Here is the next chapter of Forged Destiny.


Beta: College Fool

Cover Art: Dishwasher1910

Book 4: Chapter 3


"And that is why, from this point on, all Quests will be limited to groups of five or more. The situation with these insurgents, the Greycloaks, is too dangerous for you to risk your lives with any less. Should you meet with such individuals, my advice is to retreat in an orderly fashion and report your findings to the nearest village, town, or authority figure. Thank you for listening." Ozpin bowed his head. "Together we shall rise above this threat. Together we shall outlast it. I ask all of you not to panic, but rather to calmly assess the situation and look after your fellow Heroes. That is all."

There was a crowded muffle of chatter and conversation as the Sage made his way off the stage, the very same one he'd stood upon when he'd told us about the First Quest, our initiation into Beacon itself. Now, the room was less crowded – though only because this was the first and second years. We'd all been given allocated times for this emergency seminar, and I knew from the older students milling around outside that they'd been told the same.

"Come on," Ren whispered, tugging my arm. "Let's get out before this turns into a stampede." He nodded to the rest of our Guild, who were already slipping off towards the entrance. We followed suit, and it wasn't until we were outside and out of the way that it felt safe to speak.

"Do you think this is because of what happened to Ren?" Yang asked. "The timing seems a bit convenient."

"I'm sure it's more an array of things," Weiss said. "You heard what happened to Cardin and his friends. This was a long time coming. It won't really make a difference to us."

"True," I said. "Our Guild is big enough to ignore the size restriction. We can send eight on every Quest if we wanted to. I wonder what it'll mean for loners, though."

"Probably that they'll have to ditch that tendency. I'm sure the teachers will think of a team-making system for anyone who hasn't completed their Annual Quest yet." Weiss pushed some hair back behind her shoulder and looked to the auditorium we'd just left. "They'd best hurry up though. There's only a few months left until the year is over."

Weiss' words had me humming in agreement, even as I considered that fact. A year, huh. A whole year. It was strange to think so much time had passed, yet also not strange at all. In less than twelve months I'd travelled to Atlas, fought a huge monster, come back again and ousted a dangerous criminal – fighting another dangerous monster in the form of a Paladin to boot. That was a bit much, even for me. I'd dreamt of being a Hero when I was younger, but even I'd expected a little more time between adventures.

"What happens to those who don't complete their Annual Quests?" I asked. "Are they kicked out?"

It was Ruby who answered, leaning on her scythe. "They're not kicked out, Jaune. There aren't enough Heroes around to be losing them. I think they have to do the year again, and that repeats until they either pass or give up."

"They have to repeat the First Quest," Pyrrha added, "but the fact they did so the first time probably means they'll complete it again. In theory, one could stay in Beacon indefinitely, though I'm sure at some point the headmaster would have something to say."

"If he wasn't distracted by the Greycloaks. I wonder if that's how Roman stayed in Beacon so long. He was definitely more than three years older than us."

"He was a fourth year," Weiss said. "Same as Coco. But you're right; he failed to graduate twice in a row, locking himself into that position." The Mage sighed. "At the time, I thought that was his failure, but I guess he did it on purpose."

"When did you find this out?" Yang asked.

"Early on – I did some research on him. It never seemed important enough to share since it wouldn't have helped." Weiss waved the issue away. "Either way, Torchwick is gone and I'd rather not talk about him if I can help it."

"How about we talk about ourselves instead?" Nora suggested. "Like, what are we going to do before the year ends? Shouldn't we have an adventure?"

"On top of all the others?" Yang groused. "I think I'm all adventured out, thanks."

"Me, too," Ren agreed. "If I might make a suggestion, how does `nothing` sound?"

Nora didn't seem to like it too much, but the others weren't quite so against the idea. Weiss and Pyrrha perked up, while Yang threw an arm around Ruby's shoulders and grinned. "Nothing?" she asked. "I like the sound of this. Tell me more."

"Well, we've completed our Annual Quest, not to mention thanks to our tussle with Roman, we have free lodge and rent. We only need enough lien for food and supplies, both of which can be gathered from simple farming in the Emerald Forest. We could just wait these last few months out."

"Wait the Greycloaks out, too," Yang added. "Me likey. What do you think, Rubes?"

"I wouldn't say no…" The Reaper flushed when everyone turned to stare at her, not that we couldn't be excused. To hear Ruby of all people suggesting they shouldn't go out and hunt the bad guys down? That was weird. "I-It's not like it's that weird," she whined. "Even I get tired of being beaten up all the time. I'd like a month where I'm not smashed against a wall, crushed or nearly cut in two. Besides, it's not like it'll be boring. We can go Grimm hunting together in the forest."

Nora sighed. "I guess…"

"And Ren won't get stabbed again."

"True," the Barbarian allowed, watching her friend with a wary eye. "Oh, fine. I give. You all suck, though!"

The others laughed, while I turned to Blake, who had remained as silent as she normally did. Her eyes were alert, however, and she quickly caught my gaze. "What about you?" I asked.

"Doesn't that go without saying? I'm the one who's tried my best to keep you from running into danger. Some rest and relaxation sounds nice."

"Well," Weiss said, a slow smile taking over her face. "I think that's a majority vote right there. I, for one, think that- Oh, Miss Goodwitch." Weiss' sudden change had us all turning in her direction, in time to see the Warlock, Glynda Goodwitch, approaching. My first instinct was to check for a scowl – the first sign we were in trouble – but today, the woman wore nothing more than a small frown. That was her default `not about to bust your ass` expression.

"Miss Schnee," the greeted with a polite nod. "And the rest of the Hunter's Guild. That's convenient."

It was? I looked around for answers, but everyone looked just as confused.

"The Headmaster wishes to speak with you. While I am not used to the role of the messenger, the matter is of some importance." Enough so as to warrant her presence, and presumably enough so that she wasn't going to leave us alone in case we ignored it. "If you'll all follow me, we can have this sorted out easily enough."

"All of us?" I asked.

"It involves you all, so yes."

"I didn't punch the guy that hard!" Yang complained. "Whatever he's telling you, he's lying. He totally deserved it, too!"

"What guy?" Glynda asked, one eyebrow raised dangerously.

"E-Eh, nothing. Forget I spoke."

"Hm…" The Warlock's expression said she hadn't, and wouldn't. Whatever Ozpin had for us, however, was more important. "You're none of you in trouble," she said. "At least not yet," she added with a glance at Yang. "The headmaster can explain better. If there are to be no more interruptions, we can continue on."

Her voice made it clear the choice wasn't ours, and I nodded my head and fell in behind her. The others wisely did the same. If we weren't in trouble, then I wasn't sure what it could be about. Ren was just out of the healing houses, but he'd told me Ozpin had already as good as interrogated him for everything he knew about the Greycloaks.

My gut was warning me it wouldn't be good. I could only hope it was wrong.

/-/

The last time we'd met personally with Ozpin, it had been in his office, but Glynda led us to a staffroom instead – one I'd never personally entered, and judging from the awed looks from everyone else, they hadn't either. It was a large, rectangular room with an array of plush, leather sofas and settees. Fine rugs and animal skins were lain about on the floor, or pinned to walls, and a fire roared lazily in a stone heart off to one side, basking the room in a gentle, orange glow. Cabinets and the like housed knickknacks off by one wall, while several bottles were stacked in a rack behind what looked to be an honest-to-goodness bar.

"What the hell," Yang whispered. "Where do I sign up to be a teacher?"

"At Beacon," Glynda said, overhearing her. "You need to be a Hero of at least fifteen years of Service, with a Level requirement of at least Sixty, no criminal record, no outstanding bounties, and distinguished achievements. You must also pass an aptitude test, intelligence test and show marked expertise in the field you are being hired for. If you are interested, I will see you in fifteen to twenty years' time, Miss Xiao-Long."

