The red and gold door was out of place, to say the least, but it had been that way for every single car so far. Still, Ruby felt an increasingly familiar twinge of unease as it came into view. A benign shape, so alien in the middle of an open field. And beyond it, more unknowns.
To either side of them rose the twin hills, Corginatia’s “mighty peaks”. Chunks of rock and churned earth littered the base of each, and the mountains’ sides were marred by stretches of bare dirt, like scars. Landslides. The rattling of the ground beneath them and the bass rumblings that accompanied it had persisted throughout their walk, cropping up every several minutes to reorient them toward their destination. It had been about twenty minutes since the last explosion—though as they’d drawn nearer, Ruby found the noises to be less like explosions and more like large reverberating impacts. Like a hammer striking a metal box, with them inside. Nevertheless, they knew to expect the sound again soon. In the valley and this close to the exit, Ruby was bracing herself for something loud.
As though conjured, the blast came again, and both huntsmen flinched back. It echoed out between the hills and across miles of the car, ricocheting back into their ears relentlessly. A total wall of sound, like a bullhead taking flight. Ruby couldn’t blame the dogs for turning tail. The strangest part was that there didn’t seem to be any point of origin. The horrible sound simply emanated from the region, the air itself, with the door seemingly at the center. Probably because this spot was a wall on the outside, but not on the inside. Her brain hurt when she tried to reason out the science behind that—she’d learned the hard way early on—so she didn’t attempt to.
“Soooo what do you think is causing that?” Jaune’s voice contained a slight tremor. He grinned nervously at Ruby in an attempt to mask his discomfort. Despite his anxious disposition, Ruby knew there weren’t many people she could really count on like Jaune.
“No clue,” she said. “But it’s definitely coming from outside the car.”
Suddenly, another blast shook the valley. And another, and another. The sounds grew more staccato, more frenzied. Ruby and Jaune backed up slowly, hands on their weapons. In an instant it became very clear that something was pounding away at the outside of the car. More accurately, some things. Many of them, enraged.
And somehow, they had heard them.
From across the field, the cat kept her wary eyes on the king. He was speaking with some of his subjects just outside of a large amphitheater set into the hillside, in which a handful of dogs rehearsed some dramatic performance. One of them piloted a large paper kite in the image of the Steward, replete with chrome tentacles and bearing blue flames where a pair of eyes should be (presumably crafted from paper as well). Another retelling of Atticus’s great victory against the False Conductor and her robotic henchman. His people must adore him, she thought with perhaps unwarranted acidity.
After the passengers had left on their quest, he’d essentially made a show of ignoring Samantha’s presence entirely, waltzing straight past her as though she were merely décor.
As offended by his cold demeanor as she was inclined to feel, she knew she needed to be the one to broach the subject. He was perfectly content to disregard the sudden and unwelcome return of the cat who had nearly led him to an undignified death, and she couldn’t very well blame him for that—whether or not she had been protecting her own hide, and regardless of her half-assed attempts to make things right afterward.
On the other hand, the slightest inkling of aggression toward His Majesty would undoubtedly be answered by an entire army of vicious teeth and claws descending retributively upon her. She was persuaded to put off her fate for as long as was bearable.
Eventually, she felt rather petulant—not to mention conspicuous—in her sullen staring, and forced herself to rebuild her composure. If she were going to be annihilated by Atticus and his army, she was at least dignified enough to instigate, rather than waiting meekly for her demise. She yanked her head as high as she could muster as she strode toward him. He looked more inconvenienced than surprised when he met her eyes.
As if sensing disaster, the nearby dogs quickly vacated.
“Atticus,” the cat drawled in greeting.
“How may I be of assistance?” He replied in a carefully even tone that belied any intention of lending assistance. For a moment, Samantha’s heart sank.
Clearing her throat, she pretended to inspect her paw and pressed forward.
