gleaming in the moonlight. Ruby could only back away in fear. It was too close for her to outrun it. What was it doing here? Her dad cleared them all out yesterday! He, Ruby remembered, mentioned yesterday that one of the Grimm had run away during his fight with its pack. How could she have forgotten something so important?

    Suddenly, her foot slipped as she flailed her arms for balance. She had reached the edge of the cliff.
    She was trapped.

    Ruby could not blink her tears away as the Beowolf prowled closer. It was in no hurry with its prey cornered and nowhere to run. She swore it was grinning at her as it flashed its fangs.

    "Uncle Qrow... Dad... Yang... Help," she whimpered as tears started pouring down her face. She did not want to die; she was only six. She wanted to become a huntress with her older sister, just like her mother. She wanted to live a long life, fighting Grimm and protecting people like her mother had, to be a hero. She wanted to be back home, safe in bed, instead of here, facing down one of the living nightmares of the world. She had done the same thing that Yang had done years ago, only this time there was not going to be an Uncle Qrow to come and save her.

    The Beowolf ceased its movements just an arm's length away. All was silent except for the sounds of Ruby's sniffling as she waited for the creature's next move.

    Suddenly, the Beowolf lunged forward, sweeping its claws towards her face. She shrieked as she stumbled backwards... right over the edge of the cliff. Her shriek turned into full-blown screaming as gravity took effect and pulled her down towards her demise. Ruby closed her eyes as the wind battered and howled around her small form. Her last thoughts were of her mother's smiling face, telling her to be brave as she left on one of her many missions.

    I'm sorry, mom.

    Ruby barely felt it when she impacted the ground headfirst, her aura shattering like glass. She lay there, broken, as the moonlight shone softly on her dying form. Her blood, crimson like her cloak, glinted in the moonlight as it poured from her skull. All the energy that made her so full of life, reduced to mere embers that struggled to remain lite as the darkness closed around them.

    And yet, her blood did not soak the ground around her; instead, it flowed as if it were being pulled by something. It surged towards a cave that rested at the base of the cliff, heavily obscured by shrubbery and vines. It continued to stream forth even as the ground under it morphed from rock and dirt to pale gray ash, struggling along inch by inch.
    Soon, it poured into a small dip in the ash and made contact with a barely visible metal casing, long submerged in the ash. As Ruby's blood made contact, the ancient magic hidden within reacted, and for the first time since the ancient epochs, the fingers of the gauntlet twitched.
     
  2. NuclearBirb

    NuclearBirb A mysterious birb.

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    Im very interested to see where this goes, is it a fusion? A fusion im theory, but unaffected by souls lore? Our grimm made from the abyss, or is the abyss seperate? Are souls gods scaled to the brothers, or the pther way around? Or our souls gods weaker? I cant wait until you post another chapter :)
     
  3. GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    Don't worry. I'm bringing this over from FF.net I just need to reformat each chapter. I will be posting them up over the next few days.
     
    Shaper47 and NuclearBirb like this.
  4. Index: Chapter 2: Ash Seeketh Embers
    GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    AN:This became much longer than expected. For any who are familiar with Dark souls I will be taking some liberties, not with the main game lore, going to leave that mostly alone, but the lore outside of it. Basically who your character was before they became the Ashen One. Expect a lot of world building on top of the dark souls lore. Leave your thoughts in the comments.


    Chapter 2: Ash Seeketh Embers
    All Ruby could feel was the deep cold surrounding her as it sucked the heat from her body. She could not hear nor see anything. She was not surrounded by darkness devoid of light but, rather, a void where nothing existed.
    Nothing except for her. Was this death, the afterlife?

    She heard it was supposed to be a wonderful place, free from the Grimm and where the moon was whole. The better place where her mom should be, waiting for her— even though she's couple of decades early. It's what her dad told her. Did he lie?

    Maybe the Grimm found and ate her body. Was this what happens to you when a Grimm eats you? Was she now trapped in a Grimm's belly forever? Was her mom trapped in one too? She did not want this. She did not want to be... where here was anymore. She felt so lonely here, and the absolute cold was suffocating.

    Ruby clutched tighter the embers that were herself as the cold sunk its claws deeper into her being. It threatened to rip what was left of her apart and snuff her out like a candle light. Suddenly, a wave of calming heat washed over Ruby, driving away the unnatural cold.

    It felt as if she was being bathed in fire. While it felt hot, it did not burn her in any way. The heat faded away until it was but a pleasant warmth that wrapped around her like a warm blanket. This warmth reminded her of the times she would sit on her mom's lap as she read her bedtime stories.

    It was this same warm feeling that made her feel so loved. She could not help but bask in it. The void around her faded away to reveal a more familiar darkness. The heat that surrounded her shifted to bathe her front, leaving her back bare to the cold air. She could hear the crackling of a fire that reminded her of home. Ruby let out a sigh as she tried to snuggle deeper into her bed. Instead of her soft mattress and sheets, however, all she could feel was a solid, unyielding surface beneath her face.

    Wait, was she not supposed to be dead?

    Ruby realized that she was now aware of the world around her and that she could actually feel herself. She was not lying in bed; rather, she was upright and leaning on something. She could feel the heat from what she assumed was a campfire, along with the rest of her body. She felt stiff all over with a large numb spot on the top of her head.

    She opened her eyes only to wince as the light of a campfire assaulted them. She glanced around and saw she was in a small clearing inside the forest.

    "Awake now, I see."

    Ruby yelped and flinched away from the sudden voice next to her, only to find herself held in place by what looked to be a steel gauntlet. As she gazed upon its owner, her eyes widened in surprised as she had expected... well, pretty much anything but certainly not this. All she knew was that the next time she saw her dad, she was going to demand he tell her the truth about the fact that her mother was secretly a queen, which made her a princess, because how else could she explain this.

    Ruby had read stories about them, or rather, her mother had read the stories to her, but she never thought even once that an actual knight in shining armor would rescue her.

    Ok, maybe not shining, but he was wearing actual knight armor. He was covered head to toe in solid metal armor with a helmet that concealed his face. His armor was filthy, though. There must not have been a single inch of metal that was not scratched or covered in dirt. The cape behind him was in tatters, as was the cloth that went down the front of his chest. The emblem on it had long faded away; the cloth was punctured with holes where the threads had disintegrated and pulled apart, leaving the icon indiscernible.

    "Is something the matter, little one?" The stranger's voice startled her once again. "You had quite the head wound. I pray it has not impaired you in any way."

    Ruby reflexively reached for the top of her head where she could still feel a large, numb spot above her forehead. It was the same sensation she could recall getting whenever one of her legs fell asleep. She was about to thank him when something he said registered with her. Instead, she crossed her arms and pouted at the knight, while muttering under her breath.

    The knight titled his head with a soft clink as he stared down at the small girl before him. "What was that?"

    "I said I'm not small," Ruby stated, hands on her hips. "I'm almost seven."

    The knight stared at her for a long moment... before his shoulders shook with unrestrained laughter. He ignored the glare that she was sending him for, what she was no doubt assuming, mocking her.

    "Forgive my assumption then, my lady." He reached out and brushed apart Ruby's hair. Other than a flinch from the cold feel of his gauntlet, she did not react as she stared at him with curiosity. There was no trace of the gash that had marred her scalp, not even a scar. She was lucky he had awakened when he did. She would have bled out otherwise. The miracles of healing are powerful things but not always absolute. "You did not answer my question, though. Are you alright?"

    Ruby nodded her head. "I am. Thank you. For saving me." She shuffled nervously as she worked up the courage to ask the question on her mind. She didn't want to be rude. "Um... who are you?"

    "I am, but a humble knight, little one."

    She glared at him for the little comment again, though there was no heat behind it. He saved her life, so she would let it slide... but only this time.

    "Tell me, how does one as young as yourself end up in the forest after dark? And in such a woeful condition too."

    Ruby's face flushed red with shame as she remembered how and why she was in this situation. "I was stupid."

    "I figured as much." The knight chuckled at her indignant squawk. "Regardless how old you claim to be, you are still a child roaming the forest after dark with no sign of there being anyone else who would, should, have accompanied you in such a trek. Your injury is not one received by marauders or bandits, much else from any of beasts that roam this forest, neither of whom would have left you alive. Considering we are sitting at the base of a cliff where I found you, I can make a guess as to the how. All that remains is the why."

    He paused to glance around the clearing to ensure that none of the monsters that lay claim to this forest were trying to sneak up on their small camp site. The wolf shaped shadow was a bit of a surprise but nothing he had not dealt with before. It proved to be much more fragile than he expected for its size. Then again, he had not expected much from a simple beast. It was nothing like the countless foes he had faced during the fading Age of Fire.

    When he glanced back to the girl, he found that she had buried her face in her knees that she clutched to her chest; no doubt thinking of how reckless this endeavor of hers was. He did not take any pleasure from her distress, but she needed to understand how dangerous this was for her regardless of her reasons. After a few moments of silence, he realized she would not be giving him any sort of response without a little prodding.

    "Were you chased off the cliff?" A nod. "And why were you there? Were you driven from your home?" A small shake of the head. "Hmm... run away from home? A fight with your family?" Another shake of the head. The girl pulled her face from her knees to gaze into the fire. As he watched her eyes, the answer dawned on him. How many times had he seen the same pained, longing, look on another's face? How many times had he carried, no doubt, that same look? "You lost someone important to you," he said. "Hmm… you were visiting their grave."

    Ruby couldn't help but nod. She knew she probably should not be speaking to a stranger about such personal things, but he had saved her. Now that she had time for all the events to catch up to her, she found the ache in her chest had transformed into a fresh pain almost as bad.

    This night was not supposed to end up like this.

    The words came tumbling out beyond her control.

    "Whenever I had bad dreams, my mom would have me sit in her lap while she read me bedtime stories. She always promised me the nightmares wouldn't come back, and if I had new ones, she would keep chasing them away until I never had another one." Ruby struggled to control the hitch in her voice as she could feel tears bubbling up. "I just wanted to talk to her. I just wanted to hear her tell me that it would be ok. That everything would be better in the morning—that the nightmares would stop. I want to hear her say 'I'm home.' I want my mom back." She managed to hold back her tears, but not her sniffles.

    "I understand your pain all too well."

    Ruby turned to stare at the knight, though she found his form was suddenly blurry. She couldn't see his face, but she could hear and feel the sadness in his voice. It reminded her of her dad when it happened.

    "Losing a loved one is never easy, child, no matter how old you get." He let out a despondent sigh as he stared up at the sky. "I can no longer remember my own parents—not even their names." Ruby couldn't help, but blink in disbelief. "I do not know when it happened. Just, one day, I realized I could not remember them along with most of my childhood. My family has always been those I adopted or have been adopted by. I have had so many that I doubt I could count them all." His shoulders shook with mirthless laughter. "But as you can see..." He spread his arms out, gesturing to the space around him. He didn't need to say anything else.

    "I'm so sorry," Ruby whispered.

    "What for? There is nothing for you to apologize for. It all happened long ago, and I made peace with it," he sighed. "It does not mean it hurts any less or that the pain goes away." He rested a hand on her head. Though the metal of his gauntlet was cold, she could feel a kind of warmth emitting from within. She didn't need to see past his helmet to know he was looking into her eyes, into her. "It does not mean it is not okay to cry."

    Suddenly, the tears that Ruby had been holding back came pouring forth as she latched onto the stranger beside her. She did not care she was covering herself with the dirt and ash that coated his armor, that she would be filthy when she was finished. Right now, all she wanted to do was let all the pain that she had been storing out. She tried to be strong like her older sister, Yang, but it was hard. She knew how hard her dad was still struggling to hold himself together, how hard her sister worked to look after the both of them.

    She wanted to be strong and make the pain go away, but it never did. It just kept building up, until she broke down. No matter what her dad or sister said, she still felt bad every time she broke down around them. It was hard on all of them.

    She just wanted to be strong like her mom was—strong enough to make the pain go away.

    Throughout it all, the knight did not say a word. He held her close as she emptied her tears. Sometimes, it was better to let out all the pain and frustration, rather than try to smother it. He would let her take all the time she needed. After all, it was the one thing that he had an infinite amount of.

    Eventually, Ruby's sobs calmed down and she was able to extract herself from the knight's side. She tried to wipe away her tears, only to find herself smearing dirt on her face. She gave up with a frustrated sigh and gave the knight an apologetic smile.

    "Sorry about that."

    "Child." Ruby found herself surprised and startled by the weight and firmness behind his voice, more so when he reached out and took one of her hands in his. "I want you to make a promise, not just to me, but to yourself, your family, and anyone you come to care for in the future. Can you do this for me?" She nodded. "Never apologize for mourning someone; I want you to promise this. Those tears are the only undisputed truth we have to ourselves that prove how much we cared for those lost. You must never feel ashamed to shed those tears. That is a right no one can take from you. Understand?" Ruby found herself unable to speak, so she vigorously nodded instead.

    "Good." With a sigh, the knight stood up and Ruby found herself surprised by how tall he really was. He had to be taller than dad!

    "There is a natural path carved along the cliff face that climbs to the top. It is a bit steep, and it comes up not too far from where you must have fallen from. Now that the sun has cleared the horizon, we have enough light to navigate the forest safely."

    Wait. What?

    For the first time since she had awakened, Ruby looked to the sky and found that he was right. Instead of finding the star-filled midnight sky above her head, she found the light blue morning sky dashed with streaks of yellow light. She was unconscious during the entire night. It was morning. Her dad would wake up any minute now, if he had not already. She was so dead.

    "My dad's going to kill me."

    "As would be his right to."

    Ruby pouted as she glared back at the knight. Wasn't he supposed to be helping her? Instead of cowering in front of her from her "intimidating" glare, he chuckled at her. How was Yang able to do it so well?

    "Consider any punishment he deals you well deserved compared to how much worry he will go through when he discovers your bed empty." Ruby couldn't help but deflate at that. "Come let us get going before your family scours..."

    She tilted her head as he trailed off. "What's—"

    He raised a hand, cutting her off. "I hear something."

    Ruby closed her eyes and tried to focus her hearing. It was faint, but she could hear something coming from above them. Multiple somethings in fact. Was that barking?

    "Ruby? Ruby!"

    "It's my dad!" She could also hear her sister. They must be using Zwei to follow her scent. She dashed towards the base of the cliff. Just like he said, there was a path going back up top. She turned around to find that the knight had not moved from his spot.

    "Aren't you coming?"

    "No."

    Ruby blinked in surprise. "Why not?"

    He looked away. "It is better this way."

    "What do you mean?"

    The knight let out an audible sigh. It made Ruby wonder just how old he was because of how tired, how exhausted he sounded. It reminded her of Uncle Qrow, in a way.

    "I do not do well with company. I am used to being alone. In fact, I prefer it." He walked past her and took a spot, leaning on the wall. "Do not worry about having to give me any thanks. I did as my duty asked of me."

    Ruby opened her mouth to argue, only to be cut off as the shouting started coming from directly above them. The knight rapped the back of his hand along the wall next to him, startling Ruby with the sudden noise.

    "You should get going. Your family has worried enough."

    Ruby hesitated, "Will I get to see you again?"

    "Maybe. Now go." He sent her off with a wave of his hand.

    She wanted to stay to convince him to come with her to meet her dad. No doubt, he would want to thank the man who saved her life. As much as she wanted to, she knew she had to get going before her dad and sister ran off elsewhere, looking for her. She did not have time to argue—not as if she would win anyway. She recognized the finality in his voice. Her dad used the same tone when he refused to budge on any subject.

    Ruby began her trek back up the cliff as fast as she could. He was not kidding about the path being steep; she was leaning forward so much that she was almost kissing the ground.

    Finally, she managed to clear the top. Not far from her, she could see her father and sister standing in front of her mother's grave as Zwei ran in circles, sniffing the ground.

    "Come on, Zwei. You can do it. Her scent can't just end here."

    "Dad! Yang! Zwei!" Ruby shouted, waving her hands as she ran towards her family. All three looked at her, surprised.

    "Ruby!"

    Ruby only got a couple of feet before her dad swept her up in a hug.

    "Oh gods, Ruby! We were so worried about you. We thought something had happened to you." Her father, Taiyang, pulled her away enough so he could rest his forehead against hers. "Don't ever scare me like that again."

    "Yeah, Rubes," her sister, Yang, piped up. "This was not funny at all."

    "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

    "It's okay. It's alright now," her dad reassured her. He set her down where her sister immediately pulled her into a hug, and after a moment, she pulled away.

    "Geez, sis. What happened to you? You're filthy." Yang's eyes roamed over Ruby's form where they caught on a discoloration around the collar of her shirt. Her shirt was solid black, but the stain had a faint red tint to it. Yang wasn't the only one who saw it; her dad had also noticed, but was praying to the brothers that he was just seeing things. Ironically, both noticed at the same time how metallic the air around Ruby smelled and how the dirt smeared on her face had a reddish hue to it. Ruby glanced nervously between the two as she watched them pale.

    "Ruby," her dad croaked, "is that blood on you?"

    Ruby braced herself for the imminent storm as she nodded hesitantly. On cue, she found herself buried under a flurry of questions as her sister and father tried to examine every inch of her for injury. Even Zwei was running around her feet, trying to sniff anything out. It took some effort, but Ruby managed to break free, waving their hands away.

    "Guys, I'm fine."

    "Yeah… You see, we would be more inclined to believe you if you weren't such a mess right now." A new voice spoke up beside them. Ruby was surprised to see that her Uncle Qrow had joined them. She never noticed him approach. "I come home to find the house empty and now I find everyone out here. So, favorite niece of mine, wanna tells us what happened?"

    "Nothing! Nothing happened," Ruby denied, shaking her head. "I'm fine, I swear."

    Three flat looks stared back at her. Her dad sighed, before putting his hands on her shoulders, kneeling so they were eye level.

    "Ruby, what happened? And don't lie to us, alright? Why were you out there, all alone?" The three watched as Ruby wilted under their combined gaze.

    "I-I had a nightmare," she started. "I don't remember what it was about, but it hurt. A lot. I thought if I came and talked to mom, it would make all the pain go away. You told us the other day that you cleared the Grimm out, so I thought it'd be safe."

    "Oh, Ruby."

    Ruby found herself engulfed in another hug by her dad and sister. Zwei was doing his best to snuggle her. She was surprised when she glanced over her dad's shoulder and saw her uncle take out his flask.
    "That's understandable, but there's one thing I want to be certain of. This happened this morning, right?" There was an almost pleading tone to his voice. Ruby could feel her dad and sister stiffen around her.

    "Um... last night?"

    Qrow's response was to chug most of his flask. Ruby squeaked as she felt her dad and sister tighten their grasps around her. Zwei whined in concern.

    "Right. So, you spent the entire night out here. Alright. That's not good, but that's all that happened, right?"

    "There was a Beowolf." Three sharp inhales. "It scared me, and I... um..." Ruby managed to pull an arm free to point at the cliff edge. "Fell."

    Ruby winced as their grips became tighter. Qrow finished the rest of his flask off.

    When her dad and sister pulled back to look at her, they wore matching looks of fear and worry. One that her uncle matched as he knelt beside them. They looked at her as if she would disappear the second they glanced away.

    The knight was right. She should not have made them worry like this. After losing mom, could they even handle it if something happened to her? They already looked so close to breaking down.

    "R-Ruby. Are you sure you are ok?"

    "I'm fine now, dad."

    "You sure, sis? You do not have to lie. You did fall off a cliff."

    "I swear I'm fine. He saved me."

    The three pairs of eyes narrowed at her response. "And who's he?"

    Ruby opened her mouth to respond, only to close it as she realized she had never asked for his name, much less give him her own. Her face flushed red with embarrassment. "I didn't get his name?"

    "Then, what did he look like?" There was an edge to her uncle's voice, but she couldn't quite place it.

    "He looked like a knight."

    "Rubes, I know you aren't the best with people, but you're—"

    "He did, though. He was wearing a suit of armor and everything. He looked just like the ones in the storybooks mom used to read to me. He didn't take his helmet off, so I never saw his face."

    Her uncle and dad shared a look. "You ever heard of a huntsman like that, Tai?"

    "I know a few who use light armor, but no one who apparently wears full plate-mail."

    "Wait, wait," her sister interrupted. "If this guy saved you, then where is he?"

    "He... um... he didn't want to come." Ruby smiled nervously at the three surprised looks in front of her.

    "Wait. So, this guy saves you, but then makes you walk back home alone?" Her sister's eyes flashed red for moment. "Who does that?"

    "Yang, calm down."

    "Sorry, Tai, but I'm gonna have to agree with Yang on this one."

    "He didn't leave me alone!" Ruby defended. "He only sent me up here once he heard you guys were close."

    "Wait. So, this guy's nearby?"

    "Yeah! I left him at the bottom of the cliff." Ruby dashed back to the edge pointing down, practically giving the four watching her near heart attacks in the process. "There's a path that goes down over here."

    "So, Tai. How about we go give the mystery hero our thanks."

    "Sounds like a plan." Tai plucked Ruby from the ground, setting her on his side.

    "Dad, I can walk," she pouted, but he ignored it the same way she was ignoring the snickers from Yang. "You don't have to carry me."

    "Oh, yes I do," he chuckled. "After what you've pulled, I'm not letting you out of my sight. Let's not forget about the grounding you're going to get when we get back home."

    Ruby paled as her family gave her smug smiles. Her uncle led the way down with Yang between them and Zwei following behind. She had not noticed it when she was making her way up, but the cliff curved. It was why she was not immediately able to see the spot where they sat by the campfire. When it popped into view a short moment after, she was surprised to see it empty.

    "So, where's your friend?" Qrow asked as he glanced around.

    "Yeah! I wanted to meet your shiny heroic knight," Yang stated.

    "Looks like he left. I wonder why, though."

    "Could be for a lot of reasons, Tai. Some—" Everyone stared at Qrow as he cut off. He had been staring at something on the ground, before he tried chugging his flask once more, forgetting that it was empty.

    "What's the matter with you, Qrow? What are you looking... at..." Tai trailed off as he stepped up next to Qrow, and stared at the spot that he had noticed. Ruby felt her breath catch. She absently noticed her sister reaching up to clasp her hand, unable to tear her eyes away from the sight before her.

    That was a lot of blood. After all, what else could the dried stain on the ground be? It also helped that an ashy white had bleached the ground here, or maybe it didn't. There had to be enough for at least three whole Rubys. For the first time since she woke up, Ruby questioned just how in Grimm was she alive.

    "Qrow... tell me that's not what I think it is."

    "Hate to break it to you, but it is."

    Tai pulled Ruby close for a tight embrace as he planted a kiss on her forehead. He took a deep breath to calm himself.

    "Well, at least now I can make a good guess as to why our mysterious huntsman ran off."

    "What do you mean?"

    "I don't want to be the one to say it, but Ruby should not be alive. From the size of this stain, she lost a lot of blood. For a grown adult like us, we would be able to survive, but a child Ruby's size? Need I say it?"

    Everyone was silent as Qrow's words settled on them.

    "So, how then?"

    "Same reason he probably ran off. His Semblance."

    "He has a healing Semblance."

    "But wait," Yang cut in, "isn't that like, a good thing? I mean, he saved Ruby's life, so why would he run away?"

    "Simple, Firecracker. You know how Semblances can be any sort of ability with varying degrees of potency." Yang nodded. "Well, the biggest issue is that there is no sure-fire way to know what your Semblance will be. As far as we know, it's pretty much random."

    "With a few exceptions," Tai added.

    "Which means that when you factor all of this together, some Semblances are going to be sought after for their utility outside of huntsman-related work. A healing Semblance is the most sought after, so you can kiss any chance of living a peaceful life goodbye. Hospitals, various corporations, militaries, private individuals, and even criminals will all be asking or threatening you to come work for them, which is why most who get one such Semblance, hide it."

    "But-But it's not like we would tell anyone if he didn't want us to. We can keep a secret."

    "Of course we can, Rubes, but it's not like he knows that. Probably had some bad experience that's left him paranoid."

    "I didn't tell him goodbye."

    "Don't worry, Ruby. I'll ask the professors at Signal, see if anyone knows him. Qrow?"

    "Heh, sure. I'll ask around. If he really is dressed up like a knight, then he's going to stick out like a sore thumb. No doubt, someone had seen him, but that's a problem for tomorrow. For now, let's get you guys back home."

    "Okay." Ruby rested her head on her dad's shoulder as they began the trek back home. She was bit upset that she didn't get to say goodbye, but with her dad and uncle looking for him, she would, no doubt, see him again.

    "Now, let's talk about how long you're going to be grounded for, missy."

    Was it too late to fall unconscious again?
     
  5. Stormbringer117

    Stormbringer117 Souless

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    Ruby Rose, bearer of the Dark sign. You who have been cursed to be Undead.

    Seek strength...

    The rest will follow...
     
    Gabriel and GentlemanMad like this.
  6. NuclearBirb

    NuclearBirb A mysterious birb.

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    Finished reading this on ff.net - do you j
    Have more content, or are you just crossposting ? You left off ro huh t when it felt like the plot was starting.
     
  7. GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    Crossposting. Still working on it.
     
  8. Index: Ch. 3: That Which Was Left Behind
    GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    Ch. 3: That Which Was Left Behind
    The sun had already risen high in the sky, and the mystery knight was still nowhere to be seen. Qrow let out a sigh of frustration before taking a sip from his flask. He had come back to the campsite on the off chance that Ruby's mysterious savior would have returned. Unfortunately, as his luck would usually have it, it did not look like the so-called knight would be coming back. Things could never be easy for him; then again, Qrow was used to having to do things the hard way.

    He took another sip of his flask for good luck and not because he was still disturbed by the dried bloodstain on the ground. With a practiced motion he had perfected over the years, Qrow morphed into the black-feathered bird he was named after and took to the skies. It should not be too hard to find a huntsman in full armor, after all.

    The only evidence of his presence was a stray, black feather left behind. Even as the sun set, the clearing was left undisturbed, but only when the shattered moon rose high in the sky did it change. Without a single sound, a section of the wall at the base of the cliff faded away, revealing ancient stonework that lead deeper into the cliff with Ruby's mysterious knight standing at the entrance.

    He stepped out into the clearing, holding a twisted wooden staff in his hands. He sheathed it on his back as he plucked the aforementioned black crow feather from the ground. As far as he could tell, it seemed to be a normal feather, but he knew otherwise. While he would admit to some curiosity, the man's sorceries were his own.

    He was right to hide and wait for as long as he had. Though the girl—Ruby, if he overheard correctly—and her family may mean well, he had no intention of getting involved with anyone anymore. In the long run, it would be better this way. No more fickle attachments.

    As he turned his gaze to the shattered moon, he could feel its image sear itself into his mind once more. The Age of Fire was no more, as was the Age of Dark that came after. The Ages had long passed, and now, it seems that a new Age was upon the world. The life-giving Flame, its presence one that once saturated the world, was gone, and the land around the Firelink Shrine had shifted and been reborn as something new.

    The only remainder of his late Age that he could recognize was the Abyss. Even after countless cycles, it still managed to survive. Yet, just like the First Flame, it too was waning in power. If it were not for what he had become, he never would have sensed it in these creatures of darkness. It was so unlike the taint he felt from the Pus of Man, Darkwraiths, and other creatures the Abyss had claimed. Those traces were akin to the embers of a fading power.

    How ironic.

    It's funny. Here he was, past his journey's end. The last of the Undead. He had done the impossible; he had ended the Cycle of Fire. Yet, he could not feel any satisfaction—no joy.
    No. All he could feel was how exhausted his very soul felt.

    He had survived multiple cycles of fire, a feat matched by few, surpassed by fewer and utterly and solely beaten by him.

    Gonna miss that sly bastard.

    How long had he fought off the threat of Hollowing and now that he wished he could succumb to it, he finds himself immune to the prospect. It seemed that he was damned to wander the world until the end of times at this rate. The irony was not lost on him that, to free the world from the Undead Curse, he had to become the sole bearer of it. The fourth Lord of the First Flame and Lord of Hollows.

    What was he lord of now?

    A Lord of Ashes. A relic from a damned Age that did not belong in this world. As long as the Flame sustained him, it also trapped him. He dared not attempt to remove it for fear of restarting the cycle and unleashing the Undead Curse on the world once more. And so, he dedicated his existence to guarding Firelink Shrine. The title of lord meant nothing to him now, so he abandoned it with no hesitation.

    The Shrine was the closest thing to a home he has had since Carthus.

    The vigil he kept over the Shrine had granted him a sense of purpose and peace. For the first time in ages, he felt he could finally rest. So, in an ironic twist of fate, he took over Gundyr's former role as the guardian of Firelink. It was then that he eventually fell into a, for the lack of a better word, slumber. However, he had no dreams to keep him company and, thankfully, no memories to torment him.

    All he had was an endless void and a faint sense of the world around him.

    He was surprised when a silver light unexpectedly began filling the void, only to be quickly reduced to a mere flicker. A flicker that slowly made its way towards him. He recognized the light of a soul, so he rose once more to meet it. As he dragged himself from the dirt he had become buried in, he had expected to face many things—the most common being grave robbers with ill intent. It would not be the first time he had to deal with such individuals.

    What he had not expected to encounter… was a dying little girl.

    A little girl whose blood was inexplicably drawn to him. It took him a moment to notice it, but she carried an ember inside her. It was a tiny, single spark, but an ember of fire all the same. It was related, no doubt, to how such a small girl managed to survive such a fall. He had an intimate understanding of what the human body could take and knew for a fact that the height of the fall should have killed her instantly and splattered her skull along the floor.

    Yet, she had survived with only a severe gash on her head that she bled profusely from. She had the faint sensation of soul sorcery surrounding her. It was enough to save her life, but it would not prevent her from bleeding out.

    It left him with a choice: to save her, or to leave her to her fate.

    To his shame, for a moment, he had considered leaving her. He may not be much of a knight regardless of what he told her, and he had forsaken most, if not all of his vows, but he swore to never withhold aid if he could freely provide it.

    Surprisingly, he found he enjoyed the interaction he had with her. His interactions with children were few during his existence, limited by the villages and cities that would tolerate an Undead amongst their ranks and those that had not yet fallen to the Undead Curse. She had an innocence around her that he had only seen when the Flame was at its strongest. It was a welcome change from all the death and despair that marked the end of his Age.

    Whatever troubles this period faced were no doubt far from his own. It was the only reason he could rationalize as to why she thought it would be safe to enter a forest, stalked by creatures of the Abyss, at night.

    No doubt, this age had its share of monsters that its people were more than capable of fighting. There was no longer the fear of Undeath, of becoming damned at the end of one's life.

    There was no longer a need for him, which was fortunate since he had no intention of fighting for this age's people.

    His journey was over, and he wanted to rest.

    So, he turned back to the Shrine. He still needed to secure it and ensure none of the graves within have been disturbed. If by some miracle of the gods, a looter had managed to sneak by him, he would hunt the thief down. Even if the robber is long dead and his prize changed hands a hundred times over, he would find what was stolen.

    After all, with no quest to bind him, he had all the time in the world.
     
  9. Index: Chapter 4: Chasing Ashes
    GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    Chapter 4: Chasing Ashes
    It has been over one week since Ruby's near-death encounter and true to her dad's word, she was grounded for most of it. She was stuck inside without much to do. No TV, no video games, and worst of all, the most diabolical thing her dad had ever done—no cookies. No, she was not being over dramatic. There was no reason for her dad to cover the cookie jar lid with wet paint. Honestly, if she heard one more "red handed" pun, she was going to bite someone.

    Luckily, she still had her storybooks and comics to help her pass the time. As much as Ruby liked her "X-ray and Vav" comics that Yang recently introduced her to, she found herself rereading her older bedtime stories more often. She especially noticed how she kept revisiting the stories specifically about knights and princesses. She always did love the idea of a hero coming to save the people in their time of need. It's why she loved stories about huntresses; she could easily imagine herself as the hero of the story.

    Now though, after her meeting with the... huntsman? Knight? Whatever he was, she found herself returning to those older fairy-tales more and more often. They did not say anything anywhere that a knight cannot be a woman, and she was certain that she would look good in armor.

    It was part of the reason she was walking through the forest right now. Her dad and sister were sparring in the clearing between their home and the cliffs. It took a whole lot of begging to get them to allow her to go there alone again. The whole week, her dad and sister used every excuse they could think of to spend time with her. Her dad even took days off from work to look after her, with her uncle, Qrow, filling in for any days he could not.
    The first night back home, Yang made her sleep in bed with her. She could not forget how she woke up in the middle of the night with Yang clutching her and crying in her sleep. All the extra attention had been hammering home all the guilt she had been feeling. She did everything she could to apologize to everyone for worrying them.

    Now, she had one last person she needed to apologize to; it is the main reason her dad and sister were giving her the privacy to do so. That and the fact that he and Uncle Qrow triple checked the forest around here, so it should be free of Grimm for a while.

    When her mother's grave came into view, she could not help but flinch at the memory of that night. Thankfully, there should not be any stray Beowolves to ruin this moment.

    "Hi, Mom. Sorry that it has been a while. I know you must have been really worried, considering what happened last time." Ruby took a deep breath as she pushed on with what she needed to say. "I can still sorta remember when dad yelled at Yang after she took me out into the forest. He was so loud back then. He was loud when he grounded me too," she sniffled, "b-but he did look like he was about to cry. I-I messed up really bad a-and I'm sorry!" Ruby fell to her knees, resting her hand on her mother's tombstone. "I'm sorry for scaring you, for scaring everyone."

    Ruby let her tears flow freely as she tried her hardest to convey her feelings to her mother's spirit. She released all the feelings she had bottled up over the week. When the tears finally ceased, she found that she felt so much lighter. As she calmed down, she dragged her eyes away from the grave when she found them drawn towards the forest below.

    Well, maybe not shinnying.

    "Mom, I've mentioned this to Yang and dad before, and now I'm more certain than ever." Ruby stood on her feet, wiping away any remains of her tears. "Mom, I am going to be a huntress," she stated with a conviction that belied her young age, "I'm going to be a huntress just like you were. I want to save people just like I was saved."

    I wonder if they still make armor. I hope they do.

    Ruby shook the distracting thought aside, a warm smile on her face. Her plans for the future could wait—she still had to update her mom on all the different things that happened this week.

    So, for the next hour, Ruby told her mother of all the extra family bonding she went through, how her dad and uncle practically abandoned work to look after her and the severe lack of cookies. She may have ranted about that last part much longer than she intended, if she was being honest. When there was nothing left for her to say, Ruby sat down and enjoyed the peace around them.

    All the guilt that had been weighing on her was pretty much gone and left her feeling free, for the lack of a better word.

    She knew that she should be getting back to her dad and sister, but she wanted to savor this moment, especially after the suffocating week she had. Her dad told her how this spot was her mother's favorite. How, after she was born, her mom would bring her here to enjoy the view.

    With her eyes closed, she could imagine her mother here, standing next to her. The sun on their face, the wind in their hair, the pleasant chirping of—

    Caw! Caw!

    Whatever happened to the pleasant chirping of birds?

    Ruby opened her eyes to the sight of numerous birds fleeing the tree line below her. She could also see a faint plume of black smoke rising from the trees. Her sister and dad were behind her, so she knew it could not be Yang.

    As if to counter her thoughts, a tree toppled over. Alright, starting to look like Yang's involved. After all, outside of her dad and sister, who else...

    Ruby's eyes widened as she shot to her feet. It cannot be, can it? She felt hope flickering in her chest.

    Did he come back?

    She crept slowly to the cliff edge, unable to forget what happened last time. She shuffled across the floor, flat on her belly, until she could grab the edge and pull her head over the barest minimum needed to see the ground below. She did not want to scare him off, after all. It had nothing to do at all with her newfound fear of heights. Nope.

    Her eyes widened in joy as she took in the area below her. She may not have paid much attention to the surroundings last time she was here, but she's certain the clearing wasn't as large as it is now. In fact, it's pretty obvious that someone had cleared away some of the forest, with all the ash on the ground. Her eyes landed on the disused fire pit and trailed up to a second, more established one.

    She was barely able to suppress a squeal as hope surged through her chest.

    He's back! Ruby thought.

    Before she could jump to her feet and dash off, her eyes passed over a certain familiar dark spot on the ground. Her sudden influx of energy drained out of her just as fast. The stain, while greatly faded and smaller, stood out on the pale stone floor and served as a reminder of what happens when she runs off alone. She chewed on her lip as her gaze traveled between her mother's grave and the forest.

    "I think he's back, mom, and I want to see him again. What should I do? I don't want to mess up again." Ruby racked her brain for ideas as she gazed back at the clearing.

    With the clearing expanded as it was, she would see any Grimm long before they could get close—especially with the generous spacing between the trees. The rest of the forest did not hug the cliff but, rather, kept a few feet distance, so she will have plenty of warning on the ramp down as well. She should be fine if she waits at the base of the ramp. That way, if Grimm do show, she could just run back up and call for her dad. The Grimm would be too fat to follow her anyhow. It is a good plan, right?

    Ruby bit her lip as her desire not to do something reckless warred with her desire to see her savior again. Eventually, the greater desire won out.

    "I'm going back down," she told her mother. "Don't worry, I promise to be extra careful." She was not sure whom she was trying to convince.

    It's funny how many times she had come here with her family, and they never once noticed that there was an outcropping that lead below. Now that she stood at the top, she could really feel the butterflies dancing in her stomach.

    She could still back out.

    Ruby took a deep breath to calm herself down. It seemed that most of the nearby birds and animals had been scared off, because it was oddly quiet. She couldn't even hear the sound of insects, just the faint clanking of metal.

    Wait. Clanking of metal?

    Ruby's eyes widened as a smile of pure joy bloomed on her face and ignited in her heart.

    It is him!

    All of Ruby's nerves were erased as she dashed down the ramp... which soon proved to be a mistake.

    The first time up, she was in too much of a rush while the second time down, her dad carried her, so she didn't have a good understanding on just how steep the ramp was. A lesson she was learning as she tried to keep herself from rolling the rest of the way down.

    Despite her best efforts, Ruby, further proving her sister's point on how she is a bit of a klutz, managed to trip even though she had reached flat ground and go flying into the cliff wall. She barely had a moment to brace herself before she crashed head first with an audible crack. Luckily, she hit the wall at an angle and her aura took most of the blow.

    Ruby opened her eyes just in time to witness the wall vanish into thin air. She scrambled to her feet as she stared wide-eyed at the newly revealed... cave? It could not be a cave—she could see stone bricks on the floor and walls. She barely took a step towards the cave when a voice boomed out behind her.

    "What are you doing here?"

    Ruby jumped into the air with a shriek. She spun around, a string of excuses and apologies on the tip of her tongue while her heart hammered in her chest. She was unable to get out a word, though. Her breath caught in her throat as her heart froze in place.

    It is him... I take back anything bad I said about his armor being dirty.

    To say he looked amazing would be an understatement. His armor, while marred with patches of ash, shined under the sun. In his left hand, he carried a large triangular shield and a shining silver sword in his right. She had not noticed it when she first met him, but now she could see the tattered and frayed red cape tied around his shoulders that billowed out behind him in the breeze.

    Altogether, he cut an imposing figure that would have intimidated others… but not her. The sheer amount of joy she was feeling wouldn't let her be. She ran towards him, bubbling laughter escaping her, a smile of pure excitement plastered onto her face.

    "You're here! You came back! I can't believe I got to see you again," Ruby gushed as she hopped in place. Standing so close to him, she got a better appreciation for how tall he was. Usually, such a height difference would have upset her but here, it only emphasized how impressive he looked.

    In all her excitement, she never noticed how he lessened his grip around his sword. She did notice when he slammed it home in its sheath, the noise shocking her out of her excitement.

    "Child, what are you doing here?" he asked. Thankfully he did not sound angry, just tired, maybe even a little frustrated. She couldn't help but be reminded of her Uncle Qrow.

    "Oh, um... I-ah... I wanted to see you again, so... here I am?" Ruby tapped her fingers together as she shuffled nervously in place. She had the feeling that she may have done something wrong.

    "So, you've decided to venture out into a monster infested forest once again by your lonesome." There was no hiding the scolding tone in the knight's voice as he walked away from Ruby to the newly discovered cave.

    Ruby followed after him. "I didn't come alone!" For a moment, the knight froze in place before continuing. "My dad and older sister are in the forest on top of the cliff, sparring right now."

    The knight knelt in the entrance-way of the cave, examining it. "Do they know you are down here?"

    "Ah, no. I was here to visit my mom's grave, then I saw the smoke and came down to meet you," Ruby paused as she tried to peer deeper in the cave. The knight was making vague hand gestures as if he was mentally trying to measure the size of the cave. Despite the abundant sunlight shining into the cave, she couldn't see more than a foot inside. "So, um, what's this place?" She could not help but feel that she stumbled on something she should not have.

    "Something that's very important to me," he responded. "I ask that you tell no one of it."

    Ruby blinked in surprise. "Why? What's so special about it?"

    "...My comrades are entombed inside."

    Foot, have you met my mouth?

    "I'm so sorry."

    "Don't be. You should consider yourself fortunate you had not stepped inside."

    "What? Why?"

    Instead of answering her, he stood while revealing a shoddy, yellow pick from under his cape. The top of the pick glowed a subdued blue as he waved it in front of him.

    Ruby watched, dumbstruck, as a faint curtain of light fell from the ceiling to the floor. It solidified into a stone surface that was indistinguishable from the rest of the cliff. As if to prove that it was no mere trick of the light, the knight leaned on the surface, but did not fall through. Ruby reached out, wide-eyed, mouth gaping like a fish and touched the wall.

    It felt just like ordinary rock.

    "H-How?"

    "We all have our secrets," he stated with a tinge of amusement in his voice, which was quickly replaced with a more serious one. "Back to what I said before—I need you to promise me that you will tell no one of what you've seen today. Understood?"

    "B-But why? Wouldn't it be better to let other people know, so no one comes here?"

    "I've vowed to protect this place, to slay any who dare trespass, regardless of who they may be," even through the helm Ruby could feel his eyes locked on hers, freezing her in place, "or how old they may be."

    Ruby paled as dread gripped her heart.

    "Please, understand. I'm not trying to frighten you, child. Throughout my life, I have encountered many a gravesite, only to see it sacked by petty thieves. I'm ashamed to admit that I can consider myself among them from my past acts," he sighed loudly. "I don't want this place to suffer the same fate."

    Ruby nodded hesitantly in understanding. She would be upset too if she found someone messing with her mother's grave. That's not to say what her dad and uncle would do when they found said person.

    "So, will you promise me to not breathe a word of this place to anyone, even your own family? I do not wish to have my vows tested, so it would be safer for all if this place is kept secret."

    Ruby nodded more vigorously, her earlier fear having slipped away.

    "Will you swear it on your birth name?" he asked, leaning towards her.

    There was no hiding the challenge in his voice. It reminded her of all the times Yang said she couldn't do something and told her to prove it when she said she could. Regardless that she had yet to succeed, she hadn't backed down then and she wasn't going to back down now.

    She straightened her back and stood as tall as she could before stating in as strong a voice she could muster, "I swear to keep this place a secret or my name isn't Ruby Rose!"

    The knight chuckled as he reached over and ruffled Ruby's hair. He was surprisingly gentle, considering he was wearing a metal glove.

    "I'll hold you to your word then," he said as he walked towards the fallen tree serving as a makeshift bench by the campfire. Ruby followed after and joined him. An awkward silence dragged on between them that made Ruby shuffle in place nervously.

    "So, I never introduced myself. My name's Ruby, Ruby Rose."

    "I know. You told me it but a moment ago."

    "Oh! Um, right... ahaha... So, what's your name?"

    "Ashen One."

    "Ashen One? What kind of name is that?" Ruby blurted out before she could slap a hand over her mouth. She just insulted the man who saved her life.

    Instead of taking any offense, he laughed. "It was a title placed upon me. It is the closest thing I have to a name, since I've long forgotten my own."

    "How?" Ruby exclaimed. "You don't just forget your own name. It's like, like a part of you. How could you forget it?"

    "You'll be surprised," he said ruefully. "Let me ask you a question, then. Does the term 'Undead' mean anything to you?"

    "You mean, like a zombie?" Ruby asked with a confused tilt of her head.

    "No. It's-It's..." he trailed off as if he did not know what to say. Before she could ask him what the matter was, he continued, "It is a term used where I am from. It refers to those marred by extended stays on the battlefield. I, myself, have taken more than my fair share of near fatal blows and head wounds. It is not uncommon for things to slip away after so many experiences."

    "B-But isn't there anyone else who knows your name? Couldn't they just tell you it?"

    "By the time I realized, anyone who ever knew me was long gone. My village has been razed long ago and my family slaughtered. I cannot remember the name of my home, much less my parents' faces. I spent most of my exist— life wandering by my lonesome, offering my sword wherever it could do good."

    Ruby wasn't sure what to say—she wasn't sure if there was anything she could say. No one should have gone through that. She couldn't imagine what it must be like to not remember who you are, much less forgetting your own family. Her thoughts must have shown on her face because the next moment, he was rubbing the top of her head. She could feel a strange heat soaking her skull. It felt so warm and gentle.

    It reminded her of the warmth from that night.

    "You do not have to feel sorry for me. I have long accepted the price I've had to pay to survive this long. Maybe, one day, I will remember who I was, or maybe I never will. None of it changes who I am now or diminishes any of the feats I've accomplished."

    Ruby stared at him in awe. He was just like the knights in her stories. They are always pushing forward, never letting anything stop them or hold them back, and eventually overcoming all challenges in their path. Like a real hero.

    "You're so cool."

    "I'm flattered." Ruby flushed red as she realized she spoke her thoughts aloud. "Though, I hope you do not aspire to be like me. I may have accomplished many things, but I have failed just as much. You should aspire to be something better."

    Ruby nodded, a small smile on her face. She blinked in surprise as she realized they had forgotten one important detail.

    "So, what should I call you, then?" she asked.

    "Ashen One will have to suffice—it's one of the more pleasant titles I've been saddled with."

    "Ashen One," Ruby tried to roll the words on her tongue. "It's a bit of a mouthful. How about Ash?"

    "Ashen."

    Ruby could not help but giggle at the offense he had over a simple shortening of his name. In the end though, it was his name, so she would call him whatever he wanted to be called.

    "Ashen it is, then!" Ruby was glad that she finally had a name she could place on her hero. She must have been too obvious because Ashen started suddenly chuckling next to her.

    "I honestly cannot fathom why you are interested in someone such as me. I am still amazed that you sought me out. Why?"

    "Ah, oh, I actually wasn't here to see you," Ruby awkwardly laughed. "I came here to visit my mom's grave."

    She could not help but sweat a little as she felt Ashen's gaze bear down on her while he shifted his body to face her fully.

    "Pray, tell me, where exactly was your mother buried?" he asked.

    She pointed to the top of the cliff.

    "Here?" he said incredulously.

    "Y-Yeah. This area was one of her favorite places to come to. She would come here all the time. Not sure why—I think she must have just liked the view."

    "It's as if she was drawn here," he murmured. "Tell me, was your mother a warrior of some sort, perchance?"

    "Yeah! She was a huntress." Ruby could not help the pride she felt whenever she told others about her mother.

    "I assume she hunted beasts, like the ones in this forest."

    "Yep!" she nodded, unable to keep a proud smile from her face. "She hunted Grimm, saved villages from them, and would catch bad guys. She was a real hero—my hero."

    "Then there is no more fitting place for her to be buried," Ashen chuckled. "Do you know what this place was originally?"

    "No. What was it?" Ruby titled her head as Ashen gestured to the area around them.

    "My comrades are not the only ones entombed here. This place here is the site of an ancient shrine—a cemetery. From the top of the cliff, down to where we are standing right now and the forest around us, hundreds of graves surround us. The graves of warriors, champions, heroes, and lords. There is no better place for a warrior's final rest."

    Ruby gazed at the environment around her in disbelief.

    "All of this?" she whispered.

    "All and more. The forest may have reclaimed the land, and time eroded the foundation and stone markers, but it does nothing to erase the countless souls laid to rest here. All those who answered the call, those who succeeded... and those who failed."

    "You're saying my mother belongs here, among them."

    "The heart of Firelink Shrine rests in the cliffs. The Shrine itself would draw warriors from all over. Men and women of different faiths, creeds, and duties sought this place. Even a petty rat or a two-faced thief can find a greater purpose here," Ashen sighed longingly. When he continued, his voice had taken a soft, gentle tone. "The calling that brought so many warriors here is probably what drew your mother here. A calling that promises respite, shelter, and peace—a temporary home till one's return to the battlefield. A calling that is only answered by great champions—by heroes."

    Ruby could not stop the tears from coming. She never knew how someone could cry tears of joy, but here she was, doing the same, a smile so wide her face hurt. She would always see her mom as a hero. However, to have proof, validation that her mom was as great as she believes she was—there were no words to describe the pride she was feeling.

    "Thank you," she said as she wiped away her tears. Ashen patted her back. "It means so much. Thank you." A comfortable silence settled between the two as she finished drying her tears.

    "I want to be a hero just like her."

    "Don't be." Ruby's head spun as she stared at Ashen in surprise over his clipped tone. "Heed this advice from a warrior as old as me. Do not chase the battlefield. Live a life of peace and quiet. Raise a family and surround yourself with loved ones. You'll live far longer."

    "I know I could," Ruby said as she kicked at the ground. "My dad and sister don't like the idea of me becoming a huntress. I want to help people. I want to save people just like how you saved me." She could feel his gaze on her, but did not want to meet it. Now, an uncomfortable silence stretched between them before he broke it.

    "I have walked the path you dream of. I have spent my entire existence going from one battlefield to the next. There have been many moments where I questioned if there was a point to it all, if I was truly saving anyone, if it would be worth the suffering I have endured. This is not a path you want to walk, little one," he sighed dejectedly. "But in the end, your decisions are your own. You may heed my advice or ignore it. The choice is yours."
    Ruby wasn't sure what to say. She never expected that her hero, Ashen, would also be against her dream.

    "I assume it has been quite some time since you have decided to come here?"

    She was thrown off by the sudden change of topic and could only manage a nod in response.

    "You should get going before your family worries about you."

    Was he trying to get rid of her? The thought hurt her more than she liked to admit.

    "If-If that's what you want," she stuttered, disappointed. "Will you be here tomorrow?" she asked hopefully.

    "The beasts are drawn here, so someone has to keep them away," Ashen stated.

    Ruby gasped as inspiration struck her. "Do you want me to tell my dad and uncle? They could help you!"

    "I would prefer it if you did not."

    She deflated at his immediate response. "But why?"

    When he spoke next, Ruby was reminded of her dad and uncle and those moments when they tried to hide something from her and Yang—those moments of weakness.

    There were the few times she had caught one or both of them drinking late at night. She remembered how tired and exhausted they sounded, more so Uncle Qrow than her dad. Yet compared to Ashen, Uncle Qrow might as well have stolen the entire cookie jar. She did not think there were any words that could describe the level of exhaustion and raw pain in his voice.

    "I am old, child. I have lived longer than I have any right to. I've fought in more battles than you can count, battles you cannot even fathom, battles that no man should have ever suffered through. I've seen the rise and fall of so many kingdoms. I've lost so many comrades that, to my eternal shame, I cannot remember them all. And now, all I can think about are his parting words to me—how he said that I alone would remain among the accursed. And he was right," Ashen chuckled grimly. "Everything I have ever known is gone and I am all that is left. I have sacrificed all that I am and more for the sake of humanity, and I desire to do so no longer. I want to remain by my lonesome. Away from the conflicts of man, away from the problems that plague humanity and its civilizations. Let me have my peace that I've so rightfully earned. Do not take that away from me. Please."

    Ruby had no idea what she should say, so she did what came instinctively to her. She could feel his surprise as she wrapped her arms around him. It did not matter that his armor was in the way or that her arms were too short to wrap completely around him, because if there was anyone who needed a hug, it was he.

    "You deserve to have a happy ending," she murmured. For the longest time, he did not say anything, and then she felt the heat from his hand that rested on the back of her head.

    "You are far too kind. As much as I would want us all to have a "happy ending", the world is too cruel to allow it." Ruby did not resist when he gently pried her from his body. "It is time for you to go. You do not want to make your family worry again."

    "Do you not want me to come back?"

    "I won't deprive you of your right to visit your mother's grave." Ruby waited for Ashen to say more, but he did not.

    "Well... goodbye. Maybe I'll see you again?" she asked timidly. She received a simple shrug in response before she once more began her trek back home. As she climbed the ramp back up, she took one last glance back. The first time she saw him, he cut such an imposing and awe-inspiring visage. Now, as he sat hunched over on the tree, staring into the empty campfire, he reminded her of her dad during those early days; so broken and alone.

    What could she say? She may have lost her mother, but she at least still had her dad and sister. He had no one. No family, no friends, no home to return to. What do you say to someone who lost everything?

    These thoughts plagued Ruby so much she did not realize that she had made it all the way back to her mother's grave. It was the sudden calling of her name that finally snapped her out of her thoughts. She turned around to see her dad and Yang standing by the tree line. Her dad looked none the worse for wear, while her sister's shirt collar was drenched in sweat.

    Ruby jogged over to join them. If the smile she gave them seemed a little forced, they did not comment on it.

    "You ready to go home?" her dad asked.

    "Yeah, cause I could really use a shower about now," Yang commented, smelling her shirt to emphasize before scrunching her nose in distaste.

    "Yep," she responded, as her smile grew more genuine from Yang's antics.

    "Did you say everything you needed to?" Tai asked in that familiar, caring tone of his. When Ruby nodded, he reached out and ruffled her hair. "Then it's time to head back home."

    The walk back was a silent affair for the most part. Ruby hung back behind the two as she tried to organize her thoughts. She jumped in surprise when Yang spoke up next to her.

    "You doing ok, sis?" Though she tried to act nonchalantly, Ruby could still pick up the concern in her voice.

    "I'm fine Yang. I was just... thinking about stuff." Before Yang could push further, she changed the subject. "What about you? Land a hit on dad yet?"

    "No," Yang growled in frustration, "but don't worry—one of these days, I'll finally land a hit on the old man."

    "Not unless you work on your form, you won't," their dad laughed. Ruby let herself slip out of the conversation as the two fell into their usual banter.

    The rest of the day would go on without any more excitement. If she was quieter than usual, no one would mention it.

    When she climbed into her bed for the night, she found herself unable to sleep. Ruby ended up staring out the window at the shattered moon in the sky. She wondered if Ashen was still sitting there by himself. The image brought a frown to her face. Finally, after half a day's contemplation, she made her decision.

    Every hero should get a happy ending.

    Her course of action decided, sleep came a little bit easier.


    Ruby spent most of her morning trying to figure out how she was going to implement her newfound plan. Then, her dad gave her the perfect opportunity.

    "Are you sure you don't want to come with us?"

    Her dad and sister were heading into town to pick something up, which gave Ruby the perfect chance to slip away. She claimed that she was still tired and mentally exhausted from yesterday and did not want to deal with any crowds. Surprisingly, her dad and Yang did not push her to come with—rather, they seemed almost happy that she didn't want to go. She was not sure what that was about, but she wasn't about to risk her current opportunity over it.

    "I'm having Yang leave her scroll behind. You remember the rules, right?"

    "Lock the door, don't answer for strangers. If it's Uncle Qrow, don't let him in unless he can speak properly and to leave him outside if he's passed out on the porch again."

    "And if one of the Grimm comes by?"

    "Hide in my room, lock the door, call you, and sic Zwei on it if it gets inside."

    "Good girl," he praised before he turned to Zwei. "Zwei, you're in charge."

    "Hey!" she squawked indigently. "Why is he in charge?"

    "Are you able to fight a Grimm?"

    "Arf!"

    Ruby pouted, but was unable to dispute the point. Zwei wagged his tail happily.

    "Try not to burn the house down while we're gone," Yang teased. Ruby stuck her tongue out in response.

    She shooed the two out the door, much to their amusement. She watched them leave through the window, until they were out of sight. She could not suppress a small cheer, as she was now free to enact her plan. Only, she forgot about one last obstacle in her path, Zwei, who was watching her intently with a grin on his face. How to get past Zwei?

    Ruby stared intensely at the small corgi, who stared back with a curious tilt of his head. Inspiration hit her like a freight train.

    When in doubt, do as Yang would do.

    She dashed into the kitchen, while Zwei remained in place, content with his spot on the floor.

    "Oh, nooo!" Ruby cried dramatically. Zwei's ears perked up and he dashed into the kitchen. He skidded to a stop and stared at the box of dog treats that balanced precariously on Ruby's hand. Not a moment later, it toppled over and spilled treats all over the floor.

    "I'm so clumsy! How will I ever clean this mess?" Ruby cried. She needed to say no more as Zwei dove face first towards the treats, woofing down all he could get his paws on. While he was distracted, Ruby snuck away with a satisfied smile on her face.

    After sneaking out the front door, she pressed her head against it. When she did not hear the pitter-patter of tiny paws after her, she nodded in triumph. Operation Happy Ending is a go. She dashed off into the forest in a dead sprint, though halfway, she realized that she forgot to grab Yang's scroll.

    For a moment, she contemplated going back for it but decided otherwise. Knowing how her dad and Yang could get when shopping, she should have more than enough time to find Ashen, help him, and make it back home.
    Okay, so maybe her plan was not the most detailed, but it was better than nothing. She didn't know a lot when it came to dealing with loss and depression. Her family was still dealing with their own, as much as they tried to be strong and pretend otherwise.

    One thing she did know was that you should never leave someone to deal with it alone. She learned that from watching Uncle Qrow help her dad. He would pester and prod him, or sit next to him in complete silence where he would offer a sip from his flask. Her dad would always end up finishing it. Qrow may not have really known what to do or be the best at what he did do, but he never left them to deal with it alone.

    Right now, Ashen didn't have anyone that could help him, so Ruby was going to be that person. And, hopefully, during her stay with him, she will learn more about him to better help him. With any luck, she'll be able to convince him to reconnect with people and maybe meet her family. He saved her, so now it was her turn to save him.

    Wasn't that what heroes did, after all?

    Ruby waved good morning as she passed her mother's grave on the way down. She was a bit disheartened to see that Ashen was nowhere to be seen, but she didn't give up just yet. He said that Grimm tended to come by, so maybe he was out looking for any that may end up heading this way.

    Now that she thought about it, if he spent all this time around here hunting Grimm, how come her dad and uncle never managed to find him?

    Maybe they were just unlucky. She knew that bad luck tended to follow Uncle Qrow around—so, that was a given—but her dad? Maybe some of Qrow's bad luck is starting to rub off on them. Might explain why everyone loses at video games against him.

    Ruby sat at the same spot on the log from yesterday. She kicked her feet back and forth as she waited. It did not matter that she was starting to sweat from the afternoon sun—she knew he would show up eventually.
    As time dragged on and the sun shifted positions in the sky, she stubbornly refused to give up hope. He would come. Ashen would show up any minute now.

    But he never did.
     
  10. Index: Chapter 5: Stoking the Embers
    GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    Chapter 5: Stoking the Embers
    She returned again. It had been two weeks since he sent her away, and yet, she continued to come back searching for him. Ashen assumed that after the first time he hid himself from her, she would be disheartened and return home.

    Instead, she waited. She waited until the sun was high in the sky and her father came to retrieve her. Despite the tongue lashing he gave her, she never did tell him why she came. When he dragged her home, he thought that would be the end of it. He thought the ring that weighed on his finger had served its purpose.

    As much as Ashen was repulsed by the nefarious purpose behind the creation of the Obscuring Ring, he could not deny how useful it was. Combined with the Slumbering Dragon crest, and he had practically become a phantom. Which proved highly fortunate as the child, Ruby, proved that she was nothing if not persistent.

    She was back the very next morning, and once more, she was dragged back home. It practically became a game between her and her family. Would she succeed in sneaking away here or would her family catch her before she could arrive? She was never absent for more than a day.

    It was in the middle of the second week when her father decided to confront her, and he did not come alone. He brought with him her sister and uncle. Yang and Qrow if he remembered what he overheard correctly. Rather than berate her for her madness, they pleaded with her. They begged her to cease her madness. They wanted to understand why she was going so far.

    He could see the effect their words had on her. The distress and guilt she no doubt felt for causing her family so much worry nearly broke her. Yet, despite her tears, she would not divulge the reason she kept coming back.
    Ashen was surprised that she kept him a secret from them. He did not swear her to secrecy. Did she misinterpret his words and believe that he would disappear permanently if she told them about him? He had no intention of revealing himself to her again.

    In the end, he was a stranger to her, and despite whatever feelings she may have had, it was unlikely that she would place him over her family. She was ready to give up. She would have given up were it not for her uncle.
    He had a sharp eye and an equally sharp mind. Sharper than what his appearance belied. He had noticed the firepit, which would not have been a problem were it not for the fact that Ashen had used it the night before. He assumed mistakenly that she had finally given up and thought it would be safe to indulge himself by relighting it. She had made him regret that decision. Her uncle, Qrow, was quick to deduce what or rather who Ruby was waiting for.

    Yet, despite that her family now knew what she was doing, she would still not tell them why. They each prodded her with various reasons, but she would not provide any answers. When her father suggested that he had done something untoward her, to say he was surprised by her reaction would be an understatement. All were taken aback by the ferocity she defended his honor with. He would admit to being touched by the gesture. Few were those willing to stand by an Undead.

    From that day onward, she was no longer the only one seeking him. When they were not waiting with her, her father and uncle were combing the forest for him. Her bird shifting uncle was the most troublesome. Thankfully, his presence had become established enough that it warded off all other animals from a wide berth around the site. He hadn't seemed to realize yet that other than the insects, he was the only living thing that could tolerate his presence.

    Now, here they are, in the middle of the third week. The flame of hope and desire that drove her for so long had been reduced to a flicker. From the way she slouched to the despondent look in her eyes, it was obvious that she was finally at the end of her rope.

    Persistence can only carry someone so far. At least for the living. After today, her flickering flame of hope should finally be snuffed out. He took no pleasure from the pain he was putting her through, but he had decided that it was necessary.

    All too often do the young chase after warriors like himself for all the wrong reasons. When she told him about her dream to be a hero, to be like him, he suddenly found himself staring not at her face, but an amalgamation of dozens of different children. He could only recall a few of their names. Despite their different features, regardless of whether they were a boy or girl, they all shared one thing in common. That same look of idolization and awe.

    They all said words similar to hers. They followed in his footsteps... and they died for it. He would not be responsible for another. His presence would only encourage her. Better for her dreams to die now. Enough have thrown their lives away. At least this way would help convince her to choose a different path.

    Ashen was pulled away from his thoughts by a growl and a gasp. Prowling out from between the trees was a corrupted wolf. It was smaller than what he had deemed average size for the creatures, lacking most of the bone-like plating that covered its kind.

    He expected her to flee, that the appearance of this beast would finally convince her to cease her madness, but against all odds, she did not. Despite her obvious fear, she held her ground. She had plenty of time to change her mind and flee, but she refused to budge. The beast, sensing an easy meal, took its time prowling towards her. Despite the beast drawing closer with every step, she still. Would not. Leave!

    He could see the tears running down her face as she braced herself for the inevitable. It was an inevitability he denied. The beast had barely made it halfway to her before he fell upon it. With a single swing of his sword, silver steel sang as it split the air and decapitated the beast. He had put too much strength behind the blow that he carved a deep gouge in the dirt.

    All was silent in the clearing with the exception of the hissing as the beast's corpse dissolved into smoke. It was a curious sight the first time he had witnessed it, but he knew it was merely a convenience since it meant that he did not have to bother cleaning his sword.

    When Ashen turned to face Ruby, she greeted him with a timid smile on her tear streaked face.

    "You're here," she said. "I-I was right. I knew you would be here."

    He said nothing as he watched her break down in hysterical tears, overwhelmed by the maelstrom of emotions that coursed through her. Ashen rested his sword in the ground as he towered over her small frame.

    "Why didn't you run?" he asked when she finally calmed down.

    "I knew you would protect me," she replied. Though her tone was meek, Ashen was able to pick up on a level of certainty in her voice.

    "And how could you have been so sure? How were you certain that I did not leave for some far-off lands?"

    "Because you're still camping here," she responded. "At first, I thought that I was just unlucky and was just missing you each time I came by. Then, I really started to believe that you left and broke your promise. When my family came to get me, I was ready to give up, but then, my uncle—"

    "—noticed the ashes I left behind," he cut in. "Which inspired you to continue your search for me." He cursed himself under his breath.

    "Yeah. We realized that you never left and were still camping here." Ruby's eyes narrowed as realization hit her. "You were watching us!" she accused.

    He saw no point in hiding it, so he nodded.

    "Why? Why were you hiding from me? Did I do something wrong?"

    He sighed. "Let me ask you this first; why do you want to be a hero?"

    She blinked in surprise at the question. "I want to help people because it is the right thing to do. That's why I want to be a hero."

    "Do not lie to me, child," he chastised. "I do not believe that you are truly so selfless at your age. You seek to become one for yourself. Is that why you sought me out? For my approval?"

    "But I'm not lying to you! I do want to help people."

    "Then you are not telling me everything, or you are lying to yourself. Really, for what reason did you push yourself so far? To the extent that you worried your own family! You went so far as to recklessly endanger yourself!" He watched her shrink into herself, unable to reply. She could only stare at the ground as he waited for a reply that he knew would never come. "This foolish endeavor of yours ends now. Do not return here again." He walked away. His cape snapped and billowed out in the breeze behind him.

    "Please, don't go," she pleaded.

    He ignored her.

    "Come back, please!" she begged.

    He didn't slow his pace as he reached the tree line.

    "I don't want to be alone!"

    It wasn't so much the plea itself that made him turn around, but rather, it was the level of desperation and fear in her voice. As Ashen stared at her, he realized that he may have been a bit too harsh. Tears ran down her face as she clutched her cloak tightly around herself.

    "I'm scared," she whispered faintly. The silence of the forest was the only reason her words were able to reach him.

    "What are you scared of?" he asked as he approached her once again. "Do you fear for your family?"

    "I-I'm scared that one day they won't come back," she said through her sniffles. "I'm scared that the same thing will happen. They'll leave and I'll wait, but they will never come back. Just like mom."

    "What about the rest of your family? Surely, there are others who would worry for you if you too decide to leave for the battlefield. What about them?"

    "There's no one else. Uncle Qrow is the only other family we have."

    Ah. Now he was beginning to understand. "If I remember correctly, you mentioned that your sister is currently undergoing training." She nodded in confirmation. "So, I can assume then that when she leaves to follow in the footsteps of your father and uncle, you will be the one left behind; forced to wait for their return until the day comes where they don't."

    Ruby whimpered as she nodded. She clutched her cloak tighter as she shrunk in on herself. An awkward silence settled between them, occasionally broken by her sniffles. She wished that she could see his face, because she couldn't get a grasp on what he may be thinking with the helmet in the way. It didn't help that with the way he was standing over her, he was very intimidating. Ruby jumped when Ashen broke the silence with a loud sigh. He took a seat next to her.

    "I will not lie to you—you are trapped in an unfortunate situation. You have two bad choices in front of you."

    "But what's wrong with me wanting to be a huntress?" she questioned. "Am I too weak? Too small? I'll grow bigger, stronger! So, why is it so bad that I also want to be a huntress? My family doesn't want me to be one. My sister doesn't think I can. Even you don't want me to be one. Why?"

    "It is not that I don't believe that you can one day become a great warrior. I just did not want to be responsible for another..."

    "Another what?"

    "...You are not the first child to have gazed upon me in awe and been inspired to wield the sword. There were others like you. They saw a great warrior, a champion, a hero. They saw someone to imitate and follow. I've seen some of these children grow up and commit to the path of the sword. There were even a few rare ones who I trained myself." Ashen sighed morosely as he stared up at the sky. "It always ended the same, though. I would eventually lead them, and they would follow without hesitation... I led them to their deaths... I led them to damnation."

    "That's why you don't want me to be a huntress. You're afraid I'll end up like the others you've met," Ruby whispered. It reminded her of the guilt that still plagued Yang after she dragged her into the forest that day. She could only imagine how much worse Yang would feel if she had died.

    "Yes, when you told me your aspirations that day, I grew fearful that I was about to inspire another to their death. Now though, if what you told me is true, then it may seem that you have no choice but to follow your family's footsteps."

    "You say that like it's a bad thing."

    "Only time will tell. Though, to be fair, I would make the same choice if I stood in your position." He turned his head to face her. "All I can say for now is that you would have to be heartless to turn your back on what remains of your family. You don't strike me as the type who would."

    "Of course not. I love them," she stated. "But that doesn't mean that I don't want to help people. I want to make my mom proud, so I'm going to be an amazing huntress just like she was." She wasn't aware that she had done it, but Ruby had puffed up her chest in pride at her declaration.

    "And it is just coincidence that doing so allows you to remain by your family's side." She gave Ashen a sheepish smile in response. "No matter. It is as the old saying goes: two heads with one swing."

    Ruby tilted her head in confusion. "Isn't it to birds with one stone?" There was a long silence before Ashen replied.

    "It is an older saying."

    Ruby couldn't suppress the snort of laughter that escaped her. She could feel the tense atmosphere that had been surrounding them finally easing away with her giggles.

    "And just how old are you?" she teased.

    "Far older than I have any right to be," he responded.

    "Can you show me?" she asked. Ashen tilted his head in confusion, so she mimed removing a helmet. He shook his head.

    "It would be best if I did not. You do not survive as long as I have without collecting a few scars. My face has become something that has made children flee in fear from me."

    "It can't be that bad. What happens if I see you without your helmet? How am I supposed to recognize you?"

    "Hopefully, that would never occur. I practically live in this armor anyway; can't even remember how long it's been since I had last taken it off."

    "But how can you live in there? Doesn't it get stuffy and—" Ruby was interrupted by a chime from her pocket.

    Ashen watched as she removed a rectangular object from her pocket. It was something that he recognized. From the interactions he witnessed, he was assuming that it was a device to communicate with. No doubt, it was a product of some new and advanced sorcery. As he watched her manipulate the device, he realized that it could probably do a lot more than simple communication. Other than a picture of a dog that quickly disappeared, he could not recognize anything on the device. None of the characters or symbols were remotely familiar.

    "It's a message from my sister," she commented. That confirmed at least one of his suspicions.

    "Just what is that device?"

    "It's a Scroll. Don't you have one?"

    Ashen hadn't realized that he had given voice to his curiosity. He shook his head. "It is the first time I have ever seen such a device."

    "How do you not know what a Scroll is? Everyone has one." Ruby waved hers around for emphasis.

    "I am from the wastes. After my home fell, I spent my life wandering the wilderness and outskirts of the kingdoms. I had never actually set foot inside any of the kingdoms themselves, so I will not deny that I am ignorant of many things because of this."

    "Ohhh, you're from the badlands." She nodded her head understandingly. "My uncle, Qrow, has done missions out there before. He's told me how dangerous it gets out there since they're so far from the Kingdoms and how villages out there are... um... simple?"

    "You mean primitive." Ashen couldn't help but chuckle at Ruby's embarrassed wince. "I take no offense. I accept that I am ignorant, but that is only because I had been preoccupied with other pressing matters."

    "Like what?"

    "Survival for the most part."

    "Oh."

    Ashen waved her concern away. "I believe we have gotten off-track. What message did your sister send you?"

    "She was just asking if I was done waiting for you to show up." She held the "Scroll" in front of him. "She also said that if I take any longer, then they'll come drag me back home again."

    Ashen nodded as he stared at her Scroll. The characters he was staring at were completely foreign to him. Not a single one bore any resemblance to any language he knew, and—considering how far he traveled and the lands he visited—he could recognize quite a few. Once more, he could not prevent himself from voicing his thoughts.

    "Interesting."

    "What is?"

    "It seems that I cannot read," he admitted.

    "What?"

    "Maybe it would be more accurate to say that I can read, but just not your alphabet," he explained to Ruby's bewilderment.

    "I've never heard of any other alphabets. What did you learn to read?" she asked incredulously.

    "An odd and nearly forgotten language," Ashen explained. "It is no longer spoken, only written. A futile attempt to prolong its life, but seeing as I am one of the last few who still use it, there is no stopping it from fading away completely."

    Ruby stared at him with a frown as she hummed in thought.

    "You know," she said, "every time you tell me something about yourself, it always ends up being something sad and horrible. Your life sucked."

    Ashen stared at Ruby, surprised, while the horror slowly dawned on her face as she realized what exactly she had said.

    "Oh, brothers. I'm so sorry! What I meant—" Ruby was cut off as Ashen burst out into loud boisterous laughter.

    "Ah, child. You are not wrong, though while most of my life has been filled with hardship, it was not completely depressing. I had my moments of fulfillment and joy. It is those moments that I treasure most."

    "Can you tell me about any of them?" There was no mistaking the wonder and curiosity on her face. For a moment, he hesitated before he brushed it off.

    Her fate is all but decided. I need not worry about her, he thought. "I have quite a few stories I could tell. They are all similar in theme, though, as they relate to the many drinks I have shared with my comrades over the victories we had achieved against impossible odds. Jolly cooperation indeed." Ashen sighed wistfully. "For the longest time, I, along with many brothers and sisters in arms, followed a simple proverb—'Victory above all else'. I'm not sure which I enjoyed more, the battles we fought together, or the celebrations that came after."

    "Wow. So, what types of Grimm—" Ruby was cut off once more by a familiar chime. She frowned as she read the message on her scroll.

    "Time for you to go home?" Ashen asked. Ruby pouted as she nodded her head.

    "And just as things were getting good," she grumbled before she smacked herself on the head. "Wait! If I just tell them that I am with you, then it should be fine if I stay longer."

    Ashen reached over and covered her scroll with his hand, interrupting her before she could send a message out. At least he hoped he did.

    "I would prefer it if you would wait a bit more before telling your family about me."

    "Why?"

    "Answer me this first: what do you plan to do after today? Do you still intend to come here, seeking me out?"

    She squirmed in place before she nodded hesitantly.

    "You should let your family know that you will be home soon." The hurt on her face was plain to see. She hung her head, unable to meet his gaze. He reached under her chin and tilted her head up. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears. "Do not assume that this is me sending you away like before. You have worried your family enough this month. Go home and let them know you are safe. Come back tomorrow or whenever you are next able. I will still be here, and I will hide from you no longer."

    "How do I know you won't break your promise again?" she asked as she wiped her eyes.

    "I do not believe I ever gave you my word before. In fact, I never even agreed that we would meet again."

    Ruby frowned as she realized that he was right. He never had promised her anything. The most he gave her was a maybe, but she treated it like a yes. She was just so eager to see him again. And if she was being honest with herself, she had also wanted to ask him why it was so bad that she wants to be a huntress. At least that matter was dealt with...

    "How do I know you won't lie to me?"

    Ashen bowed his head as he brought his hand to his chest in a closed fist. "I swear on my birth name that I am not deceiving you, nor will I hide from you any longer."

    Ruby was surprised and touched by the act, but she soon narrowed her eyes in suspicion. "Didn't you say that you don't remember your name?"

    "Does not make my vow any less binding. A friend once made a similar promise to me. At the time, he had forgotten who he was, and when he remembered—despite any misgivings we may have had with each other in the past—he kept it. A vow, a promise, is never to be made lightly. I have never made one that I intended to break. It is why I didn't make one before."

    She nodded in understanding. Promises were important after all. It was something that she could still remember that her mother told her. Anyone who would break their promise is no better than the Grimm.

    "Okay then. You've made a promise now, so no more hiding, alright?" He nodded. "Is it okay if I ask you something?"

    "What do you want to know?"

    "You said that you like to be alone, but don't you get, like, lonely not having anyone to talk to?"

    Ashen sighed. "I would be lying if I said I did not." He unsheathed a dagger that was clipped to his belt. Black-gold veins of titanite contrasted against the dull grey steel of the blade. The sheen worn away by time and use. "I still miss my comrades. They were the men and women who fought, bled, and suffered beside me."

    He noticed the curiosity in her eyes so he titled the blade for her to see the characters engraved along its length. He was all but certain that she would not be able to read it, though.

    "What does it say?" she asked. There was a sad tone in her voice. She no doubt understood or least suspected that the blade was not his.

    "It says 'Resist to the Bitter End'. Words that every warrior should live by." He resheathed the blade. "While I still long for the moments I have shared with them, I have long since come to terms with their passing. If anything, it is the feeling of isolation that gets to me."

    When he met her eyes, he was surprised by the moisture on them. He couldn't remember the last time—if there ever had been—someone shed tears for him. After all, who would shed tears for an Undead. Despite the fact that she did not know what he was, she was still ready to cry on a stranger's behalf. What a strange girl. A strange and kind one.

    "How? What makes it worse?" she asked.

    "People," he explained. "I am never more aware of how different I am than when I am surrounded by others. It is a feeling I hope you never experience. That moment when you realize that the world you inhabit is so different from the common man's that you find yourself no longer able to relate to their everyday struggles. You have become a foreigner in your own lands among your own people."

    Ashen jumped when he felt something wrap around his hand. It took him a moment to repress his instincts to lash out. He was surprised to see that Ruby had wrapped both of her hands around his. Despite the twin trails of tears, she tried to give him a comforting smile. The action warmed his heart.

    "You have a very gentle soul, child."

    "My dad tells me that I'm sweeter than cookies."

    "Indeed," he chuckled. "I do owe you an apology, though."

    "F-For what?" Ruby asked, surprised.

    "I did not handle this situation as I ought to have," Ashen replied. "I should have confronted you much sooner, but instead I had let this drag out for far too long and put you and your family through unnecessarily hardship." He flexed the fingers of his left hand. "I am used to solving most of my problems by killing something or someone. The ones I can't solve through conflict are ones I can usually walk away from or at least wait for them to go away. Obviously, I couldn't act on the former, so I went with the latter.

    "I'm glad you did," she chuckled nervously. "...I think I see what you mean about being different. I don't think any of those are normal ways to handle things."

    "Which is why I will indulge your desires for a time. Consider it penance for how I have wronged you."

    Ruby shook her head vigorously in denial. "No, no, no! You didn't do anything wrong. You saved my life twice now."

    "Yet it was because of me that it was endangered a second time."

    "But you didn't have to," she argued. "You could have waited and then this 'problem' would be gone, but you didn't. You're a good person."

    He couldn't help but chuckle at her simple logic. "Saving your life twice does not define me as a good person."

    "Are you trying to say you're a bad person?"

    Ashen found that he had to take a moment to consider his reply. "I don't know if I can be considered a good person after the things I have done. I would like to think that I am not a bad one. At the very least, I hope I'm not one of the worst."

    "Well," Ruby drawled, "if you can't call yourself a bad person, and there's how you saved my life now... then that could only mean you're a good person." Ashen couldn't help but smile at her. There was nothing like the straightforward and simple logic of a child. "At the very least you're an okay person," she added on teasingly.

    He couldn't contain a snort of laughter. "So, this girl has some bite to her."

    Ashen found himself thinking back on the past. He could remember those short periods of time after each linking of the Fire where an Undead was not feared. Certain kingdoms would celebrate the Undead as heroes who saved the world. They were the few that knew of and misunderstood the connection between the Undead and the linking of the flame. No one was ever foolish enough to correct them. A short period of time where the world was not gripped by despair and solemn duty.

    It was easy to forget about the times when the world was flush with life, but it was impossible to forget how it rotted away. The people who blessed your name one day would be the very same hunting you the next.
    "Can you cup your hands together for me?" Ashen asked as he reached into one of the many pouches clipped to his belt. He placed a single coin in her outstretched hands. Her eyes widened to the size of dinner plates while her mouth gapped like a fish. It was a comical sight... and one that felt vaguely familiar.

    "I take it that you have never been in possession of a gold coin before." She absentmindedly nodded her head as she rotated the coin between her fingers. "You should know that there will be rules to our arrangement."

    Ruby stopped staring at the coin as she looked at him in surprise. "What do you mean?"

    "When you come down here, I will meet with you if I am not in the woods culling the beasts, but understand that I am extending this courtesy to you and you alone. If you bring others with you, regardless of who they are, I will not show myself. I am sacrificing my solitude to meet with you. Please, do not demand any more from me."

    "Do you really want to be alone that much?"

    "As the events of these last few weeks can attest to, I am not used to dealing with people. I don't want to deal with so many others.—you are more than enough. Just know that once sufficient time has passed, I will disappear again."

    "So, you really will leave."

    "No. I still intend to look over this site. You will just never encounter me again. It will be just like these past weeks, only the next time you endanger yourself, I will not save you. Understand?"

    Ruby nodded before her face scrunched up in a frown. As she stared at him, he could see the thoughts turning in her head.

    "What if... what if I can convince you that you don't have to be alone, that you're not so different that you have to avoid people?"

    "Do you think you can?"

    "I don't know, but I still want to try," she replied honestly.

    "Then you have a challenge ahead of you. Regardless, I believe I have delayed you much longer than I should have." He laughed when she winced after checking her Scroll. "When you spend as long as I have drifting through life, you lose your concept of time."

    "Well, you made me a promise, so I guess I'll see you tomorrow." Ruby stood up dusting off her skirt. "Would you like for me to bring you anything?" she asked as she glanced around the site.

    "I am well provisioned. I keep everything hidden, so the beasts do not get to anything while I am away. You need not concern yourself, though I appreciate the sentiment."

    "Are you sure?" The disappointment was clear in her voice.

    He was about to nod when a thought occurred to him. "On second thought, there may be one thing I could use."

    "Oh, what is it? I'll try to get it if I can."

    "A map."

    "A map?" Ruby blinked clearly confused. "Shouldn't you already have one? Like, what would you need one for anyway?"

    "I don't have one because I never really had anywhere I wanted to go, so I rarely bothered with the things," he explained. "I drifted from place to place. As for why I desire one; simple curiosity. I want to know if anything drastic has changed since my travels."

    "Okay! I'll make sure to bring you one tomorrow."

    "Then I will see you tomorrow, child." Ashen was taken aback when she planted her hands on her hips and pouted at him. "Is something the matter?"

    "Ruby."

    "Pardon?"

    "My name is Ruby." She stomped her foot for emphasis. "You never call me by my name and I know that you know it. It's always 'child' or 'little' something. Stop treating me like a stranger." Her frown softened into a small sad smile. "We're friends now, aren't we?"

    "I apologize. I will see you tomorrow... Ruby."

    She nodded in approval. "Good. I'm sticking around, so you better get used to using it." The sad look on her face morphed into a radiant smile before she dashed off with a wave over her shoulder.

    When Ruby reached the base of the cliff, she turned around for one last wave before she froze in place. He had to suppress his laughter at the face she was making. She was standing in the effective range of the cloaking ring. Ruby squealed in excitement before she dashed up the ramp.

    A strange child indeed.




    Ruby was ecstatic. She found him. She finally found him. Or maybe he found her. Regardless, he was back and wouldn't be vanishing anytime soon. All the waiting and groundings she endured were worth it, now that she found her hero again. And what better way for her to see him again than having him save her from a Grimm.

    Thinking back on it now, it was really amazing how he did it. He moved so fast that it was like he came out of thin air. The Grimm didn't even hear him. She was certain that it never realized that he was there even after he cut its head off.

    Ruby couldn't help but squeal as she danced in place. He was so cool! She continued on her way with a spring in her step and a smile plastered on her face. She would admit to herself that there was something familiar about the way he stood over the Grimm, cape billowing out around him, but for the life of her, she could not remember what it was. No matter.

    What was important was that she found her hero and he gave her a gold coin. A real solid, gold coin. She still struggled to believe it that she just had to take it out of her pocket once more to be sure.

    It was much heavier than she expected a coin of its size to weigh. There were scratches and nicks all over it. She didn't recognize the face on it, but it was probably some old king. She was going to have to hide it from Yang, though. Knowing her, she would want to sell it.

    Ruby let out a sigh of relief as her home came into sight. She had taken a single step on her front porch when the door burst open and she found herself staring into a pair of lilac eyes.

    "Ruby!" Before she could react, Yang pulled her into a bone crushing hug. "There you are! We were getting worried. You should have been back ages ago." Ruby flailed widely as she attempted to gasped for air.

    "You may want to ease up there, Firecracker. I don't think Ruby can take much more." Ruby glared at her uncle as he smirked in amusement. He reached over Yang and ruffled her hair. "Welcome back, squirt."

    After what felt like an eternity, Yang finally released Ruby, and she was able to breathe again. Her dad, who had been watching in amusement, stepped forward. "So, now that my little jewel has found its way home, are you ready to put all of this behind you?"

    Ruby blinked in confusion before she remembered the promise she made that morning. A promise she no longer had to keep.

    "Nope!" she exclaimed as she jumped up and down. "I don't have to anymore."

    Three sets of eyebrows rose skeptically. Her dad crossed his arms as he leaned on the doorway. "Oh? And do you mind telling me why that is?"

    "Because I found him! He showed up today!"

    Her dad and uncle exchanged a look. "How about we continue this inside."

    Everyone gathered in the living room. Ruby and Yang took the couch while her dad took the reclining chair across from them, with their uncle leaning on it.

    "Okay, let me get this straight," Tai started off. "The guy we've been looking for these last few weeks showed up."

    "Yep!"

    "Is there a reason why he finally decided to show up?"

    "Sort of. He—" Ruby froze as a thought occurred to her. Her eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Wait. What do you mean he finally showed up? You've been telling me that he probably left since you couldn't find any traces of him."
    Her dad looked to her uncle for help, but only got a sheepish shrug in response.

    "You lied!" Ruby gasped, betrayed as her darted between the two. "You knew he never left."

    The two shared an unspoken conversation with a glance before Qrow stepped forward.

    "Yeah, squirt, we lied to you. You have to understand that it was painfully obvious that your new pal was avoiding us, so we thought it would be better if we said he left to spare your feelings."

    "How did you know he was avoiding us, but was still here?"

    "The Grimm," Tai interjected. "There has been a very noticeable decrease in their population on the island. I've been hearing from the other staff at Signal that there have been reports of someone hunting them in the forest even at the dead of night. No one has ever managed to see him, though, so a lot are more like rumors than actual reports."

    "Your pal is slippery. I'll give him that," Qrow said. He took a quick swig of his flask. "Leaves one hell of a trail, though. I found more than a handful of trees cut in half. Guy is definitely strong."

    "I know!" Ruby exclaimed. "You should have seen what he did to that Beowolf." She froze as the temperature of the room dropped to arctic levels. A quick glance revealed three sets of eyes staring at her with a laser focused intensity. Four if she included Zwei who was the only one who looked amused.

    "Ruby, what Beowolf?" Her dad ground out in a sickeningly, sweet voice.

    "Um, what Beowolf?" Ruby asked, feigning ignorance.

    "Ruby!"

    She flinched at the volume of their combined voices. "He, um, he killed a Beowolf that wanted to eat me."

    Her dad slouched back in his chair with his arm thrown over his face. "Ruby, you have to stop getting in these situations. I don't know how much more I can take." She could feel Yang grasp her hand in a reassuring squeeze.

    "Now, hold on a moment," Qrow said. "You're telling us that a Beowolf attacked you guys, and you didn't think to come straight home after."

    "Yep, that's what happened." She may have answered too quickly by the way her uncle narrowed his eyes.

    "Now, my dear most favorite niece of all time, you wouldn't be hiding something from us now, are you?" Her silence was an answer in itself. "The Beowolf tried to attack you while you were talking with this guy, right?"

    "While I was waiting," she whispered, "he showed up to save me."

    "Ruby," her dad begged, "please tell me you didn't use yourself as bait to draw him out."

    Ruby could only nod. She didn't have the strength to meet any of their gazes. The three pained groans she got in response made her shrink into herself. She felt Yang's hands on her shoulders turning her so they were facing each other.

    "Ruby... why would you do that? What's so important about this guy that you'll endanger yourself?"

    "Yang, I—"

    "Look. We've tried to be patient. Don't you understand how much we've worried about you? You nearly died a few weeks ago, and here you are, risking your life. Don't you care about how we feel?"

    "I do—"

    "Why do you care about this guy, anyway. I get that he saved your life, but you barely even know him. You're risking your life for a complete stranger. If he didn't show today, you could be dead. Do you have any idea what that would do to us? It would destroy us. So, what makes this guy so damn important that you would risk doing this to us?!"

    It was telling that no one called Yang out for her language. The silence that settled was stifling, and Ruby didn't know how to break it. In the end, it was Uncle Qrow who did.

    "Look, we just want to understand what's going through your head. Can you at least tell us why you are obsessing over this guy?"

    "I-I want to help him," Ruby whispered.

    "What do you mean help him?" Her dad asked, joining back in on the conversation. "From the sounds of it, hasn't he been helping you? What do you need to help him with?"

    She met her dad's gaze. "He reminds me of you."

    Tai was taken aback. He shared a quick look with Qrow. "What do you mean?"

    "He-He reminds me of you when... when mom died."

    Tai took a deep breath to calm his nerves. He would admit that he still gets worked up over any mention of his wife, though he has gotten better—the nights he spent drinking with Qrow were no longer a frequent occurrence. He pressed on when he felt he had collected himself enough. "Do you mind explaining what you mean by that?"

    "I'm going to need to sit down for this," Qrow commented as he plopped down next to her.

    Ruby told them of how she learned that he was a very old huntsman from the badlands and how he had no home or family to return to. She even mentioned how he buried his friends at the site, but hid the graves because they've been looted before. She didn't mention anything about the tomb under the cliff, though. She did make a promise, after all. She did her best to explain the levels of depression she felt from him and how he was hurting and decided that isolation was the best way to make the pain go away.

    When she was done, silence greeted her as the rest of her family digested the information. Her dad seemed to be the one deepest in thought. Ruby couldn't help but fiddle with her gold coin that she had taken out to show to everyone.

    "What do you make of this guy, Qrow?" Tai asked, finally breaking the silence.

    Qrow stared at his now empty flask as if it was holding all the answers. He sighed before pocketing it. "Out of all the people you could have met, you ended up meeting one of those guys. Been awhile since I ran into a self-made huntsman."

    "Self-made? What's that supposed to mean?" Yang asked.

    "Exactly what it sounds like. Your old man and I went to an academy to learn the trade while Ruby's new friend learned on the job from day one. The whole 'you learn fast or die faster' way of becoming a huntsman."
    "So, it means he knows what he's doing."

    "What it means," Tai jumped in, "is that this guy probably learned first-hand through constant life and death struggles, which means he is probably way more experienced than me or Qrow. There is a good chance he did all this without ever getting licensed. It would explain why we couldn't find any records of the guy."

    "Wait, wait, wait. Hold up!" Yang exclaimed. "Don't you need a license if you're gonna work as a huntsman? Isn't it against the law or something to not have one?"

    "Yes and no. It's really complicated. You do need a license to accept contracts posted on the kingdom's board, but you don't really need one to accept jobs from settlements themselves. The license really serves as ways to keep track of huntsmen numbers, who has taken what contract, and serve as a way to ID huntsmen who go missing in the field."

    "The reason the practical test exists is to give a chance for those outside the kingdoms to get themselves officially licensed," Qrow added. "The Grimm Reaper came from outside the kingdoms and smashed every record there was at the time. Some of them are still unbroken."

    "Okay, but where are you guys going with this?" Ruby asked.

    Qrow sighed as he slumped in his seat. "Don't worry, I'm getting there. Here, let me summarize what you've told us about your new found friend, and this is assuming what he told you was true." He ignored the glare Ruby sent his way.

    "We have a guy who was born and raised in the badlands. At some point his village is destroyed. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess that he gets his Aura unlocked around this time. He obviously survives, and I'm going to say he wants revenge. I could be wrong, but it's a common reason for people like him, so we'll go with that for now. Being an Outlier he, no doubt, has that anti-kingdom mentality some of them develop which is why he avoids them. So now, this guy spends his years hunting Grimm on his own. He manages to hold his own and gets good at it. At some point, he joins up with other, probably like-minded, individuals. Maybe he forms a makeshift team or two. Either way, he has some friends to keep him company. They have some good times and they have some bad times. Despite everything he goes through, he survives. His friends aren't always so lucky. Now, his age is catching up to him and he's tired of all the fighting. At some point, he came to Patch to bury his friends and decided to come back to retire here."

    "I don't blame him," Tai commented. "Patch is an island with a below average Grimm population, and that's before you take into account the staff at Signal who drive it even lower."

    "Yeah, a nice quiet place right outside the kingdom's borders to retire. No doubt, he intended to live out his life as a hermit in the woods here before someone fell on top of them." Ruby chuckled nervously at Qrow's sharp glance. "Got to say you found a real piece of work, Ruby."

    "How so?"

    "He could be dangerous." Tai held his hands up placatingly when Ruby's head snapped towards him. "I'm not saying he is, just that guys like him have been through a lot and carry a lot of baggage because of it. I don't like this idea of you meeting with him alone."

    "But why? He's not going to hurt me."

    "How can you be so sure of that?" Yang asked.

    "He saved my life."

    "So, it means he's not a bad person," Qrow commented. "Doesn't mean he is a good person, though."

    Ruby snorted. "He said the same thing."

    "Looks like even he thinks you're trusting him too easily," Tai said. "What are you even trying to do here, Ruby? Why do you want to keep meeting with him?'

    "I don't want to leave him alone out there. No one should have to spend the rest of their life alone like that."

    "That's sweet of you, Ruby. It really is, but I can't just let you meet with this guy alone. How do I know he won't do something to you while you're alone?"

    "He won't! We can trust him."

    "See, that's what I don't get. You're not the most sociable person, yet you can trust this guy so easily. There has to be something you're not telling us."

    Ruby huddled in on herself as she thought back on her interactions with Ashen. She could admit that her dad was right. People made her nervous, but Ashen didn't.

    "Come on, Rubes, don't clam up on us now," Qrow begged. "You have to give us something."

    She knew why she could trust Ashen and when she started to. It was a moment that she had been having dreams about constantly ever since she met him.

    "It was the night I fell." When she raised her head, she could see the somber mood that fell on everyone. It was a day where their already small family almost grew smaller, but to Ruby, it was that and a little more. "After I fell, I felt so cold and scared. I didn't know what was happening. I wanted to go home. I wanted mom. She came for me... or at least it felt like her. I was warm and I felt like I was sitting in her lap like all the times she would read me stories. When I opened my eyes, it wasn't her... it was him. He was the one holding me. He was looking after me and protecting me. I know we can trust him. He's a good person. He's not a bad one. He can't be a bad person. He... He..."

    Ruby trailed off as her words failed her. Her face scrunched up in concentration as she tried to put her feelings into words. She jumped when she felt someone put their hand on her shoulder. Ruby looked up into her dad's gaze as he stood over her. He gave her an understanding smile.

    "I think we understand now, Ruby."

    "Does that mean..."

    Tai sighed. "We're going to have to discuss it a bit more tomorrow, but I'm willing to give your friend a chance."

    Ruby wrapped her dad in a hug. "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you."

    He laughed as he pried her off. "I think we've all had a long day today. I made lunch earlier, and it's been sitting in the kitchen waiting for you. Why don't you and your sister go eat. I have to ask your uncle something."

    "Finally! I'm starving," Yang groaned. As if on cue, her stomach growled loudly in agreement, which caused Ruby to giggle. Yang rolled eyes as she grabbed her hand and dragged her into the kitchen.

    They found four sets of sandwiches waiting for them on the table. Yang slid onto the chair next to Ruby. Just as she was about to take her first bite, a thought occurred to her.

    "Hey, Ruby."

    "Yesh," she answered, with her mouth full.

    "You said your new buddy wanted to see a map, right?"

    "Mm-hmm." Ruby swallowed. "Yeah. He said that he wanted to see one. Why?"

    "Couldn't you have shown him one on your scroll?" There was a long silence as Ruby stared blankly at Yang. It was broken by the sound of a forehead hitting wood.

    "Dang it."
     
  11. Index: Chapter 6: Clearing the Path Forward
    GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    Chapter 6: Clearing the Path Forward
    Ruby checked herself in the mirror for the third time that morning. She was cleaned, dressed, and ready to go. Now, all she had to do was meet everyone else downstairs, because they were still unsure about letting her go see Ashen. Finally satisfied with her appearance, she ran downstairs.

    "What did I say about running on the stairs?"

    "Sorry." Ruby hopped off the last few steps to her dad's displeasure. She gave him a sheepish grin that he returned with a frown. He sighed as he let his shoulders slump.

    "You really want to go see this guy, don't you?"

    "Yep."

    "Do you realize that there is no way I'm going to leave you alone with this guy?"

    "But he won't show up unless I'm alone," she protested.

    "Ruby, do you know how bad that sounds?" Yang asked. It took Ruby a moment to think it over before her eyes widened in realization. Yeah, that did sound bad.

    "Yeah. Now you see why we don't want you going alone," Tai said.

    "But he's not going to do anything," Ruby objected. "We can trust him."

    "Ruby, you're the only one here who has actually met the guy, so it's a bit much to ask us to trust a guy we have never spoken to," Tai argued. "Are you going to back me up here, Qrow?"

    The two shared a look, a silent conversation passing between them, before Qrow shook his head. Tai sighed in frustration.

    "As much as I want to stay and be a part of this, I have to head into town. I have some important matters that I need to take care of today," Qrow explained. He turned to Ruby. "Before I go, mind if I borrow that coin he gave you?"

    "Why do you want it?"

    "If I got time, I want to stop by a jeweler who could appraise it and see how much it's really worth."

    "You don't think it's a real gold coin, do you?" Yang asked.

    "You'll be surprised, Firecracker. The badlands are filled with ruins scattered about for those brave enough to explore them. So, Ruby. Do you mind letting me borrow that coin?"

    Ruby planted her hands on her hips as she glared at her uncle. "You're not going to try to sell it, are you?"

    "I'm not. Relax." Ruby hummed in a disbelieving tone. Qrow let out a tired sigh before he raised his hand. "I swear I won't sell your precious coin no matter what its value is." He shot Tai a glare when he heard him snicker.

    She nodded in satisfaction before she bounded up the steps once more.

    "What did I just say about the stairs?"

    "Sorry!"

    Ruby came running down the stairs... or she would have, but a glare from her father froze her in place. She walked the rest of the way down before handing Qrow her coin."

    "Don't lose it, okay?"

    "I won't. Have some faith in your uncle." He ruffled Ruby's hair before turning to Tai. "Looks like you're going to have to deal with everything on your own. Good luck." Neither girl noticed the subtle wink he shot towards Tai before he walked out the door.

    "So, it's all left to me, huh," Tai muttered. He rubbed his chin as he mulled things over. "Alright, Ruby, I'll let you go meet with this guy, but—"

    "Yes!"

    "—it'll only happen under two conditions."

    "You're actually going to allow it?" Yang exclaimed.

    Ruby waved a hand at her sister. "Hush, Yang." She ignored the death glare that was sent her way as a smile grew on her face. "So, what are they?"

    "Yang and I are coming with you."

    Her smile wilted and died. "But he won't show up if I bring anyone with me."

    "That's why we won't go down with you. We'll wait up top, so we'll only be a shout away if anything happens. This way, you can still meet with him while we can still keep an eye on you."

    Ruby frowned as she tried to find fault with her dad's plan. Technically, they wouldn't be with her—they would just be nearby, so she wouldn't be breaking Ashen's rules. She still felt very unsure, but couldn't come up with a counter-argument.

    "What's the second one?" she asked.

    "I want you to take Zwei with you." Zwei let out a happy bark.

    "Oh, I think that would be okay."

    "It should be," he said. "He didn't mention anything about dogs. Besides, if he is anything like you said he is, then Zwei should be able to help him a bit. I know he helped me." Zwei sat up straighter as his tail wagged. Tai couldn't resist leaning down and patting his head.

    Ruby mulled everything over and found that there wasn't anything she could really complain about. Regardless, the most important fact was that she was currently burning daylight, and the sooner she got going, the more time she would have to spend with Ashen. Besides, who could dislike Zwei—he's adorable.

    Ruby stuck her hand out for her dad to shake. "Okay. Deal."

    "Alright, let's get going then." Ruby was the first out the door with Zwei at her heels. Tai noticed that Yang had not budged an inch with a displeased look on her face. "Aren't you going to join us?"

    "Are we really going to let her meet with this guy alone?"

    "Don't worry, Yang. Ruby will have us nearby."

    "But who knows what he could do to her in the time it takes us to reach them. He could snatch her and run. Then what?"

    "That's why she'll have Zwei with her. He'll help prevent that or, at the very least, slow him down for me. Have some faith in your old man. Please?"

    Yang sighed. "Fine."

    Tai gave her a sheepish smile as she walked past him. Outside, Ruby was yelling for the two of them to hurry up. He managed to withhold his own sigh. If Tai was honest with himself, he didn't like this plan either, but he was unable to think of a better one. Or a plan that Ruby would be patient enough to wait for. He could already feel a headache coming on.

    Why did I let Qrow talk me out of installing bars on Ruby's window...

    Tai had learned years ago to trust his instincts, because right now, they were warning him that today was going to be a very long day.




    The walk to the cliffs was peaceful for the most part. Ruby dashed around ahead of them with Zwei chasing after her, nipping at her heels. Her peals of laughter filled the air around them. The sight brought a smile to Tai's face.

    "I'm just saying, can't we wait for Uncle Qrow to get back?"

    He sighed as, for the umpteenth time, Yang voiced her displeasure with the coming situation.

    "And I told you to trust that I know what we're doing." Tai briefly glanced upwards. "Besides, Qrow has a habit of showing up when you least expect him to."

    Whatever Yang was going to counter with was cut off as Ruby shouted, "We're here!"

    Thankfully, instead of dashing to the edge like they feared, she kept a fair distance away from it as she waited for them to catch up. When Tai peered over the edge, all he saw was an empty clearing.

    "Doesn't look like he is here."

    "Welp! It looks like this trip was a bust. Time to head back home."

    "Yang!"

    "Come on girls, don't fight," Tai said as he stepped between the two. "Ruby, are you certain he said he will meet with you today?"

    "He did. Ashen said that if he wasn't around it would be because he was clearing out any nearby Grimm, so he should be back soon."

    "Yeah, but how soon?" Yang asked. "We can't be waiting out here all day."

    "I have to agree with Yang. We don't know how long his little Grimm hunt could take."

    "Can we at least wait a bit?"

    Tai sighed. "Fine. I'll give him ten minutes. If he doesn't show up, we're going back home."

    "How about twenty minutes?" Ruby pleaded.

    Tai raised an eyebrow. "Fifteen minutes and not a second more."

    "Okay." Ruby tapped her fingers together as she shuffled in place nervously. "Um... would it be alright if I wait for him down there?"

