Well then, shan't we begin?
Start Chapter 53
"Okay," Jaune lets out an exhausted breath as he wipes some sweat off his brow. "I think that went rather well!"
Winter Schnee, bound, gagged, and tied to one of Weiss' fancy chairs, glares up at Jaune as if to express her disagreement with that particular statement.
"I don't believe my sister agrees." Weiss deadpans.
"Yeah, I gathered that."
"So… what's the plan, here?" Raven asks, cocking an eyebrow. "Because somehow I don't think Ironwood's the type to negotiate with kidnappers."
Jaune grimaces. "We're not kidnappers, we didn't have any other choice!"
"We could've tried to talk to her." Nora points out, shrugging. "Instead of lunging at her and tackling her to the floor before she could react."
Winter rather animatedly attempts to speak past her gag, and Jaune gets the feeling she's agreeing with that sentiment.
"Listen, just…" He sighs. "Fine, I'm going to remove your gag now, okay?"
Winter glares at him.
He takes the gag out, and Winter immediately spits at him, which is… both gross and kind of weird.
"I didn't even tie you up!" He feels the need to argue as he wipes the spit off his cheek. "That was Raven!"
The woman in question shrugs.
"You're evidently the leader of this band of terrorists, however," Winter speaks, her voice laced with venom. "Which means that, whether or not it was your idea, the blame falls on you."
"And do the same rules apply to Ironwood?" Blake asks all of a sudden. "Mantle lies almost entirely abandoned, as do outlying settlements that are normally guarded from the Grimm. If Salem still wanted to conquer the world, then she'd be having quite the easy time of it given the almost entirely unguarded frontier villages surrounding Atlas that are now left to the proverbial, and literal, beowolves."
Winter opens her mouth to respond, and then, seemingly caught, closes it.
"That… we are talking about a matter of life and death for Remnant itself. I do not always like the things that General Ironwood chooses to do, but I have never once been unable to see the throughline within them."
She hesitates, before speaking, "And what do you mean 'if Salem still wanted to conquer the world', what the hell are you talking about!?"
"Oh, right." Jaune mutters. "So, uh… strap in for a long story?"
"I am quite literally tied to a chair."
"Huh. I guess you are."
Over the course of the next ten or so minutes, Jaune hits the major bullet points of their current scenario.
"So, in a nutshell, Salem has allied with Ozma and the rest of humanity to try and stop the Brother Gods from destroying Remnant somehow."
Winter looks like she's having some difficulties coming to terms with anything that Jaune's just said.
"Okay, so, I'll start from the top; basically–"
"I heard what you said!" Winter shouts, shaking her head. "I meant more along the lines of 'what drugs have you been taking to actually think I'll believe any of that drivel'!?"
"I must confess, the story is…" Weiss pauses. "Difficult to believe."
Raven hums. "A moment, then."
Raven flicks her sword, and a portal forms just beside her. From the other end, Jaune can hear familiar voices chatting.
"Hey, Yang, Ruby!" Raven shouts through the portal. "Your friend Weiss is here."
The voices stop, and a moment later, both Yang and Ruby come striding through the portal, locking eyes with their teammate, and giddily wrapping their arms around her in a crushing hug.
"It's so good to see you!"
Jaune finds himself smiling, even as he wonders just why Raven had sought to bring the two of them in here.
"I'll stay here and watch Summer." Qrow's voice comes out from the other side of the portal, and Raven grunts an affirmative as she closes the portal.
"So," Raven clears her throat. "Ruby, Yang, could you corroborate our story about the–"
"Hey, why is Winter Schnee tied to a chair?" Yang asks, and Jaune can't help but admit that it's a solid question, really.
So, they take a moment to explain that to both Yang and Ruby, who sit there far more calmly than Winter had for Jaune's earlier explanation – which is probably fair, given they're not tied to a chair in a room with several known 'terrorists.'
"Okay…" Ruby rubs at her chin. "So, uh… we're all aware that by tying Winter to a chair, we're not helping our image at all, right?"
Jaune can't really argue with that. It certainly makes them look like the ne'er-do-wells that Ironwood's attempting to paint them as.
Well, that and the whole working alongside Salem thing, that also paints them as ne'er-do-wells.
"But yes," Yang answers after they've spent a moment contemplating their image. "What Jaune's saying is the truth. Salem and Ozma have set aside their differences; they're working together."
"And yet the Grimm still assault Mantle's gates." Winter glares. "They still claim the lives of our soldiers in droves."
"Unfortunately, Salem has never had full control over the Grimm." Cinder speaks, shaking her head. "Were she here in Atlas, she likely could command the beasts to halt their approach. But I think both you and I know that were Salem here, there would be a far deadlier conflict than what is happening below."
Winter looks to want to argue, but she can't seem to summon up an argument at all.
"I… you are in that respect likely correct, even if I do not believe you speak the truth as to Salem's supposed newfound motivation."
"That's fine. We don't really need you to believe us." Cinder speaks, and though Jaune finds her words somewhat crass, she's not wrong, per se. "What we need is the Winter Maiden, so that we can gain access to the Relic of Creation."
Winter's expression darkens, and her brow furrows. "If you think I'm going to surrender such information willingly, then you are sorely mistaken."
"Ms. Schnee, we are not here in Atlas to try and bring about its ruin," Ozma states as he steps up towards her, albeit somewhat diminished in presence due to inhabiting Oscar's body. "In fact, we would be perfectly happy with you being the one to inherit the power of the Winter Maiden, provided that you opened the vault for us."
"You would bring Atlas to the ground; you would kill us all!"
"We would need to bring Atlas to the ground in order to take the Relic of Creation; in that sole aspect, you are correct. However, we do not intend to harm a single citizen of Mantle or Atlas. Nor will we, if I have anything to say about it."
"Same here." Jaune speaks up.
"James' paranoia has caused him to jump at shadows around every corner, even his own. I do not blame you for inheriting some of his worries, Ms. Schnee, but surely you must be able to see that James is not entirely stable at the moment. He has allowed Mettle to control him, hasn't he?"
Winter's face blanches somewhat, before she looks away, unable to meet Ozma's eyes.
"That… I will admit, he has been falling upon his semblance more and more these days. But that is because he has been required to deal with so many problems that Atlas is facing."
"Problems that I am sure that James is creating via his actions as much as he is fixing them." Ozma shakes his head. "Again, Ms. Schnee, I have no intention of harming James; I merely wish to speak with him, and to set the record straight regarding my and my ally's involvement in current affairs. His presence would be a massive boon to our chances of successfully stopping the Brother Gods; if such a thing is possible at all."
Winter shakes her head, her eyes closed, as she lets loose a great breath. "You can't really be serious with this… this talk of the Brothers trying to destroy the world!? As far as I know they're nothing more than fairytales!"
"They are quite real, and we have rather damning evidence that they intend to take action in a way that will result in Remnant's destruction."
"And again, you expect me to believe this!?"
Ozma seems to hesitate for a moment, before his eyes widen. "Would you allow me to prove it to you? To both you and James?"
"What do you mean?"
"I am asking you if you would bring me to James, so that I might speak with him."
Winter's face scrunches up. "You think I'd be foolish enough to bring this group to General Ironwood!? Among you are several elite huntsman; you could–"
"You need not bring the entire group. Not at all." Ozma cuts Winter off. "In fact, I mean only for you to bring myself, and Mr. Arc, here."
Jaune finds his eyes widening as Ozma turns towards him.
"Uh… why me? I don't think Ironwood likes me very much."
"He very much doesn't." Winter confirms.
"It is precisely because James does not like Mr. Arc that I would ask he accompany me. If I am lying, or attempting to fool him into cooperating with us, then he can throw Mr. Arc into prison and throw away the key."
Jaune has several problems with this plan, but Cinder seems to have quite a few more.
"Absolutely not." She speaks, and her voice leaves no room for argument.
"Then you could accompany us as well, Ms. Fall."
"Absolutely not!" Winter Schnee speaks up this time.
Jaune gets the feeling this conversation is going to be going in circles for a while.
It does just that, a recursive argument that continues for the next fifteen or so minutes that sees no signs of ending any time soon. It feels odd for Ozma to be so passionate in this, and steadfast in what to Jaune seems a random plan, but…
"Professor Oz– Er, Ozma," Jaune cuts into the conversation, cutting Cinder off before she could attempt to eviscerate the man. "You seem awfully sure about this. Can I ask why?"
Ozma straightens out his posture. "I am confident because I have every reason to be. James, under Mettle's control, will not respond to emotional stimuli, only logical stimuli. Normally, this would be an incredibly difficult thing for us to attempt to work around, as any argument without mechanical evidence will be dismissed outright. However, we do possess mechanical evidence. We have proof that the Gods will take action that shall result in Remnant's destruction."
Jaune's brow creased. "And… what is that proof?"
"The Relic of Knowledge, of course."
That… Jaune had forgotten about Jinn somewhat, in all fairness, but he'd had a fairly decent reason for that; or at least, he thought he had.
"Isn't Jinn out of questions for this era?" Jaune asks.
"Jinn cannot be asked more than three questions in a century, that is true" Ozma confirms, before his expression brightens. "…But Jinn can reconfirm information that it has been asked in that same century, as long as that information has not changed. For example, if we asked of Jinn the same question that Ms. Valkyrie asked of her a week or so ago…"
"Then… Jinn could repeat herself for Ironwood?"
Ozma nods. "She could."
That… immediately, Jaune can understand just what it is that Ozma's trying to say. With Jinn only able to provide factual, honest answers, and with Ironwood only responding to factual, honest answers…
They might just have exactly what they need to convince him to stand down on this.
"Cinder," Jaune turns towards his soulmate, and watches as her lips curl downwards, already anticipating what he's about to say. "I want to go with Ozma to meet Ironwood. I think this could work."
"I understand what you're saying, but I'm not letting you walk into the veritable deathstalker's nest without backup."
"Worry not, Ms. Fall," Ozma steps in, offering an easy smile. "Mr. Arc will have backup. I will be there."
"And you believe that you can hold off the entirety of Ironwood's forces if he turns on you!?"
Ozma's expression darkens. "I will do what I must in such a scenario, but I have faith in James that it will not come to that."
Cinder sneers. "Like you had faith in Lionheart?"
Jaune gets between them, then. "Cinder, hey, it's fine. Really. I want to go."
Cinder snarls. "That doesn't matter! I'm not letting you go in there by yourself, when–"
"Enough, girl." Raven speaks, walking up towards Cinder and grabbing her shoulder. "Your soulmates made up his mind. Respect his decision."
Cinder opens and closes her mouth for a solid second before Jaune notices something odd. Raven's fingers are tapping on Cinder's shoulder, seemingly in a pattern.
It takes another two seconds before Cinder's eyes widen, and she calms down almost entirely.
"I still don't like this, but… alright." Cinder looks towards Ozma. "Take care of him. If he is at all injured–"
"He will not be. Rest assured." Ozma speaks, and Jaune can't help but feel a bit more confident hearing how much the man sounds. "Now, Ms. Schnee, do you agree to ferry us to your General?"
Winter looks between all of them, across their entire band, and then finally ends on Weiss, who seems to give her a small, almost absent nod.
"…I will call this in to General Ironwood. If he agrees, then I shall."
Ozma nods his head. "That's all I ask."
Roughly an hour later, and Ozma and Jaune are walking through the metal halls of Atlas' main headquarters. They are being led through the building by Winter Schnee, and are flanked on all sides by Atlesian soldiers, who seem to be a bit above the standard rank and file.
He's pretty sure he'd heard Winter call them 'Ace-Ops', or something of that general nature. All he knows is they have weapons far too ridiculous-looking to be anything other than huntsman-trained.
Really, he's surprisingly calm given they're walking into the belly of the beast – the beast in this case being one General Ironwood, who upon seeing them just… doesn't react.
Like at all.
Jaune's seen Mettle before, but it's been long enough that he finds himself shivering slightly at the way the man's entirely blank eyes follow them as they step up towards him, and stand in front of him.
He stands atop a raised platform, one that keeps him above the rest of them. It's not exactly subtle in what it's representing, but Jaune's always felt that sometimes literary devices can just be obvious.
"Ozma. Arc." Ironwood's voice is steady; too steady. "Welcome to Atlas. If you'd informed me of your coming here, I would have seen that you were taken straight to me."
"Yes, well, suffice it to say we assumed that would be a poor idea at the time." Ozma states, clearing his throat. "James, certainly Winter has filled you in as to why we're here?"
"She has. You believe you have information that will sway me to your cause. I must confess, I am curious as to what it could be."
Ozma nods his head to Jaune, before stepping forward and taking the Relic of Knowledge from off of his hip. They'd technically left it with Salem, but it hadn't been very difficult to simply have Raven portal it over for them before they'd left.
"Jinn." Ozma speaks, and time slows to a crawl.
It's clear that everyone besides Jaune himself, Ozma, and Ironwood are freaking out – at least internally – about the whole 'time has stopped' thing. Still, they're military men and women, so they do their best to shelve their feelings, and focus on the here and now.
"There are no questions left in this era." The giant blue woman confesses. "Hmm. I do not believe I have met you before." She speaks towards Ironwood.
"I have been told of you, spirit of Knowledge." Ironwood responds. "You speak only truth. Yet what truth will you tell me without a question to answer?"
"Jinn is not capable of being asked new information at the moment. But information that she has already divulged this century; information that has not changed, can be freely re-given." Ozma clarifies, before he clears his throat, and asks, "Jinn, I ask you inform me again; is there currently an immediate threat to Remnant that could result in its destruction, besides the Grimm or Salem's forces?"
"I can only repeat myself in this instance," Jinn speaks, before nodding her head. "There is, although I am forbidden from telling you just what it might be."
Around them, several figures' expressions grow darker. Among them is Winter Schnee, whose fists tighten as well. Jaune feels some semblance of pity for her. She already has enough to worry about, likely, without having the veritable end of the world on her conscience.
"Jinn's information is quite vague." Ironwood speaks. "I understand that there is a threat to Remnant other than Salem and the Grimm, but I am to believe that it is related to the Brother Gods?"
"Jinn is forbidden from sharing information about the two of them." Ozma explains. "The brothers refused to allow us to figure anything out about them. Jinn confirmed for us that the reasons for such was that they did not want to allow Salem or I an 'easy way out'."
Ironwood's expression does not falter, or alter, in any way. Even still, he nods his head, seemingly satisfied with the information that Ozma has brought him.
"I see. And on the topic of Salem, seeing as how you have not spoken of her thus far, do you have proof that this supposed alliance with her will not be broken at the first opportunity that is presented to her?"
Jaune can't help but react to that, and already, some part of him is calling out that they need to leave. Already, some part of him recognizes what Ozma has not.
Ironwood will not be swayed.
"That…" Ozma swallows visibly. "I cannot give anything more than my word on that matter."
"Your word is worth more than most, I will admit to that, my friend." Ironwood speaks. "But in this case, your word is not enough. Do you really believe that Salem would not pretend to ally with you if she believed such would grant her access to the Relics, that which she has always sought?"
"She gave up the Relic of Knowledge without any difficulty so that I might bring it here," Ozma attempts to argue back. "Certainly that–"
"A Relic that had no use to her at all. That had no questions remaining. No, she is crafty, and terribly intelligent. She likely knows that giving up the near-useless Relic of Knowledge in an attempt to gain Creation is the correct play. But I have seen through her every step, Ozma, where you have failed to. I shall not fall for her act."
Ozma clenches his jaw, even as Jaune begins to survey the room, trying to spot any weak points for when this inevitably descends into combat. Unfortunately, he can't find anything at all.
"And even if it is not an act, Salem is guilty of more crimes than any man, woman, or child on Remnant. She cannot simply be forgiven of such because she has had a change of heart." Ironwood speaks, and then, Jaune nearly flinches as his eyes turn on him. "No more than Arc may be forgiven for his actions just because he believed them to be the 'right thing to do'."
Ironwood waves a hand, and the door at the back of the room opens. In flood a good fifteen extra soldiers, each of them armed to the teeth, and with weapons pointed, suspiciously, at only Jaune.
"What are you doing, James!?" Ozma yells.
"Worry not, Ozma. I trust in the word of Jinn enough to know that there is a threat to Remnant other than Salem. And I shall work with you in stopping that threat. But I am unwilling to allow agents of Salem to wander free. Not after everything they've done. Once he has been arrested, then the two of us may discuss this further."
In that moment, Ozma swears, before he reaches down towards his wrist, where Jaune has just noticed a watch resides that he rather suspiciously has never seen the man wear before, and presses in on one of the dials on the side.
It takes a few seconds, but then, a red and black portal swirls to life just beside Jaune, and in swarms their entire group, with their weapons raised and poised for battle. Cinder is among them, and she rushes straight to Jaune's side, getting between himself and Ironwood.
"Are you okay?"
"Yeah, yeah I'm fine." He assures her. "I assume that this is what Raven was communicating to you earlier in morse?"
Cinder nods quickly. "It was."
"I knew you agreed too easily." Jaune shakes his head. "But damnit, I wish this hadn't gone this way."
"So, Ozma…" Ironwood's expression doesn't falter. "Even you betray me. I confess that I had expected as much."
"I am not betraying you, James," Ozma shouts, shaking his head. "The only person who has betrayed you… is yourself."
Ironwood says nothing; his eyes entirely dead.
And at that, despite the seriousness of the situation, Raven Branwen just laughs.
"Well, seems diplomacy has failed," Raven smirks. "Looks like we're going with Salem's plan after all…"
The woman cracks her neck.
"Taking what we need!"
End Chapter 53
Alright, next chapter, our boys take what they need!
I don't have a lot to say this week. My programming classes have been taking everything out of me lol. Spending upwards of 6-8 hours a day just staring at a screen, trying to make my code work. It's rewarding when it does, but frankly, I have not had the energy to write more than a few thousand words this week, and that was pretty much all done on Monday.
I might take a break on uploading this at some point, although it would probably be Who We Used to Be to take the hit, since Cinderella's updates are A) shorter, and B) Cinderella is ending in like 10 chapters-ish.
Anyways, for now, that's all, see you guys next week!