Short cut-off chapter today. Hopefully, this should be the only shortened one for a long time now. All my medical records are located, I'm having the COVID vaccine again because of it, and I've had my last blood tests. Or what I hope will be my last for a bit.

Going in today for results at last and should be done with drama getting in the way of writing. Or so I hope. Thanks for your patience and understanding thus far and also on this chapter. I know it's been a pain but you've all been great.


Cover Art: Jack Wayne

Chapter 160


Atlas had done well to keep their movements at least a little secret but no one could clamp down on this kind of military build-up forever. They'd never know if it was a soldier who leaked the information or some plucky paparazzi, but the media were quick to jump on it and come up with all kinds of nonsense theories as to what General Ironwood was doing. Some of them were far too extreme, suggesting an attack on another Kingdom and ramping up tensions at a time when they didn't need it.

Luckily, the Council of Atlas knew and were on board, and so weren't about to be pressured to explain. The official excuse given was an exercise in war games, but the sheer disbelief shown by the media suggested they had insider information. They knew this was no simulation.

It didn't help that because they knew, now Salem knew. She'd known thanks to Ozpin before of course, but now she had a specific date, and since there'd been media crews outside the base for the last two days, she'd also get to see the airships taking off today. All those story-hungry journalists were doing was giving the enemy of humanity advance warning.

Idiots have no idea how much danger they're putting us all in.

As if they'd care. If everyone came back safe and with Salem dead, those self-same people would jump on that story and milk it dry, then turn on them in the future for any other perceived fault. It was the way of the world. People loved their scandals. Almost as much as they loved their tragedies.

"What's with the dark expression?" Qrow quipped.

"Those idiots. Look at them. They're going to give Salem a perfect warning of when we're leaving, what our forces are and how long it will take us to reach her. All for some ratings."

"Not much we can do about them."

They could attack them and dispose of the evidence. Jaune imagined it for a moment and then let the happy thought go. It would only cause more problems, and they could talk of the army leaving whether or not they had footage. At this point, the damage was done.

"We're taking off today, huh?" Qrow asked even though he knew the answer. "Seems real sudden, doesn't it? Odd when I've been a huntsman for twenty years now. I should be thinking it's about time."

"We'll pull this off."

Qrow hummed. "I hope so."

"I know so."

Jaune turned away from the wall and walked back to the command centre. Qrow followed, bored or simply without anything better to do. At the central hub, huntsmen were gathering. The military had already been filing into their respective airships for the last two hours, but huntsmen were always an undisciplined lot, and they were milling around outside until the last minute.

A lot of the faces were familiar, and yet there were many he did not know at all. He wondered briefly if they'd been called in by Ironwood or if they were former students of Atlas Academy responding to a call to action. Some were from Vacuo, volunteers contacted by Theodore, while Mistral had dispatched their own contingent quietly chatting by the corner of the building.

All in all, there had to be around three hundred huntsmen. A sizeable force to have in any one spot. There probably hadn't been this man huntsmen in one spot since Mountain Glenn. Jaune noted that Summer and Taiyang were not among them with some small relief. Summer had died once already and been saved a second time. He really didn't want to be responsible for robbing Yang and Ruby of a parent again.

Emerald and Vernal were already on the ship and in quarters beside his own, assigned by James. He knew they'd not be leaving out of fear he'd take off without them. Suspicious girls, he had. They didn't quite trust the fact he'd promised to take them along. Not without good reason. Most people would try and leave them behind where it's safe.

"Did Winter not wake up?" Qrow asked.

"Not in time, no. It looked close." Jaune sighed and ran a hand over his face. He was disappointed by it, and yet it felt wrong to say that, like he was claiming to be disappointed in Winter. "I wrote her a letter, even left a recorded message. The doctor agrees she's on the verge of waking up, but that could still be days or a week away."

"Sucks. Maybe she'll wake up once this is all over. That'd be easiest for you, wouldn't it? Dodge any fear she has about you not making it back."

