Here we go.

Cover Art: Jack Wayne

Chapter 153

The flight back to Vale was without consequence. There were thousands of people making their way to the city for the festival so while the airline was exorbitantly expensive, there were plenty of them running. Cinder appeared to be amazed with the first class flight he'd booked for them, stretching out her legs and sampling a little wine he'd let her order. It wasn't his business to tell her what she could and couldn't have. The Relic of Destruction was safely secured in the cargo bay inside Crocea Mors' own scabbard – the perfect disguise he hoped.

"I could get used to this kind of luxury," Cinder said. "Is this the money you received from marrying into the SDC?"

"No. I had this before." From Rashem, though he didn't mention that. "I never used to be rich, and I never really saw the benefit of it before. It opens a lot of doors now."

Convenient, he'd call it. Money hadn't been an issue for them when they'd been running away from Salem and gathering the Relics under Ozpin's control. They'd had just enough to buy food and rooms at the inns they crossed and that was all they needed. He wondered now if the journey wouldn't have been easier with more resources. Maybe. Vale had been in near ruins when they left it for Mistral, but they could have afforded to book a flight over that would have taken half a day, rather than trek through the wilderness for six months.

Come to think of it, why did we do that? Vale must have had Bullheads left, Glynda could have requisitioned one for us if she knew we were helping Ozpin. Heck, we were going so slow that Yang caught up with us.

It as easy to look back on yourself and wonder why you'd been so stupid – case in point, Pyrrha's feelings – but he still couldn't fathom how they'd been so stupid. They hadn't even left with any overall plans in mind, just go to Haven since that was where Cinder had come from. If it weren't for Qrow, they'd have been wandering forever.

"Are you going to take this mark off me once we're back?"

Jaune broke out his thoughts and glanced over to Cinder. The young woman was reclined back in her comfortable seat, her bottle of wine half empty already and a languid look on her face. If the faint dusting of colour was any indication, she was either growing intense feelings for him or a little tipsier than she realised. The slight hiccup gave away which that was.

Cinder always seemed like some immeasurable and inhuman monster before, so in control and terrifying. I guess it's hard to realise someone is barely an adult when you're only seventeen yourself.

To they who had lost everything and had no control, Cinder must have appeared so dominant. In reality, and with the benefit of hindsight, she'd been rather useless. Even Salem and Watts had realised that. Constant mistakes, overly complicated plans, gloating. That she'd succeeded at all was both a testament to their naivety and… well, he wasn't sure what it said about Ozpin. How an immortal with so many centuries experience had failed to notice her or at least be mildly suspicious when the CCT was hit was anyone's guess.

"I said I'd take it off once we have all the Relics. Remember?"

"I remember." Cinder tried for a frown but only just managed a pout. "I just – ahem." She cleared her throat and took another long sip. More of a gulp. "I don't want to wait. What if she finds out? What if she had spies in Shade and they saw us? She could activate our seals right now and kill us."

"I think she would have done that already if she knew."

"She who strikes first wins." Another sip, an empty glass and Cinder pouring herself some more. He had half a mind to say she'd had enough. "Your – our – betrayal will be noticed soon enough. W-We should strike first. Take away any chance of her stopping us."

Was Cinder afraid of them being found, or was she having second thoughts? There was a very real chance Salem would change her mind, clean house or find out what was going on. If so, having the seals on their bodies at that time could prove fatal. Jaune hummed and wondered if she hadn't started drinking with this conversation in mind. Liquid courage as it were. Cinder had to know there was a risk in taking the seal off, so she'd decided to fortify herself before suggesting it.

Or he was reading too much into this. It was hard to tell.

"You realise that the moment we take this off, she will know. Almost immediately."

"We already have three Relics. It's not as though she can interfere in Beacon…"

True. Salem was out of agents to work with, and Beacon was at its strongest. Then again, they'd said that before and watched it fall. Things are different now. Roman isn't working with Cinder, Cinder isn't working with Salem and Watts isn't around to create a virus to take over Atlas' robotic soldiers. Even the White Fang are gone. The Vytal Festival couldn't be interrupted now. There just wasn't any time.

"Are you that desperate to be rid of it?" he asked.

"I have everything I need from her. No, I didn't even get it from her. I'm powerful now, but as long as this thing is on me, I don't have the power to choose my own destiny."

