A.N. (4/23/23) - Releasing this a little earlier than midnight on Sunday cause I'm too lazy to wait an hour to post this to count as a Monday release chapter. I need all the sleep I can get, especially since I have midterms this week.
Atlas (23) - Villains
Jax Asturias opened his eyes, his mind slowly clearing as the remnants of a forgotten dream escaped him.
His sleeping schedule had been getting worse lately, especially with how much he was using his Semblance. The cost of maintaining control over so many people meant that there was always a dull throb at the back of his mind. A sharp pain would assault him any chance he let his guard down, so it was a constant battle of willpower as he held tightly onto the connections between him and those he controlled.
That said, the burden had increased in magnitudes throughout the past few days. Now that they were on the final steps of their plan, the Crown was increasing its efforts in gathering more recruits through forceful methods. While some of them were cowed by the threat of force, most required that he involved himself personally if he wanted to smooth matters over quickly. Because of that, his mind was in constant agony as he held control over hundreds of troops.
Gillian needed all the people that they could get her hands on to fuel her Semblance, draining the Aura from unwilling recruits and passing them onto those who complied with their demands. But it was becoming more difficult for her to continue the longer time passed. As of a few days ago, her body had finally succumbed to exhaustion from the stress of overworking herself.
Jax knew that it wasn't just because she was taxing her Semblance, but rather, the cause was due to another factor. With the pressure from ∎∎∎∎, it was difficult to believe that this was all worth it. The price for the gift that had been bestowed upon him had not seemed unreasonable at first.
But now that the end was drawing near, doubts were beginning to grow in his heart.
"Excuse me." Without waiting, Bertilak barged into his office with a grunt. "Figured you'd be up by now, so I came here to tell you something. She's asking for you."
Any intent on rebuking his rudeness instantly left him as Jax took in his words. "Did she ask for me, or did…?"
"It was her for sure," Bertilak replied. His face grimaced. "Right now, her mind is clear. But soon, she'll be stuck in bed full-time until the procedure is over. Whether she'll have enough strength to complete the last step or not, I can't say. Before then, she wants to have a word with you."
"Thank you, Bertilak."
It was strange. Out of everyone in this organization, Bertilak was one of the few people that Jax both trusted and distrusted. The man held too little loyalty to their cause for Jax to expect any true obedience. And yet, Bertilak was one of the few people who knew the truth about them. If anyone else learned what Bertilak knew, they would not have taken well to the truth being kept hidden from everyone.
Bertilak was one of the few people who traveled with them during their early days. He was there when Jax came upon the treasured tool of Malik and he remained even after they learned about the hidden darkness contained within it.
An ancient secret that was almost over a thousand years old.
Sometimes, Jax thought about how his life would have gone if he had never discovered the truth hidden from the world. Many times, he thought about throwing what he found into some hole out in the desert. But every time he thought that, he recalled his initial dream to restore Vacuo to the way it had been before the other kingdoms had taken advantage of them.
Still, was it worth it?
Those thoughts crossed his mind as he stood in front of the door leading to his sister's room. It was in an isolated part of the building, far away from anyone that was not in the know regarding the truth. He hesitated for a brief second before knocking on the wooden surface of the door.
It was his sister's voice. Jax did not even realize that he had been holding his breath until he exhaled. Turning the knob, he took a couple of steps forward and closed the door behind him.
"You sent Bertilak to call for me?"
"I did," Gillian replied. She was propped upright on the bed and staring at him with half of her body hidden beneath the sheets. "It was his turn on guard duty today, and I figured that he wouldn't take long to accomplish this."
"Where are Rosa and Argento? I thought it was their turn to keep watch?"
"They're managing our other operations with Glass. That man has been insisting that we reveal more of our plans to him, even though he knows that we're only using him for our benefit. I think it's about time that we remove him soon before he gets in the way of our goal."
"You won't find me disagreeing. The man is hard to tolerate on a good day, so I'm glad that we'll finally be rid of him."
Neither of them spoke for a moment.
"...how much longer do you have left?"
"Maybe a few days." Her answer made him wince. "Probably even less than that."
"It's not fair."
"We agreed to this," Gillian replied. "Vacuo doesn't need both of us ruling. If my life is the price for our dream to come true, then this will all be worth it."
"Except it was supposed to be me. I should have been the one to pay the price instead."
"Both of us know that it was always going to be me. That was made very clear to us from the very start."
