Summary: He might be the greatest swordsman in the world, but one man with blade in hand cannot change the arc of history, and killing alone does not bring about victory. Instead, Jaune Arc must resort to cunning and brilliance, just as he must learn that there is a price to salvation – if the Witch is to be defeated, and the apocalypse, averted.
And then I will rest, and listen to the silence sing to me
of peace and tranquillity,
and a world liberated from suffering,
delivered, from misery.
Queen of Air and Darkness
Edge of Infinity
It was the dead of night, and the sky was devoid of sun and shattered moon alike – but even so, the heavens were far from dark, as Beacon Tower blazed with light, its golden radiance burning away the darkness of night.
Beyond the cliffs of the academy, the Emerald Forest stretched as far as the eye could see, silent and deadly and deceptive in its tranquillity – giving no hint at all that come first light, students would need to fight for their lives.
Placing his left foot in front of his right, Jaune Arc raised Crocea Mors above his head, and started to practise the art of the blade.
He set the scenario.
One enemy, three meters ahead. A large, well-built boy, armed with a mace. He's used to intimidated opponents taking a defensive stance and ceding the initiative to him. That his enemy would – or could – strike first is an idea utterly alien to him.
A misconception, to be sure, and in battle, misconceptions are fatal.
Jaune kicked off the ground with his right foot. Propelled forward, he brought his sword slashing down even as he simultaneously pushed off with his other leg. With a lunge, he closed the distance in the span of a breath, and his hypothetical enemy found his head cut open before he could even react.
Jaune reset the scenario.
One enemy, three meters ahead. A girl with long hair, strong and fast and armed with two gauntlets. An aggressive fighter with the habit of charging in head-first, and it'll be no different here.
His imaginary enemy leapt at him, right fist bursting forward for a powerful blow that would knock him senseless were it to connect. But in that almost imperceptible moment, when she was mid-air and fully committed to her attack, she was vulnerable – unable to react in time to any counter-strike.
Jaune slashed down, taking his enemy's right arm off at the elbow; and then he twisted, swinging his sword from left to right to decapitate his maimed opponent.
Jaune reset the scenario once more.
One enemy, three meters ahead. A girl in traditional Mistralian armour, holding a shield in one hand and a mecha-shift sword in another. Preternaturally skilled, surpassingly strong, and mercilessly fast – it'll be impossible to take her off-guard, or to identify and exploit that brief moment of vulnerability when she attacks. The only option I have is to block or dodge her attack and retaliate after that.
The Mistralian champion of his imagination blurred into action, and her sword slashed out in a lightning-fast first-strike –
– only for Jaune to pull back his torso, and use his left leg to push himself back into a short, smooth back-step. Simultaneously, he brought his sword arcing down to remove his enemy's right hand at the wrist; and then, exploiting the pain and horror that such an injury would inevitably cause, he lunged past her guard to embed his sword in her throat.
And that was that.
Jaune let loose a breath, and allowed himself to relax for a bit.
In battle, the goal was to attack your enemy while not allowing them to attack you. With that in mind, a combatant had three main ways to achieve victory.
The first way was to take advantage of the enemy being surprised, distracted or otherwise unprepared – by attacking before they could put up an effective guard, let alone attack you.
The second way was to exploit that split second of vulnerability when an enemy had already committed to an attack – by attacking in that moment when your enemy could no longer switch to blocking or dodging, nor adjust their angle of attack when you simultaneously impede their strike; through a strike to their hands, for example, or by a parry with the base of the blade even as the tip arced around to strike at the enemy's head.
The third way was to take advantage of the over-extension that occurred after a failed attack – by executing a successful block or dodge, and then retaliating once your enemy's weapon was no longer in a position to block your attacks, or hurt you.
All this Jaune had learnt from his father; king-high bastard though the latter was, he knew how to fight, and Jaune had, like a man dying of thirst, drank in every last bit of skill his old man was willing to impart, even as he hated that –
Jaune terminated that line of thought. He was brooding, he realized, and such a thing was useless at best and counter-productive at worst. If he had time to sulk, he could well practise more.
He continued running through his technique drills. At the most basic level, they were just step-by-step manuals to winning a fight under specific circumstances. The core ones he had already completed focused on the expected timing of attacks and countering accordingly – while the others he now worked through addressed other variables like the number of opponents or the level of technological sophistication involved. Fighting one person was different from fighting a pair, or from fighting a group of three people; and duelling someone wielding a modern mecha-shift weapon posed a different challenge from fighting a person using old-school Mistralian fire spears, or from battling a backwoods huntsman still resorting to stabbing dust crystals into their own body.
By the time he was done with his drills, Jaune was sweating heavily. The cool night air helped, somewhat, but still he considered pulling off his shirt and risking a cold, when –
The sound of clapping, cool and precise like the man from which it emanated, broke the silence of the night.
Jaune turned, and upon seeing the silver-haired man in shaded eyeglasses standing not a dozen feet away, had to actively force himself not to flinch.
At such close range, surely the man acclaimed as the greatest dust mage in all Remnant could sense that he lacked that.