Jaune grimaced. "Yeah. That'd be easier alright…"

A distraction came in the form of a familiar figure approaching, golden eyes and black hair. Cinder had fallen back onto her red and gold dress with the black shorts and heeled shoes. It was a blast to the past, and one that came with its own faded trill of anger. It was old now. Worn and tired and not nearly as white-hot as it used to be.

"Jaune," she greeted.

"Cinder." He placed a hand on her shoulder and looked to Qrow. "I need to have a word with her in private. Excuse us please."

"Sure. Leave me on my own. I see how it is."

Jaune led Cinder away with a chuckle, pushing with one hand on her upper back. He rounded the corner of the building, making sure that they were out of sight. Cinder allowed him to steer her, not once making a word or complaining. Once they were alone, he said, "I'm glad you could make it. I wasn't sure you would."

"I put thought into what you said. I won't be safe so long as she remains. The cost of betrayal is high. Unless the one I'm betraying is dead…"

"True." Jaune swept his white coat open over his left hip. Cinder's eyes were drawn to the second sword at his waist and her eyes widened. "I was going to ask you to keep hold of this," he said, unclipping and holding it out.

"T-The Relic of Destruction…? Why?"

"It would only be temporary. I need to forge the Relics into one when we're close to Salem, but it's not a good idea to have them too close before that. We don't want any accidents. I'm going to be spreading them out between key people."

"Whom?"

"Myself for Choice, Raven for Knowledge, Ironwood for Creation and you for Destruction."

Cinder let that sink in, looking away from his eyes and down to the sword. It said a lot that he was prepared to entrust her with the weapon, with the responsibility. It was a calculated move on his part; one that would make sure she knew her value in the operation was on par with his own or even General Ironwood's. It wasn't in reality, but appearances were important, and he did want her involved. The power of a maiden couldn't be underestimated.

"You'd need to keep it safe until we reach the Grimmlands," he continued. "And after, while we're under attack by Grimm. The chances of them taking down the flagship is minimal when we have the entire fleet fighting to protect it, but if that does somehow happen then we'll all need to fight our way to the tower."

"It's a responsibility…" she whispered.

"Yes. We need this. If even one Relic goes missing before we arrive, the entire operation fails. Salem wins, we lose, and we could suffer terrible losses on the retreat. It might give her the confidence to push out once again."

Cinder knew that, and she knew her life hung in the balance of it working. Her eyes remained locked on the sword, one hand outstretched to take it with reverence and also a humming lust for power. She wanted it. If not to keep it then for the transient power it would grant. Which was he was so surprised when, with a shaking hand, she shook her head and stepped away.

"No. I shouldn't have carry this."

Of all the things he'd expected, all the things he'd planned for, this was not one of them. "What? Why?"

"I'm already a target to her thanks to my actions. If Salem sees the chance, she will prioritise me over any other." With a longing look to the sword, she brought her arms back to her sides. "We should not give her the chance to take out a relic-bearer and a primary target in one swoop. Thank you for the opportunity, but this is best in the hands of someone she would least expect."

Her piece said, Cinder walked past him and toward the airship. He could tell she had to, because every ounce of her being was telling her to run back, take the sword and clasp it against her breast. He couldn't fault her reasoning, though. And by the same reasoning, he shouldn't be carrying the Relic of Choice.

Could he trust anyone else to carry it and not use it? Qrow wouldn't, but his Semblance made him a bad choice for a relic-bearer as Cinder put it. Emerald or Vernal could be trusted never to betray him, but they were curious and worried about his safety. They might don it to find out if he would be okay, then take steps to prevent the final confrontation ever happening.

No. I'll just have to keep it and make sure I don't mess up.

As for the Relic of Destruction… maybe Clover wasn't a bad choice after all. He had good luck, skill and would be surrounded by accomplished and well-trained Specialists at all times. If James trusted him the first time, he was as good a choice the second.

/-/

Emerald looked out the window and watched the huge base below become smaller and smaller. The airship they were on – the flagship of the entire fleet – was as large as a shopping mall and felt like its own village. There were enough people on it to count as one.

"He really brought us along," Vernal said. They were sharing a room – no one wanted it, but space was tight. In this case, Emerald agreed with her surprise. "I really expected some last minute trick to get us off the ship."

"Same…"

"Guess this means he trusts us, huh?" Vernal was so pleased with the thought that she forgot her usual vitriol. Emerald couldn't blame her since she felt the same way. "He knows we've got the skills to pay the bills, even against someone like this. Fuck yeah. You think we go down in history for this?"

Though she couldn't have cared less about that, Emerald still nodded. It was almost a given if they were going to stop the source of Grimm aggression. "Dad will. We'll be footnotes."

"Footnotes to the biggest win humanity has ever had. I'll take that. A girl could make a lot of money off that."

"We're already rich because of dad," Emerald pointed out.

"Yeah, but we didn't earn that, did we? I'm all for chilling and all, but I'd like to think I did something to earn it."

Like what, attacking people and taking their belongings? That was the kind of thing Vernal saw as `earned` and Emerald supposed it was in some weird, twisted way. Twisted even for her. Then again, she'd earned her food on the streets by stealing it out the pockets of bigger boys and girls. Who was she to judge? The important part was that they were here.

"Dad's still going to try and keep us out the fight."

"Yeah. No duh." Vernal rolled her eyes but yet again settled on cooperation instead of her usual insults. "So. What are we gonna do about it? I'm down on the front lines the moment he did. Guessing you're the same, right?"

Emerald nodded. "Hn."

"Cool. We need to keep an eye on his back, make sure he doesn't get hurt. Two eyes are better than one and all that." She sighed. "We'll have to look out for each other, too. He made us promise. The asshole…" she muttered.

He had made them swear to look after one another, and so Emerald would drag Vernal to safety even if it meant walking through the Grimmlands herself. Anything less would disappoint her – their – father. Far easier to agree to work together from the start.

"Stick close." Emerald said. "Partner up?"

"Guess we'll have to. Ugh. Let me handle the front line. You support. No arguing," Vernal added. "You know I can bend you like a pretzel if I want to."

As much as it annoyed her, she did. Vernal was the better fighter, so she could take the front lines. "I can use my Semblance if I have to, but it hurts to affect more than one person at once."

"Does it even work on Grimm?"

"Visual hallucinations do."

"Cool. Just focus on the biggest, baddest motherfucker you can see. Unless me or dad are in trouble."

The door to their quarters swished open suddenly and the two girls twisted on their beds, sat cross-legged as they had been while talking to each other. Jaune stood in the doorway, looking a little tired but also pleased to be moving. His smile grew when he saw them, making a rush of happy, gushy warmth surge through Emerald's body. He was visibly happier just looking at them. That made her feel tingly all over.

"You two getting on for once? That's a pleasant surprise."

"We get on when we want to," Vernal spat. "Right, squirt?"

Emerald nodded quickly. "Hmhm."

"Oh really? Then I guess all those times you argued like cats and dogs were just because you didn't want to get on."

"Exactly."

"You two make me feel like an old man." Dad swung his white jacket off and laid it on the back of a metal stool literally bolted to the floor. Flying thus far hadn't been a rocky thing apart from their ascent, but it would presumably get a lot worse when they were under attack by Grimm. He also unbuckled his sword belt and laid over the chair, securing his sword into a nearby locker on the wall by their bunks. Safety first. "How are you finding flying so far? I know the rooms aren't as spacious as you're used to."

"I lived in a fucking tent for most my life."

"Streets," Emerald echoed.

"You know what I mean." He chuckled and reached out to ruffle their hair. Vernal yanked her head back before he could, but Emerald made no attempt to escape. His fingers ran over her scalp. "You're okay with sleeping in bunkbeds for a bit? I'll be sharing the room, too. Hope there's no problems."

"Nah. It's cool. We even got an en suite!"