His fingers dug into his palm as he held his fists by his side. Jax was unable to raise his gaze to look upon his sister any longer. Only the sound of breathing told him that Gillian was still awake, even if it sounded like she was on the brink of death.
He tried his best to steer his thoughts away from that direction.
"Tell me again," he said. Looking up, he mustered the courage to speak the words in his heart. "Say it with your own words. Is this all worth it? Preparing your body for ∎∎∎∎, is it truly worth it for the sake of our dream?"
Gillian didn't even hesitate. "Yes, there is no doubt in my mind." Her expression relaxed. "Do you remember the words that Father used to tell us when we were younger? Back then, he told us that the world is built on stories. Some are true and some are lies. Some are real and some are myths. He told us that stories explain who we are and why we're here. They give us comfort when we need it, and they help us relate to each other. If you don't believe in stories, if you don't trust in them, then nothing has meaning in life."
"Those were Headmaster Ozpin's words."
"Yes." She closed her eyes. "They were, and our father agreed with those words. The stories he told us about our ancestry inspired us to become who we are today. It gave us the drive to find the ruins of Malik and learn the secret of this world. And in the end, we accomplished so much. I mean, who would have thought that a couple of dropouts from Shade Academy would become the leaders of an organization hellbent on striking at Atlas? Even the White Fang can't claim to have done as much as we have."
"We haven't finished things yet."
"No, we haven't." Her eyelids remained shut. "Carmine is making sure that our final preparations will be ready before the launch. Once that day comes, the world will decide whether we emerge as victors or villains."
"The Crown will make its mark on history."
She chuckled. "I'll hold you to that promise then."
He realized a second later that she had fallen asleep. The conversation must have exhausted her more than he realized. Without thinking about it, he moved to her side and placed a chaste kiss on her forehead before tucking her bedsheets in properly. Once he did so, he quickly left the room and found Bertilak waiting outside.
"You're lucky that it's one of her good days."
Jax kept his expression calm. "Have you received word on the Ace Operatives yet?"
"They just returned along with the Schnee. Our target managed to figure out that they were compromised and trapped them in the scientist's lab. Luckily for us, the Schnee knew the right passcodes to free them."
"And what about our latest member?"
"The faunus? He's not doing anything important. Thinking about sending him on a mission?"
"No." Jax started to walk away. "I'm not risking things going wrong after we've already come this far. This time, we're sending in everybody."
It was time to reveal themselves to the world.
Carmine Esclados smiled.
It was too easy. Managing Weiss Schnee was even easier than she thought it would be. Her job was to manipulate this poor girl into speeding up their operations by using the girl's newfound authority within the SDC to rush the launch date of Amity. The foolish girl was still under the belief that the White Fang was behind all of this, not realizing that she was doing exactly what they wanted.
Of course, if she wanted to maintain this control over the other girl, Carmine had to make sure that she retained her trust. That meant that occasionally, she would have to console the other girl whenever Weiss was drowning in her feelings.
Such as right now.
"I miss him," Weiss said. She was hugging her knees and facing downward with a sad face. "I don't know why it feels like I'm the only one in my family that does. Whitley is too busy trying to deal with the aftermath to accept things yet, and mother was already drowning in liquor before this happened. Not to mention Winter…"
She held the girl's hand and smiled. "We'll find her. You have the best people of Atlas keeping an eye out for her. Before long, we'll discover the location of the White Fang and have them mount a rescue mission."
Of course, said people were already under their control and were simply going on a wild goose chase until they could set up a proper decoy to act as the mastermind behind the attack. Even so, Carmine wondered why Jax did not simply take control of the Schnee girl as they did with everyone else. Supposedly, he was ordered to leave her alone. Although the only other person she knew who could order him around was supposed to be Gill, and Carmine doubted that she would without explaining her reasoning at least.
Oh well. She trusted Gill to know what she was doing and figured that this was simply one part of her master plan. It wasn't as if this was the first time she had to play the role of the charmer, especially with how many people she brought into the fold before due to their Semblances.
The only time her charms had failed her before was when that annoying man Marcus had traveled with them for a while. Somehow, it was Bertilak of all people who managed to befriend the assassin. Bertilak! The man had less charm than a honey badger on a good day, and yet, he was still able to become friends with Marcus.
Not that it mattered in the end. With his disappearance all those months ago, she figured that he must have finally bit the dust. That was one less person who could have figured out their secret, and Carmine was always annoyed with the fact that an outsider like him could have at any time ruined things for them if he learned what they found in those ruins.
"A while ago, I went online to see the reaction to his death." Oh right, Weiss was still talking. "And the comments from people… I almost threw my Scroll across the room. Nearly everyone is celebrating his death, even praising those monsters that killed him as heroes. Some are even claiming that Winter orchestrated his death by colluding with the White Fang to attack the gala."
"All lies," Carmine replied. "Those are just a few trolls on the internet that want to stir up shit for fun. Go back a month, and those same guys would probably have said something like how the military should just kill every White Fang member or something. It doesn't matter who is the victim or villain to them. All they want is mindless entertainment by latching on to the latest trending thing. It's just a shame that they're clinging on to this latest incident with so much fervor."
"Do you think they're right though?" Weiss turned to face her. "Was my father truly such a monster that he deserves all this hate? The things they wrote about him… I can't claim that all they've said is wrong. The reputation of the SDC isn't something that I can ignore. Was his death the result of righteous retribution?"
"Stop saying that." Carmine leaned in to hug the other girl. "Even if that were the case, nobody deserves an ending like what he got. And instead of listening to the words of anonymous people online, trust in the voices of those around you. Since I'm here, I'll tell you that you obviously love your father very much. No matter what people say, trust that your grief is justified and that you are allowed to feel this way about someone you care about."
Weiss sniffled and returned the embrace, unable to see Carmine smiling from her current position. God, this was almost too easy. It was as if the girl was starved for affection with how accepting she was of simple gestures like this.
"I have to go now." Carmine pulled away from the girl's reluctant hold. "There are still a few things that I have to do before the day ends, and I can't put them off any longer. If you need anything else, I'm only a Scroll call away."
"I promise, Weiss."
In the end, she was simply a naive and gullible fifteen-year-old girl. Closing the doors behind her, Carmine was surprised to find someone waiting on the other side for her. Or rather, it was more likely that this was simply a chance encounter judging by the look on the other person's face.
Willow Schnee had been someone that Carmine had yet to meet up until now, and she found the older woman disappointing. Even if she didn't actually care about Weiss and her feelings, what kind of mother ignored their grieving daughter and son while the world around her fell into chaos?
"...hello." A one-word response, and Willow already lost interest in her. "If Weiss is in there, I suppose I should go somewhere else to drink."
"You know, it wouldn't hurt if you talked to your daughter at least."
Carmine blinked in surprise. Those words somehow escaped her without realizing it, and she realized that she made a mistake when Willow turned to glare at her with narrowed eyes.
"I've seen your type before," Willow said. "People preying on others when they're at their lowest. There's not much I can do to stop you, and I doubt that Weiss would be willing to listen to me if I tried to warn her. You've sunk your claws into her already, and there's nothing I could do about it."
"Maybe not, but aren't there more important things to discuss with her?"
She laughed. "Like what? The fact that my husband who I hated is dead. Or the fact that the daughter who abandoned me is still missing? Anything that I could say to her would sound like poison to her ears. It's better if we simply do not interact with one another."
"Some mother you are…"
"Save your breath. I heard it all from many others already, including my daughter." Willow blinked. "The eldest one, I mean. She always thought that I was a disappointment. The look she gave me was exactly the same as her father, and she didn't like it when I pointed it out to her."
"I think I'll take my leave here."
Somehow, Carmine felt that this mission was getting more annoying the longer she maintained this facade. She desperately hoped that things would finish soon so that she could return to Gill's side before the final part of the plan. It was already bad enough that she couldn't remain by her side now, but Gillian trusted her to do her part.
Gillian's last wish was for her dream to come true. And Carmine wanted to make sure that Gill's sacrifice wouldn't be for nothing, even if that meant making sure that Jax would succeed in his plan.
I feel like I've been neglecting Weiss recently, especially since I advertised her as one of the main characters of this arc. Eventually, she'll play a more pivotal role in the story, but that moment will probably take a few chapters to reach. Until then, I'll expand on the perspective of a few other characters that have already established themselves.
Jax's perspective was something that I wanted to write about because the last chapter revealed that he wasn't exactly the main villain of this arc. Sure, he plays a big role with how critical his Semblance affects his organization's operations. But until now, his role was mainly to act as the annoying antagonist that causes chaos for seemingly no reason. As for why Gillian is in her current state, that will be revealed eventually as things approach the end. For now, all I can say is that there's a reason that she hasn't made any appearances up until now except in the flashback chapters.