The next room in the Valerian mine was colder and smaller than the first, with a ceiling that felt right above their heads rather than towering above. Columns interspersed the space, running from floor to ceiling in sizes both large and small. And every conceivable surface - from the walls to the ceiling to the pillars - was made entirely of smooth, shimmering Valerian steel.
The Blackguards strode into the room as if stacks of the precious metal would be waiting for them. Instead, there was nothing but the chill in the air and an eerie quiet broken only by soft murmurs of surprise or confusion. When Blake saw the wall in front of them, however, she laughed.
“It’s never that easy, is it,” she told Adam while he stalked over and set his hand on it.
This new foe lacked a conveniently-placed keyhole or a doorway of any kind. Instead, pristine runes ran across the surface - a message from those who belonged here to those who didn’t.
“You’re exactly who the Valerians wanted to keep out,” Blake added as something akin to vindication sparked in her chest, along with gratitude for the race who thought of everything. “You’re the reason they did so much to seal this place away. They knew monsters like you would show up, and they made sure you’d fail.”
Because that’s what this was - a failure. There was no forge here. There was no key mold. There wasn’t even a keyhole.
There was no moving forward. They weren’t the worthy ones chosen by the Valerians, so this was as far as they would get - by design.
That conclusion must have become evident to Adam as well, because he slammed his fist against the wall before squaring his shoulders and stalking over to Blake. As soon as he reached her, he grabbed her arm and dragged her over to the wall standing between him and his precious prize.
After trying and failing to free her arm from his grasp, which tightened painfully around her wrist, she scoffed at him.
“Why would I do that?”
“Because if you don’t, you get to watch her die - slowly.”
Adam motioned to Cinder, who smiled and pulled out the device linked to the collar around Yang’s neck.
“Blake, don’t do it.”
Yang hardly shook her head before Cinder pushed the button and the sound of electricity filled the air. Instantly, Yang’s eyes rolled back and she dropped to the ground, her body spasming uncontrollably while a low, pained noise came from the back of Blake’s throat.
One, two, three seconds passed before Cinder released the button and Yang grew motionless. She was still breathing - Blake could see her breathing - but it was several long seconds before she moved. Even then, her motions were labored and sluggish as she tried to push herself off the ground.
“Blake…” was all she got out, meeting Blake’s gaze with pained red eyes.
Without words, Blake understood what Yang was trying to say - that they were dead anyway. Adam wouldn’t let them walk out of here alive. Either they died now, with the mines still intact, or they helped Adam break in and died after.
“Read it,” Adam repeated with a rough shake of Blake’s arm, but she didn’t respond. Instead, tears sprung into her eyes while she looked at Yang and shook her head.
Electricity crackled through the air, and Yang instantly fell into another fit of convulsions. Her head knocked repeatedly against the metal ground, her limbs twitched and spasmed unnaturally, and Cinder held the button even longer.
Four...five...six seconds until the sound disappeared. This time, Yang laid still for much longer before rolling onto her side, struggling to breathe. Agony was evident in every inch of her, making Blake wonder how much more of that she could physically take. Deathly silence filled the room as many of the Blackguards refused to look anywhere near their fallen commander. Their eyes and postures gave away their discomfort, while Cinder’s hungry gaze expressed her desire to finish the job.
“Stop!” Blake shouted before Cinder moved. Her tears burned more urgently now, but she waited for Yang to meet her gaze before shaking her head in apology. She knew what Yang wanted her to do, she knew what she should do, but she couldn’t watch Yang die like that. If she did what Adam said and translated the runes...maybe it would buy them some time.
“Just...stop,” she whispered before turning to Adam. “I’ll do it.”
When he nodded and released her, she moved closer to the wall and resisted the urge to rub her tender wrist. Instead, she blinked away tears and focused on her newest, and possibly last, task.
After a few seconds orienting herself, she discovered it would be the easiest translation yet. Unlike the maps, which had faded to the point of illegible, these runes looked like they’d been carved yesterday. Even though the person leaving the message had the entire wall at their disposal, they’d decided to squish the words together using small, neat letters that read much like the textbooks Blake used to learn the language in the first place.
Placing her fingers on the first symbol, she briefly closed her eyes and apologized to the Valerians for what she was about to do. They wanted to save the universe - a goal she once shared with them. But now...she just wanted another few minutes to try to make it out of here alive.
“‘To those who wish to enter…’” she read aloud, moving her hand across the top line before sliding down to the next. “‘If you...lack the key…’” Moving to the bottom line, she read the last few runes - then read them again - and laughed.
“‘Go to hell,’” she said while pointing to each rune in turn. “Or purgatory,” she added before turning back to Adam. “You need something else to get through.”
From his stunned expression, he hadn’t expected this challenge, and that made her irrationally happy. For as smart as he thought he was, the Valerians were smarter. If someone collected all of the maps. If someone figured out how to read them. If someone found the mine. If someone already had a piece of Valerian steel. If someone made it through all of those trials, it still wasn’t enough.
This place was built for those meant to be here. Everyone else could do as the message said - go to hell.
“I’m not.” Blake waved towards the wall to prove her point. “You can see just as well as I can - there’s no keyhole. If there’s a way through, they didn’t leave instructions for it.”
He didn’t want to believe her, that much was evident from the look in his eyes, but she was telling the truth. Somehow, he sensed that honesty, and shoved her away from the wall in order to look at it himself. While he searched for another way through, she hurried over to Yang and knelt by her side.
“Are you ok?” she whispered, touching Yang’s cheek before searching for visible injuries.
“I think so…” Yang murmured in return. She leaned into Blake’s touch, but it looked like that movement alone was nearly too much to bear. For as strong as she was, she’d reached her limit...she couldn’t take much more of this punishment.
“Just try to rest,” Blake whispered, gently stroking Yang’s hair as her eyes slid shut. While Yang regained whatever energy she could, Blake scoured the room for any hope of escape.
Blackguards crowded the space, muttering softly amongst themselves while waiting for orders. Cinder glowered from nearby, looking more than ready to finish what she started. And Adam stared at the wall for several more minutes before slamming his fist against it and turning around.
“There has to be another entrance somewhere - find it. I don’t care if you have to blow up every one of those mountains in the process.”
While the Blackguards rushed off to do as told, a spark of hope flickered in Blake’s chest. With fewer people in the room, maybe they could fight their way out. Assuming Yang could walk. And assuming Blake could take out Adam and Cinder, who remained behind.
That hope disappeared when Cinder stalked over them.
“Why don’t you stay here.” Grabbing Yang by the arm, Cinder roughly dragged her to the side and chained her to one of the metal columns in the room. “Let’s see you break through that,” Cinder added with a smirk before walking away.
Anyone looking at Yang right now could see that she wasn’t in any condition to attempt an escape. Yet Cinder locked her to the column while leaving Blake unchained and unsupervised.
It had never been more obvious that they weren’t afraid of her in the slightest. Without a weapon, they considered her less of a threat than an injured Yang with only one arm. They continued to underestimate her.
Or maybe she continued to overestimate herself. Because what had she accomplished so far? Besides having her identity blown, forcing Yang to save her life, getting Ret killed - what had she accomplished besides hurting the people she cared about?
Yang needed Blake to get them out of this alive. After all those times she’d saved Blake’s life, putting her life at risk in the process, she needed Blake’s help. And what had Blake managed to do?
She almost got Yang off of the Inferno. She almost saved Yang’s life.
“I’m sorry…” Running her hand across Yang’s cheek, seeing and feeling how broken the once-strong Blackguard was - because of her - Blake sniffled and blinked away the tears building in her eyes. “I’m so sorry…”
“It’s not your fault...”
As much as Blake wished Yang’s words were true, they weren’t. She deserved the blame. She deserved the guilt. She was the one who jumped at the opportunity to take down the Blackguards. She was the one who thought that being an Alliance agent granted her moral superiority. She was the one who wholeheartedly believed that the choice between good and evil was easy - that everyone could choose to be good if they wanted to.
Her naivety came with consequences. She didn’t mind personally paying the price, but Yang didn’t deserve to die with her - because of her. Unfortunately, it was too late to fix her mistakes. Now, all she could do was to watch Adam and Cinder discuss the last obstacle standing in their path, and wait for them to decide when her time was up.
“Hey,” Yang whispered before long, her soft voice drawing Blake’s gaze back to her. “Remember when I told you how I lost my arm?”
“I lied.” When Blake’s brow furrowed, Yang looked up at her with a sad, wavering smile. “Ruby wasn’t the one crying...I was.”
After pausing to let the explanation sink in, Yang drew in a long, shaky breath before letting it out in one quick exhale.
“I was so scared of dying then, but...I’m not anymore.”
In Yang’s red eyes, Blake saw such calm, unfiltered acceptance that her tears immediately renewed. This wasn’t the time for Yang to accept death. This wasn’t the time for her to give up. She had to keep fighting. She had to hold on to that survivor’s spirit for a little longer, long enough for the two of them to find a way out of this.
“We’re not going to die here,” Blake said, even though she knew it wasn’t true. Yang knew it was a lie too, as she reached up and gently wiped a tear from Blake’s cheek.
“It’s ok though.” Yang’s reassurance prompted another tear to fall, and more threatened to spill over. “I’m just...really glad I met you. You reminded me what it was like...to trust someone...and care for someone other than myself.”
Was that what this moment boiled down to? Their final goodbyes...with death on the not-so-distant horizon? Their last chance to admit how they felt about one another...what they meant to one another?
“I’m really glad I met you too...”
Mustering a weak smile, Blake intertwined her fingers with Yang’s and kissed the top of Yang’s hand. When Yang managed a small smile and leaned into her side, she sighed and stared at the wall across from them.
Centuries must have passed since the last Valerian carved those words, leaving behind a place of wonder, sorrow, and sacrifice. This cold, metal room might mark the end of Blake and Yang’s story - just as it had for the Valerians - but they could take some solace knowing that Adam couldn’t find a way inside.
“Does it really say go to hell?” Yang whispered after a few seconds of silence, and Blake nodded.
When Yang made a soft noise of amusement, Blake smiled at the runes delivering that message and rested her head on Yang’s shoulder. Yang’s warmth burned brightly against the chill of the room, and Blake sighed while savoring as much of the feeling as possible. In doing so, her eyes unfocused on the words across from her - then refocused when she noticed something she hadn’t seen before.
There was another keyhole, concealed in the runes themselves. While unnoticeable from up close, she could see it from afar - the same star pattern that led them here. The key would be no larger than a pendant, but it fit where the corners of the runes touched from one line down to the next.
While Adam searched for the answer that was right in front of him, Blake suppressed a smile. The Valerians were clever. They made the situation look impossible - insurmountable - but it wasn’t. All someone needed was what the legends said all along - the key.
If only Blake and Yang’s situation was similar...if only a simple key would get themselves out of this mess...
Or maybe a distraction.
Sitting taller, Blake looked more intently around the room, which she might have wrongly assumed to be her final resting place.
Maybe insurmountable odds weren’t so insurmountable. Maybe up close, the situation looked dire. Maybe in this room, their death was already written. But if she took a step back and looked at every possible angle, what did she see?
The Blackguards still treated Yang with the respect she’d earned through years of being their leader. She was the one who trained them. She was the one who led them through countless battles. She was the one who saved their lives just as she’d saved Blake’s. For that, she’d earned their loyalty, and that loyalty didn’t die so easily.
The Blackguards followed Cinder and Adam out of fear, but if the two of them were out of the picture…
The most Blake could hope for was hesitation. If they hesitated, Yang had a chance of making them stand down. If Adam and Cinder were gone, they needed a new leader...and that leader would be Yang.
Surviving that battle might be next to impossible, but what other option was there? It was a risk Blake was willing to take. More importantly, it was a sacrifice she was willing to make.
“Blake...” Yang whispered, growing more alert as a plan solidified in Blake’s mind. “I know what you’re thinking. Don’t do it.”
Tearing her gaze away from Adam and Cinder, she gave Yang a small smile.
“You know I’m not good at following orders...”
Before Yang protested, Blake stood up and glanced into the main atrium while pretending to stretch her legs. Most of the Blackguards were distracted by their search for another entrance to the mines; it would take them a few seconds to figure out what was happening and rush to help. Now the only question was...what kind of distraction could she cause?
That question wasn’t answered by her, but by a loud, low rumble in the distance followed by shouts from the Blackguards outside.
“What was that?” Cinder asked and, the instant she turned towards the sound, Blake struck.
Grabbing Cinder by the wrist, Blake jerked her forward while landing a hook to her eye. The resulting blow knocked her off balance with a cry of pain, but she reached for her phaser while steadying herself.
Cinder was fast, but Blake had the element of surprise. As soon as the weapon left the holster, she kicked Cinder’s hand and sent the phaser skittering across the ground. Knowing she only had seconds before Adam arrived to help, she barreled into Cinder with her shoulder lowered, sending the woman into one of the metal columns with a crack and whoosh of air leaving her lungs. In the momentary stun that followed, Blake stole the knife from Cinder’s side and plunged it into her thigh.
When Cinder screamed, reaching for her leg while the blood began to flow, Blake tore the blade free and dove to the side right as Adam’s fist hurtled past her head. She hadn’t thought much further than this, but she didn’t have time to as Adam drew his phaser and aimed at her. He didn’t realize where he stood though, and Yang wasted no time kicking his legs out from under him, sending him crashing to the floor.
That was all the time Blake needed, as she scrambled to her feet and rushed him with her knife ready. After quickly regaining his own feet, he raised an arm to block the blade as she slashed towards his neck, then followed up with a menacing kick that sent her skittering out of the way.
Her adrenaline was pumping, her heart racing, but this time she had nothing to lose. And, with nothing to lose, she had no reason to be afraid of him anymore. So when he expected her to pause and regroup, like they’d both been trained, she charged him instead.
In the brief second he was caught off guard, she switched the knife between her hands and stabbed towards his shoulder. He grabbed her wrist and smirked, completely unaware that she’d already dropped the blade from her hand.
Tracking its fall, she brought her knee up at the perfect time, connected with the handle, and drove it into his leg. A breath of air instantly left his lungs - a brief opportunity she used to pull her arm free, spin, and land a full-force kick right onto the hilt, driving the knife deeper into his leg while he howled in pain.
Blood seeped through his armor as he stumbled backward and touched the handle, but she didn’t give him a chance to recover. Leaping towards him, she landed a fist in his side before grabbing the blade and tearing it out of him. Drops of red sprayed across the ground as he clutched his leg and staggered to the side. In that moment of weakness, she spun the knife in her hand and prepared another attack - only to spot movement out of the corner of her eye.
With one hand pressed to the wound in her thigh, Cinder hobbled towards the phaser on the ground nearby. Recognizing the more immediate threat, Blake turned away from Adam, took a steadying breath, drew her arm back, and hurled the knife across the room.
The blade buried into the soft skin of Cinder’s neck and sent her to the ground with a muffled cry of pain, clutching her neck as the blood seeped between her fingers.
Before Blake could react to Yang’s warning, Adam got his arm around her neck and yanked her backward. His arm instantly cut off her airway and kept tightening, lifting her feet off the ground while depriving her of oxygen.
“I should’ve...finished this the first time...” he hissed while pulling tighter. She clawed at his arm and face and tried to kick at him - anything to free herself - but his hold never loosened, and her mind began screaming for air.
Desperation growing, Blake’s gaze landed upon Yang, who was powerless to help. Anger and horror filled her red eyes, but it was the stillness to them that caught Blake’s attention even as her mind panicked.
When Yang’s gaze pointedly dropped towards Adam’s hip, Blake lowered her hand and touched the top of something hard and metal.
His knife. It was right there. If he lowered her just an inch...she could reach it.
With what consciousness she had left, she slowed her struggles. Her brain screamed at her to keep fighting, but she loosened her limbs and clawed less fervently at his arm. She gave up, and when he sensed that she was about to go under, he lowered her to the ground so he could finish the job.
Dropping her arm to her side, she stretched her fingers as far as she could while fighting the darkening of her vision and mind. Just a little further and she could grab it. Just a little further.
The instant she felt cold metal under her fingertips, she pulled the knife from its sheath and slammed it back into his leg. While he roared in pain, his grip loosened just enough for her to take a deep breath, tear out the blade, and stab him again. And again.
On the fourth blow, he finally let go and she dropped to the ground, uncontrollably coughing while also trying to draw in deep breaths. She had to get up - the fight wasn’t over. She had to prepare for his counterattack, but she could hardly think.
“Blake, get up.” Hearing the panic in Yang’s voice, she knew she didn’t have much time, but everything was hazy and slow as she gasped for air. “Blake, get up. Please get up.”
She had to get up. She knew she had to get up. She felt Adam’s presence behind her, heard him trying to regain his feet, and knew that if she didn’t end this, he would.
She would end this.
With the bloody knife still clutched in one hand, she rushed her body back into action. Pushing herself to her feet and turning around, finding Adam on the ground behind her, clutching his leg while blood gushed through his fingers.
The loathing in his eyes matched the loathing she felt for him. And she knew, if the situations were reversed, he would show no mercy. So she tightened her grip around the knife, kept a close eye on his hands, and stepped towards him.
No sooner had she taken that step did she hear the unmistakable clinking of metal bouncing across the floor. Before she caught a glimpse of whatever it was, an explosion tore through the small room, knocking her to the ground and sending the knife sliding away from her.
Disoriented and confused, she pushed herself to her hands and knees and tried to figure out what just happened. Her ears were ringing. Her vision was swimming. Then the smell of knockout gas stung her nose.
Dark figures rushed into the room - too many and too fast for her to count. Spotting Yang not far away, she tried to crawl towards her. Unconsciousness pulled at her mind, making her movements sluggish, but she had to get there. She had to protect Yang.
But she was too slow. One of the figures made it to Yang first. They knelt by Yang’s side, they touched her shoulder.
Blake could do nothing. The last thing she heard was Yang’s voice.
A soft, surprised, “Ruby?”