Ozpin gave a mild smile, and if the headmaster was aware of Jaune's mounting trepidation, he gave no hint of it, instead saying only saying,
"You have impressive sword work, Mr. Arc, just like your father, and his father before him. May I?"
The headmaster reached out, in expectation of receiving Crocea Mors for examination. And though Jaune suspected a trap, he could hardly refuse the headmaster's request without the running of risk of additional scrutiny and – possibly – discovery.
"Of course, headmaster."
Reluctantly, he handed Crocea Mors over, and the headmaster took it. Raising it up, and holding it at an angle, the headmaster seemed to admire the way the light danced off the blade, before saying,
"Truly a work of wonder, this blade of Anra steel."
Invented during the Great War, Anra steel possessed the unique ability of bypassing aura defences – a devastating advantage, for huntsman-on-huntsman combat. Difficult to make and even harder to forge into a blade, swords of Anra steel were a prime contributor to the war's staggering bodycount – and hence was promptly banned in the peace that followed. Some influential old families, like the Arcs or Winchesters, managed to obtain exemptions, and were allowed to keep their family weapons – but such cases were not the rule so much as the exception.
With an assurance and deftness that Jaune did not expect, the headmaster proceeded to give the sword a few practice swings, before launching into a sequence of attacks almost too fast to see. Jaune's own hand twitched, as he immediately though of how he would have parried and struck back –
– only to realize that he would have died, the headmaster's last jab being but a sublime feint leading into a wicked twisting cut that would have slit his throat and painted the ground red with his blood.
Feeling appropriate chastised, Jaune knew that he was in the presence of a master – a fact that he nonetheless could not quite square, given the headmaster's choice of a cane as a weapon, and his well-known preference, and well-earned reputation, for dust sorcery.
The headmaster nodded with evident satisfaction, even as he said,
"I commend you on your confident handling of the sword – most huntsmen would fear the risk of mishandling Anra steel and hurting themselves."
Jaune gave a tight smile. Ordinarily, the headmaster's praise would have made him giddy with pride and validation; but now, all he felt was an urgent hope that this conversation be over as soon as possible.
The nature of hope, of course, was to be disappointed.
The headmaster's next words cut like steel through flesh.
"I imagine, Mr Arc, that not having an unlocked aura lends a different perspective – all weapons are dangerous to you, and Anra steel is nothing special in that respect."
! ! !
Jaune's heart leapt, and the shock choked him into silence.
The headmaster, his eyes now betraying a cold intensity, continued by saying,
"While I am somewhat impressed that a person without aura attempted – and passed – the entrance examinations, you must know that I cannot allow you to participate in initiation tomorrow. Without aura, you will most certainly die – and you know better than I that the only person who can unlock your aura is half the world away, and disinclined to help anyway."
That last sentence jolted Jaune. And as his initial shock gave away to a familiar, bone-deep resentment, Jaune was reminded of why he had even been put in this position; and yet also of how far he had come regardless; and of the truly desperate lengths he was willing to go to make his dream come true. His resentment animating him, he pushed back against Ozpin –
"With all due respect, headmaster, you're wrong – because under certain circumstances, a person can also unlock their own aura."
From behind his glasses, Ozpin's eyes bore into Jaune, all the while betraying not a single hint of the his thoughts. With a calm – almost detached – tone of voice, the headmaster replied,
"Yes, I understand what you intend. The risk is considerable nonetheless, and the political ramifications of letting a student die are not to be sneezed at. What benefits are there for Beacon and Vale, to outweigh such risks?"
The question was a reasonable one, and Jaune acknowledged that fact with a nod, before responding.
"The Arcs have always been top-tier huntsmen, with powerful semblances capable of besting dangerous enemies, or –"
Ozpin raised a hand, and the gesture stopped Jaune short. The headmaster shook his head, and sounded almost disappointed as he said,
"Anyone can fight, Mr Arc, and warriors are as commonplace as the grains of sand in the desert. What is one more person with a sword? Will that truly make a difference, or build a better world, or change the arc of history? It is thinkers that we need, and those, I fear, are in short supply."
For the second time that night, Jaune's heart leapt – but this time in pleasant surprise, rather than in distressed bewilderment – for now he knew what the headmaster's game was, and boy he was ready to play it.
"My mind is as sharp as my sword, sir, if you'll let me prove it to you."
A hint of a smile ghosted over the older man's face.
"By all means, Mr Arc, proceed."
Jaune cast his mind around for a relevant topic that would allow him the opportunity to impress, and soon enough settled on an appropriate subject. After taking a few moments to gather his thoughts, he launched into his explanation.
"Take the incoming student batch, sir. Beacon is highly competitive, with less than 20% of applicants getting accepted. A lot of those who didn't make the cut would have had excellent academic and combat grades no worse than what the successful applicants would have had. Who gets accepted and who gets rejected, therefore, must ultimately turn on other considerations – particularly political ones.
"The Schnee and the Belladonna I saw earlier today, for example – one the heir to the SDC, the other the daughter of the White Fang's founder. If they strike up a personal friendship, or at least a decent professional relationship, it'll allow you to execute a real public relations coup. By plastering the media with news of their relationship, you can help persuade both humans and faunus that even old enemies can become friends, and that trust and cooperation and peaceful progress is possible – no violent oppression or terrorism needed. All in all, this will weaken the hardliners in both Atlas and the White Fang, and might facilitate reform in the former and a movement back to peaceful protest in the latter."
Jaune took Ozpin's continued silence as an encouraging sign, and continued to give his analysis.
"Then you have Pyrrha Nikos, the champion from Mistral. Even eighty years after the Great War, there's still distrust between the nations, and Mistral uniformly rejects Valean and Atlesian offers of military support to root out the bandits and terrorists infesting the Mistralian badlands. However, if one day the person leading the Valean team and making the offer on behalf of Beacon is a famous and much-admired Mistralian native, then our help might well be accepted, and we'll have the foundation for a more permanent and lasting international huntsman taskforce."
Jaune took a few seconds to catch his breath.
"I'm forgetting something. Oh yes, Winchester. His family and mine have been killing each other since before the Great War, but studying together at Beacon might go some way in mending relations, and prevent the sort of infighting that almost lost Vale the war."
Jaune was well aware that much of his analysis bordered on the speculative – and while he was fairly confident that he was right about why the Belladonna had been allowed into the same intake as the Schnee, much of what he said of Nikos was little more than groundless conjecture.
Still, he judged that it didn't matter, since the point wasn't to be precisely right so much as to show Ozpin he had strong knowledge of the world – as well as the intellectual confidence and analytical ability to tease out the logical implications that others could not see.
And on that front –
Ozpin favoured him with the slightest, most imperceptible smile.
– and Jaune knew he had passed the test with flying colours.
The headmaster, of course, was more reserved.
"You have a keen mind, Mr Arc, and despite your flaw – shared with many other intelligent people, to be sure – of caring more about being clever than being right, I see much promise in you. I am therefore willing to let you attempt your mad plan for tomorrow. But, a word of warning, and I will never tell you anything truer than this –"
Ozpin rapped his cane on the ground for emphasis.
"Heroism will bring you naught but grief."
And with those parting words, the headmaster headed back to the school, his cane tapping the ground before him.
With clenched jaws, Jaune watched the headmaster leave. Well-intentioned or not, the headmaster's words had opened old wounds – and that way lay self-hate and self-pity and enough sorrow to drown cities.
With a monumental effort of will, Jaune forced his thoughts away from the darkness of the past, and began heading back to the school. It was late, and he had sleep to catch.
Jaune stopped by the locker room to store Crocea Mors, before making his way back to the ballroom. After a quick change of shirts, he settled down onto the thin mattress provided by the school, and pulled the accompanying blanket over him.
Sleep failed to come, and Jaune ended up spending most of the night staring into the ceiling, wishing – unsuccessfully – for sleep to take him.
So when dawn finally broke, it was in an exhausted and aggravated state that Jaune found himself in.
Washing up helped, somewhat, but then the annoyingly loud orange-haired girl barged into the male bathroom to flirt with her friend, and that further frayed Jaune's mood.
He considered skipping breakfast, but upon remembering that it could well be his last meal, headed to the dining hall. Loading up on the eggs and bacon and sausages, Jaune wolfed down a full, hearty breakfast, and tried to school his scattered mind into deadly focus.
By the time the students had assembled at the cliffs for the start of initiation, Jaune was almost feeling like himself again – which was well and good, given what he was about to do.
The headmaster was giving a short speech explaining the details of initiation, but it was all in-one-ear, and out-the-other for Jaune, focused as he was on what almost half a decade of planning had led up to.
A quirk of fate meant that an Arc's aura could only ever be unlocked by a family member. Not a problem, ordinarily, but with everyone else dead and his father refusing to support his career choice, that left Jaune with only one choice – do it as the ancients did, and unleash the power of the soul by looking death in the face.
His plan was beautiful in its simplicity, and elegant in its insanity.
Today, Jaune Arc would meet his high and lofty destiny, and become the hero he was always meant to be – or he would die, deservedly.
To his left, the launching sequence had already begun, and one by one students were being fired into the air, towards the vast, verdant Emerald Forest and all its lurking Grimm.
The scythe-wielding girl right beside him disappeared in a blur, and it was his turn next.
Jaune felt all his doubt and all his fears wash away, and what remained was –
! ! !
The launch pad under his feet exploded up and forwards, and Jaune found himself lifted up into the air –
Below him, the Emerald Forest passed in a blur of green, a hundred thousand trees melding together into a form indistinct.
And when the tugging feel in his gut signalled that he had reached the peak of the launch arc, and was about to fall...
Jaune spread his arms, as if to embrace eternity.
He fell –
– he was going to die –
– but he didn't want to die –
– he wanted to live –
And so his soul spoke, and thus the world listened.
Light burst forth, from everywhere and nowhere, from within and without, and from the triumph of hope over doubt.
A thunderous impact rocked the forest floor.
From amongst the shattered trees and dissolving Grimm, Jaune Arc rose to his feet, aura swirling around him like fire dancing on the wind.
Jaune Arc was going to be a hero – even if the price was corpses and widows.