    "Why can't you wait for him up here?"

    "What if he shows up and leaves again because he thinks I didn't come? He won't know I'm here if he doesn't see me," she argued. Ruby begged with wide eyes and a trembling lower lip. Yang was shaking her head behind her. Tai spared a quick glance to the forest. After a moment of silence, broken only by the cawing of a bird, he let out a resigned sigh.

    "Fine... just be careful. If a Grimm shows up, you call out for me immediately. Understood?"

    "Yep! Thanks, dad." Ruby gave him a brief hug before doing the same with Yang. She called out for Zwei to follow as she headed down.

    Tai walked over to his wife's grave. Yang silently followed behind him. From the displeased look on her face, she obviously didn't agree with his decision. He sat down in front of the headstone. The familiar stonework brought a dull pang to his heart.

    "Ruby continues to be quite the handful," he said. "She takes after you a lot. She really does."




    If it weren't for the steepness of the ramp Ruby was currently on, she would be skipping in joy the entire way down.

    "Wait till you see him, Zwei," Ruby gushed. "He looks like he came straight out of a fairytale."

    Zwei barked in response.

    "Hey, who do you think is stronger, him or Uncle Qrow?"

    Another bark.

    She giggled. "I don't know. I think a drunkle Qrow would have trouble against him. He seems very strong."

    Ruby's laughter cut off as she suddenly froze in place. She didn't register Zwei's confused whine. Her eyes were locked dead ahead at what was supposed to still be an empty log. Ashen was currently sitting on it, facing her... but that was impossible. She was just staring in his direction a moment ago and it was empty.

    Ruby took a step back and Ashen vanished. She blinked once. Twice. Three times before she vigorously rubbed her eyes. Still an empty space. When she stepped forward, he simply faded back into existence. One moment he was gone and the next he was back. It was almost like—

    "Magic," she breathed out. It was just like how he made the wall out of thin air to hide the cave. He knew magic!

    Before she could shout out her joy and excitement, Ashen raised a finger to his helm in the universal sign of silence.

    Ruby clamped her hands over her mouth before she ran up to him. She hopped in place as she squealed unintelligible words behind her hands in her excitement.

    "I believe you need to remove your hands if you wish to have a conversation," he commented, amused. She flushed redder than her cloak as she pulled her hands away. "Is your companion going to join us?"

    Ruby blinked in confusion before she turned around. Zwei was keeping his distance while he whined in concern. She didn't understand why he was acting this way. He was acting as if someone was hurt, but the only people here were her and Ashen.

    "I believe that my presence is what is causing your companion distress."

    Ruby looked at him surprised. "How?"

    "Can you bring him over? I want to be sure before I say anything."

    She nodded and tried to coax Zwei over. It was surprising to her how much he was hesitating. He approached them at a slow pace as he aggressively sniffed the air. Ashen held his hand out toward him. For a long moment Ruby watched in silence as Zwei sniffed Ashen's hand. He suddenly nuzzled his hand as he whined in concern, which confused Ruby as he was acting as if Ashen was hurt, but he seemed fine as far as she could tell.

    "What's going on?" she asked.

    "My scent no doubt has confused him and made him concerned for my well-being," Ashen explained as he rubbed Zwei's head in an effort to calm him. "Do you remember how I mentioned that I have been referred to as Undead?"

    "Yeah."

    "The term is a bit more... literal than you would expect it to be. The best way I can explain it is that I'm rotting and your little friend can smell the scent of death that clings to me."

    "Rotting," Ruby whispered to herself, aghast.

    "When you take repeated, severe injuries to the same location of your body, the flesh can be damaged beyond scaring and 'rots', for lack of a better word. No doubt that— Zwei, was it?" Ruby nodded in confirmation. "No doubt that Zwei here is confused as to why a living man smells like a corpse."

    "That's horrible," Ruby muttered.

    "It is just how things are for me now." Ashen gestured to the trees around them. "You will notice that no animals come near this place now that I am staying here. They smell death; therefore, they all keep their distance from here."

    Ruby frowned before she leaned forward and sniffed him. "You just smell like ash to me. Huh... is that why you are called Ashen?"

    "Do you have a habit of smelling people?" Ruby blinked before she once more flushed a bright crimson. Ashen chuckled as he returned his attention to Zwei. "While I am not too surprised that you didn't come alone today, I was not expecting you to bring someone like Zwei. I have never seen a breed like his before."

    "He's a corgi," she explained. "My dad wanted me to bring him along so it's not just the two of us."

    "And the fact that you father is waiting on top of the cliff?" He smiled under his helm as her eyes widened in surprise. "Calm yourself. I am not upset; in fact, I was expecting something like this to a degree."

    "How-How did you know?"

    "My hearing is sharper than most people's. A necessity when missing the sound of a single pebble shifting can cost you your life. It also helped that neither of you were trying to be quiet."

    "It's... not a problem... is it?"

    "As long as he does not bother us, I have no problem with it—"

    Ruby noticed how Ashen's helmet was following something behind her before jerking upwards. She followed his gaze and saw...

    A crow?

    "—but your uncle is another matter entirely." Ashen rose to his feet. "I need you to stay here. I will come back."

    "Um, okay," Ruby replied meekly. She could feel an intensity coming from Ashen. Did something happen between him and Uncle Qrow? Dad did say that he had a bad habit of picking fights with people. As Ruby watched Ashen walk away, she noticed how silent he was. She couldn't hear a single sound from him and just like earlier, without any warning, he vanished. She mouthed out a silent "wow".

    After a short moment of silence, a small object shot out from between the trees. Ruby looked up in time to see it knock the crow out of the sky with a loud squawk.

    "Birdie, no!" she cried as she watched it plummet to the ground. Ruby ran around with her arms outstretched to catch it and found herself dodging out of the way at the last second as the crow turned into a man. She stared, wide-eyed, at her Uncle Qrow. He let out a low groan of pain as he rubbed his forehead. Her mouth gaped like a fish as she struggled to comprehend what she just witnessed.

    "Qrow! What happened?!" Ruby turned to see her dad running toward them, a faint dust cloud left behind him.

    "I'm fine. I think the bastard hit me with a rock," Qrow growled out as he rose to his feet. There was a faint purple mark growing on his forehead.

    It took Ruby a moment to register what he said before she pointed and shouted, "Bad word!"

    "I'll make sure he puts some lien in the swear jar later," Tai said as he stepped up next to her. "I saw you get knocked out of the air. What happened? Did you see him?"

    "No, I—"

    "Hey!" Yang cried out as she ran up to them. She paused to catch her breath. "You just ditched me! Did something happen? Ruby, are you ok?"

    "Okay, how about everyone calm down first," Qrow said as he waved everyone down. He absent-mindedly rubbed his forehead, already starting to feel a headache coming, and he knew that it was only going to get worse. Ruby waved her hand in the air as she hopped in place, eager to get his attention. "Yeah, Ruby?"

    "You were a bird." She wrapped her arms around herself in a visible effort of restraint.

    Qrow winced. He was not looking forward to explaining that, but fortunately, the unpredictability with Semblances gave him a lot of leeway to work with. With a sigh, he admitted, "Yeah, I was." Ruby's squeal was all the warning he had before she tackled him in a hug.

    "That's amazing! I didn't know you could turn into a bird."

    "Your Semblance lets you turn into a bird?" Yang said in disbelief.

    "Something like that," he responded as he tried to pry Ruby off himself.

    Yang's eyes narrowed as she planted her hands on her hips. "You wouldn't have been using it to harass me during practice?"

    "I would never do such a thing to you. Besides, if you can be distracted by a bird, how can you expect to fight Grimm?"

    Yang growled and opened her mouth to retort, but was cut off when Tai put his hand on her head.

    "You can chew him out later. Do you mind telling us what happened?"

    "Yeah, the bast— the guy knocked me out of the air with a rock." Qrow rubbed the now purple mark on his forehead. "Thing is, as far as I could see, the area was clear of anyone else." He turned to Ruby. "Did you notice anything while you were waiting down here?"

    "Um—"

    "Hold on," Tai cut in. "I thought I heard Ruby talking to someone. Wasn't he already here?"

    "I've been watching her, and the only one I saw her talking to was Zwei."

    Ruby's eyes narrowed. "Uncle Qrow! Were you trying to spy on us?" she accused, finger pointed at his face.

    Qrow was taken aback by how defensive Ruby was acting. A bit too defensive, now that he thought about it. He leaned forward with an eyebrow raised in suspicion, and Ruby slowly wilted under his intense stare.

    "So, it was just you and Zwei? Nobody else?"

    Ruby turned to the rest of her family only to find two sets of the same glare staring back at her. She couldn't even get help from Zwei who was looking around confused by everything happening.

    "Something you want to share with us, Ruby?" Tai asked.

    "So, Ashen was here," she admitted.

    "Here in the clearing?" Qrow cut in.

    "Yeah, he was sitting right there." Ruby pointed to the log next to them. Qrow glanced back and forth between the two.

    "Ruby, there was no one here," he stated gently.

    "He was!" Ruby pouted. "He was waiting here the whole time."

    "When I looked out here earlier, I didn't see anyone. Are you saying he was invisible?" Tai asked.

    "Sort of," she replied. "One moment he wasn't there, and when I got close; poof! There he was."

    "How, though?" Qrow asked. "I couldn't see him, but you're saying you could."

    "Yeah. He told me that he has a lot of tricks."

    "What kind of tricks?"

    "He made a—" Ruby cut herself off as she remembered that she had promised not to talk about that.

    "Don't stop now," Qrow said. "What kind of tricks did he show you?"

    "I, uh, can't say," Ruby meekly replied.

    "What do you mean you can't say?" Yang spoke up.

    "I promised not to tell. It's private."

    "What, a promise to some stranger is more important than your family?"

    "Yang," Tai admonished, "ease up, will you?"

    Ruby trembled in place as she found herself in a moral dilemma. She didn't want to lie to her family, but on the same token, she didn't want to break her promise. Her mom taught her that lying to your family was one of the worst things that you could do. What was she supposed to do? She was trapped between a rock and a hard place. The expectant looks the three were giving her weren't helping either. Feeling overwhelmed, Ruby did the only thing a child her age could do.

    A sniffle broke the silence, causing all three to take a sudden step back. Now, they found themselves standing on a landmine as Ruby's eyes watered and threatened tears.

    "It's okay, Ruby," Tai said gently. "You don't have to tell us if you made a promise not to."

    "Yeah," Qrow added, "Yang didn't mean to push so hard." He ignored the glare sent his way. Zwei walked up to Ruby before pawing at her leg with a low whine. She picked him up and clutched him to her chest like a security blanket.

    "I don't want to break a promise," she muttered.

    "And you don't have to." Tai knelt so he was eye-level with her. "I think we can all agree that today didn't go how any of us wanted, and I don't think your friend is coming back. So, why don't we all just head back home?"

    Ruby nodded with a glum look on her face. Qrow stepped forward and scooped her up into his arms as she still clutched onto Zwei.

    "Come on, squirt, don't make a face like that. I'm sorry that we scared your new friend away. We just wanted to keep an eye on you to make sure you were safe."

    Ruby nodded in understanding. Despite today not going how she wanted, she couldn't be upset at them. She just hoped they hadn't chased Ashen off that she would no longer be able to see him.

    Qrow decided to carry Ruby the rest of the way home. He wasn't too fond of the smug look Zwei was constantly giving him, but there was nothing he could as Ruby was holding onto him like a stuffed animal. It was a habit she picked up after they first got him—an obvious sign of how fragile she still was despite her upbeat nature.

    Qrow had to suppress a laugh. They were all still messed up after Summer's passing. He could make out bags under Tai's eyes from lack of sleep. And he wasn't thrilled with his plan to spy on Ruby and Ashen—seriously, who calls themselves Ashen—but Qrow was confident that he could have stepped in before anything serious happened. How was he supposed to know he had some way to become invisible?

    He glanced toward Yang. She was the one least affected by today's events. In fact, she was almost happy that things didn't work out for Ruby. Qrow felt torn over what to feel. On the one hand, he was glad to see Yang protective of her sister, but on the other hand, it was heartbreaking to see how she was forcing herself to grow up faster and a bit concerning how overprotective she can get over Ruby.

    Don't forget you're still a kid.

    "Uncle Qrow," Ruby piped up, cutting into his thoughts.

    "Yeah, what can I do for you?"

    "Is it made out of gold?"

    Qrow blinked, confused. "Is what made of gold?"

    "My coin. You said you would get it checked," she whined.

    "Oh, um, about that..." Qrow looked to Tai for help, who took a step back as a ghost of a smile twitched on his face. Bastard. His silence dragged on a moment too long as Ruby came to a conclusion.

    "Uncle Qrow, you promised."

    Qrow sighed as he realized that he now had to actually get the coin appraised by someone and get proof that he did so.

    There goes the rest of my day.




    Tai couldn't help but wonder what exactly had been his plan when he set out this morning. He had been standing on the cliff overlooking the clearing for nearly half an hour now and still could not spot a single trace of... Ashen. Then again, what should he have expected considering that the man can apparently turn himself selectively invisible.

    He was hoping that maybe he could spot the rustling of bushes or footprints appearing in the dirt, but there was nothing. It was eerily silent, with the occasional gust of wind. After the first few minutes, Tai noticed how dead quiet it was around here. The sounds of wildlife were completely absent—not even the presence Grimm would drive them away. Yet, it felt like they were avoiding this place.

    Tai knew that Qrow would have some choice words for him when he got back. Call it a hunch, but he was certain that he would never be able to find this man if he had Qrow with him. He apparently had no issue with him and Yang staying nearby, but drew the line when Qrow showed up.

    More and more, Tai found himself becoming concerned over who the hell this person was. He let out a sigh as he rubbed the back of his head. It would be easier to go search for Raven. That was a person who could also turn into a bird, and on top of that, able to sense his location and portal away. Tai thought back to the conversation he had last night with Qrow and the information that brought him out here.




    The two sat facing each other in the living room. In the background they could hear Yang badgering Ruby over her coin. Tai didn't hear any sounds of collateral damage yet so he was willing to leave them bee for the moment. He still found it hard to believe that the coin Ruby received was not only real, but was carved out of solid gold. Carved, not minted.

    "Okay. So, what else did you find out from that coin that you wanted to share with me?" Tai asked.

    Qrow took a swig from his flask before slumping in his seat. "The damn thing's a piece of history."

    "I would think that was obvious considering it is made out of solid gold."

    "I'm not talking about our known history; I'm talking about Remnant's pre-history."

    Tai felt a lump form in his throat. "Are you sure about that?"

    "Positive. The jeweler I went to made a few calls that eventually got us in touch with an archeologist, a Mr. Oobleck, who was able to confirm that they had just recently discovered a new site of an old kingdom. They apparently used a language that he believes originates from what's on the back of the coin. If you want to find relics that are older than what's been discovered then there is only one place you can go."

    "No man's land," Tai whispered. There was not a single veteran Huntsman in the world who didn't know about the pockets of no man's land that dotted Remnant. In all his years working as a Huntsman and for Ozpin, Tai had never set foot in no man's land. It would be suicide for him to even try. No man's land was the deepest pocket of Grimm territory with the highest concentration of Grimm. It's suspected that there may even be undiscovered breeds of Grimm living there. A full veteran team would be lucky to last half a day.

    "I can think of only two ways for someone to get their hands on an artifact from a place like that." Qrow paused as he took another sip from his flask. "I even called Ozpin to ask for his opinion."

    "And what did he say?" Tai leaned forward. "How much of a threat does he think we are dealing with?"

    "That's just it, Oz doesn't think that this guy is related... and, well, I have to agree with him."

    Tai had to restrain himself from jumping from his chair. "How can you agree with that? This guy has been stalking us for who knows how long, and he apparently knows about your little secret as well. How is he not suspicious to either of you? And I'm supposed to trust Ruby to be alone with this guy? Who knows what he might do to her!"

    "Tai, calm down."

    "Don't tell me—" Tai cut himself off with a wince as he realized how loud he had been raising his voice. Luckily, it seemed that the girls had not noticed, and now, he could hear that Zwei had gotten involved. He was not looking forward to cleaning up whatever mess they left behind.

    "Mind explaining to me why you and Ozpin don't think this guy is a threat?" he asked with a sigh as he slumped back in his seat.

    "Hey now, I didn't say he wasn't a threat, only that me and Oz don't think he is related to her," Qrow explained. "Oz told me that the last time he heard of any knights walking around was during the years after the Great War, when the academies were first founded. Now and days most don't bother with heavy armor and Oz hasn't heard of anyone who matches our guy's description. The only huntsman who comes close is Winchester, and he's currently in Vale."

    Qrow paused to take another slip from his flask as Ruby and Yang ran up the stairs behind him with Zwei hot on their heels. Tai shot them an annoyed look, before returning his attention to Qrow and motioning for him to continue.

    "If this guy is working for her, then he would have to be a new addition. Considering all the time he had to make a move against us—I mean, what would be the point of waiting till now to do something? It would be way too obscure to be a part of some plot of his."

    As much as Tai didn't want to, he had to agree with Qrow. If he was one of her minions, one of Salem's, then he had plenty of time to ambush him or Qrow, or even kidnap Ruby to use as leverage against them. His actions were too contradictory if he was an enemy.

    "So, if he isn't working with her, then how did he get the coin?"

    Qrow sighed as he rubbed his forehead. "Now this is what I think may be more likely, but if I were honest, I would rather that he be one of her pawns; I think the guy grabbed the artifact himself."

    Tai blinked in surprise before he laughed in disbelief. "You're kidding, right?"

    "I wish I was. If he was a pawn, then he would be something we could handle—but this is something else entirely. We are most likely dealing with a guy who went into no man's land, found some treasure, and did the impossible—he came back."

    "Qrow, do you understand how crazy what you're saying is?"

    "I know. Look, nothing about that coin is absolute. Maybe it's a really good fake, trying to gain some extra value with the history nuts. I could be completely off and this guy may not be that big of a deal. The problem is that my gut's telling me that I'm not wrong. This is a guy I would not feel comfortable facing head-on in a fight, even if it would be two on one."

    "What do you think our odds are if we have to fight him?"

    Qrow downed the last of his flask's contents before answering. "I would want Ozpin with us before I even think about trying to face that guy. We may be some of the best Huntsmen of our generation—definite top ten percent, for sure—but this is a guy who survived no man's land. If he proves dangerous and we have to fight him to protect Ruby, then it would be best if we go into this thinking that we are not going to win."

    "You think our odds are that bad?"

    "I don't think they're unwinnable. We've been in some pretty crazy situations ourselves, so I believe we could pull something off.Just... expect it to be our most difficult fight yet."




    "You know, you could pass for a fine gargoyle," an unfamiliar voice called out.

    Tai jerked in surprise as he was yanked from his thoughts. He quickly scanned the area for the source of the voice, but the clearing was still empty, and he couldn't see anyone peeking out from the tree line.

    "Don't bother searching. Your eyes will never find me. You will have to settle with conversing in this manner."

    Tai frowned at that, but he would accept it, considering he made more progress than he thought he would.

    "Who are you?" he asked.

    "I believe your daughter, Ruby, has already told you about me, but for the sake of being polite, I am Ashen. Now, may I have the honor of knowing who I am speaking to?"

    "Tai Xiao Long," he responded with a raised eyebrow. The man must really enjoy acting in character, because he had never heard anyone speak in such a formal, archaic manner outside of period dramas.

    "Interesting. I assume you gave your daughter your wife's last name."

    "Yes. In fact, my daughter is the reason I'm out here." For sure, the voice was coming from below, inside the clearing. As tempting as it was to jump down to better confront him, Tai restrained himself. If this went sideways, then he would be unable to properly defend himself. Whatever Ashen was using to hide himself was flawless as far as he could tell.

    "Concerned for her safety, are you?" Ashen chuckled. "Fear not, my intentions toward her are benign."

    "Do expect me to take your word on it and trust you?"

    "Unfortunately, my word is all I have to give."

    "Yeah. Well, it's not enough," Tai growled. "I don't know who you are or what you want—you're suspicious. The fact that you are hiding yourself isn't helping your case." Maybe he was being a bit too aggressive, but there was no way he was going to risk either of his girls' safety.

    "Is your family not the same?" Ashen countered back.

    "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Tai uncrossed his arms and moved to the very edge of the cliff.

    "I've seen the way you and your brother move. You two are experienced fighters."

    "And what does that have to do with anything?"

    "Normally, nothing... were it not for your brother."

    "Qrow?" Did this guy know him? Now, Tai had to consider if maybe this wasn't someone with a vendetta against Ozpin, but rather Qrow. He had made his fair share of enemies while working for Ozpin.

    "I have seen his ilk before. His eyes are what gave him away."

    "What are you talking about?" Tai asked.

    "I have kept the company of a variety of individuals. Some of them, thieves and cutthroats along with other less... savory individuals. Some of these men bore the eyes of individuals born into the shadows of civilization. Your brother, Qrow, bears a look similar to theirs; a look I often find more associated with spies and assassins. Men who were not born in the underbelly, but spend their lives working in it."

    Tai couldn't help but tense up. If this guy didn't know who Qrow was, but was able to tell what kind of work he did from a glance, then that definitely said a lot about him as well.

    "Relax. I have no intention of fighting you as long you do not draw on me."

    Easier said than done. "What do you want?" Tai demanded.

    "Peace."

    Out of all the possible reasons he could have received, Tai was not expecting that one. "Peace?"

    Ashen sighed loudly. It reminded him of Ozpin during those rare moments when he allowed his façade to drop.

    "I have been alive for far too long. I am done fighting for petty causes and sacred duties. It is why I take issue with your brother—men like him rarely act by themselves. It is almost always at the behest of someone in a high station, and I have no intention of being dragged into the mechanisms of another. I have fought enough. I have done enough." Ashen broke out in hysterical laughter. "Is it too much to ask for? I simply want to watch over the final resting place of my comrades and stare at the clouds in the sky. If I could do that till the end of my days... I think I would be content with that."

    Now, Tai was beginning to understand what Ruby meant when she said he was broken. If Qrow was here, he would probably claim that Ashen was acting, but Tai wasn't so sure about that. He didn't think it was possible for a person to fake this level of exhaustion and despair. It was to the point where he could tell that Ashen has all but given up on life. He himself had been there multiple times already. If he was honest with himself, if something had happened to Yang or Ruby when Yang took the two of them out to look for Raven, he can't say that he would still be here.

    "What about Ruby?" All the hostility was now gone from Tai's voice as he took a step back from the edge.

    "I saved her life, so she sees me as her hero. She will be enamored with me for a time, before eventually moving on with her life. After some time, I would simply become that one hermit who lives in the forest to her." Ashen paused for breath. He drew his sword and planted it in the ground. While the motion was invisible to Tai, the sound of steel and the newly formed indent in the ground was enough for him to understand what he had done. "I swear to you, during the time she is under my watch, I will not allow any harm to befall her. You have my word."

    "And how do I know you will keep it?" He questioned weakly.

    "My word is the only thing left I can lay claim to—I do not intend on losing that as well. I can tell you this with absolute certainty; I have never once abandoned a child to harm. Your daughter will be safe with me."

    The level of conviction in his voice reminded Tai of village defenders, those who would stay behind to buy time for evacuations from the Grimm. Now, he no longer saw some lurking threat that would take his girls from him, but rather, he found exactly what Ruby said he would. A broken, exhausted huntsman who just wanted to hide away from the world. It reminded him of a certain someone from a fairy-tale.

    "Alright," he said with a sigh of resignation. "I'll hold you to your word."

    "You're putting your trust in a complete stranger. You may never know what that means to... someone like me. I thank you."

    "Yeah, don't make me regret it." Tai said as he turned around to leave. He called out over his shoulder. "For the record, Qrow is my brother-in-law."

    At least now, he felt like he had taken a large weight off his shoulders. Now, he had two conversations waiting for him when he gets home, and knowing Qrow's luck, he was probably going to have to deal with the difficult one first.




    Ruby was ecstatic. She got the all clear from her dad yesterday, so she doesn't have to worry about another incident like Monday happening ever again. Uncle Qrow wasn't too thrilled about it, but she was certain that he would come around eventually. Even Yang calmed down a bit after a talk with her dad. Now, she and Zwei had the whole day to spend with Ashen. Okay, maybe not the whole day, but she still had a couple hours before her dad came to pick her up.

    Just like before Ashen "appeared" on the log. With a squeal, she took a seat next to him. This time, it seemed Zwei had no problem approaching him. She picked him up so she could plop him right between them.
    "Morning," she greeted with a sunny smile on her face.

    "Good morning. I see someone is excited," Ashen responded as he stroked Zwei.

    Ruby rubbed the back of her head, chagrined. She pulled out her Scroll to show him.

    "So, I forgot that my Scroll has a map in it, but at least I can guarantee that it's up-to-date." It took Ruby a moment to activate her Scroll's projector mode, making it display a map of Remnant on the ground. From the way Ashen tilted his head, she was sure he had never seen anything like this before either. "So... where do you want to start?"
     
  12. Index: Chapter 7: Teacher and Student
    GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    Chapter 7: Teacher and Student
    Ruby was nervous. She tightly clutched the book she brought with her to her chest. Today would be her third day with Ashen. It also happens to be the first day she would truly be alone; there would be no Zwei today or Dad hanging around nearby at the top of the cliff or Yang sparring with him in the clearing leading up to the cliffs.

    She took a deep breath to calm herself. It wasn't the idea of being alone that had her on edge; it was what she was planning on proposing to Ashen today that did. They had finished going over her map of Remnant yesterday. While she wasn't able to tell him much about Atlas or Mistral, she had a lot she was able to tell him about Vale and Vacuo. She did have to admit that a lot of her information on Vacuo was from stories Uncle Qrow told her, but she trusted them.

    Now that they had finished with that, it left them with not much else to talk about. She was certain that Ashen had plenty of stories to tell, but he didn't seem to be in a sharing mood. Ruby spent all night racking her brain for an idea. It was only when she nearly tripped on one of her old books did inspiration strike her.

    As usual, Ashen appeared out of thin air as he sat, waiting for her. He hasn't told her how he was doing it, but she was certain that, after she gained enough of his trust, he would. Maybe he might even show her how to do it herself. She greeted him with a wave and a smile.

    "Morning."

    "Good morning to you, as well," he replied as she took her seat next to him. "I see that Zwei has not accompanied you today."

    Technically, he was supposed to, but she didn't want to wake him from his nap, and her dad and sister were out grocery shopping.

    "He's getting some rest, so it's just the two of us today."

    Ashen nodded before he gestured to the book in her arms. "What did you bring with you?"

    Ruby's face flushed red as she pulled the book from her chest to display the cover to him. It was an old bright, pink A-B-C book. She still kept it around, after all these years, because the drawings in it were too cute for her to get rid of it.

    "Looks colorful," he commented. She could barely make out a tinge of amusement in his voice, which did nothing to help with the burning sensation growing on her face.

    "I brought it for you," she stated.

    "A gift? I appreciate the thought, but unfortunately, as you should already know, I can not read your language."

    "That's why I brought it. This is a book that's supposed to teach you to read. I thought it could help you."

    "You want to teach me how to read?" Ashen asked, surprised.

    "Y-Yeah," Ruby stuttered. Her face was now glowing. Here she was, a child, offering to teach him, an adult, how to read. "You couldn't read the map I brought, and it made me think about what you would do if you didn't have someone around to help you."

    Ashen stayed quiet. Ruby wished he would take off his helmet—it would be easier to know what he was thinking if she could see his face. She hoped that she hadn't offended him.

    "So, you wish to become my teacher? Very well. It will not be the first time that I served as a student, but it will be the first time that I have been taught by someone so much more… smaller than me."

    "Hey!" Ruby cried in indignation. She crossed her arms in a pout, causing Ashen to chuckle.

    "It was only a jest. Now, how do you want to begin?"

    Ruby had Ashen start off by going over the basic alphabet. At some point, he picked up a stick that he would use to write down letters in the dirt. She made a mental note to herself to bring a pencil and some paper for him. Thankfully, all the words in the book were basic. It wasn't that she thought he was stupid, he was in fact very sharp and was adapting quickly. She was just concerned over what she would do when they got to more complex words and how she would explain them to him. When they hit the word "car", the best description she was able to come up with for him was a wagon that drove itself.

    For now, Ruby was enjoying the time she had to bond with him. She even learned a bit more about him from some absent-minded comments he made. From what she could understand, he had a lot of teachers that trained and taught him throughout the years. One of them appeared to have been a traveling scholar who researched the soul. Considering how amazing Aura was, she wasn't surprised. She wanted to ask questions, but restrained herself. The last thing she wanted to do was cause him to withdraw into himself. It was something she learned from watching Uncle Qrow help her dad.

    Before she knew it, the alarm on her Scroll was going off, causing Ashen to jerk in surprise. Ruby silenced it with a frown. Time always seemed to move far too quickly when she didn't want it to.

    "I assume it is time for you to go home," Ashen commented. She nodded. "Then we will have to continue tomorrow. Do you think you could bring another book with you? Perhaps something more… complex?"

    "Sure," Ruby responded with a faint blush of embarrassment dusting her cheeks. "I'll ask my dad if he knows any good ones that could help us. He is a teacher, after all."

    "Your father is a scholar?"

    "What? No, he's a teacher at Signal. It's a prep-school that people go through if they want to attend a combat academy like Beacon," she explained.

    "I see. I guess it would be safe to say that you intend to join this Beacon Academy."

    "Yep. My parents and uncle all graduated from there. It's supposed to be the best academy in all of Remnant. Me and my sister are both planning to go there as well."

    "Has your father done anything to prepare you for your chosen path?" Ashen asked.

    "Not yet," she replied. "He said he'll start training me in a few years like he's started doing with Yang."

    "Usually, if a person intends to train a new warrior, they would start the individual off as young as possible," Ashen explained. "It takes time to properly train a person up to standard. Years of harsh training to build the body up to a warrior's physic and to engrave the muscle memory of various combat techniques."

    "Is that what you went through?" Ruby asked.

    Ashen snorted. "I went through a baptism by fire."

    "What do you mean?"

    "While I may no longer remember my childhood, I still have a few memories of my youth. From what I can still piece together, my home was a village on the edge of the kingdom. Most of us were farmers that spent our days toiling the fields to provide for ourselves. We had a craftsman, a blacksmith I remember fighting with. There were walls built to protect us with a small contingent of guards. It would not be enough, however." Ashen chuckled. "I did not want to spend my life farming the same patch of land; I wished to travel and lead a life of adventure. I got my wish."

    Ashen hung his head and went silent. Ruby reached over and slipped her hand into his. He gave it a gentle squeeze. After taking a deep breath, he continued.

    "Death was overtaking the land. Villages were falling left and right. Suddenly, the defenses we had were not enough to protect us. It was decided that every able bodied man would be trained to fight. I was more than twice your age when a blade was first put in my hand. I was trained for half a year. Half a year before I received my first taste of combat."

    "Was it the Grimm?"

    "Worse. It was marauders. My village was attacked—not by beasts—but by our fellow man. It was the first time I had ever seen a man die. It also became the first time I had killed a man… I killed two that day. I believe nothing but dumb luck and the favor of the gods saw me through that day. We lost many. For those of us left, our training had come to an end. We had to man the walls with the little experience we had earned to fill the vacant posts. I had to learn everything else through trial and error. Every mistake was paid for in scars, failures… and comrades lost." Ashen released a wistful sigh as old faces flashed through his mind. "I will defer to your father's experience and trust that he knows what he is doing, but do not let your time be wasted. Time is valuable, but also fleeting. The more time you have to train, the more prepared you will be to face hardship."

    "I will be," Ruby whispered. She leaned over and gave him a hug. It felt like he needed one. "Does-Does it hurt… remembering everything?" she asked.

    "I wish it did. So many memories have become so faded that I no longer feel a thing. Some memories are nothing but sensations. Despite it all, I will continue to endure. Do not waste your concern on me. I have made it this far and will continue to live on." He patted Ruby on her shoulder. "You should run along now, before your father grows concerned. I will see you tomorrow."

    "Okay," Ruby responded as she gathered her things. "I'll bring something to write with tomorrow. Stay safe."

    The trek back was quiet. It gave Ruby a lot of time to think. An unpleasant feeling churned in her guts as she thought over what she had learned. She couldn't imagine what it must have been like to have to face the Grimm with no training. Even worse was how bad guys attacked his home. Why did they still have to deal with bad guys, even though they already had enough trouble fighting the Grimm? It wasn't fair.

    She wondered if Ashen blamed himself for what had happened. There had to be something more she could do to help him. Ruby stopped walking as she gazed through the tree branches at the clouds. There was only so much she had to do to help him read. All he really had to do was memorize the characters and the spelling of words. Considering how sharp he was, it didn't seem like that would prove to be much of a problem for him. There had to be something else she could do for him.

    Ruby glanced down at the book in her arms. What else could she help him with? As she stared at the letters on the cover, her mind drifted back to when Ashen showed her the strange characters carved into his knife. Perhaps she didn't have to teach him something. Maybe he could teach her. He did mention that the language was almost forgotten. She could help make it less... forgotten.

    Ruby nodded, impressed with herself. After she was done teaching him her alphabet, he could teach her his. It was a brilliant idea and would increase the time they got to spend together. She still hadn't forgotten what Ashen had said about eventually leaving, so she needed to stretch out their time together to delay that from happening for as long as possible. This was just a single step toward helping him. Every hero deserves a happy ending, and she was going to do everything she could so that, eventually, Ashen would get his. It was as her dad and Uncle Qrow would say; "Take it one step at a time."




    The next day went by without a hitch. Her dad had given her a dictionary and one of his lesson books to borrow that he used for his youngest students. She had even brought a notebook for him to write in. Ruby, unfortunately, didn't learn anything new about Ashen. He kept their discussions focused on the material they were covering, no doubt, in an effort to avoid sharing anything else about himself. While she did wish that she could have learned more about him, she was not going to push. She did notice though how he swapped out his gauntlets for a pair of leather gloves. It was curious why he didn't just write with his bare hands, but she decided not to question him over it. At the end of their second session, she decided to leave the dictionary with him so he could practice on his own.

    It was on the third day that Ruby had decided that she would ask Ashen to teach her his forgotten language. There wasn't much for her to teach him. All it really came down to for him was to memorize the spelling of words. She could help explain certain things that he probably never had encountered, but not much else. Ruby couldn't help but groan out loud when she remembered that school would be starting for her in a few weeks. Why couldn't summer be longer?

    She came to a surprised stop when Ashen didn't appear in his usual spot. There were two books sitting there instead. One was the dictionary she gave him while the other was an unfamiliar, dusty-looking, leather bound tome. Her curiosity drove her to take a peek inside. To her lack of surprise, she was unable to read anything that was written inside. Ruby was surprised to notice that certain letters were the same while the majority looked completely foreign. The longer she stared at the pages, the more she couldn't help but feel off. There was something about the characters that were giving her a tingling feeling. They felt special, somehow.

    Ruby shook her head before closing the book. She glanced around, but couldn't find any trace of Ashen, which begged the question—where did he go? She doubted that he left the books sitting out here all night ,so he must have been here until recently. As if to answer her question, a howl pierced the silence around her. It was joined by a few more. There was no mistaking the howl of a Beowolf as Ruby took an unconscious step back away from the noise. The howling was quickly answered with an explosion. It was soon followed by a few more, black smoke snaking away above the treeline.

    Ruby swallowed as butterflies danced in her stomach. There was no doubt in her mind that Ashen was the one currently fighting that Grimm pack. The smart choice would be for her to wait here until he finished. The safest choice would be for her to return home. Despite how obvious it was what her dad would have her do, she really wanted to see him fight.

    She was not running toward danger. This was simply a fast and cautious jog. Ruby darted between the trees with her head on a swivel. The last thing she wanted was to run into a Grimm by mistake.

    As the sounds of battle grew louder, Ruby slowed her pace. It proved fortunate as an Ursa plowed through the trees next to her, causing her to jump in fright. Its body was folded over in half from the force as black wisps of smoke poured from its body. Ruby peeked her head out and her eyes widened in amazement.

    Standing in the middle of this newly formed clearing was Ashen. She could still make out flickering flames licking the scorched ground at various spots. There were charred trees that had been cut down and the occasional stump. At least a dozen Grimm corpses were scattered around in various states of dismemberment. The remaining Grimm, a few remaining Beowolves, circled around Ashen. Despite being surrounded, he stood tall in the midst of the carnage. Shield in one hand, sword in the other and cape billowing out behind him.

    Ruby's breath escaped her as she stared in awe. No book or movie will ever be able to capture the sheer presence of this moment. She watched as the Grimm rushed Ashen in a last ditch effort to overwhelm him with their remaining numbers.

    Ruby gasped as a Beowolf lunged at him. Ashen sidestepped it as his sword struck out, splitting the beast into two. Another lashed out at him with claws extended. He simply raised his shield to block the blow. She could hear the sound of claws and bones shattering as the Beowolf's arm impacted against the shield. Ashen's arm, however, did not budge a single inch. The Grimm stumbled back, howling in pain, when its screams were abruptly cut off as Ashen decapitated it.

    The rest of the fight carried on with much of the same brutality. Any Grimm that dared approach him were cut down with no hesitation or remorse. At one point, he intercepted a Beowolf's jaws with his forearm. Ruby could see its teeth shatter on Ashen's armor. He retaliated with his shield, swinging it down and caving the creature's skull in. She squealed in excitement.

    Watching Ashen reminded her of a movie she saw not too long ago. There was a scene where the hero and his companions had to face off against a giant of a man. Even against their combined might, the giant was able to shrug off their blows and strike back twice as hard. It felt like a reenactment of the same scene, only this time, the positions were reversed. Unfortunately for the Grimm, it did not look like they would receive any last minute support to turn the tide.

    Ashen had already cut down half of the remaining Grimm and he did not show any signs of tiring. She had yet to see him take more than a single swing to cut down any of the Grimm. It was when Ashen was dealing with a last few Beowolves that Ruby noticed a black ball spinning on the ground and approaching from the trees behind him. She gasped. The last minute support! Ruby stepped out from tree she was hiding behind to warn him.
    "Look out!" she shouted just as Ashen slew the last Beowolf. He turned toward her in surprise, leaving his back exposed. Realizing his mistake, Ashen planted a foot forward, bracing himself. There was a loud crash as the sphere impacted, the noise punctuated by a piercing squeal. Despite the force of the impact, Ashen was able to keep his footing. As far as Ruby could tell, it barely budged him.

    Now that the sphere had stopped moving, she could see that it was a boar-like Grimm. Its tusks and small amount of bone plating lay shattered around its dissolving corpse. Her dad had mentioned this type of Grimm before, but for the life of her, she could not remember its name.

    "Ruby." She jumped when she heard Ashen address her. She didn't need to see his face to know that he was not happy to see her here. The way he slammed his sword back into its sheath erased any doubt that he wasn't. "What are you doing here?"

    Ruby gulped. She recognized the tone he had used. It was the same tone her dad used when he caught her doing something she wasn't supposed to, like taking extra cookies from the cookie jar.

    "I— Uh... I heard all the noise and wanted to see what was going on." She shifted nervously as he approached. Ashen glanced at the bowled over trees behind her.

    "So, you thought to endanger yourself again," he said. She winced in response. "You're fortunate I did not hit you when I threw that beast your way."

    Ruby chuckled nervously as she rubbed the back of her head. "But you didn't. And you killed all of the Grimm, so it's all fine now."

    Ashen sighed in frustration. "That is no excuse for your actions. Do so again and I will consider our relationship over. Have I made myself clear?" Ruby nodded. Ashen waved her along as walked past her. "Good. Let us return, lest we attract more of these creatures."

    Despite her scolding, Ruby struggled to keep the spring out of her step. Just thinking about the fight made her want to squeal in excitement. She thought her uncle was strong, but after seeing Ashen fight, she was now pretty sure that Ashen was the stronger one. The way that he wouldn't be budged, even by that boar-like Grimm—got to ask dad what the name for them was again—was more amazing and cooler than Uncle Qrow, even on his best day.

    Once more, the two took their usual seats next to each other. Ashen picked up a black feather that Ruby had missed the first time around. It was only when Ashen pulled out a small bottle filled with what looked like ink that she realized what it was for. She didn't think anyone still used feathers— right... Badlands. How could she have forgotten to leave the pen with him? Ruby barely managed to restrain herself from face-palming as she mentally groaned.

    "Before we begin, there is something I need to bring to your attention," Ashen spoke up.

    "What is it?" she asked. From his tone it sounded important.

    "Your uncle, he is still searching for me," he responded. "If possible, I would like you to speak with him and ask him to cease his attempts."

    "Why?" Ruby was confused. Was this why Uncle Qrow was still against all of this? "Is there a reason why you can't talk to him like you did with my dad?"

    "It is not my place to say what it is that he does, just know that I am familiar with his line of work. It is the kind that can get me involved in a mess of things that I would rather avoid. I have also overheard him using that… Scroll of his to speak to the one that employs him. They are interested in my secrets and I need not tell you how I feel about divulging any of them."

    She nodded. She had not forgotten her promise to him.

    "You're not going to fight him, are you?" Ruby asked, hesitantly.

    "Only if he attacks me. I would rather it does not come to that, and it is why I am asking you to speak with him. Should things continue as is, we may eventually come to blows, and I can not be held responsible for the outcome."

    "I will." Ruby hesitated before asking. "Can you promise that you won't start a fight with him? I know that he can be very difficult to get along with. My dad says so all the time."

    Ashen chuckled. "Very well. I swear on my name that even should your uncle draw his blade against me, as long he does not strike me, I will not engage him in combat."

    "Thank you." Ruby gave him the most sincere smile she could muster. Ashen ruffled her hair and Ruby couldn't help but bask in the heat that radiated from it as it soaked into her skull.

    It was something that she had become more aware of over her last few encounters with him. Despite the fact that he was completely covered in armor, she was able to feel a warmth—she did not know how else to describe it—emanating through his armor. It was unlike anything she had ever felt and made her feel… complete. The sensation was so similar to what she felt that night weeks ago when she woke up. The only missing facet was that feeling of motherly love that enveloped her at the beginning.

    She could feel the warmth erase any tiredness from her body wherever it seeped through and left her feeling refreshed and relaxed. Her aura tingled in a way she could only describe as good. While Ruby wished she could feel that same sensation that was so similar to one of her mother's hugs, she was happy with this. She mewed in disappointment when she felt Ashen pull his hand away.

    "Are you enjoying yourself?" Ruby jumped in surprise at the sound of his voice and blinked rapidly. She hadn't even realized that she had closed her eyes. "You were smiling. Is there something you want to tell me?" Ashen teased.

    Ruby flushed a deep scarlet in embarrassment as she babbled gibberish in an attempt to come up with an excuse. Ashen chuckled as he handed her the dictionary, giving her an escape from her predicament.

    "Are you ready to continue our lessons?" Ruby nodded vigorously in response as she hid her still flushed cheeks behind her book. He opened up the journal he had been writing in previously before the Grimm had interrupted. "Good. There were a few words that I had come across that caught my interest, and I was hoping you could better explain to me what they are. Let us with this one; electricity, if I am pronouncing it correctly. What is it exactly?"

    "Oh-um, that's a bit tricky to explain," Ruby responded. She rocked her head back and forth as she tried to come up with a good description for him. "So, basically…"

    They continued like that for the next hour or so. Ruby did her best to answer any of his questions and describe things to the best of her ability. Unfortunately, there were some words that she was absolutely clueless about herself. He was not put off by her lack of knowledge on more advanced things, but it still stung her pride. If only she were older and knew more. One thing she did realize while speaking with him was how much she took her current life for granted.

    It was only through her conversations with him that she was truly beginning to understand just how far behind the Badlands were when it came to technology. She couldn't imagine life without electricity, TV, video games, or cookies. He barely seemed to know what Dust was. Admittedly she barely did herself, but still; Dust was one of the strongest weapons that a Huntsman could wield against the Grimm. The fact that he went most of his life barely relying on it said a lot about how strong he was. No doubt, what she saw earlier was a fraction of his full strength.

    Eventually, their conversation trailed off until there was only the scratching of Ashen's quill in his journal. Ruby couldn't help but stare as he wrote. Under every sentence he wrote down so far was a copy rewritten in his native language. As much as she wanted to ask him about it, she did not want to interrupt him.
    "Something on your mind?"

    Ruby jumped with a small "eep". He really had to stop scaring her like that.

    Ashen chuckled. "You look like you want to ask something. Well, go ahead. I do not mind."

    "O-Oh, okay. I was… I was wondering if you would teach me how to write in your language?"

    "Oh? What brought this on?" he asked with a noticeable tone of curiosity.

    "I remembered that you said that your language is mostly forgotten, and I thought to myself that if I learn it then it will be less forgotten. That and… " Ruby trailed off as she fidget nervously in place.

    "Go on, do not be shy. I am not here to judge you."

    "I feel funny when I look at it," Ruby admitted. Ashen straightened up.

    "Can you explain that for me?" he asked.

    "I'm not sure how. When I took a peek in your journal earlier, I felt funny. It doesn't feel bad, but I can't say that it's good either. It feels…"

    "Right," Ashen supplied.

    Ruby nodded. "Yeah. Why though?"

    Ashen paused to consider the question. He knew from his discussions with Ruby that most, if not all knowledge pre-dating the Age of Dark, was lost. It was to be expected of course, but even through the many cycles, the fall of kingdoms and the loss of knowledge with them, there have always been whispers that survived it all and continued to be passed down through the ages. His next question would confirm, to a degree, if any knowledge had survived to this age. Ashen found that a part of himself did not want to know.

    "What do you know of the gods?"

    Ruby blinked in surprise at the perceived change in topic.

    "Do you mean the Two Brothers? My mom told me the story once, but I don't really remember it. Is the story important?"

    Ashen took a moment to absorb the information before continuing, "Have you ever heard the tale of Lord Gwyn?"

    "Who?"

    He leaned back and took a deep breath. If the tales of the gods did not endure, what chance was there for anything else. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Ruby glancing around nervously, no doubt worried that she had upset him somehow.

    "My village practiced a more… obscure religion," Ashen said as he flipped to earlier pages in his journal before handing it to Ruby. "It taught that it was the gods who gifted us humans with language. They shared with us their sacred language to aide and raise us and we in turn had praised and revered them."

    Ruby stared at the pages in front of her, a faint glimmer in her silver eyes as she soaked in the ancient and sacred writings of Anor Londo.

    "Do you feel it?" Ruby nodded. "There is power in those words. You may not understand a single word that is written, but regardless, you can feel the divine energy that resides in those characters."

    Ashen drew another coin from one of his pouches. Unlike the one he gave her, this one was made of silver. He flipped it over and set it on the journal. Just like the one he gave her, there was writing imprinted on the back. Ruby glanced between the coin and the writings in the journal as she realized that the characters were the same.

    "It was common practice where I am from to engrave words of prayer on the back of our currency. Small words of faith to boaster our spirit. This way we would always carry a piece of the gods' blessings with us."

    "It's the same," Ruby commented as she picked up the coin and held it up in the air. "I didn't really pay attention before, but I feel the same as when I looked at the one you gave me. It's weaker than the book, but I can still feel something."

    "Interesting," Ashen muttered. "It seems that there may be more to you than what appears at first glance."

    "What do you mean?" she asked as she returned his coin.

    "Only those of devout faith can sense the strength in the small phrases, while most others are unable to sense anything," he explained. "For the few exceptions who do, it is weak enough that it can be mistakenly passed off as some other sensation."

    "But what does that mean for me?"

    "I could not tell you," Ashen admitted. "It could simply be that the gods favor you, or it could be something unique to yourself. In the end, do not concern yourself over old faiths are all, but gone now, so it is unlikely you will ever encounter these sensations outside of interactions with me."

    Ruby frowned as she crossed her arms. She hated it when he brushed away his losses like they were nothing. It's okay to be sad.

    "Are you sure you want to learn the sacred text?" he asked, cutting into her thoughts. "I do not believe they will serve you in any purpose, and you have already spent quite a bit of time here helping me."

    She nodded. "I do. Don't you want to protect it so it doesn't end up lost forever? If you teach me, then you can rest easy because no matter what happens, you'll know at least one person hasn't forgotten it."

    Though she could not see it, Ashen was smiling at her beneath his helm. "You never cease to amaze me with how compassionate you are." He glanced upwards. "It is getting late. Any lessons will have to wait until another day."

    Ruby glanced up as well and saw that the sky had taken on a golden hue. Further confirmation from her Scroll told her that it was late afternoon. She really needed to get home. Any later and she wouldn't hear the end of it from her dad. Ruby huffed in annoyance as she handed back his journal. The days were too short.

    "I guess I'll come back tomorrow," she said as she rose from her seat, dusting her skirt off.

    "Are you sure that will be okay?" Ashen asked.

    "Yeah, it's no problem. My dad is fine—"

    Ashen raised a hand, cutting Ruby off.

    "I was not referring to your father," he elaborated. "Recently, I have been contemplating the frequency that you have been visiting me, and it has me growing concerned."

    "About what?" Ruby panicked. "Did I do something wrong? Is it about today? I promise that I won't—"

    Ashen stood up and placed his hands on her shoulders. "Calm yourself. I am simply worried that you are neglecting your family to spend time with me. Surely, you can not be coming here every day like this. Do you not have chores or other duties you must help your family with?"

    "Well, yeah, but I finish most of it before I come see you. Besides, I'm still on break, so I don't have to worry about homework."

    "And what about your family? Have you not been sacrificing time that you could have been spending with them?"

    "I spend plenty of time with them. I…" Ruby trailed off as she remembered Uncle Qrow's offer to take her and Yang to the town's arcade today. He would be leaving soon on some important mission, so they wouldn't hear from him for days, maybe even weeks. She hadn't even thought of that as she turned him down and walked out the door. "Oh."

    "Now, you see. As much as I enjoy the time we spend together, you have your own life to live away from me. Do not sacrifice it on my behalf."

    "But what about... You said…" Ruby frowned as she gazed up at him.

    Ashen cupped her cheek. "Do not concern yourself with what I said about our arrangement. I told that I would give you ample warning before it ends." He chuckled. "I also do not believe that your life is so cheap that it is only worth a few days of companionship, is it?"

    Ruby couldn't help a small giggle before she shook her head. "No."

    "Then that's that then," he said as he stepped back. "Go home and live your life. I have already lived mine, so there is not much else you can do for me. I will remain here and watch over the forgotten graves. Your life does not revolve around me, so do not let this old man steal away time that could be better spent on yourself. "

    "Okay." Ruby fidgeted nervously. "If there's nothing planned, and I'm free, would it be okay for me to come by tomorrow?"

    "If you are free, then come. If not, then come another day." Ashen returned to his seat. "It is as simple as that."

    "So, I guess I will see you soon then?"

    "I suppose you will. Oh, and do not forget to speak with your uncle."

    "I won't." Ruby gave him a smile that felt crafted from the sun's rays. "You take care of yourself until I get back."


    Ashen chuckled. "I will. May the Fire guide you, Ruby Rose."

    Ruby was momentarily taken aback by the phrase, but she shook it off with a wave, and began her trek back home. Ashen watched her until she was out of sight. He turned his gaze toward the unlit bonfire before him. The coiled sword was resting inside the shrine and he contemplated retrieving it. In the end, he decided against it. With the First Flame burning inside him, it would still work regardless of the fact that the age was long gone.
    He would be the only Undead bonded to it. The last Undead to be bonded to a bonfire. Funny, how he didn't feel anything at the thought. Ashen turned his attention to the forest. Before he knew it, he had drawn his sword and was marching out once more. It would be best to ensure that no other packs were drawing near the shrine. The hunt would serve as a nice distraction. No need to ponder about the past and what had been lost with it. An Undead simply pressed on; after all, what else could an Undead do?
     
  13. Index: Chapter 8: The Days Go By But The Sun Still Shines
    GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    Chapter 8: The Days Go By But The Sun Still Shines
    Ashen had not expected this encounter. He had been walking through the forest, dispatching any Grimm he had come across, when he stumbled upon this group in the forest with him. From the hill he was standing on, he had a clear view of the area below. There were a dozen individuals milling about. It was fortunate that he had taken to constantly wearing the Obscuring ring again as he noticed more and more incursions into the forest by similar groups of people. It allowed him to observe with none of them being any the wiser.

    He spotted Ruby's father, Tai, amongst the three adults gathered. The rest were children or, rather, they were young men and women leaving childhood and taking their first steps into adulthood. From what he could tell, he guessed that they had to be at least twice Ruby's age if not a little more. It was hard to tell since he only had Ruby as a point of reference. From her attitude every time he brought it up, she was clearly a bit too small for her size.

    "Just you wait. I'm going to have a big growth spurt and be taller than you! I just have to drink plenty of milk."

    Ashen couldn't keep a smile from his face. While his time with Ruby would not last forever, he would savor what he had now. It has been far too long since he interacted with someone who treated him as a person and not an Undead. Even among others like him, he always had to keep a hand on his sword. No Undead was foolish enough to believe that the one next to them was immune to hollowing.

    His attention was drawn back to the clearing in front of him as another adult came running in from the trees and joined the others. His sword was drawn and stained with the evaporating ichor of the Grimm. Ashen watched as the students—which he had now deduced they were—pair off with an instructor. Some of them shifted their weapons into new shapes. Firearms, he believed they were called as a whole. He wanted to say that the sight of such weaponry surprised him, but it didn't. After being on the receiving end of Gael's repeating crossbow, he would have been surprised if humanity never built upon such a concept.

    "Use every tool at your disposal, every ounce of knowledge in your head. Do everything in your power to not only level the playing field, but to destabilize it in your favor. There are no concepts as fair or right in battle, while honor is only useful for the dead. Victory is all that matters. Do not suffer the taste of defeat if you can avoid it. Victory by any means is still victory."

    It seemed that some ideologies were not limited to Carthus.

    A small pack of Beowolves ran out from the tree line. They skidded to a stop at the sight of so many individuals waiting for them. The pack, or what was left of it, was only half a dozen strong. Ashen observed as the student pairings spread out to put distance between each other. After a bit of effort and the culling of two more Grimm, the instructors manage to corral the beasts into positions between them and their students.

    It was obvious that from this point on, it would be up to the students to defeat the survivors. What followed next was not something he would dare to ever call a fight. Ashen could tell from their movements alone that they were all very inexperienced, though this may not have been the first time any of them had fought a Grimm. They acted overly safe, keeping the distance between them wider than what was necessary and were quick to frighten whenever the Grimm's hostility was shifted their way.

    Ashen's attention was drawn to the pair closest to him, causing him to frown in displeasure. A boy and a girl, each armed with a polearm. The girl, a spear, and the boy, a poleax. From their stances alone, he could tell that these two would be the most troublesome. His opinion of them was made worse by the size of the Grimm they were facing. It was the smallest of the pack, a laughable threat when compared to the others.

    The boy bled arrogance with his nonchalant stance and perpetual sneer on his face as looked down on the creature before him. If his attitude was not fixed soon, then he would become a danger to others—that is, if he didn't get himself killed first. The girl, on the other hand, trembled like a rabbit as she struggled to maintain a firm grip on her weapon. She held her spear out in front of herself, treating it more like a stick than the weapon it really was. The few strikes she attempted, lacking strength and conviction, were easily brushed aside or ignored.

    The fact that both were still allowed on the field was disgraceful. The girl should have already been pulled from the field. She was clearly showing a lack of aptitude for combat, and it would be best if she was sent off to choose another path in life before she got herself killed.

    The arrogant prick stood to the side and watched as the girl struggled with the small Beowolf. It seemed that some aspects of humanity never changed as there was always one such individual among potential warriors. Ashen found such individuals difficult to deal with. If they could not be broken in, their pride and arrogance beaten out of them, then they should be removed as soon as possible. Best to nip the bud early before it blossomed into something that at best, caused their early death—and possibly others through their own hubris—while at worst, allowed such men to eventually become some of the most vicious tyrants or fail and turn into violent bandits or marauders.

    Some scolding from the instructor overseeing them finally prompted the boy into aiding his comrade. With an annoyed scoff, the boy approached the distracted Beowolf from behind as it tried to wrestle the girl's spear away with its jaws. With a single swing, he severed its hind legs, freeing the girl from her tug of war and causing her to fall on her behind. Instead of ending the beast then and there, he chose to mock the beast and prod at it.

    What a surprise. The brat is also a sadist.

    Before his instructor could berate him any further, his attention was drawn along with the other teachers to the stray Grimm that had wandered into the clearing. Ashen unhooked the black bow he had brought with him as the instructors moved to engage. It was fortunate that he brought a bow with him today because he had a gut feeling that something was about to go wrong. As his eyes scanned the tree line, he saw it.

    A Beowolf was circling around the children. It went unnoticed by everyone else and positioned itself in the line of sight of its dying kin, right behind the two children he had been observing. Its size was a bit larger than average, no doubt the future alpha to emerge from its pack.

    The squabbling children were oblivious to whatever silent conversation had passed between the two. The Beowolf on the ground began growling and whining, dragging the children's attention back to it. The boy brushed off his teammate and moved to end the creature. He was taken by surprise when the Beowolf used the last of its strength to lunge at him. While he managed to block the bite aimed for his head with the shaft of his poleax, it left him pinned and vulnerable as he found himself supporting the dying Grimm's weight.

    The girl screamed a warning as the other rushed him from behind. Even from a distance, Ashen could see the fear on the boy's face.

    In an instant, he notched and released 3 arrows at the running Grimm. All 3 found their mark with the first piercing its thigh, the second going into the side of its rib cage, and the third puncturing the side of its throat. The force of the impacts were enough to stumble the beast, causing it to crash into the ground.

    It bought enough time for the boy to throw and finish off the Grimm pinning him. Just as he turned his attention to his ambusher, one of the instructors had reached them and jumped on it. With a single blow, he caved its skull in with a warhammer, killing it instantly. As soon as he confirmed that the threat was eliminated and that there were no others, he immediately began tearing into the two children. He berated the boy for his arrogance and overconfidence that left him exposed before he moved on to the girl who had stood off to the side, paraliyzed in fear, unable to help him.

    Unfortunately, as much as Ashen wanted to stay, watch and enjoy the outcome, he could see Tai heading his way. While his ring could hide his body, it didn't hide the arrows once they were freed, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out what direction they came from. It was time for him to go. Hopefully, there would not be a second incident, because he wouldn't be nearby to step in again.

    The walk back was uneventful, and Ashen found himself a little disappointed. He had set out today to hunt some of the avian Grimm, but unfortunately, his search was fruitless before he was sidetracked. As he neared the shrine, he encountered a Beowolf stalking towards the clearing. It didn't hear him approach until he ran his blade through its back. The Grimm died with a loud whine, its body beginning to dissolve. No matter how many times he saw it, Ashen would admit that he never ceased to be fascinated by the process. If he was any madder, he would attempt to study the creatures, but he knew better. He had seen enough times of what happens when a man tampers with secrets best left buried.

    When Ashen stepped into the clearing, he was unsurprised to find Ruby waiting for him. She was gazing in his direction with searching eyes. He didn't fail to notice how she had her arms wrapped around herself, nor did he miss Zwei, who had planted himself in front of her, ears and body alert, and ready to spring into action at a moment's notice. Zwei may be small and oddly shaped, but he had more courage than most men. The one time a Grimm—an Ursa Major, Ruby called it—had wandered into the clearing, Zwei was more than ready to charge the beast despite the fact that he was greatly outsized. That alone was enough to earn his respect for the small dog.

    Ruby didn't even flinch as Ashen stepped close enough for the ring's effect to fail.

    "I thought I heard you," she commented as Zwei ran around his feet in excitement.

    "Good to see you too, Ruby," Ashen greeted as he took a seat next to Ruby. "Do you remember what I said about you choosing to wait for me here?"

    Ruby winced before she turned away.

    "Ruby."

    She sighed, turning back to face him. "To pay attention to my surroundings because the Grimm sometimes wander over here, so I need to be alert and ready to escape, because you won't always be nearby to save me if I don't." After a pause, she tacked on, "I was also sulking."

    "And why is that bad?" When Ruby shot him a look, he realized that she had misunderstood him. He genuinely wanted to know why she thought he would be upset with her for sulking.

    "Because negative emotions draw the Grimm."

    This… this was news to him. While he could pass off most of his ignorance as the result of being from the Badlands as she called them, he knew that there was some knowledge of the world that he should know. He played it off when he could and Ruby, thankfully, never pressed him on it. The fact that these Grimm could hunt by human emotions was a bit surprising, but not as big as it should have been.

    Animals could sense emotions to a degree, so this just sounded like a much stronger version of that. Throw in the small tinge of the Abyss that each carried and then it made sense as to why so few kingdoms existed. The ravenous hunger of the Abyss and the ability to sense humans beyond their normal senses; if they truly were hunting humanity like Ruby said, then they were a foe humanity couldn't hide from and would always know where to seek them out. No wonder life outside the Kingdom's walls is considered rare and fickle.

    "Ashen?"

    Ashen shook his head. He was letting himself get distracted by his thoughts. "Sorry. I was thinking about something."

    "About what?"

    "For one, what can happen to someone so naturally exuberant that it can bring their mood so low? I believe this is the first time I have ever seen you come here in such a state. Did something happen?"

    Ruby crossed her arms as she pouted.

    "I had a bad day at school," she muttered. She reached down to plucked Zwei from the ground before settling him in her lap.

    "Ah, yes. I remember you mentioning that you started a week ago."

    Ruby blinked at him owlishly. An odd reaction, because he was certain that he didn't say anything deserving of such.

    She shook her head before asking, "Are my eyes weird?"

    Ashen was taken aback by the question.

    "What brought this on?"

    "At school today, one of my classmates was asking me if something was wrong with my eyes, because they had never seen someone with silver eyes before. I know that he wasn't trying to be mean, but some of the others…"

    "Let me guess; they were bored and desired entertainment, so they decided to alleviate their boredom at your expense—hence why you are in such a low mood today."

    Ruby took a moment to process what he said.

    "Yeah, right." She gave him a self satisfied smile, confident that she learned a new word.

    Ashen couldn't keep the smile off his face. It was fun to watch Ruby try to comprehend him when he used words that she did not know. That little sense of satisfaction he felt each time she learned a little more. He wondered if his first sorcery teacher, Ambriel, felt like this. You never really understood how little you knew until you met someone who knew so much more.

    "So," Ruby drawled, "you didn't answer my question; are my eyes weird? You had to have met other people with eyes like mine. I mean, my mom also had silver eyes."

    Ashen hummed in thought. "Unfortunately, I do not believe I have ever encountered anyone with eyes like yours." It was the truth. Throughout the thousands of years he lived, he had never encountered anyone with silver eyes—at least as far as he could remember.

    "So I guess I really am weird." Ruby slumped forward dejectedly. Zwei reached up to nuzzle and lick her.

    "Why should their opinion matter to you? Let me share this piece of wisdom that I learned from my long life. People will use any excuse to divide themselves to make themselves feel superior to others. Be it kingdom, race, religion, and all sorts of trivial things, but it all means nothing in the end. We are all people. We live together, fight together... and we will die together. Do not let the words of some miscreants affect you so. Be proud of who you are. I am certain your father would say the same."

    "Thanks." She gave him a bright and sunny smile, her earlier mood vanquished. He noticed how beautifully her silver eyes shined. Behind those eyes were the spark of a single, tiny ember and he couldn't help but think: 'what if they had some blue mixed in?' His stomach churned at the thought. While he had never seen anyone with silver eyes before, he was now forming a speculation as to why. With the Age of Fire long past, there should not be any ramifications if his thoughts were true, but a small part of him couldn't help but worry.

    "You're welcome." Time for a change in topic. "How is your writing coming along?"

    "Good… but I have some more questions." Ruby passed him Zwei before picking up her notebook. To Ashen's amusement, Zwei curled up in his lap as he prepared to take a nap. As much he acted like an ordinary dog, Ashen knew better. Zwei possessed an intelligence that he had only ever seen in the mighty great wolves.

    He spent the remainder of his time with Ruby, trying to explain the complex nuances that heavily permeated the holy script. When they were finished and Ruby returned home, Ashen decided to go out hunting once more. It would serve as a good distraction from his thoughts.




    Ruby sat at her desk as she attempted to do her homework. Attempt being the key word. For the upteenpth time she sighed as she found herself unable to focus on the work in front of her. She laid her head on her desk as she rolled her pencil back and forth. It was impossible for her to not think about what he said. He said that she started school a week ago; it's been nearly a month since she started.

    It was something that she had noticed as she spent more time with him. Ashen didn't have a sense of time. He would talk about yesterday and not realize that yesterday was in fact days ago. She was still worried about him eventually cutting himself off from her, but now it didn't seem as big of a threat as she once thought.

    She asked her dad about it, but it was Uncle Qrow who best explained what was probably wrong. Ruby felt glum as she thought on what Ashen must have been through to make him that way. A person able to lose track of time because he no longer cared what day it was; to have no plans for a tomorrow he never expected to live to see. What did feel like, to be forever trapped in a moment that lasted forever you always felt alone?

    She knew that he lost his friends and family, but how many times did he go through that? How many times did he find a new family, make new friends, only to lose them again. Ruby couldn't imagine what that must have been like. Her family has been through it once already and it was almost enough to break them. How did Ashen endure it?

    It wasn't fair. Ashen was probably the strongest person she knew or, at the very least, second to Uncle Qrow. She had seen him fight and not once did he ever seem afraid; in fact, at times, it seemed to be a chore for him. The one time she asked him how he was able to face the Grimm so easily, he responded, "I've fought bigger and scarier monsters." Ironically, that would also be the day were she saw him crush the head of an Ursa Major in a single blow with his fist. He's so powerful that he can easily overwhelm the strongest of the Grimm that she's seen—and yet, with all that strength, it wasn't enough to protect the things he cared about.

    Ashen was her hero; he saved her life, but lately, she has started to wonder if she was the only person he had ever saved. He clutched his secrets tightly to himself, and the few that she had been able to pry away or he let slip painted a harsh picture that she did not want to look at. The more she learned, the more she realized how broken he was to the point that she found herself questioning at times if he could ever be fixed. Ashen hid it well, but she knew better. No one could bottle things up forever—her dad would still stay up some nights drinking, and Yang would occasionally cry in her sleep.

    What did Ashen do when he was alone? How did he handle his griefs? The mountain of issues he had just kept growing. But she would not give up—heroes are not supposed to be abandoned or forgotten. She wasn't sure how much she could do, but if she could put a small part of him back together, then maybe that would be enough—enough to start a change that would fix him completely. One thing was for sure, she had to stop brooding over what has already happened and focus on what she could do moving forward.

    I just have to keep going, one step at a time.

    Ruby lifted her head and stretched her arms. Fortunately, she had time to work on Ashen's problems, but her homework was due tomorrow. When she focused back on the page in front of her, she groaned. She had been doing her homework in the Sacred Script, so now she was going to have to restart from scratch. Thankfully, she wasn't that far along. Instead of throwing the page away, she tore it out and stuck it inside another notebook that she kept filled with her practice writings.

    The Sacred Script, as Ashen called it, was a lot more complex than she expected. There was a lot of... What was it called again? Oh yeah, nuance. There were a lot of nuances that had to be considered when using it. The characters, or letters, changed shape and/or meaning depending on your relationship with the person you're writing to, your position of power compared to theirs, if they were a god, et cetera. The god part, she found funny. But, to be fair, this is a religious form of writing. She showed it off to the rest of her family, but no one else felt the same tingling feeling that she had. Yang thought it looked like a bunch of silly scribbles, while her dad said it looked interesting, though he commented that he had never seen anything like it before. When she showed it to Uncle Qrow that day he stopped by, he took a picture. He said he would let her know if he came across anything similar when he was out in the field.

    To be fair to everyone else, she couldn't feel as strong a sensation compared to what she felt from Ashen's journal or the coin he gave her. Thinking about the coin, Ruby retrieved it from one of her drawers. She gazed at the words etched on the backside, words she could now read, albeit with some difficulty.

    "Through the grace of the gods the Flame gave us life. By their love we are blessed with light. May the Flame guide your way."

    A small tingle went through her that brought a smile to her face. Despite all her frustrations with the Sacred Script, she really enjoyed using it. It felt like a secret code that only she and Ashen knew. As Ruby returned her coin to its hiding place inside her drawer, her eyes caught on the new book she bought the other day. Its bright green cover called out to her. It has been a while since she last checked how Ashen was coming along with his reading.

    Ruby's cheeks flushed red with embarrassment as the idea crept into her head. There was no way she could ask that of him. She shook her head furiously. Nope, nah-ah. It was a bad idea. Okay, maybe not a bad idea, but it would be embarrassing. Especially when she considered what the book was about. The book was staying here, and that was final.




    Ruby hesitated as she approached her usual meeting place with Ashen. It looked empty now, but she knew better than to take it at first glance. In the end, she did bring the book with her, but now she was starting to have second thoughts. It didn't help when Yang laughed when she saw what she was bringing. After taking a deep breath, she stepped forward into what she knew was inside the range of Ashen's magic. To her non-surprise, Ashen was sitting on the log, waiting for her. But what was surprising was that he wasn't paying any attention to her.

    In his hands was a palm-size, golden disc. When she stepped closer, she was able to see that it was a medallion with a picture of the sun on it. The small drawing of a face in the center of the sun almost made her laugh. Despite the fact that she was now standing next to him, he did not react to her presence. She knew he could get distracted and lost in his thoughts at times, but this was a first.

    "Ashen?"

    Ashen jerked in surprise before his head snapped towards her.

    "Ruby?" He shook his head. "Forgive me. I did not… I did not notice your arrival."

    "Oh, it's alright. Um, what do you have there?"

    To Ruby's surprise, he covered the medallion, clasping it between both hands. It was something obviously precious to him. Now, she felt bad for asking; it felt like she was invading his privacy.

    "It is something very precious to me. I… do not want to discuss it. I am sorry if I can not sate your curiosity."

    "Oh, it's okay," Ruby responded as she waved a hand back and forth. "I don't mind. You don't have to tell me about it if you don't want to."

    Ashen nodded in thanks before he placed the medallion inside a small box beside him. When he turned his attention back to her, he tilted his head. "What are you hiding behind your back?"

    Ruby jumped and fidgeted in place. "Oh, um. It's been a while since we checked on how your reading has come along, so…"

    "You brought a book for me to practice with," Ashen finished for her.

    "Yeah…" Ruby didn't need to see his face to know he raised a brow at her hesitation. She found she was getting better at reading him despite all his armor. Didn't do anything to help with the embarrassed blush on her face. "I was thinking that maybe… you could read this one to me. I'll correct any mistakes you make."

    "Can I see the book?" Ashen said as he extended his hand toward her.

    She hesitated before handing the book over. Now, the cover was exposed for the world to see. On it, standing out against its green background, was a stylized drawing in gold of a knight facing off against a dragon.

    "The tale of Lancelot and the dragon of Mt. Glenn," Ashen read aloud. "You want me to read you a story?" he asked, obviously amused by her request.

    "You don't have to read it, if you don't want to," Ruby rushed out, face glowing in embarrassment.

    He chuckled. "It is fine. I do not mind indulging you with this request. Consider this repayment for the help you have given me." He motioned for her to take a seat next to him. "I will admit to being a bit surprised. A story about a knight and a dragon; I wonder what brought this on."

    Ruby buried her face in her hands. She could hear the smirk in his voice.

    "Now, let us begin. 'Before the Kingdom of Vale was founded in the heart of Vale, it existed as a series of feudal settlements run by lords and protected by their brave knights. The first to rise from this class of brave warriors into legend; the one who would be credited for clearing the way for the founding of the City of Vale and considered one of the greatest of knights was Sir Lancelot the Brave. Like all great heroes, he rose from humble origins. Our tale begins in a small settlement on the edge of Vale's territory…'"

    Ruby found herself enraptured as Ashen read to her. She slowly scooted closer before eventually leaning her head on his arm where she could feel that familiar warmth seeping into her. There was a small, miss-able pause in his reading, but other than that, he didn't say anything against it. Her eyelids were getting heavy and she knew that, if she wasn't careful, she would fall asleep. Little bonding moments like this brought people together; it's what her parents taught her. Hopefully, one day soon, he wouldn't feel like he had to keep hiding behind his helmet. Until then, she was going to enjoy this moment and the story that came with it.
     
  14. Index: Chapter 9: Glimpse of Sunlight
    GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    Chapter 9: Glimpse of Sunlight
    Ruby was giddy as she skipped along on her way to meet with Ashen. Why was she so happy? Yesterday was her birthday, which made her 8 years old, and she had grown a centimeter taller. Her dad threw her a small party to celebrate and Uncle Qrow even managed to make it. Thankfully, he didn't pass out in the cake like last year. It was a great day and she got presents from everyone. Everyone that is, except for one person. Maybe it was all the leftover sugar in her bloodstream from yesterday, but Ruby was feeling a bit bold today. She knew exactly what she was going to ask Ashen for.

    It's already been a year since they first met and yesterday was also their anniversary. Okay, maybe it wasn't exactly one year. Depending on what day she wanted to use—the day she fell or the day he made his promise to her—there was a difference of one or two months. She decided to use her birthday to mark the occasion since it would be easier to keep track of. The extra present she would get by doing so was a nice bonus and was in no way a factor in her decision.

    Ruby skipped most of the way to her meeting spot with Ashen. She didn't stop because she tried to skip down the ramp, tumbled and face planted. No one can prove that it happened. When she stepped inside of Ashen's magic, she found him waiting for her like usual.

    "I am amazed that you can still be so exuberant after the tumble that you had." Ruby flinched in embarrassment. "Do you mind telling me what has you in high spirits today?"

    "That's because today is a special day," she exclaimed. "Well, actually it was yesterday so we're a day late. But! It doesn't make today any less special."

    "Would you share with me what occasion that would be?"

    Ruby giggled. "It was our Anniversary, silly." She did a quick twirl before pointing a finger at herself. "It was also my birthday."

    Ashen leaned back in surprise. "Has it truly been a year?"

    "Yep," she responded with a smile.

    "You have not changed a bit."

    "I've gotten taller!" Ruby shouted indignantly with a pout.

    Ashen found her as threatening as a newborn pup. He was tempted to say his thoughts out loud to tease her, but decided not to at the last moment.

    "To think a year has already passed. Time does know how to slip away from people."

    "Yep, and since it was also my birthday, you owe me a present."

    "Oh?" Ashen asked, amused. "Pray, tell me what I could offer you; I do not have much of anything to give."

    "Yeah, you do," she responded cheekily.

    Ashen raised a brow. "I am not giving you any more gold."

    "Not that." She shook her head. The thought had crossed her mind, but she would never admit to it. "I want a story."

    "A story?"

    She nodded. "Yep."

    "And what story are you seeking from me?"

    Here came the hard part that made Ruby hesitate. She didn't want to force Ashen to open up about his past, but after a year together, she still knew so little about him. All she had were little bits and pieces with no context for her to understand any of it. Uncle Qrow said that sometimes to help someone, you needed to give them a little push. At least that's what he said giving someone a kick in the rear meant. She was pretty sure that Ashen wouldn't appreciate it if she kicked him.

    "I… I want you to tell me about the gold medallion I've seen you with."

    The change was immediate. Ashen straightened up and the feeling of friendliness was gone. He was now guarded against her. Ruby had become adept at reading Ashen's mood that she could even guess his facial expressions thanks to all the time they spent together. Right now, she was prodding at something that she knew he held very dear to himself in the same way she held her cape. Unfortunately, if she didn't, then nothing would change and there would always be this distance between them. She just hoped that this didn't cost her their friendship.

    "Why?"

    A simple but very loaded question. Ashen's voice was devoid of his previous warmth. Ruby took a deep breath before she pressed forward.

    "Y-You've rarely told me anything about yourself. You always keep everything to yourself, and that's not good for you. Don't you want to tell people about what you've been through? Share your stories so they aren't forgotten? I-I know I may not be the best person to talk to about the things you've been through, but I can at least listen. After all the time we spent together, I just want you to stop pushing me away. Even if it's only a little bit, I still want to help you. Don't push me away. Please?"

    Rather than respond to her, Ashen turned away as he pondered what he wanted to do. An uncomfortable silence dragged out between the two. She waited and waited, but he still would not break the silence.

    Ruby's heart sank. She could feel the tears gathering in her eyes as she hung her head. It looked like she might never be able to break through to him.

    "I-I'm sorry," she stuttered. "Forget I ever asked. I'll—"

    "Can you be at the cliffs before sunrise?"

    Ruby's head snapped up in surprise. Ashen was facing her once more and the guarded hunch of his shoulders was gone. He seemed more resigned and tired than anything else.

    "I do owe you quite a bit for the company you have provided me. I have rescinded our original promise, and yet, you still come to see me constantly. Even though all you can do most days is tell me about your day and watch the clouds with me. You still come just to keep me company. You are right; you have shared so much about yourself, but I have not shared anything in return." Ashen sighed. "For one like me, it is difficult to think about the past. To do so can break the mind... yet, without it, we lose what makes us human." The last part was mumbled so low Ruby almost missed it.

    Ashen retrieved the medallion from a small box he kept on him. It shined under the Sun.

    "It is not easy for me to explain the significance this has, not just to me, but also what it stands for as a symbol."

    "Okay, but why do we have to be at the cliffs so early?"

    "You will learn the answer to that if you show up on time."

    As much as she hated the idea of walking up so early, she didn't want to waste the opportunity given to her. She would definitely need to set her alarm.

    "I'll definitely be there," she stated.

    Note to self, look up what time is sunrise later.

    "Know this: I do not bother much with the beasts on cliffs unless they come down here," he cautioned. "You will need to be careful, because I will not go into the forest looking for you if something happens."

    Ruby nodded. "I'll be careful."

    "Make sure you do. Now—" Ashen cut himself off as he rose and drew his sword. Immediately after, the sounds of growls filled the clearing. A large pack of Grimm prowled into the clearing. "It seems that we will have to continue our conversation tomorrow morning."

    He stepped in front of Ruby, breaking the Grimm's line of sight on her.

    "Get going. Now."

    Ruby didn't need to be told twice. She turned tail and ran as fast as she could. It was one thing for her to stay and watch him deal with a stray Grimm or two, but against a pack, she was nothing more than a liability. The last thing she wanted was to be a hindrance to him. Once she reached the top of the cliff, she couldn't help taking a peek to watch the action. Of course, she did the safe method of laying flat on her stomach before doing so.

    It was a large pack that was drawn to their location. There was a mix of Beowolves and Ursai that had surrounded Ashen. If it was anyone else, she would have been concerned for their safety, but not Ashen. His sword was a streak of silver as he dispatched each of the Grimm that rushed him. Ruby couldn't suppress a squeal of excitement which was noticed by two of the closest Grimm. The two Beowolves turned and made eye contact with her. That was her cue to leave. She ducked and fled with an "Eep!"

    This was not the first time the Grimm had cut one of their meetings short, but that didn't make it any less annoying when they did. At least she managed to do what she wanted to. Tomorrow was going to be a big leap in progress and she couldn't wait.




    The following morning, Ruby was jolted awake by her alarm. To avoid waking her dad and sister, she used the alarm on her Scroll instead of her clock and planted it under her pillow to muffle the noise. The good news was that it worked; the bad news was that having it right under her head made it still sound very loud to her. She jumped up in bed, only to get tangled in her sheets and fall off. She hit the ground with a soft thud and a drawn-out "Ow."

    If she wasn't awake before, she was now. With a groan, she picked herself up and got dressed. To her relief, it was still dark outside so her timing wasn't off. She left a note on the top of the stairs for her dad and sister. She would have left it on the table, but on the off chance her dad checked her room first, better to be safe than sorry. You didn't live with a very overprotective family without learning these things.

    Ruby shivered when she stepped out into the crisp night air. She tried walking down the trail to the cliffs, but instead found herself rooted in place. It was a cloudy night which meant there was little moonlight to help navigate by. The shadows cast by the forest were larger and more menacing. It felt like she was walking into the belly of a giant monster.

    Ruby held herself tight as she had flashbacks to that fateful night. After that night, she had never gone out after dark again. Her dad and uncle always kept the nearby Grimm population low, but when was the last time they did so? She was tempted to make a break for it, but with how dark it was, what if she ran straight into a Grimm because she couldn't see? Each step she took felt like there were bricks tied to her feet. All she had to do was reach Ashen and everything would be okay. He stayed out here all the time, so if he could do that then she could too. Slowly, but surely, she began what was suddenly a very long trek through the woods.




    Ashen knelt in front of Summer's gravestone. He admired the hand carving that was done on the stone. It was in no way the work of a master artisan, but it was still a masterpiece of its own. He could make out uneven lines and out of place grooves from a hand that struggled to stay steady. It was the work of a man with little to no skill who struggled to get it right the first time, because it meant that much to him. He reached out and brushed some dirt free from its surface.

    Once more he couldn't help but wonder just who Summer Rose was. While Ruby never hesitated to brag about her mother whenever she was brought up, there was only so much she could tell him. Ashen had seen Tai fight during some of the occasions he had spied on him as he chaperoned trainees in the forest. His style was simple and efficient. Tai never showed off or took unnecessary risks as he taught his students how to fight. From his style alone Ashen could tell that he was a fairly grounded individual. He wondered what kind of fighter his wife was. Was Tai her grounding force or was she his? Or did he ground himself out of necessity after her passing in an effort to avoid leaving his children without any parents? So many questions that may never be answered. Summer Rose was another added to the list of names of warriors he heard of, but would unfortunately never meet.

    Ashen was pulled from his musings as he felt Ruby step into the outer range of his senses. A new sense he had discovered was this ability to sense life, or rather, the wisps of fire that composed life. It took longer than he cared to admit to realize that it wasn't his instinct that warned him to the presence of others. He had Ruby to thank for his discovery—she stood out to his senses like a single ember while others were pinpricks or wisps, like smoke from a freshly extinguished fire.

    Ashen rose to his feet and turned to face the forest. Ruby was making slow progress toward him. No doubt she was afraid. Despite what he told her yesterday, he had made sure to clear out any nearby Grimm. The last thing he wanted to do was to endanger her life.

    "I apologize for what I am about to put your daughter through," Ashen stated to the gravestone behind him.

    He picked up a fist size stone from a small pile he had gathered. Ashen felt that the best way for Ruby to understand what the Sunlight Covenant represented was for her to experience, at least to a small degree, what he felt when he first found his calling to the Warriors of Sunlight. So with unerring accuracy he threw the stone.




    The night air was filled with the sounds of insects and the occasional owl. Ruby tried to keep herself calm as she shuffled along. The last thing she wanted was to be a beacon of negativity and draw the Grimm to her. Luckily for her, everything was peaceful and it didn't seem like there were any Grimm nearby. Just as she was about to finally breathe easy, something plowed through the tree branches on her right.

    Ruby jumped in the air with a shriek. Her eyes darted around anxiously as her heartbeat started thundering in her ears. She was frozen in place as she was afraid to alert whatever it was to her presence.

    Don't panic. Don't panic. Don't panic.

    She couldn't detect any movement. Just as she was about to slowly creep away, something shattered the branches above.

    PANIC!

    With another scream, she took off like a bullet. Her breathing became erratic as the path in front of her morphed into something more sinister. Shadows became claws that threatened to pluck her away, while the wind became a howl that buried itself in her ears. The branches shook violently above her, with some even snapping and falling behind her. Was it a Nevermore? Did she have a Nevermore chasing her? She needed to reach Ashen. He would protect her.

    Like a beacon in the dark, she saw it, a small light floating in the sky. She pushed as much energy as she possibly could into her little legs. If it weren't for her ragged breathing, Ruby would have let out a whoop of joy as she could make out Ashen's silhouette holding a flame in his hand. Ruby collided with him, wrapping her arms around him in an effort to feel safe. Whether from fear or hysteria, tears threatened to spill from her eyes. Her breathing slowly evened out as Ashen rubbed a circle into her back and his warmth soaked into her, calming her down.

    "Are you okay?" He asked.

    Ruby nodded before her eyes widened in remembrance of what she was running from. She ducked behind him, even going so far as to hide under his cape with only her face peeking out.

    "Careful. There's a Grimm chasing me," she explained.

    "There is not."

    "There is! I heard it chasing—"

    "That was me."

    Ruby slipped out from Ashen's cape. She stared at him in shock and betrayal, her mouth gaping like a fish.

    "What?" Her voice was smaller than a mouse's.

    "I was the one who scared you over here. I tossed stones through the trees to make all the noise you heard."

    "Why? Why would you do that?" Ruby found that the last traces of fear she felt were now morphing into something much more hot and angry. "Don't you know how scared you made me? I thought a Grimm was going to get me."

    Ruby wrapped her arms around herself.

    "I thought it was going to be a repeat of that night. I was— I was so scared that I wouldn't get to you in time and you're telling me that you did it on purpose. Why did you do it?"

    Ashen knelt in front and put a hand on her shoulder. Unsurprisingly, she pulled away. He did not fault her for being upset.

    "I wanted you to understand."

    "Understand what?" Ruby asked with a cheek puffed up in a pout.

    Ashen held the Sunlight medallion in front of her. "I wanted you to understand what this symbol stands for, not just to me, but to the people who see it." She gave him a skeptical look. "Tell me, what did you feel when you first saw my flame in the dark?"

    Ruby hesitated. She wanted to be stubborn to get back at him, but decided not to as she did want to know what was the point of scaring her so badly. Revenge could come later.

    "I was scared, but when I saw the light, your light… I wasn't afraid anymore. I felt that as long as I could reach you then I would be safe no matter what was chasing me. I knew you would protect me."

    "You were hopeful that I could banish the dark away."

    She nodded.

    "You now know a bit of how I felt when I first awakened to my covenant."

    "Covenant?"

    Ashen reached out and grabbed Ruby's hand. He placed the medallion in her palm. She was surprised not only by how light it was, but also how warm to the touch it was.

    "This is a Sunlight Medallion. It identifies those who are members of the Warriors of Sunlight."

    "The Warriors of Sunlight?" she questioned. "I've never heard of them before."

    "I would be amazed if you did," Ashen chuckled sadly as she returned his medal. "I should be the last surviving member of my order."

    "Oh." Ruby awkwardly shuffled in place. "So... what's a Warrior of Sunlight? Were you once part of some legendary group of Huntsmen?"

    "In a way." Ashen gestured for Ruby to follow as he walked towards the cliff. She took her spot next to him as they faced the horizon, though she made sure to be extra close to him while they stood by the ledge. "The Warriors of Sunlight is a covenant dedicated to worshiping the Sun, battling the darkness of the world and offering aid to those in need."

    "Worshiping the Sun?" Ruby giggled. "That sounds silly."

    "I thought so too at first. The man who introduced me to the covenant was a member himself. I was not interested at the time and saw no point in it. Shows how little I understood at the time."

    "Who was he?"

    Ashen sighed, wistfully as he stared up at the sky. Despite the thousands of years that had passed, he considered himself blessed that he still managed to retain some of the memories of his early centuries. So much of it was long gone.

    "His name was Matheus." The name conjured up the face of a late, middle aged man from a key cornerstone of his past. He could make out the grey hair that still carried hints of its original auburn color, a short beard that covered most of his lower face, yet was unable to hide that fatherly smile of his. There was the twinkle in his eye that allowed him to see the potential in everyone, no matter their station, or what they were.

    "He was a good man… No, a great man. He was the kind of man you would expect to see leading a church rather than the master swordsman he had become on the battlefield. It was during the years I was left wandering the lands after my home was destroyed that I crossed paths with him. He saved me and gave me purpose. I would have been lost if it were not for him. Matheus was my first mentor. He expanded on my training and taught me to read… he even gave me a new name since I had already forgotten my own. He called me 'Drifter' because of my penchant for wandering and inability to stay in one place for long. I owe a lot to him."

    Ruby smiled. "He sounds like an amazing person."

    "He was." Ashen smiled, too.

    "Where was he from?"

    Ashen frowned. He reached one hand up to the side of his neck. Even through his helm he could still feel it pulsing over his jugular: the Darksign.

    "He was from one of the kingdoms."

    "Was?"

    He nodded. "Matheus was born in one of the kingdoms to a very influential family. He would have been someone of great standing one day, maybe even a legend, but..." Ashen tightened his fist so much that Ruby could hear the faint squeak of metal. "Something happened. Something happened to him that he was forced to leave his home. He was exiled in all but name." Ashen finally released his grip, the metal sighing in relief. "He did not deserve to be cast out into the wastes. Matheus was destined for great things, but he was robbed of it all, left to wander the outlands of the kingdoms like some vagabond. Something I unfortunately learned through my unnaturally long life is that when it comes to heroes, legends, and those destined for greatness, fate is far too cruel. Fate seems to despise men like Matheus... men like me."

    Ruby frowned. Fate was supposed to be something that helped you or at least that's what she understood from all the stories she read. Could fate really be that cruel?

    "Do you want to hear the story about the day I first awakened as a Warrior of Sunlight?"

    Her eyes widened in joy as she vigorously nodded her head.

    "Are you certain? It is not a pleasant story."

    "I do. Besides, you promised me a story."

    Ashen smiled sadly. "Very well. This happened a few years after I had parted from Matheus. We had a disagreement of ideology. Matheus wanted to help others like us while I believed that it was a waste of time and that we should focus on ourselves. Eventually, he went his own way as he tried to help those who had been abandoned, even at the risk of his own life. I lacked the heart to follow him so I left to travel from village to village in search of one that would accept someone like me and provide me shelter. Our paths would cross many times over the years. He was eventually joined by a… fire user we called Pyromancer. The man was also an Undead like myself, but he had not forgotten his name. Rather, he cast it aside after he was exiled for committing some heretical crime. It served as a fitting title to call him by. I aided the two with many endeavors over the years. One day, I was tracked down by a man named Gerhardt. He was a warrior and hunter from the north. A foreigner, who journeyed to our lands in search of a cure for… an illness that plagued him. Matheus had sent him to find me so that we may group together. We were being driven to the very outskirts of civilization where villages and towns were few and far between, so he thought it would be safer for us, at least for a time, if we gathered together. We met up by a small village where he was trying to negotiate for some supplies to aid us in our journey. It was there that I met Spearman, another Undead who Matheus had recently taken under his wing. The man was a guardsman who was the sole survivor from a town that was razed to stop the spread of… a plague. It was funny that despite him being older than me, I was more experienced with life in the wilds. He would not have lasted long were it not for Matheus' habit of looking after those who had been forsaken."

    Ashen paused in his story as he took a deep breath. As grateful as he was to still have this memory, it was no less painful. Ruby took a step closer and slipped her hand in his. He gave her a reassuring squeeze in return.
    "The village we had gathered at was hostile to outsiders, especially Undead like ourselves. If it were not for Matheus' way with words, they may have attacked us outright. He eventually convinced them to part with some meager rations and tools, but in exchange they wanted a service from us. There were creatures in the nearby forest and it seemed that one of them had taken to roaming outside its territory. The beast had been killing off livestock and trampling the fields, so the villagers wanted us to put an end to it. It was night and they gave us until sunrise to slay the beast, otherwise they would withdraw from our agreement. With only torches and the moonlight to guide us, our band of five set off toward the forest…"




    "Must we really be doing this?"

    "We have no choice, we need the supplies. If anything, we should consider ourselves blessed that the village is even willing to deal with Undead like ourselves," Drifter explained as he watched Spearman from the corner of his eye. The man was twitchy, his eyes constantly darting around at the slightest sound. There were wrinkles on his face that belonged to a much, much older man. From what Matheus had told him, Spearman had recently become Undead, a few months at the most. To see advanced signs of hollowing so soon in him was concerning. He would have to talk to Matheus about parting ways with him before he could hollow completely. The last thing he wanted was for any of them to get stabbed in the back when he inevitably lost himself.

    "None of us will last long out here without them," Gerhardt chimed in. Despite having already spent days traveling with the man, Drifter still found his northern accent odd to hear.

    "But we do not need to eat," Spearman pointed out.

    "Aye, but we still need to maintain our equipment." He stroked his long beard in thought. "Have to admit that without a blacksmith to aid us there is not much we can do."

    Drifter had to agree with him. Out of the five of them, only Gerhardt and Matheus wore full suits of armor. All he had was a metal chest-plate and leather gloves. He had wrapped scraps of toughened leather around his limbs, but they barely provided any protection. At least the short sword he had salvaged off a brigand's corpse was still in decent shape despite the visible nicks along the blade.

    Gerhardt's iron armor was at its limit. It was covered in chips, dents, and cracks to the point that it was a miracle in and of itself that it had yet to fall apart. His great axe was in a similar state.

    Spearman on the other hand had no armor of any kind, only a helmet and a large wooden shield to protect himself. At least the spear he carried was of good quality. More than once Drifter wondered how exactly he had come across it. Honestly, it wouldn't have surprised him if Matheus was the one to have given it to him.

    "The rations I bartered for will help pay for the services of one." Matheus spoke up, drawing everyone's attention to him.

    Out of everyone here, he was the best equipped. Gold embroidery danced along silver plates that covered him completely, though the shine from both had long since faded. All he was missing was the helmet that he traded away years ago as a bribe for safe passage. Drifter felt a pang of guilt at the memory. Had he kept his mouth shut then they wouldn't have been discovered and cost Matheus his father's helmet.

    "I came across a blacksmith who would be willing to service an Undead, his services will not be cheap."

    "Are you certain about that?" Gerhardt questioned. "He could easily be baiting us into a trap for the church hunters to find. I have died enough times as it is and have no desire to do so again."

    "The Way of White's power has been waning. Originally there would be no safe place for an Undead to hide, but now some of these villages on the outskirts are willing to put their own survival over their faith."

    "Does not stop the church from sending bands of their hunters out here," Drifter commented.

    "Trust me when I say we are very fortunate. There are still plenty of kingdoms where the Church's power is so strong that no one would dare offer aid of any kind to an Undead. They would be more inclined to strike you down where you stand the moment they lay eyes on you."

    "Reminds me of home," Gerhardt muttered. He called over his shoulder, "What about you, Pyromancer? You have been oddly silent for some time now. Why not join our conversation? Or have you suddenly turned mute on us?"

    Drifter was surprised when he noticed how far Pyromancer had fallen behind them. His form was barely lit by the flame in his hand. Rags covered his form, head to toe, making him look decrepit, but underneath all those rags, he knew, was a full set of leather armor and a number of daggers. Those rags also hid the Darksign that marred his face, leaving only a single eye visible. From the years he had spent with him, he knew that Pyromancer was a thoughtful and quiet person. Usually, he would have joined in the conversation by now. He noticed how Pyromancer would not stop rubbing his wrist.

    "Is something wrong, old friend?" Matheus stepped past them. "You have grown more and more distracted these past months. Does something ail you? Is the curse acting up?"

    Pyromancer jerked in surprise. "W-What? No, it is nothing. I am fine, I swear." His flame brightened in his hand, casting a stronger illumination than any of their torches could. He always had a raspy voice, but it sounded worse than usual.

    "Please, old friend; if I can aid you, allow me to do so. You can trust me." Matheus gestured at his arm."Show me what is wrong with your wrist."

    It was hard to deny Matheus. With his tone of voice and the aura he exuded, it was confounding that he didn't become a priest, or at the very least, a cleric. After a moment of hesitation, Pyromancer relented. The others gathered around as Matheus undid the wrappings on his arm. When the final wrapping came undone, it revealed pale skin covered with swollen and pulsing black veins.

    "What in the gods' name is that?!" Spearman stumbled back in fear.

    "Pyromancer," Matheus whispered in horror. "What have you done?"

    "I told you when we first met; I was exiled from my home for dabbling in things I shouldn't have," Pyromancer said while laughing hysterically.

    "You were playing with black magic." It wasn't so much an accusation as it was a statement from Gerhardt.

    "I thought you were exiled for meddling with Chaos."

    Pyromancer closed his eye as he smiled weakly under his wraps."I never said chaos; only that it was forbidden."

    "What is happening to him?" Spearman asked, panicked. "Is he going to go Hollow? Is he going to turn into a monster? Surely we are not going to keep travelling with him?!" With each question, Spearman kept raising his voice louder and louder.

    Drifter stepped over to him before grabbing him by the shoulder and yanking him close to hiss into his ear, "Shut your mouth and be quiet!"

    He shoved him back before turning to Matheus. "What are we going to do now?"

    "We deal with the beast," he answered. "Pyromancer, I want you to wait for us back at the village. The rest of us will—"

    "Matheus," Pyromancer interrupted, "I know what you are trying to do. I appreciate the gesture but it's pointless."

    "Nonsense. Once we are done here, we can find someone to treat you. With how far in the outskirts we are, it should be easier to find a witch who may know what to do."

    Spearman inhaled sharply. Drifter gave him a warning look as he rested his hand on the pommel of his sword. After a brief moment, Spearman turned away.

    "I've already tried," he explained. "Soon after I first noticed the signs, I used a purging stone and it did nothing. This isn't hollowing, this is something else, something worse."

    "That does not mean we can not do something about it. I am certain—"

    "Matheus! Matheus, please. There is nothing anyone can do for me anymore. I-I can feel it inside me… squirming around… It burns so bad, and yet… it feels so cold. I can hear… whispering, clawing through my head. I tried… I tried so hard to keep it at bay, but I no longer can. It will surge soon and I feel… that I won't survive it."

    "Pyromancer."

    "It is why I wanted to join you on one last quest. My life was never worth much. At least I can make my death mean something, even if it's for a people that would never thank me for it. Regardless of how everything turns out… I know I am not coming back from that forest. This is the end for me, so let me face it on my terms."

    "Fair enough." Everyone turned toward Gerhardt who had been observing in silence. "I can respect a man who is willing to face his end head on, but from here on you have to take point. Whatever is waiting for us, you will have to face it first. At the very least you will serve as a good enough distraction for the rest of us."

    "Gerhardt," Matheus warned. Drifter stepped up next to him.

    "Look, I may owe you for saving my life from the church hunters, but that doesn't mean that I will just trust whatever decision you make. I have not known him as long as you, therefore I can not trust my back to someone who could lose themselves at any moment. I have died enough times as it is."

    "I will do it." Matheus turned to Pyromancer in surprise.

    "Are you sure?"

    "He has made his decision," Gerhardt cut in. "Let the man choose his own fate. It is a rare blessing that few are granted."

    "And what about you two? Do either of you have something to say?"

    Spearman shifted uncomfortably. Though he remained quiet, it was obvious from his body language alone who he was siding with. As much as Drifter hated to do so, he had to agree with Gerhardt.

    "Let him take point," he said as he backed away from him. "There is nothing else we can do for him."

    Pyromancer reached out to grasp Matheus' shoulder. "My journey would have ended long ago if not for you. I am forever grateful for the faith you placed in an exile such as I, but it is time for my journey to end, like all good journeys must."

    Matheus gave his hand a reassuring squeeze, a silent conversation passing between the two before he released him. Reigniting his flame, Pyromancer stepped past him with everyone falling in behind him.

    Eventually, the group reached the edge where the forest began.

    "It seems that the village head withheld some important information," Pyromancer stated as the group found themselves standing at the top of a steep hill as the forest that they were supposed to search sat deep at the bottom of a sunken valley. The trees were so tall that they cast an illusion of normalcy from a distance.

    "Gods, look at the canopy," Spearman pointed out. "The leaves are so thick that you are unable to see the ground floor. It must be pitch black down there. How are we supposed to navigate through that?"

    "We will have to trust our torches and Pyromancer's light to see us through." Matheus drew the greatsword that was strapped to his back. Unlike his armor, the sword still shined beautifully as if it was recently forged. Gold embroidery was entwined with silver steel as veins of Titanite danced across its surface. "We are short of time."

    "Wait," Pyromancer said as he raised his hand in the air. "Do you smell that?"

    "There is a faint smell of something sweet… and pungent in the air," Gerhardt spoke up. "Is that rot? Something is not right with this place."

    Pyromancer kneeled on the ground and grabbed a handful of dirt. He squeezed until a thin stream of discolored water poured out.

    "It has not rained for days, yet the ground is soaked," he examined. "For the land to be expelling water to such a degree and the smell, I believe this forest is becoming blighted."

    "Blighted? Are you saying this place is poisoned?" Spearman questioned.

    "No. Or at least not yet. If this forest was blighted, then we would have been able to smell the rot from father away. At most, I would say, we should be cautious as there may be pockets of the forest that have rotted and will be dangerous if we attempt to cut through."

    "There has to be another way. What if we wait for daylight?"

    "We have until daylight to kill the beast," Mathus explained. "That was the provision the village head gave us that we must fulfill, otherwise they will not trade with us."

    "How the hell are we supposed to find this beast in the dark, much less fight it? And that is if we don't poison ourselves navigating this forest. They are sending us to die. Surely you all see this."

    "Of course they are. We are Undead, or have you forgotten?" Drifter was growing tired of Spearman's complaining. He did not know what Matheus saw in this man. Spearman was a lost cause and should have been left to the fate of the curse. "They do not give a shit about the likes of us. What we should be concerned with is ensuring that they keep their end of the bargain after we complete their task."

    "This is an impossible task. Maybe we don't have to do it. I mean, they are just villagers. Between the five of us we could simply—"

    Spearman was cut off as Gerhardt jabbed him in the chest with the head of his ax.

    "Don't you fucking dare finish that sentence!" he roared. "We may be cursed, but we still have our pride and honor as men. If such concepts are so foreign to a man like you, then you are no different from the monsters that roam the wilds, and I will cut you down here and now."

    "Enough!" Matheus stepped between the two, separating them. He shot Drifter a chastising look as he stepped away from behind Spearman and sheathed his sword. "We can not be fighting amongst ourselves. Gerhardt is right, though. Attacking and stealing from those people would make us no better than the monsters they believe us to be. I understand you are afraid. We all are. No one here wants to go Hollow. It is a fate worse than death. None of us will survive on our own. We must rely on ourselves and each other if we want to avoid such a fate. The curse will not last forever. If we endure until the Flame is strengthened once more, then we will be free and able to return to our homes."

    "H-How do you know? How can you be so certain that this curse will go away?"

    "Before I was exiled, my family kept close ties to The Way of White. That relationship granted me access to certain records of the order. This is not the first time the curse has appeared, but each time that it has, it was eventually defeated and the cursed set free by a champion. Even if we do not find a way to undo the curse ourselves, it is only a matter of time before it is beaten back once more." Matheus extended a hand toward Spearman. "We can overcome this, but only if we stand together. You will not be facing this alone. You will have brothers who will stand beside you. The only question I have for you is if you are willing to do the same."

    Spearman looked at his hand hesitantly before clasping it. "I-I will. I don't want to give up, not yet."

    Matheus glanced to Gerhardt, his gaze asking the same question. He rolled his eyes.

    "I am here, am I not? Just never let me hear you utter such words again," he said as he slung his ax over his shoulder. "I expect more from a town guardsman."

    Spearman nodded in understanding. "I will do better. So, I guess we really are doing this. Well, what are we waiting for?"

    Pyromancer chuckled. "A way with words like always, Matheus. Is everyone ready to head down?" He received a series of nods. "Stay close and keep a good grip on your torches. I suspect the bottom will be flooded, so watch your step."

    As Pyromancer led the group down into the forest, Matheus hung back to walk in step with Drifter.

    "Save it. I know what you are going to say."

    "I am not trying to start a fight, I only wanted to share some words of wisdom my father once shared with me; Humanity is only as strong as the weakest burden it carries on its back."

    "What is that supposed to mean?"

    Matheus gave him a sad smile. "Our strength is measured not by the obstacles we overcome, but by the burdens we carry while doing so. I know you are afraid, but if you keep trying to sever ties the moment you feel they are a burden to you, then you will find yourself alone with nowhere to go in the world."

    Drifter touched the mark on his throat. "I am pretty sure your father did not have to face an impossible task such as this."

    "There is no such thing as an impossible task, only a highly difficult one." He reached out and gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze before walking ahead to take position behind Pyromancer.

    The forest was in worse shape than they initially thought. At a passing glance, everything seemed normal, but upon closer inspection, one could easily spot the mold and rot that was setting into the trees. As Pyromancer predicted, the ground was absolutely soaked with water. More than once did one of them step in a puddle only to be surprised by a hole hiding underneath. Gerhardt had become particularly foul-mouthed after suffering a tumble that left him drenched. Drifter didn't doubt that before long this forest would transform into a swamp, a blighted one at that.

    He had to adjust his grip on his torch as he stumbled once again. As expected, the forest canopy was blocking out what little moonlight they could have used to aid them. Without their torches and Pyromancer's light, the group would have been trapped in abject darkness. The only noise was the splashing of their footsteps; the lack of other sounds was bothering him more than he cared to admit. The deeper they traveled into the forest, the greater his sense of foreboding was becoming.

    "Anyone else feeling that we have been played for fools?" Gerhardt asked.

    "What do you mean?" Spearman questioned. "We have yet to encounter anything."

    "And don't you find that strange? The villagers claimed that this forest was infested with all sorts of monsters." He gestured around them with his axe. "Well, where are all these so-called monsters?"

    "Are you actually disappointed that we are not fighting for our lives right now?" Spearman asked incredulously.

    "You would not understand. You are used to fighting on walls where you have the advantage. I prefer a straightforward fight. Before I was cursed and forced from my homeland, my family was known for the many beasts we had slain."

    "Did any of you manage to slay a dragon?" Drifter asked.

    "Ha! Not yet, but just you wait. Once I am free from this curse, I intend to travel North of my homeland. There are rumors that some still roam there and I intend to add one to our name. I will be welcomed back as a hero. Let me tell you two right now, there is nothing like the timeless clash between man and beast. The thrill of the hunt, that moment when you prove man's superiority over the raw savagery of nature—there is nothing quite like that feeling."

    "Careful," Matheus chided. "Pride comes before the fall. Dragons are not some simple beast that any man can slay. You have a long way to go before you will be ready to challenge such a foe. If you are too reckless, you may end up losing yourself before you can get the chance to do so."

    Gerhardt rolled his eyes. "Shove off, old man. Do not lecture me like I am the boy or the greenhorn. I have been in more battles than the two put together. I have no intention of ever falling to a simple-minded beast."

    "As if that was not made clear to me before," Drifter commented dryly. "If I had not been there to stop you, you would have fought every living creature we had come across during our journey here."

    Spearman snorted in amusement. "Were it not for the fact that we are ungodly blights on the world, I would think that being Undead would be a boon for you. You could hunt down any beast, no matter how dangerous. If you die, then you can just try again. Those dragons will not stand a chance."

    "I told you before. Undead or not, I still have my pride. I will be damned before I let a mere animal or abomination get the best of me. What would be the point of beating it once, if it killed me a hundred times in turn? No, I will not accept defeat from any beast regardless that I am now Undead."

    "Then don't underestimate them," Pyromancer spoke up. "Animals and beasts can prove to be much more clever than you would expect—dragons especially. Underestimate them at your own peril."

    "Oh? And what would you know?"

    "My former master and his tribe of pyromancers live in the rocky landscape by a volcano. The land is harsh and so too is the wildlife that takes up residence there. Rivers of lava flowed just under the surface, so you had to watch your step or that would be it for you. The ground would thin at places to the point where the weight of your foot would be enough to punch through the rock straight into the molten lava underneath. Anything that desired to live there had to adapt quickly, something all the wildlife had done."

    "What kind did you have? Anything interesting?"

    "Nothing you could take home and brag about," he chuckled. "The most notable creatures we had were a unique breed of cow-sized goats that would occasionally eat men, and giant stone lizards."

    "Bah, those things do not sound so difficult to deal with."

    "But they are clever," he emphasized. "Every creature that I have seen inhabiting that place has a good sense of the land. They know where the ground is weak and where the pitfalls lie. It made hunting difficult as many of the animals would purposely try and lead us into such traps. I have seen men get careless and pay for it. The lucky ones would lose a leg at most. As for the others, well, it is not like lava leaves anything to be buried."

    Gerhardt mulled his words over with a doubtful expression on his face. "Alright, I will admit some creatures can grow crafty as they age, but those are only the survivors that manage to live so long."

    Drifter could see Matheus shake his head.

    "Most will rely on nothing but their base instincts, even in their old age. Besides, you speak as if they can think like us."

    "I take it that you have never met a dog before."

    Gerhardt snorted. "You can train a dog to be smart, otherwise they are simple mutts."

    Pyromancer sighed in disappointment. "Let it not be said that I did not warn you. One day your—" He froze before drawing one of his daggers. "There is something ahead."

    In an instant, everyone readied their weapons and scanned the shadows for the slightest movement. Matheus stepped up next to him.

    "Can you see it?"

    "Not really. Wait. Look," he pointed, "right there in that pool of water."

    Slowly, the group approached, their torches peeling away the shadows. The floor gave way to a shallow pond that spread out into the darkness. Resting in the water in front of them was a large, black boulder.

    "That is a rock," Spearman stated.

    "No. I can sense something from it. Whatever it is, it is alive."

    Before anyone could say anything else, Gerhardt, with a mighty heave, threw his great axe at it. The "boulder" exploded in a shower of green blood and fragments of a black carapace. A pair of pincers briefly burst from the water before sinking under.

    "Well, I guess you were right," he quipped. He stepped forward to retrieve his ax when Matheus stopped him.

    "Allow me. There may be others in the water and you will be vulnerable without your weapon." Gerhardt snorted before he took a step back.

    The group waited with bated breath as Matheus wadded into the water to retrieve the axe. Drifter leaned forward as his eyes scanned the water's surface for the slightest ripple. The water was thick and murky, making it impossible to see if something was hiding underneath the surface. Thankfully, Matheus managed to yank Gerhardt's axe free and return without incident.

    "I believe we found your missing beasts."

    "Giant insects," Gerhardt stated. "Well, at least they are better than nothing."

    Drifter took a deep breath as he tightened his grip on his sword. "We have to deal with a forest filled with these things and hunt down the village monster. Great, as if things could not get more difficult."

    "I believe our situation is much worse," Spearman spoke up.

    "What do you mean?"

    "Before Redwood fell, I would occasionally be stationed at the gates. There, I would strike up conversations with the guardsmen of various caravans. I learned a few things from the encounters they had talked about. There are more than a few places where you can encounter giant insects and other abominations around these parts. They have been showing up more frequently around these parts as the corruption of the Undead spreads. If we are in a forest infested with giant insects and we have not been attacked, not even once, then that means there is something here. Something so fearsome it has cowed them Into hiding."

    "They are hiding because the damn thing is out there stalking us," Gerhardt growled. He brandished his axe as he called out into the darkness, "Come out, coward. We know you are out there. Save us the trouble and bring us your head."

    "I doubt the beast can even understand you. Hell, are you sure you are not yelling into the wind?" Drifter asked.

    Everyone turned as they heard the sound of a wet smack followed by a large object splashing toward them. An oblong shape rolled into the edge of their vision. From the many legs they could make out clawing at the air as it attempted to right itself, it was another insect the size of a large dog. Drifter, being the closest to it, took a step forward in an attempt to shine a little more light on it.

    "Did it try to throw a bug at us?"

    "I told you it was here."

    "Still think the beast is simple minded?"

    "Enough. Ready yourselves."

    Spearman stabbed his torch in the body of a nearby tree to wield his shield, with Gerhardt and Mathus following suit. The rotting wood gave way with little effort and provided decent holds which granted them a small lit area to fight in. The group formed a loose circle as they scanned the shadows for the slightest trace of their prey. The only sounds they could hear were the chittering of the insect it threw at them.

    The insect in question managed to right itself on its feet. Even with the distance and low amount of light between them, Drifter could make out its red eyes as it stared at his group. After a brief moment, it shuffled in place until its back was facing them. After a small click, the back of its carapace opened up exposing… fur?

    "Drifter, get down!"

    After the many years fighting by his side, Drifter had learned to trust Matheus' instincts far more than his own. He dove to the side as thin white spines whistled through the air where he was standing. There were exclamations of surprise before a fireball sailed through the air and engulfed the insect in flames. It thrashed in place momentarily before slumping to the ground, dead. The body whistled as steam from its boiled innards escaped its shell.

    Spearman helped Drifter to his feet. "Are you alright? Did it get you?"

    "It missed me. Thanks for the hand."

    "Ready yourselves," Pyromancer called out. "The beast approaches."

    They could hear something plod through the water towards them. It was slow. For a moment that felt like it was dragging on for hours, the only noise in the air was the crackling of torches, the heavy breathing of five warriors and the wet treading of footsteps. Soon, those footsteps were joined by a low growl as a dark shape formed on the periphery of their vision.

    First to form from the shadow was a long muzzle with oversized dagger-like teeth. A pair of sunken and sickly looking yellow eyes rested atop the muzzle. Long, thick strand-like hair lay matted to its body by filth and water. The forward body was bulky and muscular, only to noticeably shrink and become scrawny at its hindquarters. And the smell. Gods, it smelled like a rotting corpse. Honestly, the closest comparison to any known animal Drifter could make was some sort of demented crossbreed of a wolf and a bear; it definitely had the size of the latter. There was no doubt the blight setting into this forest had also affected this creature, mutating it from whatever it once was.

    "You finally show yourself," Gerhardt said with a smile. "I was hoping you would be bigger, but no matter. I will claim your head all the same."

    In response to his challenge, the Beast roared out in defiance. Drifter flinched back in surprise. The roar transformed into a high pitched shriek that pierced the ears. From the water besides Matheus, a man-sized centipede burst from the surface and thrashed in the air. With a single swing of his sword, he bisected it.

    "The beast is throwing the nearby insects into a frenzy," Pyromancer exclaimed. Drifter barely managed to hear him through the ringing in his ears. "We need to kill it before it brings the entire forest down on our heads."

    "We need to bait it out of the water."

    "Leave that to me." Gerhardt charged forward with a roar of his own.

    The beast lunged forward to meet him with a swing of its paw. He froze mid-charge, allowing the swipe to go wide; claws barely missed him before he swung out and carved a deep gash down its forearm. It cried out in pain before lunging forward, jaws clamping shut on thin air as it missed once more. Gerhardt kept baiting it forward with short back steps that left him just barely out of range of its swipes and snapping jaws. Throughout it all, Gerhardt wore a feral grin on his face as he courted death in a dance as old as time itself.

    Sickly yellow eyes had been so focused on the prey in front of it, that it was only when it felt twin burning sensations from its sides did it realize its mistake. Drifter and Matheus dodged back, avoiding its retaliation. Spearman struck at the creature from behind, his spear piercing through its knee and stumbling the beast. Before it could turn and lash out at him, a fireball burst against its head, setting its fur alight. The beast howled in pain as it thrashed around violently, forcing the group to back away.

    "You know, I was hoping for more of a challenge," Gerhardt commented as he looked to Pyromancer. "Looks like you will have to find somewhere else to die."

    "Focus," Matheus chided. "We have the beast cornered. I should not need to tell you what happens when you corner an animal."

    "I think we got more company," Spearman spoke up.

    "Shit." Drifter could see a swarm of insects encroaching on their position from behind.

    "They sense an easy kill," Pyromancer explained, his eyes never leaving the beast's in front of him. He could see the intelligence hiding behind its malice. It was going to try to bide its time. Time he did not have, not when the burning in his veins was getting worse. "Those are just the impatient ones. Once this beast is dead, the rest will have nothing to fear and try to overrun us. We have to finish this quickly before any more come."

    "Drifter, Spearman, cover our backs," Matheus ordered. "The three of us can finish this thing off by ourselves."

    "Alright. Spearman, take the right, I will handle the left."

    "Got it."

    Drifter held his torch out as a shield in front of him while the two of them confronted the swarm. There had to be somewhere between two or three dozen of the insects. Each was around the size of a dog and varied from ant and beetle-like to strange variations he could obviously tell were not natural. He would be lying if he said that all the chittering wasn't sending chills down his spine. The sooner they got out of this forest, the better. The swarm was slow to approach. If there were fewer of them, it would be easier to scatter them by just slaying a few.

    "Hold the line. We have no room to fall back unless we want to endanger the others"

    "I know that. I may have been a simple guard, but I know what to do during a fight."

    Any further conversation was cut as the first group of insects charged them. Drifter thrusted his torch at the lead most insect, a large beetle-shaped one. It abandoned its charge and snapped its pincers at him angrily. He responded by stabbing it through its eye. Surprisingly, the shell was softer than Drifter expected—he ended up splitting its skull with the blow, killing it. There was the sound of dull impacts on wood next to him quickly followed by the splitting of chitin.

    "Their shells are not as hard as I would expect," Spearman spoke up. "I guess not even bugs are safe from the rot."

    "Then we have no excuse to not finish this quickly."

    When the next insect charged him, instead of aiming for a weak point on its body, he swung out at its core. There was a moment of slight resilience before his sword split the bug open like a rotten fruit. Drifter couldn't help the smile that appeared on his the swarm was still a threat that could overwhelm them if they got careless, now it felt so much more manageable. It was unlikely now that this fight would get dragged out, even as more trickled in. Soon they would be able to return and help the others.

    The two went to work culling the swarm and staining the ground with their multi-colored blood. At one point, one of the smaller insects went for Drifter's leg. He managed to dodge it before putting his foot through its head. Spearman huddled behind his shield to hold the bulwark back while he lashed out with his spear, occasionally using it like an oversized club and crippling those unfortunate to be hit by it. More than once did something latch on to his spear and he had to wrestle with it. A quick introduction to his boot would be enough to solve the problem.

    Throughout their fighting, Drifter kept some focus on the fight occuring behind them. The air was filled with the smell of burning fur. He could make out the tearing of flesh and howls of pain, punctuated by taunts from Gerhardt. From the sounds of it, the fight was going their way. At this rate, it seemed that all of them would be leaving this forest alive.

    "Pyromancer!"

    Drifter attempted to turn at Matheus' cry before something crashed into him and knocked him to the ground. His torch slipped from his grip and rolled away. With a curse, Spearman ran over and took up position over them. He kicked the torch toward the swarm, forcing them to split and back away.

    "Get up and check on your friend. I will do what I can to hold off what remains of these bugs." Spearman charged into the remnants of the swarm. While they had reduced their numbers to a mere dozen, there were more gathering to replace the fallen. He lashed out with his spear in large arcs, angering the insects and forcing all their attention on him. "I am probably going to die here," he muttered as another swarm crawled out of the darkness to join the first. Surprisingly, he found a sort of peace in these words. With a fervor he did not know himself capable of, he charged the largest insect, skewering it on his spear before chucking its corpse at its brethren. Whatever he couldn't skewer with his spear, he bashed to a pulp with his shield. He lashed out viciously with no sense of self-preservation. Despite everything that had happened in his life, all the failures and let downs, he found fulfillment in this small moment. It may have only been against insects, yet Spearman found himself living out an old, nearly forgotten childhood dream of his. And with that sense of fulfillment, he had never felt more alive.

    With Spearman holding the swarm back, Drifter was able to rise to his feet. To his horror, he found that the object that had knocked him over was Pyromancer. Three deep gashes were carved into his torso. He didn't know which was worse, his injuries or the pitch-black ichor that he was coughing up and seeping through his wounds.

    "Shit." Drifter tried to pick him up only to be waved off.

    "Stop," he hacked out. "Do not touch me unless you want this to spread to yourself." With much effort, Pyromancer managed to raise himself up onto a knee. He planted his hand on his chest, flooding his body with his pyromancy.

    "Is there anything I can do to help?"

    Pyromancer laughed ruefully, though it sounded more like wheezing. He reached up and ripped off the wrappings covering his head and face. His once vibrant red hair had faded yellow and had been reduced to clumps that were slowly falling away. Black spots and veins stood out against unnaturally pale white skin. The Darksign that marred the left half of his face was exposed, yet what drew Drifter's attention were the black veins that crawled and squirmed across his face as they slowly inched their way toward it. His right eye was slowly swallowed by black ichor that flooded into his eye.

    "By the gods."

    Pyromancer flashed him a grin, his teeth stained with the same black substance. "This is my punishment for my hubris. I did not believe it worthy of the same respectful fear that I gave my flame. You and Matheus have been great companions to a fool like me and I am grateful for the adventures you had joined me on. Take this final advice from a sorry fool and never let it go: the Abyss is untamable, it is all consuming—" Pyromancer doubled over as he hacked up more of the black ichor. Instead of splattering on the floor, the substance clung to his skin and squirmed. He intensified his pyromancy to keep it back just a little longer.

    "Fear it," he gasped in pain. "Fear and avoid the Abyss at all costs." When Pyromancer met Drifter's gaze, he gave him one last smile as a tear ran from his corrupted eye. "I-I am sorry… that I can not stay with either of you till the end. Please, remember me as long as you can."

    Pyromancer stumbled to his feet and charged back into the fray as flame and black ichor began to burst from his body. Drifter could do nothing but watch as his old friend charged straight into death's embrace. No words came to him as his hand grasped empty air.

    The beast the three had been fighting was heavily maimed and burned. It bled profusely from its many wounds, the worst of which being a missing left paw and a gash that claimed half its face. Despite its wounds, desperation allowed the beast to keep fighting with its ferocity and strength seemingly unaffected.

    "Right here, beast!" Pyromancer yelled. His voice was distorting and his flesh smouldering from the fire he had been pumping into his veins. "Do you intend to die alone? Then come at me! I am ready. We can journey together into the dark!"

    "Pyromancer, what are you doing?!" Matheus cried out.

    The beast's remaining eye locked on to Pyromancer's crippled form. The instincts that warned it of the danger of his glowing form were overwritten by its desperation and fear. All the beast saw was a wounded hunter and a way to break free from its predicament. It charged forward with newfound strength and a roar of defiance.

    Matheus attempted to stop its charge. He embedded his sword into its side, feet planted into the ground, locking him in place. The beast's momentum caused it to tear its side open, effectively disemboweling it, but it was not enough to stop it. Gerhardt, recognizing what was going to happen, grabbed Matheus and pulled him away as the beast's jaws clamped shut over Pyromancer's torso. The sound of a wet crunch of flesh and bone echoed through the air before Pyromancer's body erupted in a thunderous, fiery explosion. The force of the explosion sent everyone to the ground and scattered the insects that were on the verge of overwhelming Spearman.
    Chunks of burning flesh and blood rained down around them. All the burning flesh and fur illuminated a far greater area than their torches did. Drifter stumbled onto his feet as he stared dumbly at the remains of the beast. The entire upper torso was blown to pieces, leaving behind the smoldering remains of its hindquarters. There was no trace left of Pyromancer, his friend.


    "I can't believe he did it," Spearman remarked.

    "It was a good kill," Gerhardt said as he stepped up to the remains. Drifter absently noticed that he was missing his left shoulder pauldron and had new grooves carved into his armor.

    Matheus appeared by his side. "Are you okay?" he asked.

    Drifter could only nod in response. He gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze before turning to Gerhardt, who was walking towards them. In his hands was a piece of the creature's jaw. With a little prying, he pulled free the two largest fangs from the jawbone. Gerhardt handed him the smaller of the two.

    "A trophy and proof of your friend's kill," Gerhardt explained. "I feel it is only appropriate that one of you take it on his behalf."

    "Thank you."

    "I don't want to be the bearer of bad news, but that explosion knocked some of the torches free and scattered them," Spearman spoke up. "We only have one left and I don't know how much longer the creature's flesh is going to burn."

    "So this is the part where we fight our way out." Gerhardt rolled his shoulders. "Hopefully it serves as a better challenge than the beast was."

    As if on cue, the air filled with the sounds of buzzing and chittering as large groups of insects began to encroach on their position. Drifter could see larger insects joining the growing swarm.

    "I will take point this time." Matheus took the torch from Spearman. "Stay close behind me. Once we start moving we cannot stop for anything, understand?"

    Everyone nodded as they grouped up behind him. Both groups were poised to charge, the air thick with tension. Just when the dam was ready to burst, the pressure suddenly receded. The swarm turned and fled. The group stared at the retreating swarm, dumbfounded.

    "What?" Drifter's confused comment echoed everyone's thoughts as a heavy presence began to settle over them. There was a large, heavy splash in the water behind them that managed to send tremors through the ground. Slowly, the four turned around. Drifter's face paled in fear as he found himself staring down a similar creature as the one Pyromancer had slain.

    "There was a second one," he whispered in disbelief.

    This creature was much, much larger than the first; almost three times the size. Plates of pale black and white chitin peaked out from its dull red fur. A long reptilian-like tail swished in the water behind it. Where the smaller one seemed to be in poor health, this one was still healthy and strong. A pair of antenna-like horns curved over its head as two disjointed eyes glanced among the four, a familiar yellow one with an insect-like red one. The chimera looked over them toward the remains of its fallen comrade. It walked around them to stand over the corpse. The sound of pained whimpering filled the air.

    "I think we killed its mate," Spearman said in horror.

    Matheus noticed the partially distended stomach and the pink tips of teats that poked through its fur.

    "No, we killed its child."

    The whimpering changed into a growl before erupting into a pained and wrathful wail. Drifter and Spearman collapsed to their knees as they tried to block out the scream. Gerhardt and Matheus managed to stay on their feet. Despite the pain he was no doubt feeling, there was a smile on Gerhardt's face.

    "Finally, a real challenge," he said as soon as the wailing stopped and readied his ax. The chimera turned to face them, its eyes glowing with malevolence and promising revenge. It bared knife-like teeth at them.

    "Circle it," Matheus called out. "We need to kill it before the light goes out."

    The chimera's head snapped toward him. Matheus met its gaze unflinchingly. After a short moment it raised its head into the air and howled. Unlike before, this one was very low in pitch, to the point that they could barely hear it.

    "What was that?"

    "I don't know. Be ready for anything."

    "If we kill it then it won't matter what that was."

    "Oh shit! Behind us!"

    Drifter turned around at Spearman's cry. Giant insects were approaching once more.

    "Look out!"

    He turned back to see a large set of jaws closing in on him. His breath caught in fear. With a mighty roar, Gerhardt embedded his ax in the chimera's muzzle and forced its head to the side, saving his life as its jaws missed. Drifter stumbled back as, in a show of strength, Gerhardt pushed the creature back, forcing it to break off or risk getting tossed on its side.

    Gerhardt breathed heavily. "This creature is tough," he muttered with a smile. "It will make a great kill to take home."

    "Spearman, can you hold the backline while the three of us deal with this monster?"

    "Are you sure the three of you will be enough to kill it?"

    "That all depends on if you can hold."

    "I-I will do it. No, I can do it. Just know that more bugs will keep coming, so if your fight takes too long, eventually they will ignore me for the rest of you. I will try to prevent that as long as I can."

    "That's all I ask. Now go. Drifter, have you regained our senses?"

    "Yes."

    "Take its flanks. Avoid facing it head on, leave that to us. This thing is smarter than its child."

    "And it will die just the same."

    The chimera's eyes glowed with rage as it stared down Gerhardt. It reared back once more to screech and summon more of the lessers. It was easy for it to manipulate their weak-minded kind. No matter what it took, it was not going to allow any of them to leave here alive.

    Matheus and Gerhardt charged toward it, but to their surprise, it backed away and tried to keep the distance between them. Where the child was reckless and hyper aggressive, the parent was more cautious and patient. Even with the extended range from the still burning fires, there was only so far they could pursue it. They could feel the ticking of the clock as the flames slowly waned in potency.

    "Damn beast is a coward," Gerhardt growled.

    "Gerhardt, we need to fall back," Matheus whispered to him.

    "What?! You must be—"

    "Gerhardt! Trust me on this." A silent conversation passed between the two before understanding dawned in Gerhardt's eyes. He turned and fled.

    "Drifter!" Matheus called out. "We can't face this creature. We have to flee."

    Without second guessing him, Drifter turned his back on the beast and followed after Gerhardt.

    The chimera's eyes widened in alarm as it looked past the fleeing predators toward the swarm. It was not large enough yet to prevent them from fleeing. With an angry growl, it chased after them.

    Now that the creature had moved further into their dwindling arena, Matheus spun on his heel and threw his sword. The sword embedded itself into its shoulder and sent it crashing face first into the ground. Before it could get up, Matheus used its long snout as a stepping stone to jump up and reclaimed his sword. In the process, he tore open a great hole in its shoulder as he jumped free.

    Before the chimera could retaliate, Gerhardt was already upon it with Drifter close behind, him being the slowest to respond. Despite its attempts to defend itself, Gerhardt managed to slice down its forearm, toward its paw and sever two of its fingers. He managed to duck back and avoid getting his head bitten off by a hair's breadth. Drifter managed to strike out at a hind leg, but was only able to deliver a shallow wound. He barely avoided the chimera's tail as it swung out at them.

    Now the chimera found itself trapped in a triangle by the three. Everytime it tried to face Drifter, the weakest of the three, the group would circle around so that it was always facing down either Gerhardt or Mathues, causing it to growl in annoyance. They would not give it the chance to break free.

    Despite having both arms drenched with its blood and missing a few fingers, it was more than capable of holding its own against the three. Blood soaked the ground as the three danced around it and delivered whatever wounds they could while avoiding its devastating, retaliatory strikes that tore up the earth around them. Its hide proved to be very thick and a hindrance. At one point, Drifter managed to cut its tail in half, but had snapped his blade in two in the process.

    Drifter couldn't help but get nervous. The light from the remaining flames was quickly dimming and they were unable to land any fatal blows. Matheus and Gerhardt were more than capable of delivering a devastating blow to the creature, but if that blow did not kill it instantly, then they would be left vulnerable to a counter-strike from it. Considering its strength, a single hit could be enough to end any of them. It didn't help that Spearman was yelling at them to hurry.

    The quick glance he spared his way made his heart jump to his throat. There were now insects the size of wolves composing the swarm. By the gods, how big did the abominations in this forest get? There were various wounds all over Spearman's body from strikes that managed to slip by his defence. He was at his limit and would not be able to hold much longer. Already some were breaking off and circling around in the darkness of the forest. Their fear of the creature was probably the only reason they had not pounced yet. But for how long?

    Maybe that fear was why he did what he did. He charged in during what he thought was an opening, failing to notice what should have been an obvious tell that the chimera still had sight on him. It struck back with a hind leg like a mule and caught him in the chest. The force, while thankfully weaker than what it could muster with its forearms was more than enough to send him flying backwards and fracture a few ribs. The chimera used the opportunity he provided to break free from their encirclement.

    It fell back until most of its body was enshroud in the growing darkness and only its face was easily visible. Its head perked up and glanced to the side before it settled on Gerhardt. Drifter swore the creature was smiling at them mockenly. He managed to drag himself back onto his feet when Gerhardt, never one to back down from a challenge, charged in once more with a battle cry.

    "Gerhardt, wait!" Matheus warned, but it was too late. The air whistled as spear sized spines flew out from the darkness. Three of them impacted against Gerhardt, puncturing through his chest and side and knocking him to the ground. He cried out in pain as he struggled to raise himself off the ground.

    "Look out!"

    Gerhardt looked up in time to see the chimera lunge at him. In a final act of defiance, he lashed out with his axe in an attempt to land one more blow. He disappeared as the creature crashed into him, the impact sending mud and dirt into the air. There was the screeching of metal followed by the tearing of flesh before the chimera flicked its head and tossed the remains of Gerhardt's torso into the darkness toward the origin of the spines.
    Drifter's horror quickly turned into rage. He charged in while the creature's back was still toward him.


    "Drifter, stop!"

    Things were not supposed to go this way. They were supposed to slay this creature and then be on their way somewhere that could undo or delay the curse. No one deserved to die in a place like this. He didn't want to die in a place like this. Alone and in the dark.

    Drifter stabbed what remained of his blade into the creature's side before he tried to rip it forward. Unfortunately, he didn't get far before there was a light ping and his sword slipped free. An empty hilt was all that was left of his blade. Fear clutched his heart as he was now helpless before the beast. In response, it swatted him away with greater force than before. His body shattered the bark of a tree as he ricocheted off it and landed face down on the edge of the pond.

    The bitter taste of copper and filth filled his mouth as he choked on the tainted waters and his own blood. The blow must have shattered his entire rib cage. It was a struggle to simply roll himself onto his side to prevent himself from drowning. While an Undead's body could take more abuse than a normal human's, there were still limits to how far it could be pushed. His ears rang as his vision blurred in the encroaching darkness. Was it from the fading lights or was he about to pass out?

    A blood soaked Spearman stepped into his vision. He was shouting and waving his arms, but Drifter couldn't make out what he was saying. Then to his shock, Spearman turned and ran. His surprise morphed into anger and he croaked out a single word, "Coward."

    The air and water around Drifter shifted as something bound over his body. He watched as the chimera pounced on Spearman, his form faded to an outline in the dark. All he could see was its silhouette as it tore him to shreds. It would be a lie to say he didn't feel a small sense of satisfaction at the sight. A torch flew through the air before landing near the creature, illuminating it and the mangled remains of Spearman.

    It turned its blood soaked muzzle toward the source. Matheus charged toward it, now with Gerhardt's greataxe in his off hand. Drifter struggled to raise himself to his feet so he could follow him.

    The chimera swung at him only to have Matheus meet its blow with his own. His sword swung into a bone deep gash that Gerhardt had managed to carve into its arm earlier. It managed to slip inside the wound with most of its momentum intact and shattered bone. The remaining force was still enough to tear through its flesh and sever its arm. The beast howled in pain as it tried to stumble away. Capitalizing on its moment of weakness, Matheus threw Gerhardts axe at its head.

    He managed to impale it in the eye and caused it to reel back in pain. Taking a risk, Matheus launched himself at the chimera's throat. By either luck or the blessings of the gods, he avoided its snapping jaws and brought his blade down through the flesh of its neck. While he was unable to decapitate it, he had managed to tear its throat open and drench himself with its blood. The chimera thrashed around in its death throes, splattering its blood everywhere. Matheus vanished from view as a stray stream of blood extinguished the last torch.

    Darkness closed in on Drifter as a faint, dying glow was all that kept him from its grasp. He had dragged himself to his knees when Matheus appeared beside him.

    "We need to run," he breathed out as he tried to catch his breath. The beast's dying cries filled the background as the final embers on the field died out and cast them in absolute darkness. He could hear the sound of scurrying as insects moved past them. Mathus threw Drifter's arm over his shoulder as he pulled him to his feet. "On your feet. We can not afford to stop moving. If we stop for a second then we are both dead."

    Drifter did his best to hobble along as Matheus carried him forward. The screams in the background were soon joined by the tearing of flesh. Eventually Drifter managed to recover enough to support himself and allowed them to pick up the pace. It quickly proved fortunate as the chimera let loose one last deafening scream that shook the trees. In response, the forest came alive. The darkness became filled with the sounds of chittering and the snapping of mandibles. To the two's horror, the sound of buzzing joined the chorus.

    "Keep moving," Matheus yelled in order to be heard over the noise. He grabbed Drifter's arm in the darkness and pulled him in a new direction. The action caused him to stumble and he would have fallen had Matheus not kept a firm grip on him. "Focus on staying on your feet. We will make it out of here, the Sun has not abandoned us."

    Despite the faith in his words, Drifter could not keep himself from being terrified. It was difficult. It felt so difficult. His lungs burned with each breath he took and his legs ached. From the noise that surrounded them, he knew that they were being pursued. Easy prey for this forest of monsters. More than once did the air by him churn as something whizzed by in an attempt to cut down or grab him. Were it not for Matheus guiding him, he surely would have crashed into a tree or fallen by now. He was tempted to give up and surrender himself to the forest. At least that way Matheus would have a better chance to escape without him holding him back.

    Before he could contemplate it any further, Matheus grabbed and shielded him with his body. The sounds of spines whizzed through the air around them, occasionally joined by the pop of metal as a few punctured through his armor. Matheus coughed and Drifter felt warm liquid splatter on the side of his face.

    "Matheus?"

    He grabbed his arm before forcing a faintly glowing object into his hand. It only cast enough light to illuminate their hands, but it was enough for Drifter to see what Matheus gave him. His Sunlight Medallion.

    "Take this, it will guide you to safety. Go!" Matheus pushed him away. "Whatever you do, do not stop running."

    Drifter could hear him draw his sword to face the encroaching swarm. He roared out a challenge into the dark as a final act of defiance.

    "Come and face me, foul fiends! I am Matheus of Abednego, and as long as I draw breath, you shall not pass me!"

    The sounds of combat faded away as Drifter ran deeper into the darkness. Tears burned his eyes as he poured what little strength he had left into his legs. He clutched tightly to Matheus' medallion. Its warmth seeped into his hand. Drifter had no clue where he was going as he crashed into trees and stumbled over roots. It took everything he had to stay on his feet. If he fell, he would not be able to get up. At one point, something buzzed by his head and left a burning sensation on his cheek. As he ran, he noticed the medallion in his hand grow colder. Another collision with a tree turned him around, but as he ran in this new direction, the medallion regained some of its warmth. It clicked for him in an instant. The heat of the medallion would guide him out of this nightmare. It will guide him out of this disaster of a hunt.

    Drifter was bolstered with newfound vigor as he charged down the invisible path that was laid out before him. He would not waste Matheus' sacrifice.

    Unfortunately, vigor can only last so long. His body had already reached its limit long ago and the pain was growing unbearable. The forest would not let its prey escape so easily. Something lashed out and tore open a gash in his side and stumbled him, but he would not fall. He was almost sent to the floor when a series of spines lodged themselves into his back, but he managed to push off, back onto his feet before he hit the ground. His only saving grace was that the spines were much smaller than what hit Gerhardt.

    Despite all his efforts, Drifter's strength was waning. He was coughing up blood and his legs trembled with each step he took. What little hope he had was gone and replaced with panic and despair. Drifter could feel the swarm breathing down his neck. At any moment, it felt like he would be taken down by something from the swarm.

    The ground became uneven under his feet and he could feel the floor drastically slant upwards. The gods would not pay such a cruel trick on him, would they? Like a madman, Drifter scrambled up the hill, falling to his hands and knees in the process. It wasn't as steep as the way they descended into this deathtrap, but he didn't care as long as it was an escape from this place.

    The moment he stumbled onto the top, he was blinded by golden rays. Drifter had to shield his eyes from what felt like his first glimpse of sunlight in an eternity. A shining beacon in the dark, the Sun rose over the horizon and bathed the land in its morning rays. He couldn't suppress the laughter that bubbled from his throat as he collapsed to his knees.

    He did it.

    He survived.

    His laughter devolved into hysteria as he wasn't sure whether he should celebrate his survival or despair over the fact that he was the only one to do so.

    Drifter was torn free from his turbulent thoughts by the sound of movement behind him. He craned his head around and saw the swarm slowly creeping up the hill behind him. Fliers flitted through the trees in the rear while the main swarm advanced in a hesitant manner. Were they afraid of the light? It took a lot of effort, but to his surprise, Drifter managed to raise himself onto his feet. Now, with the ever increasing sunlight, he could get a good look at the creatures.

    Many were sickly pale with their shells nearly transparent. Some, to his surprise, had fur and animal-like limbs and tails. Were they insects with animal features or animals with insect-like features? A fair number were complete abominations, bearing no resemblance to any known creature, insect or mammal. Whatever they were, it seemed that nothing was free from the corruption and bastardization of the Undead Curse. How long before all lands ended up as corrupted as this place? There was a small part of him that couldn't help, but pity the poor creatures.

    The swarm hissed, growled and snapped their mandibles in hunger at him. Maybe it was the hysteria still in his system, maybe it was comfort of warm sunlight on his back or maybe it was the indescribable mental exhaustion he was feeling, but Drifter no longer cared about the threat in front of him. All it would take is a single lunge from one of them to grab his leg and drag him from the sunlight. Drifter may have lacked a proper weapon, but that did not mean he was helpless. He grabbed the beast's tooth that Gerhardt had given him. If they still wanted to fight, then he would not go down easily.

    For a long moment, they stared each other down. Eventually, whatever they saw in him made the swarm decide that he was not worth the effort. The abominations turned and scurried back into the forest. Drifter let out a sigh of relief. He really wanted to lay down and go to sleep under the sun's warm rays, but the weight of the tooth in his hand reminded him that he still had a task to see through. Hopefully the others will revive soon and join him. Best to have everything ready for them to leave as soon as possible. Those villagers better not try to cheat him, not after everything they had been through. He would not be liable for his actions if they tried.

    Drifter waited by their old campsite they had met up at. It was set alongside the road so it was easily visible to anyone traveling on it, though travelers had become a rarity over the years. He sat by a campfire and waited for his companions. Beside him were the packs of supplies they were promised. It was not without its share of problems. Some of the villagers tried to claim that since he had not made it back before sunrise, that their agreement was void. To say he lost his temper would be an understatement. Had the village head not stepped in, he was certain he would have spilled someone's blood, even if all he had was the monster's tooth to do so. While the old man had done it purely out of pity, Drifter didn't care. They gave him what was promised, even if he was almost certain that it was less than what Matheus had battered for.

    All he could do now was wait. At first, his mind wandered back to their failed hunt. Was there anything he could have done differently? What about Gerhardt and Spearman? He thought about it for a short time before he eventually had to rip himself away from those thoughts. Grief was dangerous for an Undead, so he had to put the hunt and him out of mind, at least for now. The time it took for an Undead to revive varied with the means of the death being the only measurable factor, yet even then it still wasn't guaranteed to play out as expected.

    Drifter didn't care. He would wait as long as he needed to. Even after the fire went out, he continued to stare into the ashes in an effort to keep his mind blank. The Sun rose and fell, but he didn't keep track. Matheus and the others would make it back, all he had to do was wait.

    Finally, when the Sun was at its peak did Drifter hear the sounds of someone approaching. He glanced up to see that it was Matheus. Drifter scrambled to his feet with a smile on his face.

    "Thank the gods. I was worried that..." The smile fell from Drifter's as he got closer. There were new wrinkles lining his face and his eyes looked more sunken. In the short time they had been apart, it looked like he had aged a few decades. That didn't stop Matheus from smiling in return, his eyes filled with relief.

    "Drifter, I am glad to see you escaped in one piece."

    "A-Are you okay?" There were noticeably new nicks and puncture holes in his armor. He already knew what happened to him, but he still needed to hear it. How much did his mentor sacrifice for him?

    Of all things he could have done, Drifter did not expect his mentor to laugh. "Come now, there is no need for you to ladden yourself with any blame. I may have left a piece of myself behind in that forest, but I made my choice and I would gladly do so again. Do not worry yourself over a trivial matter. Let us focus on what we do next. Here, take this. I know your sword broke during the fight ,so I hope this can suffice in the meantime."

    Matheus surprised him when he pushed a familiar looking spear into his hands. Finally recognizing the lack of their other companions, Drifter glanced around, but could not spy any trace of them.

    "W-Where are the others?" he asked as his throat tightened.

    Matheus' smile faded into a more sober expression. "Unfortunately, it seems that their deaths were too much for either to handle."

    "Y-You mean?"

    He nodded. "They hollowed. There is nothing we can do for them. Their shuffling corpses will keep the creatures of the forest occupied for some time at least."

    That's what Drifter hated most about the curse. It was unpredictable in how it would affect those branded. The uncertainty was the most frightening aspect which was why a fair many Undead still feared for their mortality.
    When would you hollow? On your thousandth death? Your very first? Will you fade away, piece by piece until there is nothing left or would you remain whole and sane only to shatter completely at once? How fragile was the soul? Death was not even a requirement for hollowing. There are even those who were branded and hollowed before they could even experience the sweet release of death. No one knew what their fate would be, when their time would run out. He wished that he could brush his fears aside as easily as Matheus or Gerhardt did.


    What did they do for the gods to forsake them so?

    "Drifter?" Matheus shook him free from his thoughts. "Are you still with me?"

    He nodded.

    "Good. I thought I lost you there for a moment. Look, it may seem cruel, but you can not dwell on what was lost. We no longer have the luxury to grieve; the curse has robbed us of that right. While we must do our best to not forget the past, we can not allow ourselves to be trapped by it, otherwise the weight of what we left behind will break us. Keep your focus on what is ahead. Can you do that for me?"

    "Yeah, I can do that."

    "Good." Matheus clapped him on the shoulder. "You'll do fine. I have faith in you."

    "Only because I had you to guide me." Drifter offered him his Sunlight Medallion. "I would not have made it were it not for you."

    "Keep it." Matheus pushed the medallion back. "I can see it in you. You have been touched by the light, now it only awaits for you to answer its call."

    "I am not sure if I can."

    Matheus chuckled. He walked past to check the packs Drifter had gathered.

    "I still remember the stories about your group. The lengths you and the others went to in order to protect the survivors of that town; I knew that even if only half of what I heard was true, then you all had proven yourselves greater and more noble than most knights I had met. I thought that there was a band of men who knew what it meant to be a beacon to those without hope and understood what it meant to sacrifice for the people. I went searching for you and others so that we may all band together to face these grim times as one, but unfortunately, the others had already hollowed by the time I found them—you were the only one to endure." Matheus strapped one of the packs to his back before offering the other to him. "You may not have much faith in yourself, but I believe that your actions that day were not a one time thing. When the time comes, I am confident that you will rise to the occasion and surprise us all."

    "Like Spearman did?"

    "Him, Pyromancer and Gerhardt."

    Drifter laughed ruefully. "I called him a coward." He averted his eyes. "I thought so little of him, yet… he saved my life. He traded his life for mine."

    Matheus hummed in acknowledgement. "The beast was moving to finish you off and I was too far away and too slow to stop it. Spearman taunted and baited the creature to save you. His sacrifice bought me the time I needed to kill it. You may think yourself incapable of standing alone against the darkness of our world in the face of your own demise, but you have endured this long for a reason. Have a bit more faith in yourself." He slapped a hand against his chest. "Come on, we still have plenty of daylight to travel by. If we make a good pace, then we can reach that blacksmith in about 2 days."

    "What do we do after?"

    "I am not sure yet. Are you going to stick around or are you going to run off on your own again?"

    "I think I will stay for a bit," Drifter responded with a chagrined smile before he waved his new spear about. "I am going to have to learn how to wield this properly, after all."

    "Fortunately, I do know a bit about handling a spear. When we next set up camp I can show you the basics."

    "I would appreciate it."




    "I stayed by his side for a month before we parted once more. He had heard of others like us and left to aid them, while I… I stayed behind to find myself."

    Ashen glanced down at Ruby who was huddled against him. Her wide eyes still glistening from her previous tears as she listened, fully enraptured by his tale.

    "I am not sure if it was chance or fate, but after we parted ways, I crossed paths with another Warrior of Sunlight, was through him that I finally decided to join the covenant. He took me to one of their few remaining sacred shrines and it was there that I pledged myself. I have been a brother ever since."

    Ashen offered his medallion for Ruby to hold again. She wiped her eyes before she cradled it in her hands. He could see the new found reverence she had for it in her eyes.

    "We Warriors of Sunlight strived to be the embodiment of the Sun. Our purpose was to push back the darkness when it encroached on the world and to protect life where we could. Together we stood our ground and served as beacons to others. Man, beast or the Abyss itself, we would have gladly faced each to protect what little light exists in this world. We are the promise that no matter how dark the night, the Sun will always rise again."

    "You sound like a group of heroes," Ruby said in awe.

    Ashen chuckled before he took back his medallion. "While some in my order have no doubt been granted the title, I would not go so far as to say that for everyone. My covenant is an old one. So old in fact that stories claim that it had been founded by the firstborn of the god Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight. Our lord was the Heir of Sunlight and a god of war hence why valor and skill was favored in our warriors. From fighting in wars to hunting man-eating beasts, we did it all to protect the people."

    "Wow. So what did Matheus say? Did you ever tell him? I still can't believe he survived such a scary place."

    "Yes, well, he was very hard to kill. As for what he said, to say he was ecstatic the next time we met would be an understatement. He was so proud to call me a brother. From that point on, I risked my life beside him on his many quests to aid and protect others. Whenever we parted, it was no longer due to my weakness, but due to my own desires to aid others no matter the risk. I had a purpose to be proud of." Ashen sighed longingly. "I just wish I could remember more of those years."

    "What ever happened to him?"

    "...He died."

    "Oh. Um… do you know how he died?"

    "..."

    "Ashen?"

    How he wished he didn't know what happened to him. An ignoble end seemed to await all heroes. He could still remember the burning pyres in the town square surrounded by a fearful crowd. They were stuffed full of Undead. Strapped to a pole on top of all of them was an imposter wearing his armor. A Hollow that had no right to do so. He was supposed to survive. Superstition was probably the only reason no one had tried to strip his armor. Even now he could hear the mindless and painfilled wails. His sword was the only thing he had left from his first mentor. It still sat, wrapped in cloth, at the bottom of his bottomless box, a gift from his second mentor. Despite the thousands of years, he still could not muster up the heart to touch it, much less wield it.

    "Ashen? Ashen! Are you okay?"

    Ashen glanced down at Ruby who was tugging him back and forth. He had honestly forgotten that she was here. As much as he wanted to lie and tell her he was, he couldn't.

    "No. I have not been okay for a long time, Ruby. For a very long time." He placed his hand on her head. "But I will endure, like I always have."

    Ruby frowned before taking his hand between hers. "Aren't you afraid that you will never get better?"

    "Maybe I will," he consoled her. "I am finally free from the burdens that I had to shoulder for so long. Now, I can take the time to patch the cracks in my soul." Ashen paused as he thought of a change of topic to get away from grim thoughts. "As for what I fear, despite what you probably expect, I am afraid of the dark."

    "You're afraid of the dark?" she questioned disbelievingly.

    "I am. I am truly terrified of the dark in every sense. I have had to fight for my life in absolute darkness before and I have been in situations completely bereft of hope. It is ironic that because of that fear, I am able to stand against it. I know what happens when the light is gone. To say it is unpleasant would be an understatement."

    "That's why you're a Warrior of Sunlight," Ruby said in understanding. "You become your own light when it's gone."

    "Now you are beginning to see. These medallions are said to be a fragment of the Sun's rays, so no matter the situation, we are never truly alone. It is proof that our lord still watches over his warriors."

    "Are you sure your group wasn't a band of heroes?" Ruby asked teasingly, her mood rising again. She glanced around the dark forest around them. "Is this why you wanted me to be here so early?"

    "It was a large reason for it, but there was one more." Ashen motioned toward the rapidly increasing glow on the horizon.

    The morning Sun peeked over the horizon, bathing Ruby's face with its golden rays. The warmth of the Sun's light went to work combating the night chill that settled on her skin. When she turned to look at Ashen, she was surprised to find him doing an… odd pose. Ashen was standing straight, feet close together and arms in the air, doing his best impersonation of the letter "Y". Ruby opened her mouth to ask what he was doing, but then thought better of it. With a shrug, she decided, why not? She took up a similar pose next to him, her arms stretching toward the sky.

    "You are doing it wrong."

    Ruby looked at Ashen in confusion.

    "Here, allow me." He stepped behind her and adjusted her hands so her palms were now facing outward. "Never praise the Sun with your palms facing inward."

    Ruby craned her head back to look up at him. "Why?"

    "To do so is to say that you can claim the Sun's light as you own. The Sun is the father of all and his nurturing warmth is a blessing for everyone. To think otherwise is pure hubris."

    "The Sun is really important to you."

    "More than you know. Ever since I joined, I have never willingly missed a sunrise. I never tire of the sight."

    "It is pretty to watch." Ruby couldn't suppress a yawn.

    "Tired?"

    "Yeah," she admitted.

    "Would you like to sleep a little longer?"

    Ruby blinked in confusion at his offer. She squeaked in surprise when Ashen scooped her up in his arms. He settled her in his lap as he sat by the cliff. Her blush was doing a much better job of warming her face than the Sun was.

    "I will wake you in a bit."

    As much as she wanted to protest, she did feel tired and she was comfortable. A little bit wouldn't hurt.

    "Only a little bit, okay?"

    He chuckled. "Pleasant dreams."

    Ruby closed her eyes and curled up against him. Despite the fact she was snuggling up against hard armor, Ruby felt more comfortable than if she was laying in her bed. The warmth that flowed into her veins from him soothed her in a way she could never replicate no matter how hard she tried. Any chance of her resisting was lost before it could even begin, and that was before factoring the sunlight's own warmth baking her from the opposite side. In a few moments, she was off in dreamland, relieving happier times. She didn't even notice that there was someone extra in her dreams.

    Ashen bathed in the morning rays before he glanced down at the sleeping girl in his lap. Ruby was sleeping quite peacefully, with one small fist under her chin while the other had unconsciously grabbed a hold of his surcoat with a firm grip. She was the epitome of innocence in a moment that no painter could ever hope to capture. Never in his long life had he been so close to a child, not even with the few he had taken under his wing. It was pleasant and he couldn't help but savor the situation.

    Eventually their tranquility had to come to an end. A chime broke the silence and caused Ruby to stir. Fortunately, it wasn't enough to wake her, then again, it seemed like it would take something major to pull her from her current dream. Ashen could spot the glow of her Scroll through her skirt pocket. Doing his best to not jostle Ruby, he worked to remove one of his gauntlets. Her small size helped in the matter.

    Shriveled, dried, and dead skin greeted him. The worst of it was around his palm where the skin was so thin that he wasn't sure if he was looking at skin or his ligaments. He had to suppress a dry chuckle. What would she think if she saw this? How would she react if she knew what state his body was truly in? Hopefully she would never have to. He did not want to imagine the look of horror on her face.

    With his fingers free, he managed to pluck Ruby's Scroll from her pocket. On its screen was a message from her father asking her to come home. Luckily, Ruby had spent some time teaching him how to use a few of the basic features of a Scroll. It was so much easier to use without a glove getting in the way. While the device's capabilities amazed him, too many of its features sounded like needless distractions to him.

    He managed to send a short message back to her father telling him that he would bring her home soon. After another glance at her sleeping face he felt reluctant to parting just yet. Another hour to savor this moment wouldn't hurt.




    Ashen would admit to being surprised when Ruby showed up the following morning to join him in his routine. Considering the newfound awe she had for his covenant, he should have expected no less. It was cute when she showed again on the second day. By the third it had become unsettling. The fourth day had seen him start to worry. When Ruby showed up once more on the fifth day, he had to confront her about it.

    "While I don't mind the company, do you mind explaining to me why you are so intent on joining me these last few mornings?"

    She yawned before she gave him a sleepy smile. "I want to be just like you and your friends. All the reasons you told me about remind me of why my mom and dad wanted to be a Huntsman and Huntress."

    "So you have not yet given up on your dream, then."

    Ruby's smile slipped into a frown as she pouted with arms crossed. "No."

    This was not the first time that they had this conversation. Despite his many attempts to nudge her away from her foolhardy path, she stubbornly held her ground.

    "Are you desperate to throw your life away?"

    "I'm not going to. Watch, I'll prove that I will be the best Huntress ever to the point I'm better than you."

    "Do you honestly think you can be?"

    "Yes!" she shouted. "All your Sunlight Brothers did it. My mom did it. I can—"

    "Die. Just like they did." It was a low blow, but unlike previous times, she didn't run off in tears.

    "But I won't. I'll make it back and prove you wrong." There was a fire burning behind her eyes now, a fire that he unfortunately helped lit with his stories.

    Ashen sighed in frustration as he looked to the rising Sun for guidance. What did he have to say to her to get her to listen. Someone as sweet as her will never survive the hardships demanded of those who try to be heroes. He held his hand in front of himself as a very unpleasant idea came to mind. Ruby was so set on becoming a hero for the world because she did not truly understand what it would cost to do so, but what if he gave her a real example. What if he showed her how terrifying the world could be to those with good intentions.

    "What if… What if I made you a pledge?"

    Ruby stared at him suspiciously. "What kind of pledge?"

    "First answer me this: do you intend to start your training when you turn ten, like your sister?" She nodded. This next part was harder, but he was prepared to make the sacrifice if it could spare her from tortuous fate. "Then, until that day, I will speak of this no more. If on your tenth birthday you still desire to follow in your mother's footsteps, then I will share with you all my secrets and my past."

    Ruby's face lit up in pure joy at his offer. He raised a hand to stop her before she could say anything.

    "If, after everything you learn, your resolve still remains firm, then… I will help train you, so that you can avoid your mother's fate."

    She stared at him awe struck. "Do you really mean it?" she whispered.

    Ashen dropped to a knee in front of her and held his Sunlight medallion between them. He grabbed one of her hands and placed it on top between his.

    "I pledge this to you on my name and honor as a Warrior of Sunlight. Do you accept my pledge?"

    "Yes! Oh, I can't wait. I promise that I'll be the best student ever!" Ruby shot him a beaming smile while she babbled on about their future plans.

    It was unfortunate that it would all come to an end in two years time.
     
  15. NuclearBirb

    NuclearBirb A mysterious birb.

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    Yeah you leave on a stinger.... cmon bro pls habe another chapter ;(
     
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  16. krahe

    krahe Not too sore, are you?

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    Damn, that heartwarming/heartbreaking
     
  17. GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    [​IMG][​IMG] [​IMG]
     
  18. GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    I have art!!!
     
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  19. GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    Here's another one.
    [​IMG]
     
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  20. GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    Just to be clear, I did not make either of these.
     
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  21. GraphiteCrow

    GraphiteCrow Not too sore, are you?

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    (Now that I won't be banned for Necromancy) I really love this story, I definitely see Ruby and the Ashen One with almost a Grandfather/Grandaughter relationship, the old mentor using his experience to help the younger girl grow and make sure she lives her life with as few regrets as possible unlike himself.
     
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  22. GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    Glad you're enjoying it. Should have another chapter out soon.
     
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  23. legion0047

    legion0047 I trust you know where the happy button is?

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    Why QQ?
    SB or SV would be much more active.
    Love the story though.
     
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  24. GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    This is originally from fanfiction.net. I just brought it over since I have another story I started here, so I thought why not and that way people can see why I may take so long to update as I am working on 2 at the same time.
     
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  25. GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    Good news everyone. The next chapter is done. Sent it over to a pal for edits, so it should be done in a day or two.
     
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  26. Index: Chapter 10: Family Ties
    GentlemanMad

    GentlemanMad Lord of Ashes

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    Chapter 10: Family Ties
    Yang was not the most patient individual, she could admit that about herself. Regardless, she would think that waiting for over an hour for this mysterious "Ashen" to show up was enough proof that she could be patient. She didn't even care about him that much. It wasn't that she was uncaring, but if the guy wanted to be alone then she saw no reason to poke her nose in his business. That was, until Ruby got involved.

    At first she didn't like the idea of her obsessing over this strange man. Yang was willing to chalk it up to Ruby idolizing the person who saved her life. While she was certain that was how it started out, she wasn't blind to what it had grown into. Ruby was using her new friend as a substitute for their mom.

    As much as she wanted to be angry with Ruby for doing so, Yang could understand how she feels. She missed their mom too. Not a day went by where she didn't wish that Summer would walk through their door back into their lives and fill the gaping hole that was left behind. To have someone show up and replace her so soon felt like they were insulting her memory. Of course, she had no doubt that Ashen was not intending to do any of that. Ruby was just too nice for her own good at times and easily influenced.

    As the weeks turned into months it seemed that Ruby had, thankfully, grown past that and she could breathe a sigh of relief. While she would have loved to meet this mysterious hermit living in their backyard and lay down the law with him, her dad had given her more than one conversation warning her otherwise. Their dad was the only other person to meet Ashen, and from whatever conversation they had, it was enough for him to trust Ruby alone with the guy. While Yang trusted her dad's judgement, she still wasn't comfortable with the idea. It was only for Ruby's sake that she held her tongue.

    Now, though, she no longer could. The things he was putting into her sister's head concerned her. Ever since her birthday, Ruby had been waking up before the crack of dawn to go watch the sunrise with Ashen. A habit that has gone on for more than a week now. Her sister should be out making friends her age, not hanging around lonely old men. How many times did Ruby blow her off to go hang with him? Ruby was her sister, not… whatever she was to Ashen.

    Yang grumbled to herself as she paced back and forth. A quick glance to her scroll showed that she was passing her second hour of waiting. She managed to distract Ruby with a special edition weapons magazine focused on classic designs. While she would cut herself off from the outside world as she drooled over the pages, it would not keep her occupied forever. Ruby would eventually realize that Yang was missing and her dad would be back from the store too.

    With a cry of frustration, Yang kicked at the ground. That was the sight Ashen witnessed when he stepped into the clearing. He watched in confusion as she stomped away.

    What was Ruby's sister doing here?

    Ashen shrugged. He would ask Ruby about it if she showed up today. He really didn't want to deal with an overprotective older sibling, especially when they're angry. Unfortunately, Ruby did not join him later in the day, so he would have to wait until the next sunrise to ask her.

    Surprisingly, Ruby did not show up the next morning. It wasn't too strange for her not to make it. Ruby was still young and not conditioned to rising with the sun. The many naps she took with him prove as such. At some point, she was going to crash and fail to show. He was just surprised she lasted as long as she did. Yet, she did not stop by later in the day. In the end, he did not see Ruby for the next couple days. Usually, she would notify him if she was going to be absent for a prolonged length of time. Hopefully nothing happened with her or her family…

    Thankfully, his worries were assuaged after the third day when he spotted Ruby walking down the cliff toward him. She was carrying a plastic container under her arm. He waited for her to step inside his ring's influence before addressing her.

    "Good morning. I was surprised not to see you these last couple days."

    Ruby rubbed the back of her head with a chagrined smile. "Yeah, sorry about that. I'm back now and I brought a gift." She held the container in front of her. "I brought cookies."

    "Oh? Is there some special occasion I am unaware about?"

    She shook her head. "No. I made them because I thought we could share them and to make up for disappearing on you." Ruby took a seat next to him before she popped the top off the container. Warm steam slipped free from the many freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies.

    "I appreciate the thought. Did anything happen with your family? I hope your uncle's work hasn't caught up to him."

    "Uncle Qrow?" She plopped a cookie into her mouth. "He's teaching at Signal right now."

    "Do not talk with your mouth full. You risk biting on tongue or choking on your food," Ashen chided.

    Ruby rolled her eyes. "Yes, Dad. The last thing I need is for you to start acting like Yang."

    "Oh? Are you fighting with your sister?"

    "What? No. It's just that Yang was very clingy the last couple days. That's why I wasn't able to stop by."

    "It does not sound unusual that she would want to spend time with her sister."

    "Yeah, but never like this. She was suffocating," Ruby groaned out. "She was constantly dragging me around to go places like the arcade or comic store. She even spent the last few days having a sleepover in my room. I couldn't leave without waking her, so I had to praise the sun from my bedroom window. I hope that's okay."

    Ashen chuckled. "It is fine. The teachings do not require us to do so. Most warriors choose to do so simply to pay respects. Where you are or how often you do it do not matter."

    Ruby breathed a sigh of relief. "Good. I was worried I was breaking some rule or something." She plucked another between her fingers. "You know, my sister even bought me a batch of cookies from my favorite bakery yesterday. I'm still waiting to hear what she's trying to bribe me for. Those cookies are expensive."

    "And you brought them here to share with me. I'm flattered by the sentiment."

    Her face flushed red as she laughed awkwardly. "No… I, uh, made these myself. Cookies are best eaten fresh." Ruby held the container toward him. "You can grab one. We're supposed to share, so it wouldn't be fair if I ate all of them."

    Ashen hesitated before grabbing one that was a bit more black spotted compared to the rest. He turned away from Ruby before lifting his visor enough to slip it in his mouth. The treat was crunchy with some softer fillings inside, but all he could taste was ash as he chewed. An unfortunate fact of being Undead was that while they were allowed to still eat and enjoy food and drink, the more an individual hollowed, the weaker their senses became until they were gone completely. Another luxury stripped from him.

    "It tastes good," he lied.

    Ruby frowned. "It's okay to say if you don't like it. I saw that one was burnt. Here, try another." She offered another cookie to him.

    Ashen accepted it. Once more all he could taste was an ashen mush in his mouth. Considering it was a type of pastry, he went with the vague"it is very sweet" comment. Though watching Ruby frown as she chewed through another told him that was the wrong thing to say.

    "It's not that sweet. I should have put more sugar in it." Ruby sighed and covered the cookies. "You don't have to lie to make me feel better. I know I'm not as good at baking as my dad." She sulked.

    "I am sorry. I did not intend to insult you."

    "It's ok. I'll do better next time. I promise."

    "I appreciate the gesture, but you should not waste such treats on me."

    She frowned. "Are the cookies that bad?"

    "No. I do not know what they even taste like." Ashen sighed. "I lost my sense of taste long ago. That is why your treats are wasted on me."

    Ruby stared at him, horrified. The container almost slipped from her fingers. She flailed her arms, juggling it in the air before clutching it to her chest. The sight brought a small smile to his face while Ruby sighed in relief.

    "How did you lose your sense of taste?" she asked in a small voice. The container in her arms suddenly felt heavy.

    "The same way I lost so much of myself," he admitted. "I sacrificed a fair bit of my humanity in my travels. Even my sense of touch is damaged." Ashen held his hand in front of him before slowly closing it into a fist. "I can still feel, but the sensation feels… muted. I can barely register pain nowadays—though I can not say if that is a result of my affliction or if I have simply become too accustomed to it. Any further explanation will have to wait until the allotted time two years from now."

    Ruby pouted, hating how he hid behind the vow he made to her. A silence settled between them. Since any further questioning would be blocked, she decided to change the subject. Hopefully it would chase away the gloom that she could feel settling around her. Thankfully, there was something that had been bothering her and now would be as good as time as any to bring it up.

    "Can I ask you a question about something that's been bothering me for a while now?"

    "Go ahead, though I cannot promise if I can answer it."

    "When you told me that story about you and your friends, you said that your teacher named you Drifter, but now you go by Ashen. Why? Is there a reason you stopped using the name he gave you?"

    He hummed in thought. It was a fair question, considering the story he told her before. "The name no longer fit me," Ashen explained as he leaned back and stared at the afternoon sky. "Matheus named me Drifter because I was wandering from place to place with no sense of purpose. I was restless, unable to stay in one location for a prolonged amount of time. Such an attitude was dangerous. With no purpose, no reason to live, what reason does a man have to stay sane? It is why I am still so grateful that he took me under his wing. I would have wasted away on my own."

    Ruby scooted closer to him. Once more she dipped her hand into the container and nibbled on cookies while hanging on his every word.

    "After I joined the Warriors of Sunlight, I found that the name Drifter no longer suited me. I no longer wandered aimlessly. I traveled for the purpose of finding people in need of aid—to see new lands and do what I could to protect the people residing within. During my travels, I have gone by many names. Many were given to me by others, some I chose for myself—though they never felt right and were eventually abandoned—and a few… a few names I took upon myself."

    "What do you mean?"

    "There are a lot of local legends in the villages outside the Kingdom. A few come from the Kingdoms themselves." Ashen smiled. "They are all different, but very similar nonetheless. Each speaks of a brave and noble warrior who sets out to eliminate a threat to their home or accomplish some great feat to make their people proud. These men are the pride of the people. They inspire hope in dark times. Yet, there is something wrong with those stories."

    Ruby's hand scratched the bottom of her container. She hadn't realized that she already finished all the cookies. Her body was nearly shaking from anticipation. While she wasn't sure if what she would learn would be good or bad, she at least knew that it would be big.

    "How many of those villages do not even know that their famed heroes fell? That the great feats they accomplished had come at the cost of their lives. Some of the heroes even fell before they could face the great threat that their people feared. Yet, stories of their success manage to reach their homes while the men themselves never did. All of the stories have oddly similar endings where suddenly, saving their home was not enough, so they would leave to help others in need. But how could this be if they all died?" Ashen couldn't keep the small smile off his face. "Maybe they encountered someone midway on their respective journeys. Someone who helped. They may have even been there at the start. An individual who was witness to their ends. A person who would steal their name and ensure that their legend would live on. If the task was left unfinished, then they would complete it. A fool who would live the lives of others all to prevent the people from losing hope. Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? Surely such a foolish man cannot exist."

    When Ashen finally looked down at Ruby, he found her looking at him with one of her warmest smiles while her eyes sparkled in sunlight.

    "I don't think there was a knight more noble than you anywhere on Remnant," she commented. All trace of her previous gloom was chased away. Her heart was filled with awe.

    Ashen shook his head ruefully. "I am many things: A warrior, a soldier… but a knight? No, it would be an insult to real knights to call me such. True knights are men and women of conviction, unwavering against death itself. I have lacked the heart more than I am comfortable admitting. There were many times where I made choices not based on what was right or moral, but what would help me survive. I do not believe there are many who would consider me a knight."

    "Well, you're a knight to me," Ruby responded. "I think one person believing in you is more than enough for you to be a knight."

    "Thank you for your kind words." Ashen reached over and ruffled her hair. "They mean more than you know."

    She smiled and kicked her feet in front of her. "You're welcome. So… since you're feeling in a sharing mood, want to skip the wait and just tell me all the secrets you're hiding?"

    "Nope." Ashen chuckled. "You are going to have to wait the two years." Ruby crossed her arms and pouted at him. "Trust me, it is best that you do not rush toward it. Savor these two years, because time is more fleeting than you know."

    She groaned. "Two years is forever though."

    "You say that now, but you would be surprised. Enough about the future. Why don't you tell me about your sister and the events you did together."

    As Ruby told him about her time with Yang, she unknowingly confirmed his suspicions. He had no doubt that not only was Yang overprotective of her sibling, like all older siblings were, but that she was also jealous. It was a little surprising that it took this long before something like this came up, but then again, he had no idea what her days were like compared to Ruby.

    In the end, Yang was a problem for another time—or at least that was what he initially thought. The following day it was Yang, not Ruby, who showed up. He watched her, safely from the trees, hidden by his ring. She paced in circles, grumbling unpleasant words toward him as her patience grew thin. At first he did intend to approach her, but pulled back at the last moment.

    Ashen wasn't lying when he told Ruby that time was short. For someone who lived as long as he had, two years was a blink of the eye. There was no doubt in his mind that when he told Ruby the truth about himself, about what he really was, it would destroy her. The truth would hurt her, scar her even, but it would at least keep her from throwing her life away like so many others. Their relationship would end, but isolation was nothing new to him.

    Knowing what was to come, there was no need to get her sister involved, especially with so little time left. She would be needed there to pick up the pieces of Ruby's spirit and she would be unable to if he did the same to her. Yang could come to hate him for ignoring her if she wished, but in the end what he was going to do would benefit her.

    In two short years this pleasant distraction in his undead life would come to an end. Ashen appreciated the time Ruby spent with him. He underestimated how refreshing it was to be treated as a human after so long. Ruby would grow up, have a family and eventually pass on from this world. Humanity would continue their struggle against the dark. Throughout it all he would still be here, the silent observer. This was the fate he chose for himself and he had long ago made peace with it. For now he would savor what time he had left with his tiny ray of sunshine.

    He had a duty after all, to ensure that the sun always shined.
     
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  27. Crimson Grave

    Crimson Grave Not too sore, are you?

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    ...I think Ruby will surprise you greatly in two years time Ashen.
    And I cannot WAIT to see it.
     
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