"That's what happens when you sell your soul to the devil."

"Like I had a choice," Cinder muttered under her breath. It occurred to him that he didn't know anything about why she'd fallen or what other options she had. Cinder wasn't about to tell him either. "I want it off. You can do it on me first if you want. The moment we land."

That would please Raven at least. He'd promised not to fuck around with his own without testing it on Cinder first. Salem would know she'd been betrayed after, but there wasn't much point keeping up appearances now. Even if she found out, what could she do? Tell Ozpin? He wouldn't see anything suspicious in Jaune wanting to be rid of this.

"Alright. We'll do it at my place. Both of us together."

Cinder kept her eyes down and poured herself another glass, drinking it in one go. Setting the empty bottle down with shaky hands, she nodded her head and whispered "Thank you" under her breath.


Jaune made sure to secure the Relic of Destruction in the basement and behind enough pieces of furniture to be well out of sight. He then closed the door, locked it, and went back up to the main living area where Cinder was busy mentally preparing herself.

"Are you sure you want to do this now?"

"Yes," she said. "Before my confidence wavers. What do I need to do?"

"Lay down on your front. I'll need access to your back."

Cinder nodded and, to his surprise, began unbuttoning her top. Jaune glanced away, hearing the sound of her shirt rustling and falling to the floor and then the sofa stretching under her. "I'm ready…"

Laid out on her front, her skirt and bra strap remained on. It was nothing he hadn't seen more of before, and from far more developed people women than her. Jaune dragged a stool up to the left of her body, looking at the sigil in black marked onto her back between her shoulder blades.

"I'm going to have to move your hair aside," he warned, waiting for her nod to do so. He didn't want to spook her. "And… well, it's under the strap. Are you okay if I release it?"


Face down and pressing her chest into the sofa, it was no different than someone receiving a massage or undoing their swimsuit back on the beach to get an even tan. He told himself that as he unclasped her bra and pushed the straps aside. All in all, with the threat of Salem and what she would do to them, there wasn't anything remotely sexual about it.

"I'll need you to try and lay still while I do this. There might be a little pain, or maybe it'll just feel strange."

Cinder craned her head back, yellow eyes narrowed. "You don't know?"

"I wasn't exactly being gentle with Watts."

"Great." With a huff, she pushed her face down into the fabric, either to muffle screams or just so she wouldn't have to watch him start. "Do whatever you need to. I can handle it."

Well, if she insisted. His left hand began to glow as he moved it over the sigil. His right flicked through the tome, bringing up the images he'd clumsily translated. There were more notes on them now taken from his experiments on Watts. Little tips and things he'd found out through trial and error on the dying man.

Magic was an inexact science if one could call it a science at all. This power of the Gods that the God of Darkness had left behind was as unfathomable as the being itself, and yet the mark on Cinder was not made by Gods. It was made by humans, by a human turned into something much worse after throwing herself into the pools of darkness.

That meant that it was somewhat easier to understand. In theory if the Gods had cursed Salem to eternal life with their own power, and magic was a remnant of that power, then he should also be capable of ending Salem's immortality. Or Ozpin and her should have been. That was where the creator mattered. He could work with the logic of humans in understanding and picking apart a visible seal on Cinder's back.

Trying to figure out how the Gods had done what they did? Impossible. He might as well have been a newborn baby trying to understand complex mathematics.

This is tied into her aura – her soul. My Semblance lets me manipulate aura to a degree. This probably wouldn't be nearly as easy for someone else. Not that it was easy now, but it could always have been harder.

Cinder gasped suddenly when he touched her back. His fingers were ice-cold, or so it must have felt to her. In truth it was her back that was cold, the sigil Salem had left on her letting off little wisps of cold steam when he touched it. It almost felt like he could push down and dip his fingers through Cinder's back and directly into her soul.

There was a wrongness to it, a taint. Not some malignant or living creature of evil, more… more like if someone had undergone surgery and the doctors refused to stitch them up after. This felt like that, like Cinder had a small hole in her body that her aura bubbled underneath the surface of like blood. Salem had created the hole and left this to keep it open, to allow her to reach through at will and twist it.

"A-Ackkk!" Cinder's body spasmed when he did. "Kaa- Kaaak! Hngh!"