The Brawler blushed and looked away, chuckling under her breath. The list of demands was impressive, though I supposed it wasn't anything more or less than what I'd expected. Be a Hero, be a Hero for a long time, don't break the law and be smart and strong enough to teach.

It was certainly harder than being a Blacksmith, for instance, which came down to a) be a Blacksmith, and b) start smithing.

Headmaster Ozpin was stood by a window, much like he often did in his office, except that this time the mug in his hand was replaced with a glass of what I felt confident in saying was alcohol. Well, it was late in the afternoon. He turned upon hearing our approach, and gestured to the assembled settees before him.

"Ah, you're here. Thank you for coming on such short notice, and thank you for bringing them, Glynda. I know you have other things you'd rather be doing."

"Rather is a strong word, Ozpin. I have many things I should and must be doing, but thousands more I'd prefer to." She declined the offer to sit, even as we accepted it and spread out nervously. "If I may be excused, there is paperwork to attend to."

"You may, Glynda. Thank you again." Ozpin smiled to the Warlock, who bowed her head and turned on the spot, her purple cape flickering behind her as she strode away. Once the door was shut, and we were alone, he turned back to us. "You must all be wondering why it is I've asked you to meet with me, and here of all places."

The thought had crossed my mind. I could sense a rhetorical question when I heard it though, and kept my mouth shut. Ozpin pushed some glasses around the table, but to Yang's disappointment, and Ruby's clear relief, he only offered us water.

"It's rare for students to enter the staffrooms here," Ozpin continued once we were all settled down. "The faculty have their own facilities for use, and I have my office. I thought this might be better suited in a less formal setting. I have… something of a request for you all."

"A request?" Ruby asked.

Ren frowned. "Do you mean a job? You have something you need us to do."

"It is a request," Ozpin repeated. "I will assure you now that this is your choice, and yours alone. Should you decide against it, you will not be penalised in any way, and I will simply have to find others who are more willing."

A nervous anticipation took over me, and I looked around the table to see what everyone else was thinking. There wasn't a smile among them, but they didn't look as nervous as I. Maybe they hid it better.

"Allow me to explain the situation fully, and then I'll answer any questions you might have." Ozpin reached behind him and pulled out a scroll, spreading it across the table. One edge uncurled in front of me, and I quickly put my mug on it to hold it down. Ozpin nodded his thanks and did the same on his end, revealing a detailed map of Remnant. He started to put coins onto it, and there had to be at least twenty on Vytal alone, many of them spread closely around Vale. "These represent known Greycloak attacks in the last two months. There have been many more sightings, as it seems even they need to stop for supplies every now and then. NPC's have been mostly unwilling to challenge them, and for good reason, but when Heroes and Soldiers have tried to arrest them, the battles always last until death. We are, as of yet, still completely unaware of what their goals are, let alone their organisational structure and demands."

"They've not made any?" Weiss asked.

"None."

"What's the point of all this, then? Nothing is going to change if they don't push their agenda."

"Our thoughts exactly. If we could communicate with them, we might be able to deal with this diplomatically, though given what they've done recently, that is almost certainly off the table. Regardless, as you can see, the Greycloaks are active around Vale. What you may not have realised is this." Ozpin brought some more coins and started to lay them on the map. A picture slowly unfolded, of Greycloaks not only in Vale, but in Atlas and Mistral, too. There were even two coins in Vacuo.

"They're everywhere," Pyrrha whispered, shocked. "They're in all the Kingdoms…"

"Perhaps even further," Ozpin amended. "I am only aware of specific cases within the major Kingdoms. It's possible the true scope may be hidden from me, and that they are to be found even in the quieter parts of the world where such information would not reach me. The point of this was not to frighten you, rather to let you understand the true scope of the issue. It is very much an international affair. And that," he said, tapping the map, "is our problem."

Ozpin brought out six coins and placed them not in Vale or Mistral, but rather on the ocean between them. The straight between the two Kingdoms.

"The Greycloaks ran several ships against merchant and transport vessels in this straight," he said. "Hundreds of people were taken or killed, enough so that the Kingdoms could not stand idly by. Mistral dispatched its navy, as did Vale, and together they hunted down and crushed the Greycloak ships."

"So, what's the problem?" Yang asked. "Sounds like it's sorted."

"It would be, if not for the fact those ships retreated and landed in Mistral." Ozpin's finger traced along to a peninsula. "Several were sunk before they could land, but the fact they fled there at all indicates the problem came from Mistral and not Vale. Since then, there has been more coastal raiding on our end. They are still out there, and still operating."

"Can't we do anything about it?" I asked.

Ren answered. "Mistral is another Kingdom, Jaune. If we sent Soldiers there, or even Heroes…"

"Correct," Ozpin said. "Even with the Grand Treaty in place, sending Heroes to Mistral would be sure to enflame tensions. Relations between the two countries is already more strained than I would like."

My head came up. This was the first I'd ever heard of it. "They are?"

"Mistral and Vale have always been uneasy neighbours, Mr Arc. Atlas and Vale have a strong peace treaty, and Atlas is too far away from Mistral to pose a threat, while Vacuo is on the other side of the world. We are the only major power to border Mistral, and even if we are at peace now, those shared borders have always made for tense situations." He shrugged. "It is not uncommon. No two great powers can stand next to one another indefinitely, not and remain at peace. There haven't been any wars, and I don't expect there to be, but both Kingdoms are very strict on enforcing their borders. I feel confident in saying Vale would react harshly if Mistralian Heroes were to land on our shores. The same is true in reverse."

"Even if it's to help clean up Greycloaks in their territory?"

"Especially if so." The Sage smiled. "Remember, Mr Arc, while it may seem an act of charity on our end, Mistral would likely see it as a grave insult. It is essentially us suggesting they cannot look after their own lands."

Weiss scoffed. "They clearly can't if this is happening."

"Vale is no better," Pyrrha defended. Whether she was offended or not, she was still from Mistral, a factor Weiss looked to have forgotten.

"All of Remnant is struggling with this," Ozpin interrupted before an argument could begin. "Mistral is in no better a situation than we, but the Greycloaks raiding our lands are still a problem and need to be dealt with. As such, I have engaged the Headmistress of Haven Academy, Julianna Verdant, to discuss how we could jointly deal with the issue. While we cannot send a team of experienced Heroes into Mistral for fear of causing tension, a group of students – perhaps those on their Annual Quest – would not raise nearly so much suspicion."

"You want us to go," I said. It wasn't hard to figure out. "But haven't we already done our Annual Quest?"

"You have, but the average person need not know that. Rest assured, if you should choose not to accept this Quest, you will still have done enough to graduate into the next year."

"Why would the Headmistress of Haven be willing to allow this?" Pyrrha asked.

"Julianna is hard pressed in her own lands. The Greycloaks are not a local problem, after all. We also have our own communication in place, as I do with Archmage Ironwood. We work towards the same goals."

"And what are those goals?" Ren asked.

"Peace. As the heads of two institutions who train children to combat Grimm, our goals are to maintain peace between the Kingdoms, and to manage relationships so that smaller conflicts do not explode into all-out war."

The mention of war was enough to drive us to silence, and I exchanged a wide-eyed glance with Blake. She shook her head and looked to Ozpin. "I wasn't aware Beacon was involved in politics," she said. "Is that allowed?"

"No one has complained thus far, Miss Belladonna. Besides, as Heroes it is our duty to stem the flow of Grimm in our lands. As war would lead to negativity, spawning more, I consider this part of our duty."

"Why us?" Weiss asked. "Why would you come to us of all people over this?"