"These are rooms for command staff," he said as he moved over and stored some of his belongings in a chest also secured to the wall and floor. "We've been given rooms that the highest ranks in the army would get. I'm not sure what those are for Atlas' air force, but it's probably Captain or above. Or whatever the equivalent is for this branch of the military. Most people are staying in rooms with four to six people each. That means shared bathrooms for them."

"Guess we're just awesome," Vernal said.

"You mean I'm awesome," Dad replied. "You're benefitting from nepotism."

"I'll take it. Hey, do we have free reign of the ship?"

Dad considered that for a long moment before answering. "I don't see why not. As long as you don't distract anyone who's on the job. Stay away from the bridge, engine rooms and the like as well. Why?"

Vernal shrugged. "Be boring stuck in here, won't it? It's, what, three days to the Grimmlands?"

"Two to three," he confirmed. "Depending on weather. Half the ships could make it in a day or less, but we have to move at the speed of the slowest, then even slower to keep a decent formation. James tried to explain it to me, but I didn't really get it." He shrugged. "I was never fond of air travel. It doesn't agree with my stomach."

"So, you're going to let us in the final attack, right?"

Vernal, as ever, was about as subtle as a brick through the window. Emerald would have smacked her round the head with a pillow if she could have reached. We're meant to be doing this clever, not asking him right in his face!

"You will be, yes."

Wait, what?

"Really?" Vernal sounded as suspicious as Emerald felt. "No games? No sticking us behind on the ship to keep us safe?"

"The safest place for you will be down on the ground surrounded by huntsmen," he reasoned. "The airship will be under constant attack the second it docks. You won't be fighting Salem personally," he said. "Don't argue with me on this. You will be close, and you will be able to see the action, but you will also be protected."

"How protected?"

"Your job will be keeping Grimm off my back like most of the huntsmen. You're not to go after Tyrian or any other henchmen he might have gathered. That's a job for the Ace-Ops, Raven and Qrow."

"And what is your job?" Emerald asked.

"The same." Dad smiled back. "I need to get close to Salem, so, for the most part, I'll also be kept safe with you two. Don't worry, I'm not planning to ditch you in a corner while everyone else gets to fight. You're being kept close to me where I can keep an eye on you."

Emerald would admit to some suspicion that remained even after he said that. A quick glance at Vernal told her she wasn't alone in it. Dad was always getting into trouble, always throwing himself in headfirst, and she wasn't sure she trusted him not to do the same here. A silent understanding passed between Vernal and Emerald in that moment.

They would both be keeping a close eye on him.

/-/

"Tyrian. What news?"

"He is on his way, my goddess." The devout faunus bowed his head. "Even now he comes with his army of unbelievers, heathens ready to lash at our walls." He sucked in a deep breath and would have gone on if Salem didn't raise a hand for silence. Tyrian's words cut off with a sudden click, his eyes following her every movement.

"There will be no help from Ozma here. Not that I would accept it. That fool, so desperate to save these peoples that he would throw aside all pride, all history, and try to warn me." She laughed. It only went to show how much of a pathetic shell of his former self Ozma had become. The older version would have bravely taken a stand against her. He would have led the charge. Now, he was little more than a coward. No better than Lionheart. "Are your new... initiates ready?"

"They will fight and die for their goddess."

"Quite." Salem frowned. "They will have the opportunity to prove that soon enough." Black robes flowed as Salem rose to her feet. Tyrian offered his arm to help her down from her throne. "You shall prepare them personally, Tyrian. Spare no blood or whip. Meanwhile, I shall pay a visit to the pools and prepare my own welcoming party. If Ashari wishes to take Ozma's place and lead humanity against me, it is only fitting I show him just why Ozma has not succeeded in so many thousands of years."


Yeah, it's a short one as I warned. Sorry about that. This story is actually almost finished, as should be pretty obvious. It's been a long one for sure and I definitely think that in hindsight there is a lot I could have done better. Different story elements, different decisions, etc.

That's always the case though. The plan always seems fine at first and then you think "ah crap, if only…" and "how didn't I think of this…?"

Everything is obvious and easy in hindsight.


Next Chapter: 10th July

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur