UPDATE - 31st July - No chapter today, asking family to take to hospital as very, very ill and have been advised to go to emergency by doctor over phone. Not in a good way. Will update soon if able.


Cover Art: Jack Wayne

Chapter 163


It was like a demon from the depths of the underworld coming up to face them. Its maw breathed Grimm, its hands split the ground asunder and its flaming red eyes spanned over each and every one of them, freezing huntsmen to the ground as shock and fear spread among the attack force.

And then, like a light being flicked, it was gone. New Grimm species would always bring a brief flash of wonder, shock or fear, but no one called themselves a huntsman if that was enough to stop them. Shaking off their stupor, men and women turned to face the new foe, sizing it up, quickly realising its lower body was trapped, that for all its size and possible might, it was stranded and helpless.

Training kicked in. Weapons were levelled. Fire burst upon its monstrous face, ripping off black flesh and exposing bone plating beneath. Its head rocked back, a mighty groan undulating from its mouth, rising and lowering in pitch as Grimm continued to pour out and block the sound waves.

One of its huge hands raised up and clenched into a fist. It came rushing down on a group of huntsmen. The ground split underneath it, rock cracking and bursting up from force of impact. No one had stayed around to test it on their aura – the move had been telegraphed enough that even the slowest had escaped. Its other fist came down in a similar manner and also failed to catch anyone but its own Grimm. Frustrated, or simply filled with rage, it brought its head down and screamed at them.

Slipping a high-explosive dust grenade loose from his belt, Jaune thumbed the safety off and lobbed it up into the beast's mouth. It didn't make it inside. Too many Grimm were crawling out its lips, falling down or just leaping from its jaw, and one of those caught the grenade on its chest, causing it to explode. The blast took it and several others out, scorched the giant Grimm's lips and made it bring its red gaze about on him. The monster stared him down, ignoring all others for a long moment.

Until more fire rippled along the side of its head. Bombs, grenades, missiles, explosive rounds and even good old Semblances. Ice, fire, lightning, rocks and all the other weird and wonderful means huntsmen had to them. The barrage was so powerful it forced the beast's head to the left, making it catch itself on the ground with its elbow as it buckled under an assault that did not stop. Its children Grimm were scythed down by gunfire, the few that lived to break free falling to blades. If this was Salem's secret weapon then she had greatly misjudged her opponents.

Brute force only worked against huntsmen because they were so often isolated and outnumbered, left fighting for against horde for the sake of some poor village, all the while escorting victims away or trying to save those being hunted. There, numbers mattered because huntsmen were finite and took a decade or more to train up from children to professionals. Every huntsman lost was ten or more years set back.

The same couldn't be said for this. One big Grimm – even if it could spawn more – was not proving as big a problem as Salem might have expected. It only had two arms no matter how strong it was, and even as it slammed one down and swept it across the ground to try and catch onto people, it proved insufficient. Several huntsmen were knocked aside by its arm, but few were those slow enough not to at least dodge the grasping fingers. One even tested her luck by planting the butt of her powerful metal lance down into the ground, waiting until the last second and leaping away.

The Grimm's palm, forced by all its strength, slammed into it without a care in the world. Metal punctured through its palm and out the back of its hand, transfixing the limb. It screeched in fury and brought the hand up, still pierced through. If nothing else, it could take a beating. Perhaps that was her plan – delay and delay until it either spawned enough Grimm to overwhelm them, or the Grimm behind caught up and joined the fray.

Jaune cut his charge short and let the others rush past him. Where the beast had come up from the ground, there was still a deep chasm leading underneath. That could be dangerous for even the best huntsman, especially if its lower body was thrashing around and might crush them against the wall. The thing was being kept busy by ranged weapons and Semblances anyway, with those huntsmen relegated to melee instead dealing with the hands whenever they attacked.

"This won't be enough." Qrow echoed his own thoughts. "You think there's more to this than meets the eye?"

"Maybe." Jaune eyed its waist and where it disappeared beneath the ground. "Perhaps literally. If this thing is tall enough to reach up and pluck a battleship from the air, then I can see how it might have been useful."

"A titan-size Grimm, huh? And I thought Goliaths were bad enough. What do we do?"

That was the question. Right now, the Grimm was flailing its arms about like a human trying to swat down angry hornets. It was struggling to attack them in any meaningful way, but the same could be said for them. Its skeletal body had little in the way of muscle or skin to attack, and since it was so gargantuan, they weren't likely to crack or break through those bones anytime soon. They looked thicker than an oak tree in places and that was a problem. Huntsmen rarely needed that kind of firepower. They relied on speed, skill and precision to outfight Grimm and strike at their weaker points.

"We need Ironwood." Jaune said. "This is his job."

Nodding, Qrow rushed over to a huntsman staying way out the battle. He wore a backpack with a long metal pole sticking up and an Atlas uniform. One of the communication agents sent down to relay information back in a land without any CCT coverage. The man didn't react to Qrow, but when he saw Jaune he snapped a quick salute. It looked like James had been throwing ranks at him again.

"I need to reach the general," Jaune said.

The man turned around and knelt, exposing his backpack and the machinery on it. Nothing looked too complex – there was a screen similar to a scroll, albeit affixed into the pack. The rest was essentially every component of a CCT, just on a vastly smaller scale. There was only one call button and no guesses who that would connect to. Jaune pressed it.

The screen went fuzzy and even when it patched through the signal was garbage. Ironwood's face flickered and shifted, constantly wracked by static and flashes of light that may or may not have been on his end and from the aerial battle still taking place. At the very least, his voice was clear.

"Report."

"Ashari here. We've cleared the AA but have been attacked by some kind of bone giant. Salem's latest pet. We don't have the ordinance to bring it down and could use a little help."

"Understood. Get your people to back off."

His people? Jaune nodded quickly and let the call end. James had been the one to arrange this and bring most of the huntsmen here, but he supposed it was a heat of the moment thing. "Everyone make space!" Jaune roared, voice barely travelling over the roars of the monster. "Air support coming in!"

Few heard him, but those few began to shout as well, passing the message on. Slowly, those surrounding the huge Grimm began to back away. Those fighting at range continued to keep its attention, blasting away at its face and shoulders. Freed from the huntsmen harassing it, the beast started to slam and sweep with its arms again, lashing out in every direction and ripping up great chunks of rock and dirt. Jaune had to duck under a boulder it accidentally hurled his way. It crashed down behind and showered him and Qrow in pebbles and flecks of dust.

Dust? Looking back, Jaune's eyes widened on seeing the crystalline substance running all the way through the boulder. Veins like that were the kind of things the SDC would kill for and were supposedly only found deep beneath the surface. For this to have so much that even the ground they were on was laden was ridiculous.

Is it another of the caverns Summer and I explored? One of Ozma and Salem's dust farms? It would make sense. Ozpin had kept his secret by leaving them in hidden locations locked behind sealed temple doors. Why would Salem bother with that when she can just kill anyone who comes near?

If that were the case, then this thing might have been born of one of the rivers of pure Grimm essence dripping from so much crystalised dust. It might very well be the river given form. That chasm it had come out of might be a direct line down to all that dust.

The roar of engines in the air behind them brought Jaune back to life. His eyes widened, Salem's plan finally kicking in. She hadn't underestimated them at all. She had known exactly what they would do and how to take advantage of it.

"RUN!" Jaune screamed. "EVERYONE RUN!"

His fear must have shown. Huntsmen and huntresses looked back, uncertain, but as those loyal to Atlas and who had been ordered to follow his instructions complied, group behaviour kicked in. Those not from Atlas assumed those running away had seen something they hadn't. More followed, then more and more until the last ones didn't want to be the only people not running away, and so joined the retreat as well.

Over the cracked ground, past the broken anti-air weapons and the bodies of Tyrian's fanatics, away from thrown rocks and boulders and the Grimm behind. Jaune's feet kept pounding even as four jets whooshed by overheard and unleashed their missiles. The dust weapons corkscrewed through the air and struck the monster's chest and head, exploding and knocking it back. Its thick, tar-like skin caught fire and burned, making it look even more like a demon.

The aircraft wheeled off and away. In the distance, the armada shifted noticeably. The side of the fleet opened up to reveal a single ship – large, but seemingly small in the distance – glowing a pale shade of blue. It burned like a neutron star, the light intensifying until it drowned out the gunfire and explosions surrounding it. Even from miles away, a threatening buzzing sound reached Jaune's ears. A him that grew in intensity, becoming almost deafening.

The air crackled, filled with static electricity.

"DOWN!"

Jaune leapt. Qrow did the same, and two hundred huntsmen and huntresses followed suit. In the distance, Ironwood's latest weapon seemed to blink. And then they all did. Or maybe the world blinked. All Jaune knew was that for a brief fraction of a second the world went black. Something had passed by overhead, but he couldn't process it. Couldn't see it. His eyes were spotty and splotchy, dark spots rendering him blind.

Then, a full two seconds later, a mighty thoom echoed in the air, rupturing eardrums and leaving his own ringing. Even that was late, he knew. Light travelled faster than sound. Looking back, Jaune saw the monstrous golem toppling back, its maw open, its arms falling from a body rent into literal pieces and burning. Behind it still, a giant and circular hole had been cut through the centre of Salem's tower.

Without a sound, or perhaps they were simply deafened to it, the beast's flaming body fell back into the chasm that had spawned it. Jaune's mouth opened and closed. He wasn't sure why he shouted the warning because nothing could be heard. Not his own voice, not the sound of the Grimm roaring, not the sound of the flames falling back into a cavern whose walls were laced with crystallised dust.

Thousands of tonnes of raw dust. Tens of thousands of tonnes – dust in its purest form, undistilled and undiluted by the SDC. Dust mining was said to be dangerous not because of poor working conditions but because of how volatile dust could be. One knock, one misplaced impact, one lick of a lantern's flame and the whole shaft could go down. This was no mining shaft laced with thin veins of dust. This was a world of crystal, farmed and preserved for thousands of years. The ground beneath them buckled, cracked and split.

And then it exploded upwards.

/-/

"Twenty-six dead, forty badly injured – twelve in intensive. Ninety-five with lighter injuries, mostly burns. All in all, there are still over a hundred huntsmen available for combat." General Ironwood lowered the report. "You did the best you could given the circumstances. This isn't a loss."

Jaune didn't respond, face in his hands and head held down. His hearing was still muted, his aura low, his body covered in scrapes, cuts and burnt scraps of clothing. Alive. Hurt badly, but alive.

It was more than could be said for some. From up top, from the airships they'd been evacuated to, the giant crater in front of Salem's tower continued to burn, the dust within making for what felt like almost limitless fuel. The chasm had been far larger than the other. Ironwood's men had estimated it as measuring three kilometres long and two wide and at least two deep as well. It was a jagged, ovoid, burning entrance to the underworld now. At least that was what it looked like.

"There's no telling how much dust was down there. Some of the engineers are putting the estimate at over a hundred thousand tonnes. I heard one of them throw the figure thirteen-trillion lien around." Ironwood grunted. "Jacques will pass out."

Jaune wasn't surprised. The dust caverns that he and Summer had walked through had been stunning, literal walls of pure, crystal dust. These were just as old, and likely better protected. If the Grimm pools were at the surface here, then it was only proof of just how much dust there was below ground acting as the spring. This would have easily been two to three times larger than the one in Vale, and Salem had knowingly blown it up.

"It was a trap…"

"It was." James admitted. "And we walked right into it. Still, I'm not sure we could have avoided doing that. We would have needed to land at some point to assault the tower. The best traps are those you have to walk into, whether or not you know it exists."

Salem had anticipated their response. Huntsmen weren't dumb enough to set off explosives near that much dust, but then the subterranean monster she made had been designed to obscure it. It had been made to take a beating because Salem knew they would call in heavier firepower to get rid of it, especially when it couldn't move.

She played us for fools. We thought she was the idiot when she left the Grimm half stuck in the ground. Obviously, we'd move back and blast it with artillery until it was dead.

Which was the whole point. All it would have taken was one misplaced shell, one unlucky grenade or even just the monster itself dying and falling back into the dust, and the whole cavern would go off in a chain reaction. That Salem would sacrifice so much dust was astounding. It was the lifeblood of the planet in her own words, and this… how much time had this robbed Remnant? A thousand years? Hundreds? Salem might not have cared because her victory would mean a world without humans to use what was left, and if she lost? Well, she might as well spite them by running down the clock.

"It was like a wall of fire." James said. "We could see every bit of it even from two miles out. I imagine people all the way in Vacuo could have seen it. We're lucky this many lived. It's only because of your warning that they did at all."

"Except that I called in the strike as well."

"It wouldn't have mattered. How long would it have been before someone decided to take a shot at its legs in hopes of finding a weak point? Or that a grenade launcher missed and sent one down? That cavern was doomed to go off the moment she had it burst through the surface." James gripped his shoulder and shook him. "If you hadn't called for the retreat, not a single person would have survived. Not one." He stared Jaune in the eye. "Remember that."

"Jimmy's right." Qrow looked worse for wear, some of his hair burnt off and his face clean shaven for once. It had to be for the medical teams to treat the burn along the left side of his jaw. "We made the best of a shit situation, and we completed what we were sent for. It's mission success as far as anyone is concerned."

"I – we – fell for Salem's trap."

"We did, but you have to keep in mind she's been doing this for… what, two thousand years? Five? You really think she doesn't have a few tricks up her sleeves?"

"Qrow speaks the truth." Ironwood said. "Experience counts for a lot, and she obviously has it. Ozpin himself said he'd launched attacks before. I imagine he's been in our shoes time and time again. Over the millennia, she will have become quite experienced at repelling his armies."

That was all well and good, but it only made him feel worse. If he could have convinced Ozpin, if he could have done better, then they might have had warning of this. Ozpin could have been here to tell them her tricks. Instead, he was off who knew where trying to take over the head of another poor soul and convince them to run to Beacon so he could pull the plug on this whole operation.

I've made friends of enemies but done a poor job keeping my previous friends as allies, he thought. It was too late now to change anything – far too late. Ozpin wouldn't have changed his mind. I had no choice but to kill him. It was him or me.

"Hopefully, this is the worst of it." Qrow said. "She can't blow anymore up, right? That's all the dust she has."

"It has to be." Ironwood said. "That explosion was big enough that I can't see any dust surviving it. That reservoir-" He frowned at the term, "-spans around two thirds of her tower. The final third must be solid ground, but we'll find out when we start bombarding her. I'm going to order the artillery ships to focus on the ground around her tower for the first twenty hours. I'll find out what's underneath that rock even if I have to engage in percussive terraforming."

"Normally I'd say that was overkill." Qrow said, laughing. "Normally. Right now, I'm all for it. Turn that shit into a wasteland. Can't look any worse than it already is. Now, if you both don't mind, I'm for bed."

"Of course." James stepped aside to let the huntsman reach the door. "You've more than earned it. We're well stocked on food and drink, overstocked, so feel free to eat and rest to your heart's content."

"Got beer?"

"On a military vessel?" Ironwood's stern visage faded. "Not openly, but probably somewhere. Check the barracks and offer money. I'll bet my arm a few will have smuggled something onboard and be willing to sell. You'll be paying through the nose for it though."

"Right now, I'm prepared to."

Once Qrow had left, General Ironwood sighed and came down to sit on the bench next to Jaune. The man made to wrap an arm around him, then thought better of it. He wasn't one for such displays and it showed.

"It's never easy," he said instead, linking one human and one cybernetic hand between his knees. "Every decision you make is weighed in lives, and sometimes you make the wrong one. It happens to everyone sooner or later. It's never a matter of if when failure, only of when."

Jaune sighed. "I know that. It's not like I haven't failed before." Pyrrha, Blake, Ghira. The list went on and on, especially in his previous lifetime. "I'm just… It wouldn't feel right not to blame myself a little. For the sakes of those who died. They deserve the best, and I'm not it."

"You're one of, if not the, best huntsman we have."

"Huntsman." Jaune stressed. "Not leader. That would be you."

"And I shall lead from this point on," Ironwood said. "You weren't truly the leader of the attack force anyway. No one was. Huntsmen are so often used to working independently that we don't try and give them orders. You took command and ordered the retreat, but you did not have any responsibility to. All this mourning is fair and just, but the blame lays on Salem's shoulders. Not yours."

Jaune nodded. It helped a little, even if he still felt he could have done better. "I'm distracting you."

"It's fine. I've arranged the bombardment and I'm not needed just to say `fire` and watch it happen. Though I did have to talk to your daughters," he said with a gentle laugh. "Something about everyone returning but you not being there to see them seems to have set them off."

Shit. Swearing, Jaune pushed himself to his feet. He'd forgotten in his misery what others might think or feel, especially about his failure to openly return. Someone must have told them he was hurt and not dead, but that wouldn't stop them panicking. Emerald and Vernal had grown up without anyone to rely on. The fear of being sent back to that was still with them.

"I thought that might get you moving." Ironwood said. "Try to stay confident. Losing as many as we did hurts, and it should, but it's nothing compared to the future you told me about. With how many died there, this is a blessing."

There was no arguing it. Jaune nodded and opened the door, stepped out and hurried back toward the quarters he was sharing with Emerald and Vernal. It wasn't fair to make them worry. It wasn't fair to put the pressure on them. He passed Qrow en route, swigging a bottle of vodka and offering him a thumbs up. A nearby soldier, a short girl with blue hair, was thumbing through some lien happily.

When he reached his quarters, he could see the door open and Vernal already standing watch. Her eyes widened on seeing him and she bounded forward, crashing into his chest. "Fuck-face!" she tried to growl, but it came out weak and fragile. "You weren't there! You were meant to come see us!"

"Dad." Another impact struck his side and thin arms wrapped around him. "Were you hurt?"

"A little," he admitted for both their sakes. He let them see the burns and bruises, then allowed them to drag him to one of the beds and fuss over them. Emerald took the bottle of cream he'd been granted, unscrewed the cap and started to apply some to her hand. "Most of it is superficial but I needed to be checked over."

"We should have been down there with you!" Vernal growled.

"I'm glad you weren't," he replied. They went silent. Emerald began rubbing cream into his arm. It was cold and numbing. "Not everyone came back, and not thanks to a lack of skill. You've seen the crater, I take it?"

"It's fucking huge!"

"It is fucking huge," he agreed, joining in on Vernal's vulgarity. "I'm only like this because I was one of the first to start running. It wasn't a battle down there. It was a one-sided massacre on our parts followed by a bomb going off. The largest bomb on Remnant. One to put all others to shame." He sighed. "I'm glad the two of you were far, far away from it all."

Emerald paused in her ministrations. She let Vernal take the bottle away and pour some onto her own hands. Without giving him time to argue or do it for her, she started to tug his shirt off. Jaune sighed and let them, leaning forward so they could run their hands over his burnt back.

"We will be there when you storm the tower, though." Emerald said. "Won't we? You promised."

"I did promise. And I intend to keep it." He closed his eyes and let out a relieved sigh, feeling the cream start to work its magic. "I'm not going back on that. We'll put a stop to Salem together, once and for all."

/-/

Salem watched with amusement as the fleet drew back from her little ploy. The Grimm acting as distraction had done a wonderful job of holding on until they made a mistake. The eruption had been a thing of beauty, the most expensive celebratory firework the world had ever conceived. Tyrian was still in awe, staring out the window with ash crested across his face.

"Why didn't you let me go out there?" he asked her. "I could have killed the survivors."

"There were quite a few, Tyrian."

"I could have killed one. I could have found him and slit his throat."

"Perhaps." Or perhaps he would have been cut down by the survivors. They would never know. "But I am not afraid of him, Tyrian. I fear no one. Let them come, let Ashari come. If he wishes to replace Ozma, I will indulge him in his first defeat. I will watch the hope fade from his eyes as everything he knows, everything he loves, is ripped away from him."

That would be a suitable punishment for his betrayal. If she cared for it. There was no real sting to that, however. You could not feel betrayed by the loss of people you did not truly care for. It was a curiosity instead, a burning desire to know if he could take Ozma's place. Or if, at the end, he would be no better, if he would back down and give in when he faced futility.

What kind of man was Ashari? Salem smirked and leaned back as the airships opened up. The ground outside was torn asunder, rent by vast explosions that rocked the tower. Chuckling, and ignoring the dust that rained down from her shaking ceiling, Salem leaned back in her throne and closed her eyes.

I suppose I shall find out soon enough.


Next Chapter: 31st July

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