"I'm sorry." Jaune said. "Hold on a little longer."

If this were a literal wound, then he could have stitched it up but that was only a metaphor. Salem's mark held the one-way path into her soul open and it had to be removed like a shard of glass buried in a body. The problem was that it had intertwined and woven itself into Cinder's very being, into her skin, her mind and her soul.

All those things were sturdier than people gave them credit for. You could recover from a lot of physical damage and your soul? Well, huntsmen and huntresses knew well how much punishment that could take. Cinder could and hopefully would recover from this, but only if he got rid of the rot. In an ideal world he could have gently pried it out, but this wasn't ideal. Not even close. He pressed his fingers to her back, closing his eyes and using his Semblance to visualise the act of taking hold of Salem's mark between his finger and thumb.

"This may sting…"

Cinder, already heaving and sweating, trembled. "Wait a second-"

Jaune squeezed the mark and twisted violently.

"Hwaaaaah-" Cinder's entire body arched back as she sucked in breath to scream. Jaune pushed her back down, twisting harder still and pushing a hand around and into her open mouth.

"Bite down."

Teeth slammed into his skin, almost grinding straight through his aura. Cinder' tongue pushed against the back of his palm, muffled sounds of agony leaking forth as screamed into his skin.

"Not much longer," he lied, twisting and pulling with his borrowed magic. It wasn't kind, nor was it gentle. Continuing the medical metaphors, it was like taking hold of a cancer cell with your bare hands an pulling it out, little strands of skin – or in this case magic – dragging on Cinder's soul in an effort to keep hold.

He didn't have magical surgical implements to cut them, so he continued to pull, playing a savage game of tug-of-war with Cinder's body, yanking and dragging and ripping the thing off her while she bucked, writhed and cried all over his arm.

"It's close. Just a little more."

He could feel it coming free. With one last pull, he wrenched his arm back. Light sparked out from Cinder's spine, dispersing in the air with a wickedly loud thunderclap. Her body jolted up off the sofa, bouncing against him before crashing back down. Like dried paint, the tattoo on her back dissipated into the air, flaking away in seconds.

"It's done."

The magic, anyway. Less so the pain. Cinder bucked her hips and knocked him back, then rolled over onto her back and tried desperately to touch where his less-than-tender treatment had been. Her face was dark red, and she grabbed one of his cushions, biting down and screaming into it.

Jaune looked away, not only to spare her from his watching her moment of weakness, but also because she'd left her bra face-down on the sofa when she rolled over. He doubted she cared right now for her modesty, not with how she kept writhing and arching her back, clasping a hand over where the mark had been and kicking her legs.

He might have misled her a little over how easy the process would be. Technically he had removed it as promised, but he hadn't warned her it would be less removal and more ripping it out of her soul. He'd have offered her an ice-pack if only the pain was on her body at all. It wouldn't do much to ease the wound he'd left on her soul.

It would heal though. The soul was remarkable like that.

"I'm sorry about that." He sat and pulled her body into his chest, both hiding her face and her naked body from his eyes. Cinder tried to push away but really didn't have the strength. "It's gone now. The tattoo is gone entirely, as is Salem's ability to ever use it against you."

"Y-You fucker!" Cinder hissed, swearing uncharacteristically. "Y-You… ack… You f-fucking… f-fucker…"

"Did you learn that kind of language from Vernal? I knew she'd be a bad influence on you."

Cinder's body shook either with laughter, anger or pain. "Y-You fuck…"

He rubbed her bare back, trying to soothe where he'd ripped the mark from. "There. There. Let it all out. The worst is gone now."

Cinder did, much to his amazement, let him hold her for a good ten minutes. Ten minutes and no longer. Once the immediate pain was gone, she pushed away and turned around, covering her chest with one arm and fishing for her bra, then slinging it back on and pulling her shirt over herself.

"I'm not one of your strays," she muttered angrily.


"Your daughters. I'm not a stray to be picked up like you did Emerald and Vernal. I appreciate this," she added. "Both your assistance and a hand to bite down on, but I don't need… I don't want someone like that."

Jaune blinked, unsure if she was embarrassed or not. "That's fine."

"As long as you understand. Our relationship is as partners, not… not anything else."

When most women said that they meant partners and not being romantically involved – especially when they were topless on your couch. It amused him a little that Cinder was warning him not to try and adopt and smother her as another one of his daughters.

"It's not like I go around collecting people. Emerald wasn't even ten. Vernal pretty much adopted me, not the other way around. You're safe." He chuckled and waved at her. "How does it feel? Is the pain gone?"

"It only aches now. I've a feeling it would feel worse if I wasn't numb from the sheer agony of the first lot." She eyed him dangerously. "You didn't tell me it would feel like that!"

"Again, I only practiced on Watts and I wasn't gentle."

"This was gentle!?"

He smiled grimly. "Yes."

Cinder watched him for a moment and then shuddered, undoubtedly telling herself he wasn't someone to make an enemy of. A good lesson for her to learn. "Aren't you going to do yourself?"

And there it was, what he wasn't looking forward to.

"I guess I should. If Salem can feel yours breaking, there's no telling if she'll activate mine to try and kill me. Well, we can hope she thinks you're dead for an hour or two." He unbuttoned his own shirt and pulled it off, sitting topless in front of Cinder. His black tattoo lay over his heart. "I'm going to need your help."

To her credit, she didn't flinch. "What do I do?"

"Try not to let me pass out while I'm doing this. Or let me stop at all."

It was a very real concern, not because he didn't think he had the courage for it but because everyone was affected by pain, no matter how tough you thought you were. Try as he might, his body might not allow him to take his own seal off. If he faltered for even a second, he'd lose concentration and it would stay.

I'll need to rip it off quick. So quick I don't have time to lose it.

That was… only a little terrifying.

The soul is strong, he reminded himself. It could take punishment. Anything he felt was just pain – a signal from the body that an unpleasant stimulus was occurring. I have to ignore it. Push on through.

"Okay," he said. "I'm ready. I'm going to try and do this fast. Faster than yours."

"Is that wise? Is that safe?"

"No." Jaune grinned. "To both. But it has to be done."

Cinder sighed. "If you insist…"

He had to. It was the only way to make this work. Taking a deep breath, he brought his glowing hand up to his chest and closed his eyes. Sensing the taint on himself was harder than with Cinder but he found it all the same. Reaching in and touching it made him freeze like a block of ice. He'd been wrong to say it felt like some touching your soul – it actually felt like he had his hand inside his own ribcage and had wrapped his fingers around his still-beating heart.

It wasn't, obviously, but it felt so much like it. His pulse was pounding in his head. And now…now he had to pull it out. As if he were trying to rip his own heart out his chest. Every part of his body rebelled against it even though he knew it wasn't the same, even if he told himself this was a foreign entity from Salem. His body wanted nothing of the `cure` he was offering.

I have to do this. For myself, for James and all the people relying on me to stop Salem. He couldn't do it. For Emerald and Vernal. They'll be left alone again if I can't do this and Salem kills me.

That did it.

A breath. Two breaths. Jaune gripped the magic tight inside his soul and took a deep breath. "H-Here I go. Catch me."

"Catch you? What are you-?"

He didn't give Cinder time to finish, or himself time to doubt. With a mighty pull, he tore Salem's magic right out of his body – ripping his metaphorical heart out his chest in one, swift go.

The pain didn't come. Or if it did, it didn't last. All he felt was a brief moment of shock, the sensation of the tattoo flaking away, and then the world crashed in around his head and smothered him in darkness.

Cinder didn't even catch him as he toppled off the sofa and onto the tiles.


"The two of you want to try your luck at finding this out, do you?"

Raven Branwen laughed at their brazen attitude, even if she had to look around anxiously. They'd contacted her in one of Beacon's many changing rooms and she didn't like the idea of Summer finding out she'd come to visit. That Vernal and Emerald had called on her at all was a surprise; one that turned pleasant once she found out what for.

Ozpin would be furious to know even children are getting suspicious of him. And after what they pulled on Summer, she'll finally start to open her eyes to his manipulations.

Too late to make it up to her, sure, but still. Better late than never.

"Dad says he's suspicious. Auntie Summer called him Ozpin." Emerald looked more annoyed than curious. "And he's interested in Ruby in a way Summer doesn't like. I don't like that either. I'll stop him if I have to."

"I just can't stand fuckface's secrets." Vernal said. "If he won't tell me what's going on, I'll find out myself."

"Alternatively," Raven offered, "I could just tell you…"

"Tch. We can figure this out on our own. We don't need handouts!"

Confident little bandit, wasn't she? Raven approved. There was a certain pride to be had in doing things on your own. "Then why call on me at all? Or do you need me to hold your hand while you do it?"

"We want you to tell dad if anything goes wrong." Emerald said.

Witness, then. Fair enough. Or it would be if she could really get away with just telling him. She could imagine Jaune's reaction if she told him she'd known what they were doing and left them to it. He'd have a fit. Whether they intended it this way or not, I really can't just leave them to get in trouble now. Ugh. This is why I hate kids.

"Not a bad plan, brats, but you're not in the full picture with regards to this. This plan of yours won't work."

"Why not?" Emerald asked indignantly. "My Semblance can control what he sees and hears. As long as we corner him alone, he'll only see what I want him to."

"Your plan – and your Semblance – would work on anyone else. It won't work on him I'm afraid. That's not your fault," she added, more to shut their complaints up than to lessen the blow. "You don't know his capabilities. You also don't know why your Semblance won't work on him."

Emerald scowled. "Why won't it?"

"Let's just say he has two perspectives to work with. You'd influence one, but the other would notice something is up when his view doesn't match the first's. Pick the wrong one and you could be in real trouble. The kind that even I would struggle to get you out of."

There was no telling if this Oscar kid was still around, sympathetic to Ozpin or not, but he'd register some degree of confusion when he saw Ozpin talking to Emerald and Vernal as if they were Summer. That would be enough to clue Ozpin in. Things would be even worse if they caught Oscar in Emerald's Semblance and left Ozpin out.

Would the old wizard kill them? Probably not. He wasn't the kind to do that, but he'd certainly start indoctrinating them. How could he not when they discovered his secret? They'd be brought before Summer and Qrow and anyone else Ozpin needed, and they'd band together to beat into the girls' heads how important it was they followed him and only him.

Raven doubted that'd work. These two would die for Jaune. Emerald would do it in a heartbeat and while Vernal was a lot less willing to admit it, Raven had the feeling she'd turn violent if someone suggested they wanted to take her away from her new father. Incredibly violent.

At that point Ozpin might be left in a desperate spot. He certainly wouldn't want to hurt two innocents, but if it were a choice between that and everyone finding out about Salem, the panic that'd cause and the deaths that would come as a result, then she wasn't sure what other options he'd have. Blackmail maybe, or perhaps he knew of someone with a Semblance that could get him out of it – make them forget or influence their loyalties like Jax Asturias could have.

Either way, I can't let that happen or Jaune will lose his mind.

They needed him in one piece to fight Salem, not stuck on the warpath against Ozpin and Beacon. In fact, Ozpin might just do that and accept the consequences if he knew the current plan. Better he have to deal with a murderous Jaune out for vengeance than leave Jaune to take the Relics and fight Salem.

"Okay. This plan is a no. It's a good one, but no. I'll fill you in the old-fashioned way." Vernal looked annoyed. "You've earned it," Raven said. "Trust me, you did well to find out this much. Tangling with Ozpin isn't the same. You can't outsmart someone as old as him."

"It is Ozpin then?" Emerald asked with a smug grin. She elbowed her sister. "I told you so."

"You told me shit. Only that Summer called him that." To Raven she said, "What gives? That old fossil is meant to be dead. I saw the report and everything. We had a minute's silence across the whole school in his memory. Lessons were cancelled and everything." And then, because Veral was Vernal, she snorted and said, "Fuck'n pussies."

"Yes. Yes." Raven rolled her eyes. She may have created the home Vernal grew up in, but it was the other bandits who taught her such needless profanity. Usually around the gambling tables. "There are things going on here the two of you really don't know. Ozpin has… let's call it a Semblance for now. A very powerful Semblance that comes with a very big downside…"

So, for the last two nights my dog has been waking me up to the strange noise of keyboard keys tapping. It's like someone is speed-writing on a keyboard and yet mine is the only one in the house. I get up with her, go out to check but the sound stops whenever I get near my office.

Spooky. Well, if I believed in ghosts. I'm of the opinion there may be rats scuttling in the attic, which is far more likely. Still, I wish they'd give it a damn rest so I could have mine!

Next Chapter: 22nd May

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur