Here's another chapter. I'm trying to get ahead, so that College Fool can get back to seeing these in advance, but ah, life is hard and work is plentiful.
Beta: College Fool
Cover Art: Dishwasher 1910
Book 3: Chapter 3
The people of Eldon were suspicious and untrusting folk. They stared at the two Heroes in their midst as though they were Grimm themselves, and as Ruby and I walked our horses through the wooden gates, villagers stared and whispered. None approached, however. "Friendly people," I whispered, tugging my new horse, Faith, along with a sigh. The mare tossed her head, but seemed keen to rest after the long ride.
"They don't look happy to see us," Ruby agreed, stepping a little closer. "You can… uh… can you do something?"
"Me? What do you want me to do?"
"I don't know. You're the Knight, not to mention you grew up among the Labour Caste. You're the best one to speak for us. Besides, that'll leave me to look after the horses," she added.
I had to curse, more because she'd caught me there and her impish smile said she knew it. Between a village of people that might bite my head off, and a horse that was almost certainly waiting for the right moment, I knew which I'd choose. "Fine…" I sighed and passed over the reins to Ruby, shooting a glare at the dumb beast. It didn't so much as twitch the moment Ruby had it. My attention came back to the villagers, who had now closed ranks around us. Whether they meant to or not, they'd blocked off our escape route, and I really didn't like the thought of that. "We're here to complete a Quest," I called. "We're from Beacon. Is there someone we can speak to about it?"
The crowd murmured and whispered between themselves. They were a sorry lot, I supposed. The village didn't seem nearly as prosperous as my home village, Ansel. The houses were mostly wood, but some were made from mud brick, and others were in clear disrepair. The wooden palisade walls were the only thing in good condition, and not without reason. Safety trumped all other concerns. That went doubly so when you were a few miles away from civilisation.
"Aye, you can talk to me," a thickset and burly man said. He pushed to the fore of the group, a stained apron on the front of his clothing, a metal ladle in hand. Did he intend to defend himself with it? "The name's Hal. I'm the mayor of Eldon, and the one who posed that Quest." He smiled, revealing a mouth full of stained teeth and a waft of bad air.
I had the weirdest desire to ask if his name was short for halitosis. Ruby might have died of embarrassment, though. "Nice to meet you," I lied. "My name is Jaune Arc, and this is my companion, Ruby Rose. We're here to complete the Quest."
"You two…?" Hal looked them both up and down. His sneer said he wasn't much impressed. "You won't see a bit of coin until the Grimm are dealt with."
He didn't trust us. To be fair, I couldn't blame him. We were kids to his eyes. "That's understandable. We wouldn't demand anything without providing results first." I offered him my best smile, and despite all odds, he seemed to relax a little. "We'd like to ask some questions about the Quest, though. Is there somewhere we can talk?"
"Aye. Forgive me my manners. It's been a difficult week." Hal looked out over the other villagers and waved his arm, dispersing them. "I run the inn around here, or what counts for one. You can stable your horses in the barn, and I'll provide a room and meal. It's all I can give, though. Grimm haven't made trading profitable around here, and I can't afford more."
A single room for the two of us? I opened my mouth to complain, but Ruby beat me to it.
"That's more than enough. We'll be okay."
We would? What the hell? Ruby didn't even notice my shocked look. She simply followed after Hal, trusting that I'd bring up the rear. Hal led us to a squat building barely larger than any other, but for the barn attached to the side, which dwarfed everything. It was filled with barrels and crates, likely the food supply for the whole village. It did have a few pens for livestock, and although Faith didn't look impressed by it, she allowed Ruby to stable her there. Ruby's horse, on the other hand, seemed placid to the point where I had to wonder if it was even alive. Why did I get the horse descended from Salem herself?
"Make yourself at home," Hal said as we entered the main building. A fire whimpered in a nearby pit, hardly large enough to warm the room, let alone the house itself. The inn, if one could call it that, had about five tables. They were all empty.
Ruby tried her hardest to look impressed. "It's nice…"
"It's shit," the man growled, making the Reaper wince. "Whole village has been like this since the Grimm set up nearby. We used to trade in fur and meat, but the caravans have been attacked. Doesn't take long before people learn not to come here, and the prosperity of the area soon went down. We don't have any farms, so you can look forward to a dinner of venison, followed by venison for breakfast and venison for lunch. If the situation doesn't improve, people are going to come down with plague."
That or whatever other nutritional illness might strike. I nodded to show I understood. It was more serious than I'd originally thought.
"Have there been any attacks on the village?" Ruby asked.
"None. The walls are strong, and I'm not letting that change – no trade or not." Hal puffed out his chest. "The younger lads, those not fit to work, act as lookouts."
"Have they seen any Grimm?"
"Not for the last four weeks or so. That's roughly about the time the attacks on the caravans started."
Ruby sent me a surprised look, but I didn't grasp the meaning. When she noticed, she sighed and turned back to Hal. "Don't you think that's odd, though? If Grimm attacks have been increasing, then there should be more around here."
"The attacks aren't that close," Hal said. "They usually happen on the main road here, about a kilometre or so out. I figure the fact the Grimm are being drawn over there is what's spared us the trouble. A small mercy at any rate…"
"I guess that would make sense," Ruby said. She looked to me. "We should probably check it out. You said the main road, right? Is that the one we took to get here?"
He nodded. "It is if you came by road. There's only the one."
"We'll take a look," I promised, knowing Ruby had a point. "Could you show us to our room? We'll drop some of our gear there. Will it be safe?"
"My lad will look after it," Hal promised. "Not like anyone could hide any stolen stuff in this village. Someone would notice." He stood and bade us follow him up the stairs, pushing open a flimsy door. The room was small and cramped, with a rickety bed in the centre with a straw mattress. The cover was threadbare, but neither of us bothered to complain. From someone who had so little, it was a generous gesture. "This is my boy, Oscar," Hal said, pushing what looked to be a twelve-year-old boy forward. He had a freckled face and dark hair.
"H-Hello," he waved. He looked to Ruby and blushed.
"Hi there," she giggled back. "Can you keep an eye on our things while we go and find the Grimm?"
"I will!" Oscar promised. "I'll take good care of them. Don't worry!"
I waited for them both to leave, and the door to shut, before I looked at Ruby. "I think he likes you," I said.
"What?" Ruby blinked, and then laughed. "Pft. Nah. I'm not the kind of girl boys like. Not when I have Yang around, anyway." She tossed one of her packs beside the bed, and sat down on it. Her wince spoke of how comfortable it wasn't. "So… uh… yeah," she said. "This is our room."
"I'll sleep on the floor." I offered. "I'm sorry we couldn't get two rooms."
"I think I might as well." She punched the mattress. It made a scrunching, straw-like sound. "I don't mind about having one room, though. We do the same in the Lodge at the moment." She looked around and smiled. "With just the two of us, we'll actually have more room than at the Lodge."
That was true, even if the Lodge was a damn sight nicer looking than this. With Velvet among us, that was eight people sleeping in a single room. I had a feeling there were several guys who looked at Ren and I with jealousy. Little did they realise just how little went on there. We slept on couches. The closest I came to a girl was if Yang turned over and slapped me in the face with her arm.
"What do you think we should do?" I asked.
Ruby looked surprised. "Huh?"
"Well, this is your Quest, right? You were worried Yang would try and do everything on her own, so I thought I'd let you decide what to do." A little bit of that, and a whole lot of me not having any idea also helped.
"Aren't you the Guild Leader, though? Shouldn't I be following your orders?"
"I'm only the leader because you wrote me down as it. Besides, it's like you said earlier, I'm better at talking with the Labour Caste, and you're better at looking after the horses." I grinned. "We each have different skills. Well, you grew up with Heroes, and I bet you know what to do here a lot more than I do. If you have an idea, I'll listen. It would probably be better than mine."
"You mean it?"
"Sure. Let's be honest, you know more about being a Hero than I do. I'll follow your lead." I laughed and hoped I didn't come across as too uncertain. It all cut off when Ruby leapt forward and wrapped her arms around my neck, however. What!?
"You're the best!" she whispered. "Thank you. Thank you!"
"Eh? What?" I staggered back a little, but it was more from the surprise. Ruby was too slight to actually knock me over. "It means that much to you?" I asked. "Did you want to be leader or something?"
"No, not that." She shook her head and stepped back, a huge smile on her face. "I just mean that we're a team. That we do things equally and we both have things we're good and bad at."
I still didn't understand. "As opposed to…?"
"Me being an add-on," Ruby said. "You doing everything on your own, and me just being a person in the background."
"Yang?" I asked, thinking I understood. Her nod confirmed it for me. Ah, the joys of having a protective sister. I couldn't blame the Brawler, but it was clear she'd taken her sisterly duties seriously.
"I love her, but I can't prove I'm worthy of being a Hero if she's always helping me out. I'm not a burden to you. You actually need me. Well," she laughed. "Maybe not need, but I can be useful."
Actually, no, I very much needed her. If this was a Grimm or two I'd be fine, but anything more and my Blacksmith heritage would shine through. Heck, if this were a fast Grimm, one I couldn't hit with my crappy Dexterity, then I'd be in trouble even if it was just the one. "We're a team," I said, "and right now, I've got no idea what to do other than go and have a look for the Grimm."
"We should do that," Ruby agreed. "Here. I got us a map before we left Beacon." She rushed over to her bags and pulled it out, unrolling the fabric and laying it down on the floor. I blinked and knelt down beside it. Wasn't this proof already of how much more prepared she was than me?
"Where are we?" I asked.
"Here." She pointed down to it, laying her scythe on one end of the map to stop it curling up. "There's only the one road like the man said. This is what we took to get here. We weren't attacked by Grimm, though."
"Do you think that's significant?"
"It might be…" Ruby shrugged. "I don't know. I thought it was weird that the Grimm didn't attack the village, but Hal wasn't wrong on them being drawn away. Grimm are drawn to negativity, so they'd probably stay around the areas the caravans were attacked in. As for them attacking us… we were moving pretty fast. Maybe we rushed by them."
"And a wagon or caravan would move slower," I realised.
"Yep." Ruby traced a finger down the winding road. With her leaning forward, her hair spilled over the map. Not that I complained. She had such a focused expression, a mixture of energy and determination. It was as shocking as it was amazing. "This section is where the road is only for Eldon. Before this, it could also be for one of the other villages nearby, and there's no sign of those being attacked. That means the Grimm must be between this point and Eldon itself."
"We didn't see any signs of attacked caravans." We'd have surely stopped if we had. "I guess the Grimm dragged them off the road?"
"Or chased them…" Ruby frowned. "It's not like anyone would stay still while they're being attacked."
"We need to travel back up the road." Ruby sighed and leaned back. "We should retrace our steps, but slower. Once we find the point where the caravans left the road, we'll know that's roughly where the Grimm are."
"Or is," I warned. "This could be a single powerful Grimm. You do remember our promise, right?"
She nodded. "If it's too much for us, we can back off," she said. "If we got past it on horseback, we'll be able to do it again. We'll just take them with us."
Great… just what I didn't want to hear. My rear end was still sore from the journey here, especially since I hadn't gotten the hang of that posting thing Ruby talked about. Basically, it was rising up out of the saddle in time with the horse's movement. When done right, it would stop the saddle crashing into my crotch every time Faith moved. When done wrong, as I'd quickly found out, it became a torture technique aimed at removing the chance for me to ever have children. Faith seemed particularly pleased to change her gait and rhythm every chance she could, just to spite me.
"Are you ready for some more riding practise?" Ruby asked with a happy grin.
My return smile was sickly by comparison.
"I think I see something," Ruby said. She brought her mare to a stop by pulling on the reins, slipping off its saddle with easy grace. She patted its side and tucked the reins into its bridle. "Stay here," she whispered to it. "Jaune, come on!"
"I'm coming, I'm coming." I didn't so much dismount as fall, but to my credit, I landed on my back instead of my face. It was a definite improvement. I tried to tuck the reins away, winced when Faith made to bite me, and then just left them hanging. "Run away," I whispered to it. "Please run away."
The mare snorted angrily.
I had a feeling it wouldn't now, if only to cause me more pain in the future. With one hand rubbing my back, I stumbled over to where Ruby was crouched by some bushes on the side of the road. "What is it?" I asked. "I don't see anything."
She looked a little shocked. "You don't?"
I tried to look at the bushes in front of her, but there didn't seem anything particularly out of place. They were blackberry, I thought, which was to say they could have been anything. I was hardly a Herbalist, so it was the closest I was getting. "What am I looking for?"
"Here." Ruby reached out to touch a twig. It was cracked and hung loose, several threads of fibre keeping it locked onto the main plant. "Someone passed by this," she said. "They pushed through the bush and broke the branch."
"Couldn't it just be an animal?"
"Animals don't push through bushes when there's a clear patch next to them. They usually take the easiest route. If they were startled, maybe, but even then, there's a chance of getting stuck in the bush and eaten by whatever you're running from." She stepped into it, turning sideways to fit through. "Here, look. There's more. Someone came through here. It couldn't have been a Grimm."
"Too small…" Ruby held her arms out, touching branches on either side. "I don't think a Grimm could fit through here."
I sighed and followed, wincing as sharp barbs pricked against what little skin was available past my armour. I was broader than Ruby, and apparently whatever caused this as well. Once I'd gotten through, the damage was much more apparent. I'd broken twigs all over the place, and left a clearly visible path through the bushes. "I didn't realise you knew how to track things," I said.
"I don't. Not like Nora does, anyway. Dad showed me how to read the lance a few times, though. He said it might come in handy if I was ever lost in the wilderness."
Huh, I guess that was the difference between a Hero's upbringing and one like mine. My parents hadn't ever expected me to get lost, mostly because they assumed I'd be in Ansel my whole life. Or that if I moved, it would be to another, equally well-protected town or village. "What's so unusual about this?" I asked. "Maybe someone just walked through the bush."
"Where to? The closest village is Eldon, and this is pretty far away from it." Ruby poked deeper, holding her scythe above her head so it didn't get caught on anything. I followed with a sigh. "It could have been one of the traders," she said. "Maybe they needed to relieve themselves. If it was that, we'd see a discarded cart, though."
"What kind of idiot would push into an unknown forest for that?" I asked. "It's like asking the Grimm to take you."
Ruby nodded. "Yep. That's what makes it weird. If it's so stupid, why is it here?"
I couldn't argue with that. It would be the easy thing to do to assume whoever caused this was an idiot, but that was also lazy. No one was so lackadaisical with their own life, and people were going missing. I kept quiet and followed, trusting Ruby to lead me.
Her intuition proved correct. "I see something," she hissed. "Get down."
I did so, cursing my armour a moment later for all the noise it made. Ruby heard it too and winced, but fortunately, there was no movement ahead. I didn't dare speak. Had she seen a Grimm? How many were there?
"I… I think it's clear."
"Ruby, wait!" I reached out to try and snag her arm as she stood, but she was already out of my reach. It was all I could do to stand and follow, and then to gasp at what lay before us.
Well… we'd found one of the trade caravans.
It was upturned and clearly wrecked. It looked like something that had been pulled by one or two horses, but those were nowhere to be seen, likely having fled or been eaten by the Grimm. Of the driver, I had to assume the same sorry fate. It was half-buried in the mud, some vegetation already claiming it.
"How did we not see the tracks of this leaving the road?" I asked.
"It must have been one of the early ones." Ruby stepped carefully over to it, running a hand across the rotted wood. "If it was two, maybe three weeks old, then the foliage could have grown back."
"It looks like something spooked it off the road," I said. While I was no expert on woodwork, I knew enough to glean some little information from it. Dad had worked on fittings for wagons before, and brought me along to learn some valuable lessons. "The axle snapped," I said, knelt down beside it. "The wheel must have hit a pothole, or just a knoll. It kicked up and snapped off." I pointed to the left, Ruby following my gaze to see the top half of a wooden wheel some ten feet away. "The driver would have lost control at that point, and since it's the left wheel, it would have toppled in that direction."
Ruby stared at me. "You could figure all that out from this?" She smiled. "That's pretty impressive."
"Ah… just some things my Dad taught me." I realised the similarity instantly, that we'd both used something taught to us by our fathers and on the same task no less. Mine still didn't feel as impressive as Ruby's, but maybe I'd been wrong. "There's no driver." I said. "If he survived, he'd have limped off and… well…"
"Yeah…" Ruby grimaced. "I… I think we don't need to try and find him. If this was a few weeks ago, he's already…"
I nodded. It wasn't something worth thinking about, let alone seeing.
"I guess this is the spot where the Grimm hunts… or hunted." I leaned back with a sigh. "It doesn't seem to be in the area now, though." My eyes ran across the woodwork. There didn't seem to be any tell-tale signs of what could have caused this. There were several deep indents, though. Almost like teeth marks. "Do you want to camp out here for a bit and try to find it?"
"I don't think it'll make a difference," Ruby said. She was down on the other side of it, one arm reaching underneath the wagon. Her eyes were narrowed, brows drawn together.
"Why not?" I asked. "What's wrong?"
"We're not looking for a Grimm," Ruby said. Whatever she was after, she found it, for she grunted and tugged back suddenly. It looked like she was having trouble, but by the time I'd moved over, she fell back with a startled gasp. There was a loud thunk as something was drawn from the wood. Ruby held it up before her. It was an arrowhead, curved and barbed, with the shaft snapped off.
Grimm didn't fire bows.
"Great," I sighed, and threw my arms in the air. "This is exactly what we needed."
"Jaune, we can't just leave them!"
My eyes clenched shut, breath coming out in a loud sigh. How many times had she said that now? It was all I heard on the way back to Eldon from the ruins of the carriage. Ruby was insistent we continue on and try to solve the issue. I was too. I wanted to help these people. They clearly needed it. The difference between us, however, was that I was more realistic. "We made a promise, Ruby. This isn't Grimm, and we've got no idea what it is we're dealing with. What if there are a hundred of them? What if they're Heroes themselves?"
"Then they would have attacked us when we came here." Ruby hopped off her horse and put it back in the barn, while Faith tossed me off. Ruby hardly noticed, taking her too and stabling her. "We got through without seeing any action at all. That means they didn't want to attack two Heroes. They knew they couldn't beat us."
"Or they didn't see us," I countered. "Or they decided it wasn't worth the risk, or a hundred other things which don't exactly increase our chances."
"So what, you just want to leave them to suffer?"
"No! I want to go back and tell Beacon. They'll make a bigger Quest, they'll send people to help."
"Eldon can't pay for a bigger Quest," Ruby said, voice raised. "Haven't you seen how poor they are? This won't ever stop, and people will start to get sick and die. They can't even send for medicine since that would be attacked too."
"I know. It's…" I sighed, unable to find the right words. This burned away at me too. How could it not? This could have just as easily been Ansel. It could have been happening to my family. "It's just the two of us. What can we do?"
"We won't know until we try."
"And if we fail?" I snapped. "What happens then? What happens if you get killed? Do I get to go home and tell your sister? Do I get to live with the knowledge I let you kill yourself?"
"No!" Ruby growled. "We just have to live with the knowledge we let these people die!"
I slammed a fist against a nearby barrel. "It's not that simple, Ruby!"
"It is to me! These people need help. I'm going to give it." She pushed past me, eyes firm. As she did, she whispered, "And I'll do it alone if I have to."
She didn't stop.
My eyes hardened. "Damn it, Ruby. Stop and listen to me!"
She didn't. Ruby refused to even look back, slamming the barn door shut behind her and storming into the inn. That left me alone, apart from two horses, one of which looked like it was trying to figure out the best way to strangle me with a pair of hooves.
"Damn it, Ruby," I growled. She was so stubborn. I could have followed her, but I knew what that would lead to. I wasn't in the mood for an argument. Or rather, I was in the mood, and that was the problem. My temper raged, my hands twitching as I brushed my hair back and sighed. On a whim, I pulled out the stone from Atlas. It was worth a shot. "Yang Xiao-Long."
"Weiss Schnee. Pyrrha Nikos." I sighed. "Blake Belladonna?"
The range was too far. No one came through. Part of me considered taking Ruby's horse and riding back to Beacon, if only to fetch help in the form of one of the others. They would all be on their own Quests, though. Who else would I ask to help me? Blake might, if I could find her, but if I vanished, there was no telling what Ruby would do. She'd probably storm out into the forest on her own.
The weight of that bore down on me. I couldn't leave Eldon. Not when I knew it would mean leaving her alone.
I pushed out of the barn and away. I didn't go to the inn. She'd claimed that, and like the petulant man I was, I wasn't going to go anywhere near it until this had blown down a little bit. Instead, I wandered around Eldon.
It took ten minutes for me to complete a full circle. The place was that small. I repeated it, taking the time to stroll and look at everything about the small place. It was circular in nature, with the wooden palisade only being eight to ten feet tall. There was a central watchtower in the middle of the village, a ramshackle thing I wouldn't have felt comfortable climbing. Nonetheless, I could see four people atop it, each looking in one of the four cardinal directions. They took security seriously. That was good to see.
It was just a shame how run down the place was. People moved around with a lack of energy, and I couldn't help but imagine it a consequence of eating a limited variety of food for weeks on end. I'd heard tales of hunters who died because they ate nothing but rabbit. While nutritious on its own, the body needed vitamins and minerals it could only get from other sources of food.
A noise drew my attention to the northern edge of the village, or just outside of it in fact. The gate was open, a guard on either side ready to close it if the alarm was called. They looked in my direction, but didn't speak. In truth, they weren't even real fighters, members of the Solider Caste, that was. There was a Tanner and a Chef, but both wore leather armour and held spears in their hands. A rough and ready militia, if I had to hazard a guess.
The sound of something striking wood drew me beyond them, however. Not too far. Not in such dangerous land. It was less than fifty metres or so from the wall, but several straw bale targets had been set up. Oscar stood fifty or so paces away, letting out a little grunt as he released his bowstring.
An arrow thudded into the bale, at roughly centre-mass.
"Not bad," I said.
He jumped. Dropping the bow, and then catching it frantically before it could hit the ground. When he did that, however, he bent over, and all his arrows spilled out. "Ah! No!" He began to gather them, cringing when I knelt down to help. "I'm sorry about that, sir," he said. "I didn't mean to make you get muddy."
"It's fine, Oscar." I patted his head with a smile. "It was my fault to begin with. What are you doing?"
"Practising my archery," he stated proudly, puffing out his chest a little. "I'm… well, I'm not very good. I'll get there, though. Dad says I'm at about the level he was when he was my age."
"Hal?" I asked, getting a hum and a nod from the boy. "Isn't he an Innkeeper, though?" Oscar was a Farmer by comparison, which I had to assume came from his mother. "Why are you learning the bow if you're a farmer? If you don't mine me asking, that is."
Oscar didn't seem upset. "There aren't any farms for me to tend," he said. "Eldon mostly works with the meat trade. There are loads of deer around here, and hundreds gather each year to mate. We could leave it to just Hunters to hunt them, but there aren't enough of those around." He shrugged. "Every child in Eldon learns to use a bow to chip in. It's what keeps the village going. Doesn't hurt if the Grimm attack, either."
"You've fought Grimm?" I asked, a little shocked. "You can't be any older than twelve…"
"Thirteen, actually." He managed to sound offended, as all children did when someone got their age wrong. "I didn't really fight them. I just shot my bow over the walls while the adults kept them back. It was a year ago anyway, and barely anyone was hurt. I didn't even get a scratch."
I nodded, honestly a little impressed with his bravery. It made sense for the village, though. If they relied on meat as much as they said, then having more people capable of hunting – even if they weren't actually Hunters, could only help. As for the Grimm… well, the people here probably knew best. If kids wanted to safely fire from that tower, that was their choice. At least they weren't in danger.
"Sir… can I ask where Ruby is?"
"She's at the inn." Jaune shrugged and motioned behind him, not really wanting to think about her at the moment. "You say Hal taught you to shoot?"
"Not just him. We, the younger ones, would be taught in groups. Sometimes we'd have the best hunters teach us, and sometimes we'd have competitions. Everyone got a little extra from their own family, though." Oscar sighed. "The classes don't really happen anymore."
Jaune frowned, "Why not?"
"Not enough of us who need them. You probably didn't notice, but there aren't many teenagers here at the moment, at least those who don't already know how to shoot. There are plenty of younger ones, but I'm kind of stuck in the middle." Oscar didn't look like he appreciated that. It probably explained why he'd been so quick to take an interest in Ruby.
One thing confused me, however. "I thought you said there used to be classes, though. Were you with older people who didn't need them anymore? What changed?"
"There were a few older kids. They were mostly sixteen to eighteen or so, about six or seven of them. They left for Vale a month or so back. Said they were sick of living in a backwards place like this, and wanted to leave a mark on the world." Oscar shrugged. "That left just me in the class, so they cancelled it. I've been practising on my own ever since. It's not all bad," he added with a smile. "Sometimes the others take turns giving me tips, and Dad always helps when he's not busy and I need it." He picked up his bow and nocked another arrow, sending it into the target with only a second's pause. "See," he said, smiling at me. "I can still hit a target."
"You're good," I said honestly. Probably not at the level of Coco, since I'd personally seen her fire arrows through Grimm. Oscar wasn't a Hero, though. Even though I was the same as him, there was no denying he'd never be Coco Adel. He wouldn't have the right Stat distribution, and wouldn't learn any Skills to help him.
Neither would I, really.
"You're lucky to be honest," Oscar said. "I wish I could be like you."
Like me? The idea was so crazy I leaned back. "Huh? What do you mean?"
"You're a Hero," Oscar said. "You get to go to Beacon, make your own choices in life, and do whatever you want. You're not stuck in a place like this. I guess I'm jealous."
Even though Oscar was being deadly serious, I couldn't help but feel amused. We were closer than he realised. I wished I could tell him, but the risk was too great. Instead, I placed a hand on his shoulder. "You shouldn't let that stop you, you know?" I said. He looked up, and I did my best to smile confidently. "Look at you now. You're a Farmer, yet you can shoot a bow as good as any Hunter. You don't plough a field, and I doubt you ever will."
"Yeah, but if I want to make it as a Hunter, I'll never be able to compete with a real one. They can sense animals nearby, spot tracks at a glance, be almost invisible when approaching them…"
"And you can do the same with enough training. Sure, it'll take more effort. They'll always have the advantage, but you can still do it. You can be whatever you want to be. It's just going to be a little harder. That's all." I shook his shoulder and laughed. "Is a Hunter what you want to be?"
Oscar shook his head. "I wanted to be a Hero," he said, "but I can't do that. I thought it might be cool if I could be a soldier instead and travel the world. I figure if I got good enough with a bow, I could become a caravan guard. It's not like there's a Class for it, so anyone can be one as long as they're good enough." He grinned. "It would let me travel across Remnant, and I hear some guards form teams that stick together for years. I'd be able to make real friends with them."
And risk his life each and every time a Grimm attacked. Then again, who was I to stop him if that was his dream? I was doing the exact same thing.
"Then go for it," I said. "If that's what you want, you'll need to work hard at it, but don't stop. Show a potential employer how well you can shoot, and practice on moving targets. You might be shooting at Grimm, after all."
"How is it?" he asked. "Fighting Grimm, I mean? I wasn't ever in danger when I did it before…"
"They're like any other animal, just more vicious. A good arrow will put them down. I've seen proof of that. A good bow wouldn't hurt, either. That one…"
"It's a Hunter's bow," Oscar nodded. "I know. I'd need a proper weapon if I wanted to be a guard. I can sell meat until then, though." His eyes lit up. "I can make it work. I know I can!" He stowed his bow behind him, and turned to face me with a wide smile. "Thanks for saying I can. I guess I needed that. If a real Hero thinks I can make it, who am I to argue?" Oscar hesitated, but soon rushed in and gave me a big hug. "It's not just because of your Class that I'm jealous," he whispered, cheeks a little red. "I was also jealous because you have someone like Ruby too. She's really beautiful. You're a lucky guy!" He broke off and fled at that, back into the village walls.
I blinked and watched him go, wondering what he meant. I was lucky to have Ruby? What did he… oh no, oh no, no, no. "Oi," I called, "Don't misunderstand. We're not…"
He was gone.
My cheeks flushed as I shook my head and rubbed a hand through my hair. What a crazy idea. I guess he just saw the two of us together, a guy and a girl, and made up his own mind. The thought was so insane, I couldn't help but laugh. The two of us weren't like that. Ruby was more like a close friend. I doubted she saw me that way. I sure as hell hadn't ever looked at her like that either. Plus, we were still fighting – and not a lover's tiff either.
Speaking of which, I needed to go back and sort that out… preferably before Ruby ran out to face those bandits on her own. I sighed and stood up from the fallen log I'd sat down on. As I walked towards the gates, the target Oscar had been shooting at caught my eye. It wasn't human-shaped like the ones back at Beacon. It would have been a bit weird for kids here to practice on that. Instead, it was shaped like a deer, except made from baled hay.
I stepped closer, gripping one of the arrows behind the head and pulling it out. The straw yielded easily, the arrow coming out in one piece.
It was curved and barbed… the better to ensure an animal bled to death. A hunter's arrow, instead of a broad head from one designed to punch through armour. It made sense for Oscar to use one like this. I'd forged enough back home.
It didn't make sense for a bandit to use one just like it.
I had to tell Ruby. I kept hold of the arrow, pushing through the gates and rushing toward the inn. Hal was in there, along with a few other guests now, but I paid them no attention, taking the steps two at a time. Our room was at the end of the hall, and I didn't even think to wonder if Ruby would still be angry as I pushed it open.
"Ruby, I found-"
Ruby paused, looking back at me. I did the same, staring at her. My eyes roamed a little lower. Wow. I'd never actually noticed how nice of a figure she had. Her clothes hid it well, but she was actually quite curvy, with smooth skin and a toned stomach. Her hands held her pyjama top, which she was in the process of pulling down. Her pyjama bottoms lay on the bed nearby, and but for her underwear, she was completely naked.
On an unrelated note, my mouth was incredibly dry. I swallowed and licked my lips, then instantly regretted it.
"J-Jaune!" Ruby shrieked, covering herself with both arms.
"I'm sorry!" I yelled, stepping out and slamming the door shut. I also pressed my back against it. My heart hammered in my chest, but that was the least of my problems. Don't think about it, I told myself. My mind decided to resist, however, and promptly brought up the image of Ruby's pale legs, her black underwear, the gentle swell of her breasts, which actually were a lot less small than I'd thought. They were actually quite nice- No! Bad mind!
With a groan, I pressed a hand into my face. This… this was not how I'd expected the day to go. I took a deep breath and let it go, and then took several more in quick succession. Behind me, I could hear Ruby shuffling about, and my imagination was only all too happy to fill in the blanks of what she was doing.
"You can come in now," Ruby called. "I'm… I'm dressed."
Right… what was I doing again? My mind was still in its happy place, my lower body responding in a manner it deemed appropriate, but I really didn't. I slapped myself in the face, and almost killed myself with the arrow still in my hand. Oh yeah. That.
"Ahem," I coughed as I inched the door open. "I'm sorry about that. Is it safe to come in?"
When I opened the door fully, it was to reveal Ruby dressed in her night clothes, a thin cotton top that hung from two straps on her shoulders, and some beige trousers, loose and baggy. I'd seen her in them a thousand times before, but I'd never really noticed how bare her shoulders were, or how gently the slope of her neck met them. They were pale, her skin, that was. At least, it was pale. Right now it was getting darker.
And I was staring...
And she'd caught me...
"S-So," I said, glancing away, and trying my hardest not to see anything I shouldn't. "I really should have knocked back there. That was my fault."
Ruby smiled and shrugged. "It's fine. I uh… I thought you'd be a little longer. I know you didn't mean to do it."
I hadn't, but that didn't really explain my actions a second ago, did it? It was hard to keep my eyes off her, and that only made the situation worse, since I was supposed to be talking to her, and how could one do that without eye contact? I sighed and locked my eyes onto hers, then winced when I noticed how flushed her cheeks were.
Oh God, if Yang heard about this…
"What's that in your hand?" Ruby asked.
"Huh?" Oh right, the arrow. "It's an arrow," I said.
Brain, please. Don't let me down now! I shook my head. "It's an arrow used by the people of Eldon," I said, "by the Hunters of Eldon when they're off hunting deer and other animals." I tossed it on the floor, coincidentally next to the one Ruby had dragged out of the caravan earlier.
Her eyes widened.
"I think I've found our culprits," I said. "Several teenagers left a month or two ago, which just so happens to be about the time the attacks happened. They were trained in archery, but not exactly to a master's level."
"Enough to drive a caravan off the road and kill a defenceless man, though," Ruby finished for me. "That's why the Grimm never attacked Eldon. That's why they didn't attack us. They knew a bunch of amateur hunters wouldn't be enough to kill two Heroes."
That was my guess as well. I crossed my arms and nodded.
Ruby's eyes were wide and pleading as she looked into mine. "Does that mean we're going to stay?" she whispered. "We're going to help them, right? If it's not Grimm or Soldier Caste deserters, then we would be more than enough. We can do this, Jaune!"
We could… but I still wasn't sure. An arrow was an arrow, no matter who fired it. Oscar had as good as shown me these guys could hit a target, and if they were older than him, I could only assume they were better too. I was in full armour apart from my face. I also had a shield. I'd be fine.
Ruby might not. She was fast, though… incredibly fast.
"Please," she begged, hands held before her. "I have a plan, but I need you, Jaune. Please…"
No. That would be the correct response. I knew that. But as Ruby looked up at me pleadingly, eyes shining, and as she leaned forward, I couldn't find the right words. I should probably have also thought of the villagers and Oscar who'd suffer without our intervention, but in all honesty, they didn't even cross my mind.
I sighed. I was defeated. I already knew it.
"Yes! Thank you!" Ruby yelled, not even giving me the chance to say anything. She rushed over and latched onto me, arms wrapped around my waist. Mine settled on the small of her back, and then jumped off as though burned. Her top had ridden up and I'd touched skin. I had no idea where to place them after that, and they hovered uselessly behind her. Ruby barely noticed. "We'll save them, Jaune. You'll see. We're strong enough to do this. We've both grown since Atlas. We're not the people we were back in that Dungeon. I'll prove it."
"We're not," I agreed, sighing in relief – and also a little regret – when she let go. There was no denying her point. We were both of us older, and in a sense that didn't mean time spent on Remnant. Still, against a bunch of home-trained teens with bows? I was confident we could handle them. "Tell me about this plan of yours," I said, laying my sleeping bag down on the floor. "I've got a feeling I won't like it, but I've got nothing."
Ruby knelt on the bed and grinned.
"Well, it goes like this…"
I was right. I didn't like it.
Well, here we have the first part of Ruby and Jaune's mission to Eldon. And behold, a cameo from Oscar, who totally didn't make it as a Lumberjack, despite his last name begging for it. Well, that or a Carpenter.
Jaune also cops an eyeful, unlocking an achievement and earning many, many points. Hm, maybe he should earn some notoriety too, since he took that arrow from the target. If I remember my time in RPGs, that always seemed to be a criminal offence, even if the bastard wanders off and leaves them there.
Also, le gasp – it was not an easy Quest with Grimm. Who could have possibly expected this startling development? What twisted paths this author weaves.
Next Chapter: 19th June
P a treon . com (slash) Coeur