“Well, I would once again like to express my sincerest apologies, for what transpired when last we met.” From the corner of her eye she could see him stiffen, and she sighed. “I... recognize the part I played in what happened. Amelia harmed you, and your friends, and I allowed her to. No, I helped her to. I believed I was doing it all in order to protect myself, but truthfully... I was nothing but a coward.” Atticus’s posture seemed to relax in her periphery, but she still couldn’t bring herself to look in his direction to confirm. Merde, how quickly my confidence has withered, she muttered internally. I must look like a fool.
She was surprised when he bowed his head—subtle, yet visible enough to urge her to turn toward him completely. She felt as though she were melting under the intensity of the shame, relief, and anticipation, or perhaps hope, that seemed to be locked in conflict, hanging over her head. Still unsure of his intention, she respectfully returned the nod.
“I accept that you are apologetic, The Cat.”
“You—you may refer to me as ‘Samantha’, if you wish.” Suddenly, her face burned in embarrassment at having interrupted him for something so minor and petty—
“As you wish, Samantha.”
She was taken aback by how much more comfortable it felt to be called that. A name, and not some enigmatic title. God, what was this newfound softheartedness doing to her?
“Regardless, I am not so easily trusting.”
“You see, I have subjects to look out for, and it would not benefit me or them to place my unquestioning faith in someone who once nearly had me killed. Understand?” The cat swallowed down her objections and pleas, nodding reluctantly. The dog’s eyes softened, and he regarded her almost kindly. “My mind can always be changed. But it’s like I said before; flowery words alone cannot make things right. Your actions almost killed a passenger—many denizens would consider that alone to be unforgivable.”
He was correct in that, for sure. The Train was meant to be safe for passengers. Well, relatively safe. Certain dangers still lurked in older cars, and the ghoms of the wasteland were frankly lethal. Typically they didn’t stray so close to the Train, but lately they seemed bent on making themselves a larger and larger issue. Regardless, denizens were meant to be hosts, companions, and protectors. In fact, if Samantha hadn’t been integral in restoring One-One to the seat of power, she very well might have been eliminated for endangering a passenger.
She hadn’t thought about that much. That white ball held her life in his hands. The realization made her shudder.
Nevertheless, the cat murmured, “I understand,” averting her eyes.
Before Atticus could respond, a massive boom rang out across the valley, the loudest they’d heard yet. The ground shook beneath them with the force of it, and every dog in sight stopped and struggled to keep their balance. With it came the distant sounds of gunshots, echoing over the hills for miles. And something in between, a quiet droning sort of noise she couldn’t place.
That is, until she squinted into the distance and was able to discern the first of the tiny black dots as they drew near enough to distinguish. A cloud of individuals so dense they took on a single shape, billowing like some sort of noxious fog. There must have been dozens of them. Almost a hundred, even.
She felt her stomach drop like a rock, and her body went cold. She couldn’t form words. Luckily, Atticus seemed to read her mind, and voiced just what she was thinking.
At first it seemed like space was bending. The sky beside the door began to warp, as though viewed through curved glass. It was incomprehensible. With each impact that rang out it bent further and further, until it began to look like the distorted metal wall that it probably was on the outside. And then it burst.
The ghoms came spilling into the car like a pack of bloodthirsty beowolves, fighting and vying to be the first to lunge. Behind them was the red sky of the wasteland, all but blacked out by their shadowy carapaces. Ruby and Jaune were forced to dodge backwards, less than gracefully, while the swarm drove into the dirt where they had just been standing. It was practically a waterfall of monsters.
Jaune drew his sword, the short jagged stub that remained, and held it close to his side like a dagger. Already, a red blur was whipping past his face, and the scythe came down in a flurry of spiraling blows, easily cutting into the solid mass of ghoms that didn’t immediately have any place to go. The ones in her path came apart with ungodly shrieks of rage before falling aside, split into pieces, but it wasn’t nearly enough. The ghoms forcing their way inside shoved ruthlessly against those in the path of Ruby’s destruction, until the whole column flowed forward and threatened to overtake them both.
Suddenly, she was gone, replaced by a cloud of crimson petals that raced backwards toward Jaune. Without warning, he was swept up in her semblance as she pulled them both back out of harm’s way. It was just about the most disorienting thing he’d ever felt.
Ruby reformed them a good distance away and watched the squirming, squealing mass of dog-roaches with horror and fascination. They seemed to have emptied into the car at this point, and Ruby couldn’t begin to count them all. Beside her, Jaune groaned and clutched his head. “Maybe some warning next time?”
“Sorry.” Ruby plunged the tip of her scythe into the ground and took aim at the pile of ghoms. Some were beginning to collect themselves, churning their wings to take clumsy flight. If they succeeded, there would be no way to stop that many at once. “We have to ground these things!”
She fired three quick shots into the swarm, adjusting her aim each time. The dust rounds from her last encounter were still loaded, and after the last struck a ghom’s dark hide, strobing lines of electricity arced between each and subjected a large chunk of the pack to a good few seconds of high-voltage punishment. Their pained screams drilled into the huntsmen’s skulls, unfortunately reminding Ruby of the cries of the Apathy. Several more ghoms fell, smoldering. But it didn’t seem to make much of a dent.
The first of the pack to become detangled from its comrades fell to a crouch in the grass, emitting a low growl, before lunging straight towards Jaune. He yelped and backpedaled to give himself space, while Ruby tore her scythe from the earth to intercept. Already, another two ghoms had split off, moving to pounce on her, and she was forced to shove them back with the shaft of her weapon. At the same time, Jaune raised his left arm—his shield with it—and blocked his assailant’s flailing leap a foot from his face. Its claws hooked over the top of his shield to hoist it up enough to allow its feeler to whip over it toward his eyes, but it shuddered and halted short when the shard of his broken sword became embedded in the top of the creature’s head. It gurgled softly before slipping limply off of his shield to the ground.
Meanwhile, the two on Ruby had made a likely accidental attempt to flank, charging from either side of her, and a third was approaching from the front. She reached for her semblance once again, activating it in a rapid burst that took her ten feet straight up. The two on a collision path instead slammed into each other, while the third took the chance to clamber up onto their entangled forms. Its wings began to buzz as it attempted to launch itself off of the others directly up at her, chattering ominously. With a practiced flick of her weapon’s staff, the curved blade rotated out and clunked mechanically into its war scythe form, aimed straight down. She fell with a fierce cry, enabled by gravity to skewer all three ghoms in one go, and landing hard on top of the pile.
The damn things didn’t evaporate like Grimm, sadly. Ruby gagged as she wrenched her weapon free with a wet squelch. When she glanced back at Jaune, he was bringing the bottom of his shield down savagely onto another ghom’s carapace, splitting the thing nearly in half. Another several creatures were mid-flight for him, with their swift feelers jutting out ahead of them. He ducked beneath their strikes behind his shield and activated his gravity dust enhancement. The emblem on the shield’s face glowed violet, and a bright pulse of gravitational force burst outward and sent his attackers flinging violently back into the swarm.
More and more ghoms were righting themselves and taking flight. Both huntsman realized in unison that they were entirely outnumbered, looking to each other in panic. “We can’t stop them all!” Jaune shouted to her. “We have to warn everyone!”
“We have to protect everyone!” Ruby barked, folding her weapon up into its rifle form. “You ready?”
“Ready for wh—AAAAAAAHHH!” Jaune was suddenly enveloped in a burst of petals once again, feeling himself come apart in the strangest way and hurtling across the sky in a Mach speed trail. While in the grip of her semblance, he couldn’t vocalize his panic, but he felt too much like a comet careening toward the unforgiving earth for comfort.
Ruby was forced to reform them after several seconds when her concentration faltered, touching lightly down a few hundred yards away. Jaune landed in a rough roll, and Ruby took the opportunity to aim up toward where the flying hoard would surely be close behind.
As expected, the flock of ghoms appeared in the sky over the hill they’d just crested, headed straight for the vulnerable colony of Corginatia. They would pass by directly overhead once they caught up, assuming they wouldn’t zero in on the huntsmen below them first.
“We need to thin the heard before they reach the kingdom!” She called to Jaune, reloading with a magazine of fire dust rounds. Jaune looked helplessly toward his broken sword. Immediately, she began unloading into the airborne crowd. Each ghom she struck burst into flames far above, screeching and careening wildly in their attempts to quell the fire when the bullets alone did not finish them off. Those that did not meet an instant end, plummeting to the hard earth below, only served to spread the flames to others jostling them in the pack. Even still, the wash of fire over the group vanished disappointingly fast, and Ruby reluctantly lowered her rifle. Conserve your ammo, dammit!
“Ruby, I’ve got an idea.” The huntsman sheathed his sword and extended his shield out. “You probably won’t like it though.”
He scratched the back of his neck and smiled apologetically. “How’s your landing strategy?”
The most the cat could do was watch in rapt awe as the dark swath of ghoms in the sky approached from afar. She could hear those gunshots again, and bright puffs of fire riddled the pack. Several dropped from the sky, she thought, although they were still too far away and too backdropped by dark terrain to tell for certain. All she knew was that she was frozen.
Atticus, on the other hand, seemed to thrive in the moments before conflict. He ascended straightaway into king mode, commanding his non-combatant citizens to seek shelter inside and calling upon his warriors to take up a defensive formation between the hoard and the kingdom. There were a couple dozen battle-worthy dogs, evidently, and each was sheathed in flashy gold armor, holding short spears in their mouths. Their eyes were fierce, glimmering with the honorable prospect of defending their car. But Samantha had her doubts.
Once she picked out the king in the crowd she made a desperate beeline. “Atticus!” She called to him, until his eyes turned to meet her.
“What is it? We haven’t long.”
“I believe your people need to take cover, now!”
The monarch scoffed and surveyed his army with unmatched pride. “Nonsense! The army of Corginia is mighty!”
“I don’t doubt that,” she quickly allowed, “but these are ghoms we are dealing with. A handful of them is trouble enough, let alone a swarm of that size!”
At that, he took a moment to consider the nearing cloud of creatures, worry creeping into his expression. “It is true that we have never seen so many of them at once,” he said darkly.
“I don’t believe anyone has. Something strange is happening on the Train, Atticus, and I don’t believe your capable army is enough to face this.” Worriedly wringing her paws together, Samantha caught herself plotting the quickest path to the door they’d come in from. As much as she was attempting to change, she didn’t care to die for the sake of noble principles. However, another glance at the king, uncertain yet unwavering at the head of his army, filled her with shame, or envy perhaps, and she knew she couldn’t run.
“We cannot defend our kingdom through inaction.” She could see the conflict running through him. To stay and fight, or ensure his people lived another day? To sacrifice pride or body? That, Samantha did not envy.
“Those two passengers,” she said with a confidence she didn’t feel. “They’re warriors in their world. They can protect your kingdom.”
“Against that many?”
She didn’t answer straight away. Because it was a long shot, wasn’t it? She wanted to have faith in them, but spirit and ability did not always align satisfactorily.
Perhaps there was a third option.
She turned to face the dog with sudden intensity. “I have an idea.”
The ghoms were almost upon the huntsmen, but they needed to be even closer for this to work. Ruby took a deep, steadying breath as she watched the monsters draw closer, while Jaune, sword drawn, looked like he might vomit.
White as a sheet, Jaune let out a low groan. “I hate you for roping me into this.”
“Hey, it was your plan to begin with.”
“For you, not for me.”
She gave him a sideways glance, raising an eyebrow. “You know it’ll be more efficient with both of us—”
“Gahh I know, I know!” He ran his hands nervously through his hair. “Heights are just not my strong suit. I’m more of an engage-on-the-ground kind of guy.”
Ruby chuckled. “Well, consider this the day you broaden your horizons.”
“You’re way too calm about this,” he hissed back.
And then, the ghoms were in range.
“Now!” Ruby grabbed him before he could protest and dissolved them into her petal burst, once again aimed straight into the sky. The flock was still a short distance away, so she flew right past them into the air above their path. After her short burst of flight, and a terrifying distance above the ground and the deadly swarm, the two became solid again as they transitioned into freefall. Jaune’s rather undignified yelling seemed to do the trick of getting the creatures’ attention, but there was no way they’d be able to change course quick enough to get the first strike. While Ruby kept her downward momentum, Jaune raised his shield above his head and activated the embedded dust. The hard light extensions came to life on either side of his shield, glowing pale blue, and effectively transformed his shield into a glider. His fall was instantly slowed and his shouts cut off as the breath whooshed from his lungs. It was beyond difficult to keep his glider stable one-handed, but he wouldn’t need to hold it for very long anyway. He aimed down, cursing all the while, and spiraled into the airborne fray.
Ruby did not bother to arrest her fall. She descended with her scythe jutted out beside her, and when she was moments from impact with the monsters, she let off a single gunshot. The momentum brought her blade down in a diagonal arc that became a full 360 as she spun with it. By the time the first ghom was close enough to cross her path, she was falling as a massive sawblade that cleaved clean through it and a few others beside it. Their squeals drew the ire of the others around them, and instantly there were half a dozen whips snapping at the huntress. She slowed from her spin, now below the pack, but those that had targeted her had followed her down. With her back to the ground, Ruby glared up at the following ghoms, feeling the sickening weightlessness in the pit of her stomach and the wind tearing at her hair. Their appendages shot out at her in a flurry. She easily dodged most of the feelers in the air, but one errantly struck her cheek. She growled when she felt the sting of it and turned her scythe to point to the ground. One more shot and her fall was briefly slowed—enough that the ghoms easily caught up to her descent. They slashed at her with claws and whips, chittering and screeching, but their blows were met with parries by unflinching steel. They were as mindless as the lesser Grimm, for sure. Her scythe tore effortlessly through their thrashing limbs, unable to maneuver away in rapid flight, and the lot of them careened brutally into the ground, finished by the impact. Six down.
It was almost too easy.
Unfortunately, Ruby now had to access her semblance once again to jet back into the fight above. She could tell she was beginning to run low again, which is why this all hinged on short bursts and quick executions. There were too many of these things to play it safe. So she had to move fast.
During Ruby’s first grapple, Jaune hovered a ways above the upper line of ghoms. Their horrific faceless heads turned up to him with feelers twitching in agitation. Three broke from the line and shot upwards to meet him, and Jaune briefly thanked the gods that the majority of these things seemed more bent on reaching the kingdom than engaging him. With his left arm struggling to hold the glider in place above his head, Jaune kicked at the creatures that drew too close beneath him, prompting them to evade his legs and drive at him straight-on. The first to try found his broken blade wedged square through its gaping mouth. He brought his sword before the next, with the first ghom still stuck to the end, and used the body to deflect its charge. With the ghom now reeling off its intended course, he flicked his arm outward to dislodge the carcass and sent it straight into the path of the third. It tumbled away in the air, just as the other realigned itself and whipped its tentacle out to grip around his forearm. “You sure about that?!” Jaune shouted. With a grunt, he pulled his arm up sharply, reeling in the ghom attached to him. It let out a confused whine before being yanked toward him, quicker than it probably would have preferred, directly into the arc of his shard of blade. The slash across the hideous, tentacled underside of its head left its corpse plummeting into the mass below.
Meanwhile, the last aggressor had begun its charge for him once again. He had barely any warning before its feeler tore at his leg, followed shortly by the full weight of the creature when it collided with him. With a shout, Jaune’s glide became a tumble. Trying to hold the glider like this would lead to disaster—he needed to right himself first. Of course, the ghom was still attached to him, hooking its claws into the plates of his armor to keep ahold of him. Through fearful pants, Jaune released the hard light from his shield to stabilize his fall. Instantly he felt the drop in his gut and he began to pick up speed. All the while the ghom was leveling itself with his face, preparing to try to eat his soul, or whatever these things did. “Argh, no!” He growled, thrusting his blade into the ghom’s hard back. It gurgled against him, and he drove his sword into it again and again, feeling that sick crunch of impact vibrate through him, until its grip on him loosened and it fell away, dead.
Now unencumbered, Jaune spread himself out in the air facedown to increase his surface area. The wind assaulting his face was brutal, he could hardly see with his watering eyes. Still, he knew he was coming up on the main force of ghoms. And he could vaguely make out Ruby down there below them. He held his breath in dreadful anticipation before positioning his shield below him and tucking his body behind it. After a few tense moments, he reached the swarm. Several rapid impacts rocked him and vibrated painfully up his shield-bearing arm as, one after another, the unexpecting ghoms smashed into his shield at terminal velocity, like bugs against a windshield.
And just like that, he was past the thick of it and falling gracelessly at Ruby. Or was she careening toward him? Realizing quickly that maneuver number two of this horrible plan of his was upon him, Jaune swallowed hard in preparation for the disorienting, sensationless feeling that would grip him in three... two... one...
Ruby’s petals engulfed him in the air and carried them both up once again, above the swarm. This time, however, the two were snapped back into corporeality just in time to meet the charge of the monsters that had long recovered from their surprise attack. An onslaught of whips greeted them, and without thinking, Jaune grabbed Ruby’s arm and pulled her behind him as he took the force of their strikes. Most were deflected by his shield, but plenty snuck past his defense to be absorbed directly by his aura. He was lucky to have a lot of it.
He was also lucky that he still had a grip on Ruby’s arm, because the effort of throwing her behind him spun them like a top, and when she came around again, her scythe was out and ready to slice away. She finished them off at the end of her arc, and Jaune released her and let her fly just as she was pointed down toward the rest of the ghoms once again.
They repeated this process over and over. Attacking from above, meeting again below, and using Ruby’s semblance to launch again into the sky. After several passes, the two had successfully thinned the heard quite a bit. But Ruby’s aura was running dangerously low. They needed to regroup.
This time, when Ruby caught Jaune in freefall, she reformed them on the ground. Despite his pale face, he at least looked less likely to vomit from the experience by now. Both gasped in heavy breaths from the exertion of battle.
“My aura’s low,” Ruby huffed. She watched in irritation as the still-imposing cloud of ghoms passed overhead, seemingly glued to their singular goal of demolishing the kingdom beyond the hills.
“I can help.” Jaune reached his hand out and a shimmering, pale yellow glow encased it. When he hovered it over Ruby’s shoulder, she could feel her own aura reacting to it and rallying as his energy boosted hers. From his pocket, he whipped out his scroll and extended it. Both of their faces appeared on the screen, along with their aura stats. Sure enough, Ruby’s was in the red. Jaune’s was faring batter, but still hovered at a little over fifty percent. They both watched it slowly drop as he fed his aura into his semblance, while hers gradually climbed. After several moments, when their levels were both just under half, he removed his hand and tucked his scroll away.
“Thanks,” Ruby said, bouncing on her toes in anticipation of their next bout. “I didn’t know you still had your scroll on you.”
“Before you ask, aura gauge is about the only thing it’s good for. No CCT signal and all.”
Right. Ruby sighed. “I figured. It couldn’t be that easy to find the others, huh?”
Jaune chuckled. “Nothing’s ever easy. But we’ll find them.”
“Of course,” Ruby replied with a light grin, before turning her attention back to the enemy in the sky. “First, though, let’s save the doggos.”
“Same game plan?” She considered for a moment, then shook her head.
“Even with your boost, my aura won’t last long enough for us to take them all out before they reach the kingdom. We’ll need to intercept them there. If enough of them land once they reach their target, they’ll be easier to kill all at once. I’ve got a bit more dust ammunition if it comes to it.”
“Hopefully they have the good sense to run and hide,” Jaune said nervously. “It’ll be too much for us to go after these things while trying to protect the dogs.”
“Samantha will take care of it... I hope.”
Glancing at her worriedly, Jaune had little time to contemplate her uncertain words before Ruby had them both rocketing through the air one last time. There would be no time to lose once they landed.