The travel towards her next destination, the far metropolis of Jiu Xu, had been perilous and difficult. After analyzing the new leather map gifted by Mrs. Amberson – savior of her life and her eternal benefactor – an incredibly detailed and accurate hand-sketched layout of the north-eastern section of grand kingdom of Vytal, Ruby Rose had decided that she would make haste in a direct path towards the targeted city and estimated twenty six days of trekking, after accounting in the factor that she would avoid all major roads and settlements along the way. It had in fact taken her more than a month and many sleepless nights to finally reach the city, for more than once she had been forced to scale across huge crevices and tall cliffs, when the only available bridges had guards standing by to collect road taxes. Her temporary stay at Border 26 had been riddled with special circumstances, and comfortable it might be to sleep under a roof, she was still hunted by one of the most dangerous organizations ever existed in Remnant. Best to practice stealth and discretion at all times, if she didn't want to wake up one day without her neck.
Now that she had slipped her way into the shadowy alleys of Jiu Xu, the cloaked young girl looked up towards the cloudy afternoon sky with a frown on her face. While Ruby had been to the capital city of Vytal, Vale in the past, Jiu Xu looked from her first impression to be just as huge, if not a tad bit bigger than what she expected. There were hundreds of skyscrapers that were aligned neatly along the main roads, and they came in so many different heights and colors that instead of the welcoming feeling each individual building tried to project, they just melted all into one rather oppressive and disorderly atmosphere. Upon closer inspection, many of the buildings even looked to be terribly old or in a state of disrepair, with the worst ones jutting pipes and wires out of the walls like some gutted corpses.
Numerous colorful billboards were littered all across the buildings, advertising seemingly very dubious goods and services in both Eastern and English languages. While they might look pretty at night when the lights turned on, Ruby found them at all times to be distracting and an annoyance. But after just a few blocks the red haired girl began to see a curious pattern, and soon she suspected that they were intentionally placed that way to provide cover and hiding spots all over the city. No wonder I felt naked out on the streets. As Ruby sneaked her way into a narrow edge behind a large concrete pavement, she finally let down her crimson cloak from her head, letting out a flow of crimson black hair while sighing comfortably at the release. Casually leaning against the wall Ruby gave herself ten minutes to observe the flow of people going back and forth the very busy streets of Jiu Xu.
There were construction workers drilling at a site, yellow helmets bobbing about as they yelled orders at each other; typical white collars complete with their neat suit and tie as they trod down the street; and of course there were the casual family and couples and singles, whose main purposes could only fluctuate between relaxation and shopping. What worried Ruby however was the unusual amount of raggedly worn, nasty-looking men who hung about at nearly every corner of the streets. Obviously every city has its own underground, lawless community, and in fact Ruby was searching for exactly one such crime lord to acquire her much needed information. However, she had not expected the dark men to make such an appearance during broad daylight. In fact, they were pretty much the background staple for the entire length of the street. Her urban experiences were limited, but Jiu Xu was obviously different than the other cities in the sense that the lawless' grip seemed much stronger.
This was actually good news though: She could walk up to these people and have them guide her to the contact, and even if soft persuasion failed she could always just… make a scene. They should all lead to the same result. On the other hand, things were never as simple as they seemed to be, so she had to know what to do next in case both plan A and B failed. Ruby breathed deeply; hardly a couple of hours into the Jiu Xu and already she was regretting this trip. If Mrs. Amberson's hadn't recommended this place she would never…
But the complaints can wait, Ruby thought quietly as she turned around to face a grinning, gauntlet-armed blonde woman striding towards her with all the fearlessness of a lion.
It seems that there's something I need to take care first.
Yang Xiao Long was a beautiful young woman. She had mesmerizing violet eyes violet that drew in the souls of men like magnet, and at just the age of seventeen she has a lascivious, sexy figure that most women could never hope to achieve in their life. The young woman was certainly nowhere shy enough to hide the fact either: She wore a thin yellow vest covered over by a short brown jacket and a matching pair of brown boots, which showed an ample amount of her bosom and a firm mid-riff. She also wore super short black pants that clung tightly to her skin, and every time she took to the streets the men's gaze would automatically lock their eyes to her swaying bottom. Yang minded the attention not one bit, for it meant high praise to her natural beauty and she was proud to be gifted with them.
The young woman's most defining feature however, was the golden hair that stretched down her back like an untamed field of wheat. Already gorgeous by nature, then tempered further by meticulous care and Samurai shampoos ("We will murder those dandruff and keep your castle safe, shogun!"), the gold of her hair glowed bright yellow like the midday sun itself. There were even reports that Yang's hair would glow by itself even in the darkest midnight, although the phenomenon was in fact not a trick of the eye but her Aura in play. Yang did her best not to let it show – once in the past, when she was yet a young and boorish girl, she had accidentally lost control of her power and burned an unfortunate subordinate badly. It was not an experience that she was keen to relieve anytime soon.
The sky was grey, the clouds thundered ominously, and as if reflecting her mood today was not a good one for Yang. As she sauntered down the streets, her black mood apparently visible even to the common crowd, the people began to skirt around her with obvious alarm like Moses parting the sea. Knowing her own legendary temper, Yang took a turn into the nearest alley before the annoying glances could ignite an unnecessary emotion. The blonde girl heaved a long sigh as soon as she confirmed herself to be out of sight and alone – at least for the moment, she really needed the peace and quiet.
A few months ago, she had stumbled upon some troubling rumors that the clan's enemies were discreetly meeting each other, possibly plotting to oppose her family. While these gossips were usually false, many disturbing murders had popped up for the past few weeks too frequently to be just a coincidence. Many corpses they found had been horribly mutilated, and many of them were men of the Yang family. Just two weeks ago the Qing Dong Street exploded in a fiery inferno, resulting in three deaths of her clan men and many more injured. The perpetrator however remained a complete mystery, and their investigations had yielded absolutely no results. That should not have been possible; with the whole city practically in their grips Yang could not imagine how any group – hell, anyone – could possibly avoid her clan's full force search.
At any rate this cannot be forgiven. Yang had been making her own patrols, knowing her own weaknesses but still hoping to stumble into a lead, to no avail. But she didn't have any better ideas. It was times like these that made Yang wished that she was still around – no, Yang smacked herself in the head to get herself together. This was not the time to dwell on the past. By hook or by crook, she will stop these bombings.
Still, I must have missed out something, Yang thought in frustration, but what? I need some fresh ideas. I need a breakthrough. I –
I need a suspect like that red-haired, foreign girl who absolutely did not look like she belonged in this god forsaken city. Who is she? Why is she hiding in these shadows and observing our men?
Ask, and yer shall receive. Yang felt a feral smile pulling at the corner of her lips. The golden-haired woman touched the cold metal of her gauntlets and strode boldly towards the turning figure. One way or another, she was going to get answers, and she would have no qualms at all smashing open some kid's teeth if it meant safeguarding the interests of her clan.
"Hi! Hello, er, friend! I need help, and I see that you might need something from me as well," Ruby said quickly before the violent-looking woman could get her own brand of say, "So why don't we swap info? It'll benefit the both of us!"
This got the blonde woman to stop just five feet away from Ruby, but the deep frown on her face did not look to remove itself anytime soon. Five feet; it was a distance far enough to make polite conversation, and did not exclude the possibility of a quick lunge in this narrow alley. Whoever she was, Ruby judged that she was proficient in fighting.
"You're polite, I'll give you that. But guess what? Polite terrorists are the absolute worst," the gauntlet-armed fighter snarled angrily as she smashed a strong fist into her own palm, "So here's my counter offer: You spill everything you know about your organization, your purposes, your piss-ass mastermind or whoever it is who came up with the fucked up idea of blowing up my street and killing my men, and if I'm not too angry then maybe – just maybe – I'll let you leave this place alive."
Youch. This is not good, not good at all. For a second there Ruby thought her secret was exposed, but after listening to the full dialogue things were hardly better. As inept she may be with negotiating with people, the red cloaked girl knew as much that replying with an 'I don't know' now would be bloody suicide. The young girl cursed herself as she tried to recall all the training her master had tutored her in dealing with difficult people without resorting to the age old steel.
"Before that, may I know who I'm talking to?" The words rolled off Ruby's tongue about as smoothly as a rusting cog, but the young girl hoped it would give her the stall needed to cool some heads.
"Haah!? You don't know me!?" Ruby mentally slapped herself in the face with biggest hammer she could imagine. The blonde woman was literally fuming in flames now – Ruby gawked at her golden, burning hair before she caught herself – but at least she hasn't charged into her like a bull … yet. Also, did her eyes just flash red? "I am Yang Xiao Long, daughter of the Wild Dragon of Vytal and heir to the greatest clan in Jiu Xu! You will call me Yang. Now stop pretending you don't know that and answer my question!"
The Wild Dragon of Vytal? That's her contact! Somehow, through sheer dumb luck she had stumbled into the daughter of the man she was looking for! Although there was a chance that the woman was just lying, with looks like hers Ruby thought it'd be pretty hard for Yang to impersonate anyone but herself. Instantly Ruby understood that this was an opportunity she could not miss. She raised both her arms into the air in a gesture of non-violence – though she was careful to conceal her weapon with her cloak – and said,
"You're his daughter? That's great! The name's Ruby," she hesitated for a second before continuing, "Ruby Rose. I have some matters that need discussing with Mr. Taiyang Xiao Long, and I would be in your debt if you can bring me to your father. Unfortunately, I don't know anything about the bombing – I literally just arrived a few hours ago. I'm sorry for your loss."
Ruby resisted the urge to heave a tired sigh at the elongated reply, and waited for judgment with nervous anxiety. The blonde woman's – Yang Xiao Long's – posture stiffened at the mention of her father's name, and this time there was no mistaking the strange phenomenon: the woman's eyes flashed crimson for a split second before returning into the usual violet. This must be the extension or the source of her Aura. It should be an Emotional type, a power that reacts to the host's feelings. Ruby filed the information to the back of her mind for future use, and as if on cue Yang Xiao Long had finally answered,
"… Not many people know my Da's real name. Are you really not involved in the bombing? Are you not plotting against my clan? And what is it so important that you need to meet Da in person?"
She calls her dad Da? That's cute – no wait focus! Her hostility and suspicion seemed lesser than before, and Ruby took it as a good sign to continue being honest, "I really don't know anything like that. As for the nature of my business; I'm afraid I can't say that here – you get what I'm saying?"
The woman glared sternly into her eyes as if trying to sense the lies lurking beneath her words. Having replied with complete honesty though, Ruby simply stared back coolly until Yang started up again, "Well, it's fine if you can't state your business, but you must have some way to prove your identity. Do you have an ID? Who do you work for? Do you have someone in mind who could vouch for you?"
Ruby scratched her head at the beginnings of another round of anxiety, "Well… I'm a lone wolf, a mercenary of sorts. That's why I don't have an ID; no real ones anyway. As for the vouch…"
"Taiyang Xiao Long. Right," It was three in the morning, and Ruby was detailing the layout of her plans verbally even as Mrs. Amberson yawned loudly into her hands. However, wanting to have the absolute best preparation in pursuing this new lead, Ruby ignored it and pressed on without a care,
"So I would go to the city, find a clan member of the Xiao Long clan – preferably a man of power, or if I'm lucky someone who knows him personally – and tell them my wish to meet him. I will then give them your vouch as proof of my identity."
"Well, cut out the vouch part then yes, that's one way of doing things," Mrs. Amberson yawned once again, this time standing up from her seat and not even pretending she was going to listen anymore. Ruby jumped up from her own in panic and quickly grabbed onto the old lady's sleeves,
"Wait, what? You can't vouch for me? But I thought you know each other! How am I going to see him if I can't prove myself clean?"
Mrs. Amberson gave her an irritable glance and shrugged impatiently, "Sure, you can use my name if you want, but don't be surprised if you wake up the next morning dead, naked, and hung upside down in the middle of the streets. He's cranky that way."
"… May I ask exactly what you've done to make a man so vengeful?"
"Oh, nothing much. We used to be lovers once," Mrs. Amberson said as if that was the answer to everything, but still Ruby refused to let go until finally, the woman sighed and relented, "I also killed his bitch wife – the second one, mind you, the one he took in after Lia passed away – because she tried to kick me out of his house. Like, who the hell does she think she is? I'll tolerate Lia, but no way in fucking hell I'll suffer through that rude little bitch... What? Murder is a legitimate way to solve love triangles, okay!?"
"… I er, no. No. I don't have anyone who can vouch for me," Ruby returned to Remnant feeling inexplicably pitiful as her gratitude for her benefactor suddenly shrunk to the size of a grain of sand. It would seem that she could not persuade this Yang Xiao Long after all. However, just as she looked upwards to excuse herself, the young girl was surprised to find the blonde studying her face intently just a few inches away. When did she get so near? Ruby leaped back reflexively and stuttered, "Erm, I er, I guess I can't prove myself, hahaha! Never mind, sorry for the inconvenience, I'll guess I'll just leave and… well. La –"
"Wait a second."
The words froze Ruby Rose at mid turn, and she rotated back like a robot to look at Yang, "Yes?"
"There's one more thing I'd like to ask you. Let's say you found out where my Da lives. Do you think you can sneak in far enough to see him?"
"Why do you look so surprised? You're a Huntress, aren't you? And don't bother denying it – you have an air of danger only our type of people could have."
"I – I –" The young girl could not stop stuttering, and for every step she took backwards the blonde woman simply closed them with her own. Ruby couldn't even laugh it off because it was exactly the Plan B she had in mind. Is this woman a mind reader or something? "Well, maybe, but of course I won't –"
"Maybe? Do you know that our security is the absolute best in the whole city?" the blonde woman just kept closing in, and before she knew it Ruby had found herself backed completely against the wall. The girl couldn't suppress a squeak when Yang Xiao Long stuck her face inches away from her own while looking at her directly in the eye,
"We have hundreds of guards patrolling just the inner perimeter of our walls. We know every crook and nanny so well that not even a rat could sneak in, and even if someone got really creative, there are contingencies in place to make sure that they never get out. Of course, security is only as strong as the men guarding them, so we have plenty of elite teams patrol the area 24/7, and each one can hold their own against a horde of Grimm easily. And then there are the Three Guardians of Xiao Long."
The woman held up a palm, and a small ball of golden fire erupted at the center of it. Ruby looked completely mesmerized by its flickering, dancing patterns as Yang continued speaking, "The first Guardian would be Lie Ren, a genius martial artist practitioner whose best record so far was to slay a Rank C+ 'Giant' King Taijitu barehanded. The second one was Nora Valkyrie, a tomboy who singlehandedly cleared out every Ursa of the South side forest just because she was bored. A horrendous excuse to commit massacre really, although I guess since it's fine if it's the Grimm… And finally, there is me."
The fire suddenly flared upwards in a terrifying column of heat, threatening to burn poor Ruby's face with just centimeters to spare. Any normal civilian would've been scared out of their wits by now, but Ruby showed absolutely no signs of fear at all. Yang nodded as if she had just confirmed something, and in an instant the flames dissipated into nothingness, "I am the first and strongest Guardian out of the three, and my specialty? I burn everything. So you know exactly how much danger you'd have to go through if you try to force things, and hell, that fickle bastard might not even want to see you."
Finally the blonde woman moved away with an amiable shrug of her shoulders, and Ruby sagged a little at the joy of having her private space restored, "Do you still think you can get in, girl? Do you really think you can do it?"
It was insanity. Who in their right mind would check with a sweet, innocent-looking girl their capabilities to break into their house? Better, who in their right mind would say yes? Common sense dictated that Ruby should deny the question with every breath in her lungs, and yet she had a feeling that it would not be the right thing to do. All things considered, she was inclined to believe her sixth sense since it had saved her life more times than she could count.
"If that's all, then yeah," The words were out of her mouth before she could regret her decision, and as her nervousness faded away and her tone grew firm and sure, "I don't even need to sneak in if that's all you have; I can go right through the front. Oh, but that might make my contact angry and I don't want that, so I guess it's still better for me to sneak in…?"
Yang Xiao Long gaped. In fact, she was staring so hard that Ruby could feel her face burn with embarrassment and self-depreciation. Here we go again, idiot, Ruby sighed while slapping herself silly in the head with an imaginary hammer, what did master say about negotiating again? Use my brain, and boy did I use not even zero point zero zero zero zero one percent of it. Now she'd really have to break through the front, and because blondie had warning this'll become ten times harder than it should –
"Pfft. Ha. Hahahahaha!"
Ruby pulled herself away from the depressive thoughts and frowned dubiously at Yang. The blonde woman seemed to be laughing. In fact, she began laughing so hard that the entire alley was reverberating with the rather unpleasant noise. That was definitely not the reaction she was expecting at all. It took a full minute before the woman finally managed to calm herself and exclaim between gasps,
"Good, Ruby Rose! Very good! I like your style! Very well, you don't need to go ninja or crazy around the city just to see my Da. I will vouch for you and personally bring you up to Da myself. I swear this on my honor, and on one other condition," Yang Xiao Long, daughter of the Wild Dragon of Vytal, slowly moved her limbs and fell into a familiar fighting stance,
"You'll have to beat me. Show me the proof of your strength! If you're really as capable as you claim to be, then this should be no problem at all, yeah?" Yang smiled provocatively while beckoning with her right hand.
Ruby Rose cocked her head to one side as if she couldn't believe her ears. For a time she simply stared at Yang as if processing slowly the last few seconds in her head, before finally she asked, "You want to… fight me?"
"You can choose not to, but then you'll be stranded without a guide."
"Oh no, no that's fine," Ruby shook her head quickly before continuing, "So, how are we going to do this? Do we compete who gets in a hit first? Do I beat you up? I can knock you out too if you want – oh, wait, I can't, I need you to vouch for me."
In truth, Ruby had not meant to provoke Yang in anyway. She just never thought that she would lose to the blonde. Yang however obviously saw it as a counter provocation, and instantly the blonde woman's eyes flashed into red color as fire exploded throughout her entire body, "Oh, just do whatever you like, girl. Just don't cry when I knock all your teeth into your stomach!"
Ka chink. Ka chink. Ka chink.
It was impossible. Part of her mind would not accept the reality, and it took every shred of self-control to stop herself from lunging at her opponent. What's worse was that deep down her heart Yang knew that she had not underestimated the young girl, that despite her show of uncontrollable outburst she had not once let her guard down. That's why she should've been able to dodge it. She should've been able to see it coming at least. Yang believed that even if her monster Da had been her opponent, she still would've been able to slug in a finger before being blown ten streets across the city.
But no. It pained Yang to admit it, but it was a sad fact that she never noticed the rifle behind Ruby's waist, cleverly hidden by her cloak and body until it was already too late. Three times the triggered was pulled. That was three times Yang could've died when the muzzle zipped across her heart, neck, and forehead if Ruby used real bullets instead of blank shots. Yang Xiao Long had never felt has humiliated as she was this moment in her entire life.
"I believe that counts as my win," the young girl – Ruby Rose – said hesitantly with a somewhat embarrassed scratch on the cheek, "Are you… okay? You said I can do anything, and I'd really prefer not to hurt you." This brat, is she… sympathizing with me? Am I really that weak in her eyes?
Yang breathed in deeply before tapping herself lightly at the cheeks, "Haha! Gods be damned, I lost that badly huh? Never thought I'd lose this badly to a kid, but hell, that goes to show that I'm still sorely lacking. This is your win alright Ruby, and as promised I'll bring you to see Da."
"… I see. Thank you," the young girl finally relaxed her posture and released the grip she has on her weapon, and before long her blood red cloak seemed to flutter willfully and hid the weapon once again completely from view. The blonde rubbed her eyes; it's almost as if that piece of cloth had a life of its own, but surely that can't be possible, "I'm sorry if I've… hurt your pride. You aren't bad yourself, it's just –"
"You don't need to explain anything. Please," Yang held up a hand and silenced the girl. Ruby looked genuinely concerned and was most likely just trying to comfort her, but at her current state it would just be counter-productive, "Now just follow my lead, and make sure no one's tailing us. While our home location isn't a secret, the entrance I'm going to walk you in is."
Yang turned her back towards Ruby and walked away before the latter could say anything. Before long the young girl ran right up her side, and together they trod along the endless maze of alleyways in complete silence. That was the way Yang preferred it to be right now.
"You know, let's have a rematch once my business is over. I could always use the warm up."
… Or maybe not. That just wouldn't be her style after all, right? Yang grinned despite herself and declared loudly, "No problem! But don't you think it's gonna be so easy next time, big sis!"