If the Headmaster was upset at the question, he hid it well. "It is true that there are stronger students than you, particularly in the upper years. However, there are few who have such direct experience dealing with the Greycloaks. For first years, you and your Guild are uniquely experienced, and in a set of skills I would not have wished upon you. Most students at this point in their education have only faced Grimm."

"We've faced people," I finished. "The Greycloaks are other Heroes, and all of our Quests have ended up pitting us against Heroes."

"Yes. It is not something I am particularly pleased about, but compared to many other students, your Guild has the most experience fighting human enemies. More than that, being first years, you are less likely to cause any worry in Mistral by your presence – and there is one other reason why you are my preferred group for this." He lowered his glasses. "You are some of the few confirmed to be on our side."

"You mean because we fought against Torchwick and Watts?" Yang asked.

"The Greycloaks have always tried to kill us," Ren added, nodding. "Myself and Nora on this latest Quest, but Ruby and Jaune on theirs, and all of us in the basement of Torchwick's Guild. There is, simply put, no way we can be traitors."

"You are correct," Ozpin said. "Roman's turn to the Greycloaks has highlighted a weakness in our security, perhaps caused by myself for focusing too much of my attention out beyond our walls. It's impossible to imagine how many others might hold sympathies towards them. If we are to combat them, we need people we can trust."

"What about Coco?" I asked. "She fought with us."

"Miss Adel's loyalty is not in question, but she is head of the largest Guild in Beacon. It is simply not possible for her to confirm the loyalty of each and every one of those under her control." That it would only take one to ruin this plan went unsaid, but we all heard it. With hundreds of potential spies, a smaller Guild like ours would be easier to watch. We could keep an eye on one another, not that I felt there was any one of us allied to those monsters.

"How dangerous is this likely to be? What exactly are we meant to do?"

"Your goal would be to locate the Greycloaks within Mistral territory and then relay that information to Haven Academy. Julianna has assured me that a team of her own will be doing the same, so if you meet up with them you may ally as you see fit."

"So, we're not meant to capture them all?"

"Given what we have seen of the Greycloaks thus far, I believe captured to be out of the question. You would need to kill them." Ozpin waited a second to let that sink in. "But no, I don't expect that of you. Your Quest would be reconnaissance only. This actually has further benefits between the Kingdoms, for after this, it would be revealed that Vale aided Mistral in the removal of a Greycloaks base in their land. This show of solidarity and teamwork between Beacon and Haven will help to strengthen ties between the two Kingdoms, at least in the hearts and minds of the people."

"Politics again?" Weiss asked.

"Utility first, politics second. Our main goal is preventing any more raids of our land – and in finding out what happened to the people who were taken. Anything else is just an added benefit. I will also provide a full-fledged Hero to aid you. They would masquerade as a teacher and mentor, with the excuse being that they are there to grade or watch over you."

"And they'll be for if anything goes wrong?"

Ozpin nodded. "They will be on the same Quest as you. Consider them support – or perhaps artillery. Your choice."

It all sounded simple enough, though I knew better than to take that at first glance. Still, I wasn't sure what else we could do but accept. My stomach was already rolling at the idea of the Greycloaks kidnapping people, and there were thoughts in my head of what it might mean for Ansel if they became that confident here. Would be family be taken for whatever evil purpose they had? I couldn't let that happen.

A quick look to the others showed that they felt much the same. Ruby was the most obvious, her eyes filled with fire and her lips closer to a snarl than I'd ever seen her before. Yang watched her with clear worry, and where Ruby went, she would be sure to follow. Pyrrha wore a complex frown on her face, something of a mix between reluctance and grim determination. Mistral was her home, so news that the Greycloaks were active there couldn't have been good. I knew, however, that she'd come to Vale to escape life in Mistral. Going back? It probably wasn't what she wanted.

Ren and Nora were all but impossible to read, though the latter seemed at least a little interested, probably seeking vengeance for what happened to Ren – and what could have happened had the wound been but a little deeper. Weiss nodded, and that was it. Her inner thoughts were a secret, but she made her intent clear in that simple gesture.

Blake was impossible to read. She met my eyes and shrugged once. That was all.

"Do you need time to think about it?" Ozpin asked. "I do hate to rush you, but I would need a decision within at least three hours – and I would ask your discretion on this as well."

"I don't think we'll need that time," Yang said.

"I think we would be the best for this," Pyrrha added, voice low. "If we rejected this, you would be forced to ask other students, wouldn't you?"

Ozpin nodded.

There weren't many students stronger than us, at least in the first year. In the higher years where people spent more time on Quests, it would be harder to judge their loyalty. Far too many opportunities for them to meet and be swayed by Greycloaks on some distant mission. Ozpin needed those who couldn't have been touched – namely, he needed first years. We were the strongest of them, our trials with Torchwick having strengthened us beyond belief.

"I think we accept," I said, waiting for anyone to object. No one did. "When do we leave?"

"Tomorrow." Ozpin nodded to each of them in turn. "Thank you for this. Though it is irregular, this Quest may well save hundreds of lives, if not thousands. I would not entrust it with anyone else. Your Guide will meet with you tomorrow. Rest assured that you will be rewarded greatly for this. I will see to allowing each of you something special – perhaps even a chance to visit the Vaults of Beacon."

"The Vaults…?"

"Beacon has trained tens of thousands of Heroes over its time, and many have chosen to leave something to the school in an effort to repay it. I'm sure each of you could find something of value within the Vault. Something that would serve you well in adventures to come."

A vault full of weapons and equipment? I wasn't the only one to perk up at that, especially if what he said was true. Heroes at the end of their lives implied strong and high-level Heroes, ones who might have some impressive gear after decades of Questing. Was he really suggesting we could take something from there?

Ruby almost salivated. Even Weiss' eyes were wide.

Well… this had quickly become a lot more tempting, even if we'd already agreed.

"Leave it to us, sir. We'll be back in no time."

/-/

A single night's preparation wasn't really enough to do anything other than prepare, and it was back in our Guild Hall where we did so, stuffing bags with anything and everything we might need. Velvet, meanwhile, had suggested a large farewell dinner to see us off, and was busy cooking that with a Cook Class friend she'd made in the kitchens. We'd said she could invite people over if she wanted to, especially since we'd be gone for weeks. Velvet had declined, but had gone bright red when Yang teased about wild parties in their absence.

Whether that meant she had or hadn't, I wasn't sure, but the idea was definitely amusing enough.

"Yang, where is my cloak?" Ruby yelled.

"You're wearing it!" Yang called back.

"Not that one, the furred one from Atlas!"

"Why do you need that? Mistral's hot."

"It might rain! Where did you put it?"

"I hung it in the main hall as a decoration."

"Ugh!" There was a stamping sound as Ruby trudged down the hallway, making sure each footfall was heard. The whole Guild had descended into that, rushing around to find this or that, forgetting where they'd hidden them a month or two ago. It was funny how quickly we'd settled into life in the Lodge. I didn't even know where my fur cloak was, though Ruby raised a good point and I made a note to find it before bed.

Blake was packing her own bags beside me. We didn't share a room, and hadn't even considered it, but apparently the girl's rooms were far too loud and crowded for her to pack in peace, and given what I'd just heard I could believe it. Ren and I, being the only two guys, had a far more spacious bedroom to ourselves.

He was out buying some supplies with Pyrrha, however. We'd need plenty of dried meats and fruits for the journey, along with rock salty and other things, useful for preserving anything we caught along the way.

"What do you think of the Quest?" I asked my girlfriend, rolling a sleeping bag up, giving up when it didn't fit, and then stuffing it violently away. Blake sighed and moved over, gently taking it from my hands and folding it properly.

I sulked at how easy she made it seem – and how snugly it fit.

"I think Ozpin's ideals are surprising," she said.

"The whole trying to keep the peace thing? Why? I thought they sounded good."

"I don't disagree. I simply said it was a surprise." The Assassin left my bag and went back to hers, picking out some throwing knives and stashing them on a bandolier inside. "It makes me wonder how difficult the situation between Vale and Mistral is if it needs constant effort from Beacon and Haven to maintain the status quo."

"I guess I never really thought about it. There was never time for politics back home. No one really ever thought about it – other than rumours from the Capital, that is."

"It wasn't so different for me," Blake whispered. "Ships would bring tails of what was happening in the Kingdoms, but it never really changed anything."

"You lived on an island?"

Blake's eyes flicked over to mine, and I could see a faint hint of annoyance in them. I'd tried to dig into her past before and she'd always deflected me. This time I hadn't even done it on purpose, and I held my hands up in surrender. "It doesn't matter," she said, once again avoiding the topic. "At the very least it's a relief to know people like Ozpin exist, and he's correct about the Greycloaks. They need to be stopped. If they are raiding Vale from Mistral, we can't send troops in to deal with them."

"Hence, they send us." I sighed.

"Only to find them. This is Mistral's concern, and I have a feeling it would be considered an insult for us to deal with it for them. Our job is just to point their forces in the right direction." She sheathed a dagger in the pack and clipped the whole thing shut. "Try to remember that, Jaune."

"Huh?" I looked up. "What do you mean?"

"I mean that our job is only reconnaissance. Don't try to make it anything more. We're not going there to fight the Greycloaks."

"It's not like I went out of my way to fight Merlot or Watts. It just happened."

Blake sighed. "I know, it's just…"

"Just what?"

"I lost the people I cared about once before." Blake brushed past my shocked form, pausing to touch her fingers against my hand. "I don't want it to happen again."

By the time I'd mustered past the shock, it was already too late to ask her what she meant. She'd already taken her packed bag and left, and I knew what would await me if I tried to force my way into the girl's rooms.

Instead, I brought my hand up before my face and inspected it. The more I learned, the less I was sure about anything. My hand clenched into a fist. Words wouldn't fix this, only action. If she was worried, I'd just have to make sure I came out safe. That we all did.

I'd prove she could rely on me as much as I did her.

/-/

The next morning, we rose bright and early, trekking our way out of Beacon and out onto the road leading east. The caravans for the day had already passed us, Merchants and Traders being the earliest risers in all of Vale. By the time the ninth hour rolled around, the roads were all but deserted, with only the occasional hiker or Soldier patrolling them. Our group had broken a small camp off to one side, by the expanse of forest. Still in the shade of the trees and hiding from the warm sun, we sat on fallen logs and rocks, waiting impatiently.

"Are you sure this is the place?" Yang asked, for what felt like the twentieth time.

"For the love of God, yes!" Weiss snapped. "If you're so sure of yourself, you read the map!" She threw it to Yang, who squawked and caught it as it flapped into her face. She didn't bother to read it, and instead passed it over to Ren.

"Sheesh, Weiss. No need to get so antsy."

"I can't believe you of all people can say that. Your impatience knows no bounds."

"I'm not the one throwing the map around."

Weiss' mouth opened, but she snapped it shut a second later, instead flapping one hand towards Yang. What at first looked like a dismissal earned a startled cry from the Brawler, who was suddenly blown off the rock by a strong breeze which hadn't been there before.

"You want to start something?" she growled, clambering back onto her feet.

"I'm not sure what you mean."

"You cast a spell on me!"

"Your imagination continues to run wild," Weiss said insincerely. "Don't blame your lack of balance on me. If a stiff breeze can knock you down, perhaps you ought to stay in Beacon and await our return."

"Weiss," Pyrrha interrupted, voice stern. "Please stay calm. We've no idea how long we have to wait for Ozpin's guide."

The Mage huffed, but saw wisdom in not arguing back and making things look worse. Pyrrha nodded, but then looked at me, clearly delegating responsibility for Yang my way. I sighed and turned my head, quickly doing the same to someone else.

Ruby met my gaze for a few seconds before she groaned. "Yang, don't annoy Weiss."

"I'm just bored!" Yang hopped to her feet and strolled towards the road, keeping her back to it as she faced them. "I mean, why couldn't we have stayed home and gotten more rest if this guy was going to be late. Ozpin could have just told us to meet him at noon – let the guide wait for us in Beacon."

"He probably wanted us out before classes began," Ren pointed out. "Again, we have no idea if any of the other students have Greycloak sympathies."

"Don't throw your logic at me. Ugh, I hate waking up early, and I hate waiting even more! Why can't this asshole just be here al-URK!" Yang's words cut off with a startled cry as a black object slammed into her head from behind. It threw the girl from her feet and sent her sprawling face-first into the grass.

Shock ran through me as I leapt to my feet, hand reaching for my sword. For half-a-second I thought it was a rock, an arrow, or some other weapon – but Yang's angry squawking disabused that notion, not to mention the fact that the road was still empty.

"Get it off. Get it off. Get it off!" Yang cried, struggling with something. It was alive, and stuck in her long, golden hair. She shrieked and tried to reach for it, incidentally making Nora's attempts to get it off much harder by spinning around.

The Barbarian managed after a few seconds, however, disentangling something and backing away with it in her hands. To my surprise, it was a small, black bird – and it looked very poorly. "Aw," Nora cooed, "It's just a little birdy."

"I'LL KILL IT!" Yang roared, storming forwards. Her eyes were bright red. "Put it down. I'll stamp it out of existence!"

Nora gasped and did the exact opposite, backing away and turning slightly to protect the little thing. Pyrrha and Ren quickly moved to help, as did I, stepping up behind the Brawler. "It's just a bird," I said, trying to reason with her. "There's no harm done."

"That's not a bird!" Yang howled. "That's my stupid bastard of an Uncle and I'll kill him! He always does this!"

Nora blinked. "What?"

"Yang, have you been drinking?" I had to ask.

"Well to be fair, if your hair didn't look so much like a nest, maybe I wouldn't get confused." The bird in Nora's arms said, in a voice that was far deeper than one would have expected for something with a beak. Nora stared down at it, and shrieked when it started to grow. She threw it away from her.

By the time it landed, it was on two feet – feet which led up to a body of human origin, though clad in cloth and leather that had feathers and charms hanging from it in odd places. The man's face was rugged and rough, showing either a clear disregard for hygiene or a busy few weeks on the road. Or in the sky, maybe. Hadn't he been a bird a second ago?

"Ah, that feels better," the man said, cracking his neck to the side. He drew something from the belt at his waist, a leather flask, and brought it to his lips. Judging from the smell, the liquid he drank wasn't water. "Man, you wouldn't believe how fast the alcohol hits you when you weigh a kilogram and a half."

I stared at the man. The only words that came to mind slipped from my lips without thought. "What!?"

"I'll kill him!" Yang wailed, struggling in Ruby and Pyrrha's arms. "Always the hair! Why is it always the hair!?"

"Because it looks like a bird's nest," the man said. "Yo, the name's Qrow; Hero, lady's man, and all-around Uncle of Ruby and the walking nest over there."

Yang howled something derogatory, but I didn't quite hear it. My attention was too focused on the man in front of us. Despite his image, or perhaps because of it, I felt awed by the presence he gave off. It was powerful, more so than Viktor and Kaedin, almost as much as Watts himself. There was no doubt in my mind this was Ozpin's man, if only because had he been an enemy, I was sure he could have taken us all out already. My eyes trailed to the words above his head.

Qrow.

Druid.


And snap – I wonder if anyone guessed Qrow's class. There were a few who suggested he might be a reaper, but I'm not sure I saw anyone with this. Then again, shapeshifting into a bird? Well, that sounds pretty Druidic to me. Also, the idea of a tribe of nomads living out in nature, huh? Well, not that Qrow isn't the black sheep of that little family.


Next Chapter: 16th October

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