Here we go


Cover Art: Jack Wayne

Chapter 162


"We're going with you."

"Not this time." Jaune said firmly.

"You promised!" Emerald argued. "You promised we could."

"I promised you would be involved in the attack on Salem, and you will. This isn't that. All we're doing is clearing out some fanatics on the outskirts of her tower and taking down the anti-air weapons." He reached out and tussled Emerald's hair. "Once that's done, I'll be coming back up for the artillery barrage and then we'll all attack together. I'm not going back on my word."

"Why can't we join in this one as well?" Vernal demanded.

"Because I have a far more important task I need the two of you to do."

"Sure. Yeah. Clean our room? Provide moral support?" Vernal snarled at him angrily. "You can't buy us off with shit excuses."

"This isn't one. I need you to defend one of the Relics."

Emerald and Vernal froze. Though they didn't know the individual properties of each relic, they knew how important they were to the attack. They knew that without them the attack could not happen at all. This certainly wasn't some small task or excuse to side-line them.

"Ironwood will be staying on the ship with one, Clover has the second, Raven the third but I need to leave the last with trustworthy people."

"Raven is staying as well?" Vernal piped up.

"That's right." He watched her muscles loosen. If Raven was staying out the fight then she knew it couldn't be that big an issue. "And if by some miracle I do run into any trouble down there against people who may not even be huntsmen while I have an army of them at my back, Raven can portal me to safety."

Emerald and Vernal discussed silently, eyes flicking back and forth. Eventually, Vernal spoke again. "And after this you'll take us for the main attack?"

"I will."

"Is that a promise?"

"Absolutely. As long as the two of you defend the Relic of Choice." He pushed the small, wooden box across the table toward them. The Relic lay inside. "We don't think there are any spies on board, but we can't rule the possibility out. Ironwood knows not to send anyone to my room, so if anyone does come be suspicious. You have the right to defend yourselves. Use some common sense of course. If the ship is falling and someone comes to call an evacuation, best not to assume they're a spy."

"Will the ship fall?"

"Not if we take out the anti-air first."

Even now, the ship was under a new barrage – not human weaponry this time, but Grimm. Nevermore, Gryphons and new species he'd never even heard or seen of. The hull continued to rock and shake, while loud blasts from the cannons were so commonplace as to not break conversation. They'd been under attack for hours now, and Jaune was beginning to wonder if their ammunition wouldn't run out before the Grimm did.

James assured him it wouldn't. They'd prepared extensively for this attack and every bit of Atlas' budget had been poured into it. Dust would not be an issue here, though it may well be after the attack. Perhaps. There was plenty of dust in the Grimmlands that could be mined. Given it was the lifeblood of the planet, that wasn't an entirely safe proposition, but it could tide the Kingdoms over until their aura-based power supply was refined.

It'll need to be, he thought. With Salem gone, the Grimm will be more easily pushed back. The Kingdoms will expand and the overall population could triple within a few decades.

Problems for another time and another person. Remnant would forgive him for leaving it suffering from success. If Ozpin was still around come that time, he could help guide everyone before his death by natural causes. Right now, he'd be in a new host, what would hopefully be the last of such victims.

"Is the anti-air that big of a problem?" Vernal asked. "This is, like, the best Atlas has. How are some idiots with guns that big a threat?"

"They wouldn't be on their own," he replied, "but they are combined with the Grimm. The anti-air is targeting our weapons, which we're using to stop the Grimm reaching critical mass. If an explosive gets through and hits an ammo store or some important machinery, we'll be in trouble. It doesn't help that Atlas haven't really had any wars for a while, so most of their armour and equipment is tooled for fighting Grimm. It's not enough to stop us in our tracks but it could take a few ships down and make life miserable for us."

"Enough to send people on foot to stop them? That sounds like a suicide mission."

"It won't be that bad. We'll be landing close by and the fleet will be bombarding the ground behind us to cut off Grimm from that direction. There will be over two hundred huntsmen going in."

Emerald choked a little. "Two hundred!?"

"Yep. Like I said, Atlas aren't pulling any punches. I doubt there'll even be two hundred enemies aside from the Grimm, and none of them will be as trained as us. I don't plan to die here, girls. This is going to be a massacre, but it'll be our massacre."

Vernal snorted, now more amused than worried. "The best kind."

"Exactly. Will you do it, then? I need someone, or someones, I can trust to look after the Relic. This is literally the most important part of the attack. If this goes missing or falls into the wrong hands, everything is over."

"It won't." Emerald reached out and dragged it into her lap. Her eyes met his and suddenly the box disappeared. It was a demonstration of her power, a quick display, and Jaune smiled encouragingly.

"Good girl. I won't be long."

/-/

The hangars were packed with huntsmen and huntress of various ages, shapes and sizes. Human and faunus both were represented, though more wore uniforms denoting their allegiance to Atlas than not. Leonardo had already wreaked a toll on Mistral's population, while Vacuo was a desolate and sparsely populated land at the best of times. That wasn't to say huntsmen from both hadn't shown, but they stuck to their own smaller cliques in the corners, chatting animatedly.

"Yo. Jaune." Qrow waved him over and Jaune strolled up to him, grasping his hand tightly and returning his grin. "Looking forward to some action as well, huh?"

"Flying doesn't agree with me."

"Yeah, and all the banging, gunning and explosions can't be helping any." Qrow paused and sure enough several loud grunts of Grimm impacting the metal hull sounded, along with cannon and machinegun fire. "I don't know how a guy is expected to sleep. You'd think the rooms would be soundproofed."

"But then how would you hear a call to alarm?"

"A sacrifice I'd be willing to make." He looked past Jaune's arm. "Ditched the kids?"

"They're protecting the Relic of Choice."

"Are you that worried about losing it? These guys can't be that strong."

"It's not them I'm worried about. If I take the Relic down there and let it be seen, Tyrian might enter the field. He's the kind of person who thrives in chaos. A crazy melee like this is the perfect opportunity to sneak up on me."

"You think he'll leave her side?"

"No." Jaune admitted. "But she knows there's no attack without the Relics, so if she sees a chance to remove one, she might order him to try. I'd rather not take the risk."

Their conversation was interrupted by Clover and the Ace-Ops appearing and loudly instructing them into the drop craft. They were sleek, flat aircraft with thrusters on the back and, oddly enough, open bottoms. Numerous claw-like appendages were hanging from those, and Marrow was demonstrating how to use them for the sake of the audience. He stepped inside and reached up to clasp two handles with his arms. The claws then came down to grip his waist, locking him in place.

"The striker aircraft will fly low to minimise anti-air fire." Clover explained loudly. "At a programmed time, the clamps will release, dropping you free-fall toward the ground. This is designed for robotic drop or huntsmen only, as you will need to employ your own landing strategies. The drop will be small, no more than twenty metres, but the speed will need to be accounted for."

"Flying into anti-air gunfire with my stomach and legs dangling down." Qrow muttered. "Sounds lovely. Only Atlas would think of this."

Jaune couldn't help but agree. Now that he looked, the clamps were more like in one of those roller coasters where you were held by your chest and shoulders with your legs free. They would basically be flying forward and released like a human bombing run.

Robots and huntsmen for sure. A normal soldier would explode into giblets on impact. I guess if you were using Knight-units to disrupt White Fang, this would be both shelling and ground assault all in one.

"An artillery barrage will be fired at the expected engagement zone prior to your landing." Clover said. "This will disorient the defenders. There will be no artillery once you are engaged, but bombardment will be aimed behind your positions to prevent Grimm reinforcements. Your objective is to clear the anti-air emplacements, at which point designated communications teams will relay the news back to us. Once you have the position, fortify yourselves pointing both without and within and wait for pick up."

Someone raised a hand. "Why not attack this tower right away if we already have the perimeter?"

"General Ironwood wishes to expend dust in a full-scale barrage of the tower and surrounding lands to fully deplete the Grimm. This is being done to provide as safe an attack as we can manage, and to increase survival rates of everyone in the future."

The hand went down. The explanation was good enough and no one seemed to have an issue with the idea of less Grimm to content with. As people lined up to climb the landers, Jaune and Qrow approached the lead one, waved on by Clover.

"You two will be in the vanguard," he said, strapping them in. The clamps were padded and more comfortable than Jaune expected. There was also a screen hanging low before their faces, providing an impromptu map of the area, a green zone for their landing and even a dotted path to their destination. "The rest of the Ace-Ops bar me will be with you. Look after them, will you? I won't be able to do it myself."

"We'll babysit for you," Qrow joked. "But you best be paying me after."

Clover laughed. "I'll buy you a drink or three. Deal?"

"Works for me." Qrow was strapped in to Jaune's left, his weapon tied to his back. "Hey look, in-flight entertainment. Summer will be kicking herself over missing this."

"Have you spoken to her?"

"Earlier today."

"How is she?"

"Angry at herself for not being here. Guilty that we're doing it instead. That's just how she is – always thinking she has to do everything herself. Never mind she nearly died in Vacuo."

"We should be able to do this without her."

"That's what I said. Between you and me, I downplayed the danger a little. Told her everything was gravy." He paused. "Do me a favour and stick to that story, yeah?"

"Sure thing."

A speaker crackled to life throughout the hangar. "Commencing artillery barrage," Ironwood's voice came through. "All hands prepare for barrage."

Jaune had no idea what he was supposed to prepare for, but luckily the clamps already had that handled. After a brief mechanical sound like something huge was moving beneath them, the ship rocked violently.

A loud thoom echoed through the hull and people were nearly thrown from their feet. It was so loud that for a few seconds it drowned out all the other noise, reducing it to a slight ringing in his ears. Then, in the distance, he heard a muffled explosion. The fact he could hear it at all suggested how large it was, and that was from a distance.

Lights flashed in the hangar and with a lurch, their striker aircraft began to move on its wheels, lazily turning itself to face the closed hangar doors. There were ten in total, each holding twenty huntsmen. The closed doors of the hangar were dented and pitted from hundreds of Grimm, Grimm that would still be out there. The whoosh of engines outside suggested interceptors had been released solely to clear the hangar bays.

He'd be lying if he said he wasn't a little afraid. Fighting Grimm was one thing, fighting people another, but flying out into a mad air battle with little more than a roller-coaster seat holding him in place was another matter entirely. While he probably could survive a drop from this height, it wouldn't be easy and certainly not something he wanted to experience. The landing would be fine; the fight would be fine…

The flight was another matter entirely.

"Nervous?" Qrow teased.

"A little." Jaune laughed awkwardly. "Not all of us can turn into birds if this goes wrong."

"You think I want to be a bird out in this mess? Someone would mistake me for a particularly handsome Nevermore."

The lights above and around the hangar door began to flash red. All the staff that had been working on the aircraft rushed out, racing through blast doors that closed behind them. Soon, the hangar was empty but for them and their aircraft.

With a loud groaning sound, the hangar started to open from the bottom upwards. It was a slow process, and the pandemonium outside was revealed in all its glory. A dark night – or day for all they knew – filled with beams of tracer fire and violent explosions, swarms of black feathered shapes and the constant screaming and screeching of Gryphons chasing fighter planes and vice versa.

Before the Grimm could notice the new targets, the drop craft Jaune was on ignited its engines, roaring to life and shooting out the hangar like a rocket. His body was slammed back, his face buffeted by harsh winds. He had a moment to regret ever agreeing to this and then they were in the open air.

And then they were corkscrewing downwards.

It was just like a roller coaster. The aircraft twisted into a downward corkscrew to escape the gunfight above, twisting its way under the hull of the flagship and down the opposite direction it had come out. The gut-wrenching manoeuvre was as brief as it was painful, but soon the aircraft evened out and took a more gradual descent, and the momentum was all forward, wind kicking their legs back and pressing them into the restraints.

There was no craning his head to look behind, but he assumed the others were in formation behind them. His attention focused instead on the screen before his face, upon which was a countdown from 45 seconds, including a projected flight path.

44, 43, 42, 41…

Red lights blinked. For a moment Jaune panicked, but the words `Artillery Barrage` on the screen gave brief warning to a flash of yellow light blurring above their heads. It shot on ahead, moving faster than the sound that came a full second behind. The light impacted the base of Salem's tower in the distance, again the light flashing a full second and a half before the distant explosions reached their ears.

Suddenly dropping again, the striker craft rushed down to a dangerously low altitude, so low he could see the Grimm on the ground, and they could see him. Beowolves leapt for his exposed legs but fell short by a long way. Up ahead, fire and missiles came from the base of Salem's tower and corkscrewed their way toward the fleet. They fell short, losing momentum and arching down out the air into the hordes of Grimm themselves. From the angle of their approach, it was doubtful the anti-air could even be turned to face them.

15, 14, 13, 12…

"Ready for drop!" Jaune shouted. His cheeks were flapping in the wind and his stomach was pinned back, threatening to spill bile and vomit out his mouth that would no doubt splat back onto his own face. He gritted his teeth and clenched his eyes shut. "Gahhh!"

"Wahooooo!" Qrow screamed in pure joy. "This is amaziiiiing!"

"Five, four, three-" a robotic voice chimed out. "Two, one, drop commencing. Ready for drop."

A loud sound beeped once, twice and then a third time – the clamps snapping open on the third chime. Jaune's entire body lurched as gravity took hold, yanking him out from the underside of the aircraft and sending him hurtling diagonally downward. He tucked his legs and arms in, forced his eyes opened and took in the rapidly approaching ground. Beacon had taught him what a landing strategy was, but the launch of the cliffs had given ample time to prepare. Here, there was mere seconds and no Pyrrha to spear him out the air.

He didn't need it. Not anymore. Forcing aura to his legs, he pushed as hard as he could below him. The impact of his boots on the ground at however fucking fast they were going sent pain spasming up his knees. Without aura, his own legs would have pierced back up through his pelvis and into his body, impaling him from the inside out. With aura, it was merely torture, like being a human bouncy ball hurled at a wall.

Not everyone's landing was as rough as his own. Qrow was able to lessen his landing with high calibre fire, while others used Semblances, weapons or add-ons to their equipment to act as parachutes, soft landings or even to drift down to the ground safely.

"Move!" someone yelled. Jaune wasn't sure who it was, but he put muscle to action anyway, running ahead despite the pain. Fresh explosions behind told him there wouldn't be any Grimm from that direction to worry about, but there were definitely more up ahead. A wave of them charged forward, determined on giving their lives to protect their mistress.

With two hundred huntsmen at his back, Jaune was more than willing to meet the charge head on. Hefting Crocea Mors, he roared out in challenge, cleaving through the skull of a Beowolf.

Swords, spears, guns, cannons, axes, maces and esoteric combinations of all the above met the wave of black. Huntsmen worked in small groups, usually four as per their assigned teams, and it was rare that many more than that gathered in one place at a time. Remnant just had so many problems that they were spread thin normally.

Here, it was anything but.

The force tore through the Grimm like a lawnmower, all whirling blades and Semblances. Grimm that were used to outnumbering huntsmen twenty to one were suddenly faced with four or five at once. Ursa hesitated under so many targets, swinging lazily at one only to have the hand severed by another, a knee slashed through by a third and a hole blown in their chest by the Semblance of a fourth.

Deathstalkers stabbed down with their tails only to find all their limbs cut off and their carapaces trampled under numerous boots and heels. For the first time in Remnant's history, it was a horde of huntsmen that fell upon the Grimm, and they didn't know what to do about the sudden turn of events.

"Cut through!" Jaune roared. "Cut through and take the tower!"

Huntsmen and huntresses roared their approval.

/-/

"Useless. So useless. How are they so useless!?" Tyrian gnawed at his hands, biting them so hard he drew blood that ran down his chin. "They deserve to die! They all deserve to die!"

"Calm yourself, Tyrian." Salem chuckled from her throne, idly watching out the window at the light show of the armada. Tyrian's devotion was as amusing as it was disturbing, and she knew that if left alone he would kill himself in grief or anger. "Your new… followers are not proving so useless."

"They haven't brought the battleship down!" Tyrian raged. "That was their point, that was their purpose. If they can't do that, they've failed. If they fail you then they don't deserve to live!"

Such unreasonable demands Tyrian placed upon the recruits he found. He was likely concerned that she might see their failure as his and lose faith in him. Madness did not always make sense, as evidenced by his expecting them to outfight the largest military on Remnant.

It's perhaps a good thing for them that they'll likely die in this assault, she thought. If any survived, Tyrian's punishment on them would be far worse than what these huntsman might do.

And they would die, that she knew. Perhaps if they'd had years to train them up like she had Cinder, or if they were as exceptional as Hazel and Tyrian, then things would be different. They were not, however, and so they would fall. Salem watched the oncoming wave of bright colours with a curious smile.

How long had it been since Ozma attacked her properly? A thousand years? Two? It used to be that he would launch an attack every hundred years or so, gathering his forces and pitting them against hers in bloody battles that would span months. Then and there, they had pitted their wills against one another over and over again. Until Ozma stopped one century, and never attacked her again.

The definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting the results to change, so she could understand why he stopped, and yet that hadn't prevented the disappointment that he had. Her once-brave husband had turned into something of a coward. It was but the latest revelation in a long line of his failures.

"Ashari is out there," Salem mused.

"I'll kill him!" Tyrian raged. "I'll go out there and bring you his head!"

"No need. He will come to us in time." She hadn't meant it as a complaint really, more of an observation. Ozma had given up on attacking her, apparently so much so that he had even seen fit to warn her of Ashari's attack. In a way she was upset about that. This would have been a far grander occasion if it came with the element of surprise.

Ashari holds the fire Ozma once did. I wonder if that would fade and die one day if he went through the same circumstances. A part of her believed it would not, that Ashari would fight forever, but then she'd thought the same of Ozma as well. Time changed people. One needed only to look at her to see that. Nothing stays the same. Not the world, its people or even those who live forever.

Salem chuckled. It had been a while since such maudlin thoughts entertained her. She brought a golden chalice to her lips and drank of it, savouring the sounds of carnage outside. If one thing could be said for humanity it was that they found increasingly interesting ways to commit murder. Those battleships made such lovely sounds, a concert for the upcoming battle.

"I'm sorry my goddess," Tyrian said, wringing his hands together. "I will go out there myself and show them what true devotion is!"

"No. Stay." Her words made him freeze on the spot. "You are too nervous, Tyrian. This is not the first time the forces of humanity have stormed my tower. Back then, they even had Ozma leading them."

All failed. Obviously. There was no reason to believe this would be any different. Immortality was immortality. Her curse would not allow her death and the Grimm were limitless here. Tyrian might not survive, but he would relish the chance to die for her. Ultimately, Ashari could try as much as he liked. All he was really doing was delivering the Relics to her.

"If you want to be useful, go and see to my latest creation. It should be ready by now. Release it and send it on its way."

"A-And leave you unguarded…?"

"I am more than capable of protecting myself, Tyrian." With a twist of her finger, the mark on his chest flared to life, twisting his body with agony. Tyrian enjoyed it more than he should have, gasping in pain and pleasure. "As you well know." It was gone a moment later, leaving him wanting. "Go on now. Ashari has put such effort into this little show, and it would be rude of me not to return it."

/-/

Jaune cut through one cloaked figure and shot a second in the head. Aura flashed, protecting him from the force, but he still staggered back into Qrow's weapon, crying out as he was cut down. Sliding Crocea Mors free, Jaune looked for more enemies. There weren't enough to go around. A group of huntsmen and huntresses some ten strong were blitzing through a raised bunker with an anti-air cannon atop it, bright lights flashing in the windows and dying screams echoing out.

There was no telling who these people were or why they'd agreed to work with Salem. Human and faunus both, not unhealthy or particularly notable. They could have been mercenaries or even a village recruited and forced into servitude for all he knew. Ignorance was bliss.

What they were was hastily trained, with unlocked aura and some small understanding of how to use it. Enough for them to stand up to untrained men and women. No chance against a single huntsman, let alone so many. In the end, they'd chosen the wrong side. That was all.

An explosion ripped through a weapons emplacement nearby, sending the truck-mounted machine gun up into the air. The huntsman cheering nearby suggested it was intentional, and more weapon placements were being taken down all around the base of the tower. Tyrian's forces hadn't made for much of a fortification. They'd known where the Atlas fleet was coming from, so they'd just set up as a blob of weapons on the side of the tower facing it.

Disorganised. Very disorganised.

"That's most of the weapons taken out!" a huntress shouted from a top a rock. Her view must have been better than his to tell that. "Someone contact Ironwood and tell him to bring the fleet in."

"On it!" Marrow replied. "Everyone, hold the perimeter."

There wasn't a lot to hold it from. The Grimm were still focused on the fleet itself, a veritable ball of black in the distance occasionally lit up by flashes of yellow and the occasional burst of orange. Jaune winced as another airship came rushing down to the ground, billowing smoke and fire behind it. They were still a mile out, making a rescue operation by the huntsmen possible but dangerous.

"This is easy!" Qrow shouted over the din. "I expected more from them."

"Hazel and Watts are dead." Jaune replied. "Cinder changed sides and Tyrian isn't here. Whoever these people were, they only had a month or two to whip them into shape." Clearly, that hadn't been enough time. "The stronger enemies will be inside there."

Qrow followed his eyes and grimaced. The tower was tall, imposing and lit against the purple sky. "Dreary looking place. What can we expect inside? Traps? Death rooms?"

"Grimm and Salem."

"Death rooms, then. Nice." Qrow spat on the floor, looked around for enemies and then gave up, holstering Harbinger on his back. "Kinda wish we had Ozpin here. No offence."

"None taken. I wish he agreed to help as well. We'll have Raven."

"Whoop-de-doo."

"She's not that bad." Jaune said, hitting his arm lightly. "Ironwood will be coming as well, along with the Ace-Ops. That's more than enough to deal with Tyrian. Salem is another thing, but we have the Relics for that."

"You sure this'll work?"

"I'm sure of it." Jaune promised. "It will work."

The ground rumbled suddenly, shaking violently as rock cracked and the ground itself split. It wasn't sudden by any means, giving huntsmen time to scramble back to safety. Jaune and Qrow were among them, drawing their weapons again and watching as the rock before the tower split in two, and as a long, grasping hand tipped with three bony claws scratched its way upward, feeling about the edges for prey.

"This is new." Qrow said.

"This is your fault for saying things were too easy." Jaune growled. "You know how your Semblance works."

"Yeah, and it doesn't give birth to brand new Grimm from the bowels of the planet."

Another hand came up, gripping the edge and working with the first to haul a truly gargantuan body out of the chasm. Its chest was a hundred metres wide and as many tall. The rest of it might have been taller still, but it appeared stuck underground, unable to bring more than its stomach above the crust. Trapped as it was, it still towered over them, a bony, skeletal body with skin stretched thin over spiked ribs that pierced through flesh, arms over fifty metres long and a triangular, horned head ripped straight out of a nightmare.

Its mouth opened, shaped like an Apathy's, and a horrific screech came forth. Not only from it, but from the creatures that poured and crawled out of it, small gremlin-like Grimm with stubby arms and legs, landing on the ground with wet splats and crawling on all fours toward them.

"Kill it!" Elm shouted over the shocked silence. "Whatever it is, it's still a Grimm. Bring it down!"

Hefting Crocea Mors, Jaune charged in.

/-/

Emerald screamed and threw her head back, eyes wide and bloodshot and mouth open. The undulating sound continued, drowned out by the battle outside but still filling the room. Her back arched and she collapsed off the chair, spilling onto the ground before Vernal could catch her.

The metallic object clinked and bounced on the floor, rattling to a stop.

"Emerald!" Vernal gasped, rare concern showing as she rushed over and picked her up. "Shit. Shit. Shit. What happened? What did it do? Oh fuck, dad is going to kill us."

"N-No!" Emerald cried. Wept. "N-No, he isn't!"

"Really? You're okay then? Shit, I knew we shouldn't have done-"

"He's going to die! I saw it! Dad is going to die!"


Next Chapter: 24th July

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur