I have a business speech/awards ceremony I have to host and speak at on the 30th September, so that whole week will be no fanfiction as I have to prep, plan and perform, then deal with clients after, break down the show and transport all the equipment back afterwards.

That'll mean no updates on 27th Sept – 3rd OCTOBER (typo on last chapter) inclusive, just to forewarn you all.


Cover Art: Jack Wayne

Chapter 168


There were screams all around and yet there was precious little time for them. Weiss bundled past him to reach her mother's side, but there was no questioning whether she was alive or dead, not with Crocea Mors pierced through her back. Weiss fell to her knees at Willow's side and tried desperately to turn her over.

"Weiss," Jaune said. "I'm sorry."

"No, no, no! You were supposed to save her! You were supposed to protect her!"

He wished that he could have. In truth, he'd as good as killed Willow himself. The Relic had shown her the outcome of a single choice, and what other choice could it have been than whether to try and protect her daughter or not? Jaune wouldn't say he'd known it would be that, but he'd been almost certain. Willow had made her choice; made what he believed was the right choice, even if it must have felt railroaded to her. It was the same choice he was going to have to make, and he could only hope to have a scrap of her courage when the time came.

Weiss cried. Whitley might have as well, but he was hiding the reality from himself by calling for medical help for his father. The guards burst in, took in the room and quickly moved to action. None challenged him. Instead, they moved to Jacques, Willow and the doctor respectively, checking pulses and doing what they could. Ultimately, heads were shaken, and they focused on the only living of the three.

Weiss could have had so many questions for him.

Why did that boy call himself Ozpin? Why did he threaten Winter? What did he want the crown for? What was a Relic? What did it do to Willow? Why did the boy call him Jaune Arc? What did they mean about the end of the world? More questions existed, but Weiss didn't ask a one of them. He wasn't sure she was in any state of mind to care. She slowly and clumsily pulled Crocea Mors free of her mother, whimpered at the blood staining her hands, and then rolled her over.

Willow's face, contorted in fear and pain, made no better viewing. Weiss cried, screamed and punched down into Ozpin's. The small, freckled face of a boy that was as much a victim as Willow lay slack, the last expression shock. The gun he'd used to kill Willow lay empty at his side.

"I'm sorry." Jaune said again, wishing it would mean any comfort for her. He wanted to kneel and hold her, tell her it would be okay, explain, and yet there was no time for that. It was inordinately cruel, but everyone at Salem's tower needed him. All he could do was show up, save them at the expense of their mother and then leave. "I'm sorry," he said, this time for more than just his actions. He was sorry he couldn't stay and do right by them.

Not Weiss, not Whitley and not Winter either.

Jaune approached her bed swiftly, knowing a portal would come at any moment and that there would be no time after. He walked past Willow and Weiss, past the fallen doctor and to the edge of the bed. Winter lay asleep still, healthier looking than before but crucially still not awake. He wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not, but he knew it would be for her. His fingers curled around the metal railing, a silent apology passing his lips.

Painful as it may have been, a final chance to talk would have been a comfort for her. Jaune touched two fingers to her warm cheek and pushed his aura into her. It brushed against her own – as strong and vibrant as a raging river. He smiled, relieved both to feel it there and recovering, and also comforted by the familiarity of it.

Her eyes did not flutter. They did not open. Her lips did not part, not did she look upon him. There was no such perfect moment. Instead, he cupped her cheek and leaned down to press his lips gently to hers. Warm, soft and alive.

"I'm sorry," he breathed against them. "I shouldn't leave you to do everything, but I have to. You'll understand." Winter would hate it, rail at him, rage, but she would understand. "I wish I could do more. I wish I could…"

Live? Survive? Jaune wisely kept the words inside. Ozpin had wished for the same in his last moments and it turned him into a coward. No. Maybe they were all cowards deep inside, all wanting to live. It was only human. Raven had been afraid of death when she found the truth of Salem and she had abandoned her team. Ozpin felt his fear when it became clear Jaune and Ironwood might actually win, and he had abandoned his duty. Summer felt the fear of nearly dying and leaving her family broken and alone, and she had abandoned the fight to become a teacher.

Each of those could be called cowards in their own way, and yet it no longer felt like the term was applicable. If so, he was a coward for abandoning his time to come here, a weak and pathetic coward who ran away from everything they'd sacrificed to achieve.

I can't run this time. I won't. This is my redemption.

He hesitated a moment longer in the slim hope of blue eyes, but Winter remained as peaceful and beautiful as she had throughout this whole mess. She might not wake up until this was all over, and considering the others were storming Salem's tower right now, that wasn't much time left.

Even less time when a red portal swirled to life in the centre of the room. Guns were trained on it by angry guards. Jaune waved them down. "Ally," he said. "It's an ally."

Raven stepped through with a furious expression that paradoxically softened on seeing several dead bodies. She looked pleased for a brief instant, but she had the wisdom to push that away. Her boots clicked on the floor as she approached the sobbing Weiss and looked down on the dead face of a child. The sword wound through his chest told enough of his demise. Stooping, Raven pried the crown from his left hand. Even as he died, Ozpin had tried to wrest it away from Willow.

"Jaune…" Raven said.

He sighed. "I know. Have they reached the tower?"

"Little resistance. We're waiting to breach. Ironwood and Cinder are furious."

They would be. He'd lied to them, but worse, he'd sent them ahead to fight on nothing but the promise he would be there. Ironwood might have trusted him, but that was on a personal level. Jaune had endangered every huntsman, every soldier, and whatever faith they had between them wasn't enough to have James risk so many lives.

"You're going!?" Weiss shrieked from the floor. It appeared she'd found her words – and just like her, she'd chosen anger. Jaune almost smiled. "Just like that!?"

"I'm sorry."

"Mother is dead!" she raged. "Winter was almost killed! That boy did all this to get to you! I… I don't…" She clenched her eyes shut. "Just tell me why. Why did this have to happen?"

"Jaune!" Raven urged.

"A moment. That's all." He brushed past an impatient Raven and dropped to one knee. Weiss tensed, but she made little effort to escape his sudden hug. "I'm so sorry, Weiss," he said again. "Winter and I have been working on something incredible, something that will hopefully protect you, your brother, your friends and teammates and everyone on Remnant. He wanted to stop it. That's why he came here."

Weiss' face pressed into his chest. He wasn't sure she really loved him enough to find comfort, but right now she would have accepted it from a stranger. "I don't understand…"

"I know. I wish I had the time to explain better, but if I stay here then he wins. This is what he wanted. To keep me distracted and away from what has to be done. Ask Winter when she wakes up. She'll explain everything." He held Weiss for a second longer, biting his lip. "And… And I'll need you to look after her, Weiss. Look after Winter."

"W-Why?"

"I…" His words failing him.

"He's going to die." Raven's delivery was brutal. Clipped and sudden, like a tooth ripped out the mouth. Jaune's eyes shut, and he felt as much as he heard Weiss' ragged breath being drawn in.

He wanted to criticise Raven for saying it like that, but he knew why she did. She was trying to save time and push this on. They didn't have the time for him to dawdle.

"I'm sorry, Weiss. Look after Winter."

"This isn't fair…"

"I know. Not to you, her or me. Willow loved you all enough to give her life for you, however. That's the same as I feel, not only for Winter and you, but Emerald and Vernal, Ruby and Yang, Blake, Pyrrha, Nora and Ren. I want… I have to do right by you all. Trust me, this will all make so much more sense when Winter wakes up. The world will be a better place. Remnant will be so much better."

Raven growled. "Jaune!"

No time. Never enough time.

"I have to go." Jaune had to pry Weiss' hands from him. She made a half-hearted effort to hold onto him for her sister's sake, but she was too distraught for it. Jaune paused to lean down and press a kiss to the top of Weiss' head. His first crush, his first love, and now such a small and fragile little girl. "Look after Winter for me, Weiss. And your brother, too. They'll need you to be strong."

It was painful pulling out her weak hold; painful not only because it was Weiss, but because she looked so young and in need of him right there. There are more people who need me. So many more people. He apologised again, for what felt the hundredth time, stepped back and spared a look for Whitley and Jacques. The Schnee patriarch was unconscious and being worked over, but Whitley was watching him with a complex expression. The revolver was in his hand, and Jaune wondered if the boy would try and shoot him to keep him from going off and killing himself.

A very different Whitley Schnee to the one he'd seen once before.

The boy looked away, frustrated and angry at his inability to do anything. It was exactly what Jaune had felt so many times before, but especially after everyone died. He knew the sentiment well.

With one final glance spared for Winter, one final chance for her to wake up thwarted, Jaune closed his eyes and let Raven drag him into the portal, away from the crying children and forlorn guards and out into a desolate wasteland filled with gunfire, roars and the cacophony of distant cannons. Into the waiting faces of Ironwood, Cinder and Qrow – none of them pleased.

"Ashari…" Ironwood growled.

Cinder's lips were thin, her eyes narrowed.

"What's done is done." Raven interrupted. "Ozpin is dead. Again. We still have the Relic. Save the recriminations for after this is over."

Ironwood accepted that reluctantly. "Winter?"

"Alive. Only…" Jaune hated himself for saying that. "Willow died. She gave her life to wrestle Ozpin down so I could kill him. If it wasn't for her, Winter would have surely died. Jacques was shot, but he'll probably live. Weiss and Whitley are unharmed."

Physically, anyway.

"How are things here?"

"The perimeter is secure." James reported. "Alpha and Bravo team are ready to breach. We've had barely any resistance outside. Just Grimm. If Tyrian is waiting, he's waiting inside."

"Makes sense." Qrow said. "He'd be one against a hundred or so out here."

"His odds won't get much better inside." James said. "Do you want to merge the Relics now?"

Jaune nodded. Clover, Raven and Ironwood approached, but he nodded for them to follow him just inside the entranceway of Salem's tower, away from prying eyes. The knowledge of the Relics wouldn't matter too much after today, assuming they even remained, but he didn't want people coming to rely on them like the Ashari had.

Salem's tower was dark. The artillery barrage had knocked out what dust-powered lighting she used, and no one had lit torches. The gloom favoured Tyrian anyway. Clover activated a breast-mounted torch, and the others did the same, casting beams of illumination down the long corridor. The rest of the Ace-Ops moved ahead, cautiously picking their way to the end of the corridor, where they held their position.

"Are we sure this won't summon the Gods?" Qrow asked. "Oz always said bringing them together would cause them to come and judge the world. And by that, I mean destroy it."

He wasn't wrong. "It has the potential to."

Jaune accepted the Four Relics and set them down on the floor. He touched them together, arranging them carefully so that each Relic touched another in a circle, but no more than two others at a time. The positioning was not important, only that they created a whole.

"Want to expand on that?"

"The Relics can be forged into a single artifact." Jaune recounted what Ozpin had once told Ruby within his hearing. "That artifact is the tool by which humanity will be judged and sentenced. It's supposed to be as much a tool for the Gods as it is us. Knowledge to judge humanity; choice to decide the judgment; creation and destruction to reward or punish us appropriately."

The Relics glowed faintly. It wasn't much, but in the gloom, it looked like a warm fire. The items shrunk inwards on themselves, losing their cohesion and becoming much smaller. Angular. There were no laws of physics that could govern the power of a God, let alone two, and so he wasn't overly surprised when the light faded to reveal a remarkably simple amulet. The chain was the same gold as the Relic of Knowledge, and on the end of it lay a diamond-shaped pendant with four coloured stones, one for each of the Relics.

"That's it?" Cinder asked. "It doesn't look like much."

"In theory, a great leader would wear this, summon the Gods and present humanity for their judgment."

"Why would anyone?" Qrow asked.

"Exactly. For all that they're apparently divine, they're certainly not all-knowing." Jaune snorted, picked it up and stuffed it in his pocket. "I'm not sure why – maybe just as the methods of Gods are inscrutable to us, so are the methods of humans to them. Whatever the case, they made this with the expectation we would want to summon them. It won't do a thing unless we actively do so."

Ozpin hadn't been sure why they'd made it that way, but Jaune had a theory. From everything he knew about the Gods and how they'd acted, how petty they had been in punishing Ozma for Salem's misdeeds and then cursing them both, he believed that they had placed that caveat on the final relic for one reason and one reason only.

Pride.

The Gods were infinite, perfect and without peer – at least unless there were more in the universe; Jaune had no idea. Either way, that level of self-assurance combined with their competitive nature toward one another was the perfect breeding ground for arrogance. Was it even arrogance when you were a literal god? You were unequalled. Perfect. Divine. If that were you then of course you'd expect the silly humans to need you, to want you, to beg for you to return. They couldn't survive on their own, could they? Humans were weak, pathetic and prone to making bad decisions would their guidance.

With that in mind, what was the harm in putting a condition on the relic that humans had to actively wish to summon them? It wasn't like any human wouldn't want to, and that final act – the act of summoning the Gods to come back and judge them – would also be the final victory. The humans had betrayed them once, forced them away, and like a jilted lover the Gods didn't want the humans to want them back… oh no…

They wanted the humans to grovel. They wanted the humans to beg for them to return. They wanted to come, seeing a human down on one knee, offering himself and his race up for judgment like a naughty dog prostrating itself before its owner.

It was petty. But then… why wouldn't the Gods be that? They already knew for a fact the Gods weren't perfect, because if they were then all of this would have never happened. Salem apparently tricked the God of Darkness, which immediately meant they were fallible. Gullible. The fact that the Brother Gods had fought with each other at all meant they weren't all-knowing, because if they had been then they wouldn't have wasted their time.

The Gods were gods. They were entities. But they did not match the depiction most people had in their heads when they talked about a divine being. Most people had idealistic views of that, of an all-knowing, all-forgiving and parental figure who would love and enable all his children equally.

The Brother Gods certainly weren't that…

"How will it work as a weapon?" Cinder asked.

"We'll be using it the same way they intended to." Jaune said. "It's actually pretty much stealing their thunder. We stab Salem to incapacitate her, then force this onto her. Just as it would the human race, it will discover her crimes, decide her judgment and then destroy her."

Cinder had to ask, "What if it judges her worthy?"

"It won't."

"Can you be sure?"

"No one is worthy." Jaune said.

"Eh?" Qrow chimed in. "What is that supposed to mean?"

"This thing was made by the God of Light," Jaune explained. "It judges us based on his standard of right and wrong. Who is going to match up to the standards of a god? You could be the kindest person alive, but if you so much as farted in public you're guilty."

A bit of an extreme example, but not by much. The God of Light had set it up as a final test, but just as the Gods had expected too much of humanity the first time, they'd gone for the same again. They were demanding parents expecting their children to become surgeons and calling them a failure for getting a B on an exam. They expected perfection because they considered themselves to be perfection, and thus anything they created with their own two hands should, itself, be perfect.

"Humans are not perfect, and thus we will always be deemed failures in the eyes of the Gods."

"That's it, then." Qrow spat. "We never had a chance from the start, did we?"

"Not while they watched over us, no. In a way, Salem had the right idea when she convinced the people to rise up against them. Ozma had the right idea when he hid the Relics away and decided he would never summon them. The best way for humanity to live is free from them."

Humanity had grown and, much like a child, needed the freedom to spread their wings and try things on their own. A better God would have known that; would have encouraged it with a loving smile. Not the Brother Gods. In a way, they gave the very concept of Gods a bad name.

"It doesn't matter, does it?" Emerald asked. "Put it on her and she dies."

"Yes."

"And she can't choose to summon the gods as a final `fuck you` to us?" Qrow asked.

"No. Because she does not truly wish to summon them."

Like Ozpin, like Raven, like himself, Salem wanted to live. That was why even as she lay dying the first time, she'd chosen to make a deal with him and send him back. That deal had worked out for her, saving her life and preserving it up until this very moment.

Not a moment longer. Jaune stood and drew Crocea Mors.

"Let's go. I'm sure she's waiting for us."

/-/

Cinder directed the Ace-Ops ahead of them through a device Ironwood gave to her, telling them which corridors to take and leading them deeper into the tower. Jaune was as lost here as any other. He had arrived at the landing area when he'd been brought here before and had never had to walk through the lower levels. Cinder evidently had.

No Grimm obstructed their path. They were conspicuous in their absence – even if the soldiers outside had been fighting for so long, Salem usually kept at least a few Seers hovering around. To not come across a single Grimm, nor a single person, was disconcerting. If Jaune wasn't certain she had nowhere to go, he might have thought she'd abandoned the tower and run.

Salem wouldn't flee. Couldn't. There was nowhere she could go and stay hidden in today's world of information technology, and in a way she was as arrogant as the Gods she so loathed. He wouldn't be surprised if she still thought victory in her grasp.

The tension helped distract him from thoughts of what would come after. He kept a hand on Crocea Mors and the other wrapped tightly around the Relic in his pocket. His eyes scanned from the corridor ahead to Emerald and Vernal, then behind them to make sure no one was sneaking up. He ushered them close. Vernal scowled at the suggestion but Emerald did so without complaint, sliding into his shadow obediently.

The crackle of a radio came to life in the quiet dark. "Sir," Marrow said from ahead. "We have a bright room ahead. Artificial light and plenty of it. It's spilling down the corridor."

Jaune couldn't make out anything, so it must have been after a turn in the corridor ahead. That or Marrow's eyes were just that good.

"Which direction?" Cinder asked.

"Right turn ahead. About a hundred feet down. Large archway. No door."

"It's a training room. Salem would sometimes force us to face waves of Grimm there, either for training or punishment. It's used to taking punishment so it's not a surprise it would survive the bombardment."

"We should check to be sure." Ironwood grunted. "We can't afford to leave any enemies behind that could flank us."

He ordered as such to Alpha team, who positioned Clover at the intersection and sent the others down the corridor. They reached and followed, while Bravo took the rear to cover their eventual escape. After rounding the corner, Jaune saw the light Marrow had mentioned. It was bright and artificial, almost glaring in its intensity, spilling through an open archway into the wide corridor they occupied.

"Sir." Marrow's voice came back quicker than before. "Movement. We have movement. Target confirmed, sir. It's Callows!"

Tyrian. Jaune released a long breath as Ironwood asked, "Is Salem there? Confirm a second target?"

"Negative, sir. Only the one. I think he's seen us. He's not engaging."

Surprising restraint from Tyrian, and that worried Jaune. The only reason that maniac would hold back was if he'd been explicitly ordered to, which meant there was a method to the madness. Even so, they couldn't afford to push on for Salem if that meant Tyrian could get behind and under their guard. Dealing with them one at a time was far safer.

"He's one man." Raven said. "Let's just kill him."

"It has to be a trap." Qrow reasoned. "Only reason he'd be sat there like that."

"He's a psycho." Jaune replied. "So there's an easier way to handle this." He marched ahead, trusting the others to follow. Soon, they were walking past the Ace-Ops and into the training hall. Tyrian's eyes lit up on seeing him.

"Jauuuuune!" Tyrian dragged his name out in a euphoric greeting. It almost looked like he wanted to run up and hug him. "It's been so long, too long! I knew you would come. My Goddess thought you might not, but I knew better this one time. You and I, we're kindred spirits. Cut from the same cloth."

Even if Jaune knew better than to rise to the bait, he couldn't help but ask "How is that?"

"We both fight tooth and nail for what we believe in." Tyrian explained, giggling. "To us, reason and logic are irrelevant. It's all belief. Faith. And nothing can shake us from our paths."

"Couldn't that be said of anyone? Ironwood fights for his belief in Atlas. Qrow fights for the belief the world can be a better place. Mothers and fathers fight so their children can be safe all the time. That's nothing new."

"No! No! No!" Tyrian stomped his foot angrily. "It's not the same. They fight because they must, because they are forced to. Duty, money, family – don't you see that those things are biological?"

One of them was, but Jaune wouldn't call money a biological need. It took care of a few, sure, but Tyrian's logic was as bizarre as ever. Even so, Jaune tipped Crocea Mors' point to the floor and leaned on the pommel. He didn't step further into the arena, but his eyes scanned the ceiling and floor for anything out of place. Any sign of a trap. Given the last one he'd fallen for, he paid attention to the floor especially, looking for any loose tile or vibration that might suggest a Grimm lay beneath.

"The difference is that we choose." Tyrian ranted. "A mother doesn't choose to love her children – it happens as soon as they're born. A soldier doesn't choose to fight for their Kingdom. It's expected!"

Except that a person could choose to become a soldier and a person could choose to become a parent. Jaune sighed and asked, "Is this going somewhere? Whatever you believe, we're enemies. It ends here, Tyrian."

"Of course it does!" He giggled. "I expect no less! But let it be glorious." Tyrian extended one hand, one of his knives aimed at Jaune's chest. "You and I, a duel for the ages. Let us pit our beliefs against one another without interference and see who's are stronger."

An honour duel? Here? Jaune sensed Raven's irritation and heard Ironwood growl. He caught the roll of Cinder's eyes, the expectation of such stupidity. The Ace-Ops hung back, waiting for a decision, waiting for orders.

"Well, Ashari?" Tyrian Callows asked. "Shall we?"

Maybe Tyrian wasn't entirely wrong. He was definitely right in saying Jaune would do anything for what he believed in, including throwing away whatever semblance of honour the madman thought he possessed. The world was much more important. Jaune raised his sword and pointed it at the man.

"Rush him."


Expecting a one on one duel? What is this, an anime? Oh wait…

Yeah, but no. Jaune isn't going to give him a fair chance to stop them when the odds are finally in their favour.


Next Chapter: 18th September

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur