It's Monday! Argh! Here we go!


Cover Art: Mystery White Flame

Chapter 39


"This isn't subtle!" Roman complained. He was a master thief, a showman, and even he felt uncomfortable at the sheer number of people watching them. Good thieves should not be witnessed performing crimes by several police departments at once. "This isn't subtle at all!"

"Good." Salem replied. "Then it will stand as a warning to all who might try and take what is mine."

"Or it'll get us killed!"

"Do not underestimate me, knight."

"I'm not! I'm underestimating me!"

"Then do not belittle yourself either," she said sagely, making Roman want to tear his hair out. "You are one of mine now, and whether or not you realise it fully yet, that makes you a cut above the riffraff here."

Neo patted his back sympathetically. At least he pretended it was. He knew if he looked back that she'd have a shit-eating grin on her face. She loved this kind of stuff, the adrenaline rush and the danger, the risks. Neo lived by the seat of her pants, and that seat was often riding very, very low.

No one else looked overly concerned about this either. Oh, the green-haired brat he'd seen before with Cinder looked bothered, but she was more upset at them going against her `beloved` Cinder's instructions, not fear of their being caught. Maybe they did know better, maybe Salem was all that, but he couldn't help but think it was more likely that they'd all lost their minds somewhere along the way of dealing with her. Even the most confident of people should look at least a little concerned at being out in broad daylight like this.

And here come the news crews, he thought miserably as Bullheads began to circle overhead, their doors open and cameras pointed down. Roman tugged his bowler hat down in a helpless effort to hide his face. "Can we speed this up a little, your highness?"

"We could. If a certain someone would stop interrupting me."

Roman sealed his lips shut and crossed his arms, clutching his own elbows nervously. The woman in white and black robes continued to look at the old memorial that had been set up at the largest sealed tunnel. It was a stone face with thousands of names carved into it. Roman's own family were somewhere on there. He might have felt bad about what was going to happen to it if he didn't know the damn thing was a half-assed attempt to appease the masses. If Vale truly cared about the people who had died then they wouldn't have sealed the tunnels while they were still out there.

What was Salem waiting for? She could blow the whole thing up and be done with it, couldn't she? Inspecting it carefully shouldn't have changed anything, but he just knew if he asked then she'd only take longer. For crying out loud, even the huntsmen were beginning to arrive now. They were jostling their way to the front of the crowds, past the police officers holding the civilians back. An assortment of weapons far too varied to be practical were aimed in their direction.

"My Goddess…?" Tyrian prompted.

"Hm?"

"Are you going to destroy this wall and open the tunnel?"

"Oh yes, I suppose I could do that."

Roman almost fainted. "W-What have you been waiting for!?"

"I was looking for a way to open this." Salem waved her hand at the memorial. "There's no discernible handle or hinges so I assumed it worked on some kind of spoken password. The writing on it was a clue; a list of passwords, I presume, and the riddle is in finding the correct one."

Roman could have cried. "That's what you've been doing!?"

"Yes. Obviously." She rolled her eyes. "What, did you think I was standing here wasting my precious time?"

"That's exactly what you've been doing! Blow it up!"

"Do you presume to give me orders now, Roman?"

"What? No, I-"

Vernal sighed and placed a hand on Roman's arm, yanking him back. "You're going about it the wrong way," she said under her breath. Then, louder, so Salem could hear. "My queen, this barrier was erected precisely to prevent you from opening the tunnels below. I heard it said it was created to be so powerful that you would not have a chance at destroying it. That even you would be reduced to helplessness in the face of it."

What? How was that going to-

"Oh, it was, was it?" Salem hissed. She turned, sliding up her sleeves and interlacing her fingers together to make them crack. "Well, we shall see about that! How is this for an opening phrase?" She extended a hand palm up toward it. "Annihilation!"

A beam of purest emerald light speared toward the memorial like an angry bolt of lightning. It struck and crackled. Roman shielded his face, fully expecting the thing to explode into a million shards of rock fired in every direction like shrapnel. He forced his aura to the fore, as did everyone. He wasn't alone in expecting the result, and he imagined Salem had as well with a name like that being used!

It was, with some small surprise then, that instead od exploding, the memorial twitched and vibrated, making a horrid cracking sound not unlike crispy cereal drenched in milk, if the cereal was solid concrete and the cracking as loud as the shifting of tectonic plates. The vibrations increased until it was a blur of movement, until something gave with a sickening crack of stone, and instead of exploding in every direction, it exploded up and to the left.

Launched, really. The damn thing took off like a missile, firing off at a sixty-degree angle to the left, ripping itself from the tunnel it sealed and shooting off into the distance with a horrendous whistling sound. They all turned on their heels to watch it go, and the crowd of civilians, police and huntsmen did the same with morbid curiosity, all taking their eyes off Salem as they tracked its flight above the city.

/-/

"We're taking off now, sir. ETA on Vale is six minutes – five if we push it."

"Push it!" Ozpin commanded. "There's no time to waste."

"Understood, sir." The aircraft's engines roared to life and the hull shifted, gravity pressing him down into his seat as they slowly began to hover above Beacon's landing pads. Ozpin's hands were just reaching for the straps to secure himself when the interior flashed an angry red. "INCOMING!"

Incoming? What? They weren't four feet off the groun-

The world lurched sideways. Ozpin yelped indignantly as he was thrown out his seat and into the far wall. Something hit near the Bullhead like a missile, and while it didn't hit them, the shockwave sent the aircraft spiralling out of control.

Ozpin was no stranger to aircraft crashes. He'd been in a few, even died in one, but this was the first time he'd ever been in an aircraft disaster of precisely four and a half feet, and he was rather surprised how violent it was. Those thoughts jumbled around his head while he jumbled around the Bullhead, bouncing off metal walls like a squishy pinball.

The drop was short – obviously -but they hit the turf sideways and ground into it, engines and momentum causing them to dig through Beacon's lovely lawns in a manner that would surely have the gardener's union on his ass again. They never had been happy ever since Taiyang and Raven decided to settle their relationship problems with a huge fight-turned-sexual-encounter in the gardens. The rose beds had never been the same again.

Distantly, Ozpin became aware of the fact they had stopped moving. It was a slow realisation because his head still was, the world lurching back and forth as his vision slowly settled. The Bullhead door was pulled open and Glynda reached in. Ah, good old dependable Glynda. He really should pay her more, especially now that there were three of her talking to him at once. Hm? Odd. He could see them all talking, but he couldn't hear them. And why were they holding their fingers up in front of them?

"-ir! Sir! How many fingers am I holding up?"

"T-Twelve…"

"That… is not physically possible…"

Wasn't it? Ozpin shook his head and watched the three versions of Glynda merge into one. A new Semblance? Incredible. Dazed and shaken, he let her haul him up and staggered away from the Bullhead. The pilot was likewise climbing out, in much better condition than Ozpin was since he'd been wearing his safety harness.

"W-What hit us?" Ozpin asked. "Grimm? Magic? Ironwood?"

"Um." Glynda pointed. "Neither of those."

Ozpin looked, looked and then shook his head and looked again just in case the concussion was really taking it out of him. No such luck. The missile, now embedded halfway into the landing bay, remained the same.

"Is that the Mountain Glenn memorial stone…?"

"Yes. Yes, it is."

Ozpin pondered his next question carefully. "What the fu-"

/-/

"Was a spell called annihilation supposed to do that?" Roman asked.

"Yes." Salem said, lying through her teeth. "Yes, it was."

"The name doesn't fit…"

"Classic misdirection. I call out the name of an effect it does not do, then catch them with an unexpected outcome."

"Uh-huh…"

"I don't expect a minion like you to understand."

Not that she was still out of practice or anything. Magic hadn't been something she relied on in so long – it tended to remind her of the Brother Gods. Still, she was more than a little bothered by just how much harder it was to control in this human body of hers.

Or maybe it's just that I'm not used to this body. Things really would be easier as my old self. I could have just ordered the Grimm to open this. Or, well, she wouldn't have had to at all because she wouldn't be here. I'd still be in the Grimmlands. Plotting. Waiting. Salem's lips twisted. Bored…

Say what she would about the current state of affairs, and there was a lot to say, but at least things were interesting. Jaune's proclivity for getting himself kidnapped certainly helped with that. Speaking of…

"Well, what are we waiting for? My knight has been abducted and is somewhere down this tunnel. It is dark. Fear not, I know a spell to generate light-"

"Or we can use torches!" Miguel said quickly.

Too quickly.

"Is there a problem, Miguel?"

"It's Mercury and no, no problem. Just… you know, maybe you should rest those magical muscles a bit.

"Are you suggesting that my casting of a light spell might somehow…" Her eyes darkened. "Backfire…?"

"No!"

"Nooo!" Roman agreed.

"No, no, no."

"Absolutely not."

"Perish the thought."

"Kill it, in fact!" Vernal joined in. "Kill it with fire."

"All I'm saying," Miguel went on, "Is that you're our monarch, our queen, and it wouldn't do for you to do everything for us." He drew out his scroll – a stupid name for the device, as it was clearly anything but, and lit a mechanical light on the back of it, casting a beam into the dark. "We're your minions. Use us. Let us feel useful for once and don't waste your magic."

He had a point. "I suppose…"

"Seriously." Roman said. "Don't waste it on us. In fact, try not to use it at all." His smile was too wide and too bright. "Preferably never when we're close, or in our direction."

Salem could not help but feel there was a subtle undercurrent of mockery in what was being said. Preposterous. They would not dare – and even if they did, what had she done to allow it? Her actions were without fault as always. And Jaune did need to be saved.

"Hmph. Fine. Lead on, my minions. Tyrian, you shall scout ahead."

"Good idea, my Goddess!" Tyrian cheered. "My eyes can see in the dark!"

He rushed ahead, disappearing into the gloom with a happy cackle and a swish of his tail. Salem watched him go, tilted her head to one side and made a note that faunus had night vision. Interesting to know. Ah, but her genius was so great that she could plan things out even without knowing the full details and still have them fall in her favour. Hmhmhm. Truly, she was incredible.

"Ahead, minions! Let us find my wayward knight."

/-/

Jaune's everything ached.

His arms, his legs, his wrists, his side, his neck. His sword arm ached most of all as he cut through what must have been his fiftieth Grimm. It was around the fortieth that he'd started to wonder if this wasn't all a little too easy, and the fifty-first confirmed it as it, a Beowolf, lunged at him from behind, did not stab its claws through his back and instead picked him up over its shoulder.

Crocea Mors had something to say about that, driven down into the joint between its neck and shoulder. The Grimm dropped him, dropped itself and died moments later.

"Okay, so, they're trying not to kill me. This is new."

He'd gotten so used to Salem being the target of every Grimm within a mile radius that it hadn't occurred to him he might be different. Then again, this wasn't normal Grimm behaviour, and the White Fang certainly weren't being afforded the same courtesy. More Grimm roared from behind, chasing them down and gaining in the small delay he'd allowed.

"Oh no!" Jaune shouted, putting his feet to work. "Oh, hell no! I am not being kidnapped by the freaking Grimm! I will never live that down!"

Jaune Arc, the Huntsman kidnapped by Grimm. That sounded like a child's story, and he'd be damned if he was going to become some bedtime tale to teach brats not to be as dumb as he was. He was going to be a hero, damn it! Even if it killed him.

The White Fang were three times as exhausted as he was, stumbling and plodding along with their hands on the walls for support. He'd never really noticed his aura reserves and stamina until Tyrian near enough tortured him in the name of a training montage, but apparently his were a little higher than the average person's.

To be fair to the White Fang, they'd pretty much run the distance from Mountain Glenn to Vale. The underground trains had been made for a reason, and that reason was predictably that the journey was a long one on foot. Fear of death gave a certain kick up the rear, but they had limits, and they'd rather obviously reached them.

"B-Boss," Mark moaned. "W-We're knackered. W-We'll never make it…"

As if to reinforce that point, a squirrel faunus with a bushy tail fell to her knees and threw up on the train tracks. The smell of bile mixed with the hot, fetid air, reminding him of the sewers that would by now would have been a blessing. Several other members of the White Fang dropped, curling up and gripping muscles. They weren't huntsmen or soldiers; they were volunteers. Civilians convinced to give up their normal lives to make a difference. They couldn't handle this.

"We must be close!" he told them, not knowing if they were at all. Speeches didn't normally work if you opened with `I have no idea where we are` though. "You've run the whole way back to Vale, and I know it's hard, but if we can push ourselves just a little further then we'll be home free. Free to go home, collapse on your beds, take a hot bath and call in sick for a full week! Think about it. Just a little further, just a little bit more, and then you can rest. Rest safely, and not have to worry about the Grimm ever again!"

The speech seemed to work. The Grimm helped, roaring and snarling growing louder as they hunted the party down. Whatever the case, the sick and tired faunus dragged themselves to their feet and began to lumber on again. For a while. Five or ten minutes, then a faunus collapsed and wouldn't get up. Couldn't. They'd passed out, literally walked themselves into unconsciousness. Someone stooped to pick them up, but they were weak as well, and couldn't carry her weight.

"G-Get her between two of you." Jaune ordered. The right thing to do was probably to leave her behind, but he'd be damned if he was. "Someone take her arms and someone her feet. Keep moving."

"The Grimm-"

"I'll deal with the Grimm!" he snapped. "Pick her up!"

An Ursa bounded out of the dark and at Jaune. Its arms reached out to him, ready to drag him into a crushing hug and then carry him away. Honestly, it was tempting at this point. At least he'd live. The faunus would die however, and as much as they'd abducted him and were bad people, he wasn't about to watch anyone be slaughtered like that.

Crocea Mors came up and down. It wasn't even a good swing at this point, but the Grimm apparently had their orders, and it died all the same. Didn't even try and dodge. Stepping over its body, Jaune faced the small oncoming horde and stabbed his sword down, resting his hands atop the pommel.

"No further!" he declared. "Not one step. They are under my protection, and you shall not harm them! They are mine!" Jaune roared. "I have claimed them! So go back to whomever sent you and tell them that so long as I live, their lives will never be yours!"

He wasn't sure what he expected to be honest. Grimm were Grimm, and while some were said to be intelligent after a lot of time, these lot probably weren't. They all looked at one another. One seemed to shrug. Then, giving his words the weight they fully deserved – aka none – they lunged for him.

Jaune sighed. "Well, fuck…"

"FOR THE GODDESS!"

A body struck the Grimm like a meteorite. A stinger pierced down into the eye socket of one and injected so much venom its face distorted. Twin knives dug into its throat and spun like a bottle top, opening its head off and exposing the delicious blood within. Tyrian Callows cackled like the madman he was, vaulted off its chest and hopped over to stand in front of Jaune.

"I can't believe I'm about to say this," Jaune rasped, "But I am so glad to see you right now."

"Hmmmmm?" Tyrian looked him up and down, leering dangerously. "You don't look kidnapped."

"I un-kidnapped myself."

"Oh?" His eyes flicked by. "And these lousy lot are the ones who took you, aren't they?"

Jaune sensed the oncoming bloodshed and put a stop to it. "They're mine now," he said boldly. "I freed myself and took over, now they serve me. Serve Salem," he added for good measure. "They are my… my vassals, and I am hers, so they serve her. Wait, why are you crying…?"

"I'm not crying…" Tyrian cried and wiped at his face with one arm. "I-It's just that you're growing up so fast! One day you're being kidnapped by a bunch of child-traffickers, no better than a child yourself-"

"H-Hey, that's not fair…"

"And the next you're freeing yourself and kidnapping the kidnappers!" He sniffled, then wailed loudly. "Soon you won't even need me anymore!"

Oh, for the love of…

"Hey, I still need you." Jaune cringed as he placed a hand on Tyrian's shoulder. He forced a smile. "I need you now, don't I? Look at all those Grimm that want to capture me. I… I can't beat them all on my own, so I…" He groaned. "I still need you, Tyrian. I need you to help train and teach me."

"Y-You promise…?"

"I promise."

"Pinky promise?"

"Are you serious-?" Judging by the little finger being held out, he was. Jaune groaned and hooked his with the psychopath's. "Pinky promise. Now please, for the love of Salem, kill those things!"

No one had to tell Tyrian Callows to kill something twice. He swept into the Grimm like a whirling dervish, knives slicing out and tail puncturing eyes. Unlike with Jaune, the Grimm did their level best to murder Tyrian. No efforts were made to capture him, none to be gentle. If anything, they seemed ten times as vicious with Tyrian as they had with the White Fang, which was about a hundred times less effective because Tyrian… well, Tyrian was a nutcase.

"Ahahahahaha! Yes! Yessss! Give me your all! Come to me, heathens. You who have abandoned Her glory, come and I shall give you the punishment you so deserve!"

"B-Boss," one of the White Fang said. "Who the hell is that?"

"That is Tyrian. He's… I guess you could call him my teacher."

"Lights ahead!" another faunus gasped.

Jaune left Tyrian to the slaughter and moved to the head of the group. He saw the torchlights of scrolls and let out a breath of relief. Since Tyrian was here, he could guess who it was, and he refused to drop to his knees in front of them. In front of her. Jaune stabbed Crocea Mors down again and leant on it for support, waiting and watching as the procession reached him. Light flashed over his face, making him wince, before it shone past and illuminated the White Fang and the Grimm dying to Tyrian.

"Salem." Jaune greeted her casually, or as casually as he could. Don't mention the kidnapping. Don't mention it. "I was just on my way back to you all, but I'm glad you came along. The Grimm were getting persistent."

"Jaune!" Salem barked his name and hurried forward. He wasn't sure what he expected, but it wasn't for her to grip his arms, hold him still and look him up and down. "You are uninjured," she said, more statement than question. "You were making your way back to me? Good. Excellent. You should always do that. No matter what, you must make your way back to me."

"Ah. I… well…"

"And what of these people?" she demanded. "I heard the White Fang betrayed our pact."

The faunus tensed up. They were too exhausted and too pathetic to stand a chance against her, not that they would have even at their best. Jaune was a little too tired to think up another excuse, so went with the same one he'd given Tyrian.

"My Queen, I give unto you these men and women. Vassals who have sworn their service to me." He said that part loudly. "Isn't that right, ladies and gentlemen?"

The White Fang were violent and extremist, but they were not dumb. Not right now.

"Y-Yeah!" Mark said. "Totally."

"He's the boss," Perry said.

"All hail Jaune Arc!" the squirrel faunus said weakly. "L-Lord Arc!"

Far from be surprised or angry, Salem only nodded. As if this were normal – as if she'd half-expected it. "They are yours? Good, then that means they are mine as well. You are ill-trained to rule over them yet, but they shall be your responsibility. It is fortunate you will gain experience in leadership, given your position." Her eyes hardened. "What of this Banesaw? The one who chose to take you from me?"

The one who the others gave him up to? Jaune looked over her shoulder to see Mercury, Vernal and Roman all desperately shaking their heads and making x-signs with their hands. Yeah, those assholes better beg him not to rat them out. He was going to milk them dry for this.

"He's dead. Ripped to pieces."

Salem's smile was vicious. "Good. As will fare all who betray me." Loudly, she addressed the assembled faunus. "You have chosen to swear yourself to my knight. A wise choice. I will accept your fealty should you all bend knee now and pledge it. Place your hands upon your hearts and swear your fealty to Lord Jaune Arc, my knight and seneschal."

"Salem-"

"Do so now or be left here to perish!"

The faunus all got on one knee, even the exhausted ones. Jaune groaned as they dipped their heads and touched their hands to their chests. The low drone of their voices echoed in the tunnel, and their words could not be mistaken. In a matter of seconds, they have sworn themselves to him. As what, he didn't know. His followers, his peasants, his army.

His pain in the ass, more like. What was he supposed to do with fifty or more terrorists? Where was he meant to keep them!? Jaune looked back to Salem and then noticed another problem.

"Wait, you brought everyone…?"

"Yes. Why?"

"Then who did you leave to keep an eye on Winter?"

Salem blinked. "The maid…?"

"Yes! That Winter! That Winter who knows where we live, who could lead people to us, and who has no reason whatsoever to not run away now that you all left her alone. That Winter!"

The others had the good grace to wince. Not Salem, of course. Never Salem.

"I left her with Gillian."

"You left her with Gillian…"

"That is what I said."

"You left our captive with a cat…?"

"Yes."

"How the hell is a cat supposed to keep her prisoner!?"

/-/

Winter Schnee mumbled desperately into the gag and strained against the chair she was tied down onto. Her eyes, wide and panicked, stared at the black-haired woman lounging stark naked on the sofa, stretched out like a feline, except suddenly not a feline at all. The woman lay on her back, a bowl of popcorn balanced on her bare stomach and a glass of wine held in one hand. She was watching a movie, occasionally pausing to sip or toss popcorn up into her mouth.

"Ah, to taste something that isn't tuna or salmon. I've missed the simple pleasures in life." She stretched her arms. "Nyah-" And froze. Suddenly, she looked around, blue eyes narrowing on Winter. "You didn't hear that."

"Mfbggglfbllgf!"

"You did not hear any sound."

"Madfhfhdlsshhgsjgh!"

"Hmph. Not like anyone would believe you even if you did tell. Now sit still, I finally have the house to myself, and I'll be darned if I let you ruin it by running off to Ironwood and his dogs." Gillian Asturias snorted and flicked some popcorn at the girl. It bounced off her face. "Hah. Dogs. Get it? Because they can all turn into dogs?"

"Mrffflll!"

"No sense of humour." Rather than listen to the irate captive, Gillian turned the volume up on the TV, leaning back as the soap operas came back. She'd missed a whole lot gallivanting around as a cat, which meant she had plenty to catch up on. "Oh my, so you were cheating on Samantha all along. I knew it. You dirty cad, you!"

"Mmmblll!"

/-/

"Never mind." Jaune groaned. Winter would be gone but there was no helping it right now. "We need to get back to Vale before the Grimm overrun us and get into the city."

Roman coughed awkwardly.

"What? What is it?" Jaune's eyes narrowed. "I was gone less than a day. There's no way you guys all got into some ridiculous trouble without me. Not even Salem could knock over the ant's nest that bad in under twelve hours."

This time Mercury, Emerald, Vernal and even Neo joined in on the coughing fits, until Jaune's eyebrow was twitching so hard he could feel the headache forming.


Interviews later this week. Got them on Thursday, so I'll probably write Self Made Man on Wednesday and save myself having to worry Thursday. Ah, but I hope the people aren't total wastes of time.


Next Chapter: 25th October

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur