Next chapter. I'd just like to say to the few who spoke of plate armour and how they felt I wasn't aware of how easy it is to move in, I have seen the same youtube videos you all likely have. Jaune's plate armour is a little heavier than normal since at the start of this book (or the one before it), you may recall him actually making it a lot heavier on purpose. Given his high Strength, he thought it might help make him tankier if he bulked his armour up to what most would call an unreasonable amount.
As such, losing that made a significant difference to him – especially since he's not fought without it since Level 13 (and being Level 27 now, he's likely forgotten what it even feels like to not wear armour. He's basically had half his life in levels lived within it).
Beta: College Fool
Cover Art: Dishwasher1910
Book 4: Chapter 11
The reinforcements from Mistral arrived in the morning.
I watched them from atop the walls, stood alongside men and women who had fought and been hurt with me the night before. The troupe that approached seemed far too small to have made a difference in the battle, but I had to remind myself that they'd come not expecting a full-on Grimm incursion. The Soldiers in the squad – fifty in all – looked shocked and nervous at the sight of the devastation. At their head, a figure in far more ornate armour pushed off from his horse, landed on two feet, and rushed towards the gates.
Cinder was there, and Qrow and I moved down the steps to meet her as the man approached. He was young – at least as young as me – and had hair the colour of the summer sky. His skin was tan, his outfit a mixture of a crimson tunic with metal plates fastened over key areas. He wore no graves, but had a silvery tasset of overlapping metal plates down the outside of each leg. His weapon, a strange, pronged lance, remained on his saddle. The words above his head labelled him as a Lancer, though he looked nothing like Glenn Vuori had. His name, apparently, was Neptune.
"What happened here?" he asked. "We got the word to reinforce but…" He gestured uselessly to the damaged walls, the clear signs of burns and the burials taking place in the hillside outside, the Labour Caste members guarded by Soldiers as they dug graves for the fallen.
It was a sombre and cruel morning… made even more so by how the sun shone and there was not a cloud in the sky. It felt like rain or mist would have been more appropriate, but it was instead a beautiful day.
"Stoneskeep was attacked," Cinder answered before Qrow could and took control of the situation with an easy grace. "An incursion of Grimm struck both from the mountain itself and also the plains. The village was almost overrun but we were able to hold them off." She paused and gestured to the two of us. "These Heroes from Vale assisted us in the defence. Without them, I'm sure we would be lost."
That was nonsense and both Qrow and I knew it. Cinder's spell, summon, whatever it was, had done the lion's share of the killing. Come to think of it, there was no telling how much Exp she'd gained from that. Maybe Prestige Classes had more than just the advantage in raw stats.
"Is that's so, then thank you," the Lancer said, bowing to us. "My name is Neptune Vasilias, I have been sent from Haven to lead a force in relieving Stoneskeep. I… I'm sorry for coming so late," he added, face twisted in dismay. "This is my failure."
"You didn't know, kid," Qrow said, not unkindly. "Don't beat yourself up."
"The Druid speaks true," Cinder added. "Your duty was to come as fast as you could and considering the distance travelled, I believe you have done just that. Hold yourself with pride, Vasilias. You did all you could."
"T-Thank you." He seemed distressed still, or maybe just frustrated that he couldn't take part in the defence. I could understand it a little, even if I wasn't born in Mistral. Seeing so much devastation and washing you could have done something about it seemed fairly normal. "If you'll excuse us, I'll see to relieving those injured and exhausted by the fighting," he said, motioning for his men to approach. "Even if we missed the fight, we can at least clean up any Grimm that spawn nearby."
"We'll leave that to you," Qrow said.
"I have a message for Miss Fall, as well." Neptune held up a sealed scroll, and once again the sigil of Julianna Verdant was visible on the side. She nodded and took it, unrolling and inspecting its contents. When she was done, she turned to Qrow and I.
"You'll have to excuse me. Lady Julianna demands a report and I'll need to write that. We are awaiting the others to meet up with us, no?"
"Yeah." Qrow nodded in the direction of the horizon. The second the siege was over he'd had messengers sent out to the nearby villages to check on them and make sure they were safe. There was no telling if they'd been attacked or not, but if not then the others would be meeting us here instead of at the pre-arranged spot. I was looking forward to seeing them again.
"The two of us will get out of your way," Qrow continued, gripping my arm and pulling me to the side. "We're not actually Mistral Heroes, so this is all over our head anyway. You okay to handle things here?"
Cinder was obviously surprised but nodded. "Yes, I shall be fine with it."
"Cool. We'll be around."
She didn't have a chance to protest, nor did I as Qrow took me to the side and away, down an empty road and towards a more open part of the village – towards the back wall where the mountain stood.
"What's wrong?" I asked once he stopped and I was able to catch myself.
"We need to talk," he said, sitting on a nearby barrel. He gestured for me to do the same on some stacked boxes. I did, curious and a little nervous as to what he might say. "Yesterday was a mess, huh? One second we're minding our own business, the next we're stuck in the middle of an invasion by the forces of evil." He laughed and upended his flask over his mouth, but nothing came forth. With a scowl, he tucked it away. "I even ran out of drink mid-fight. You know it's bad when that happens."
"You could refill at the inn," I suggested. "I'm sure they'd give you it for free."
"I'm sure they would, but that's not important right now."
I winced. I'd kind of figured that was the case since he'd dragged me out here alone, but I wasn't sure what it meant. There wasn't anything I'd done wrong, surely. There was also no way he'd seen through my disguise since I felt more like a Knight this morning than I ever had before. What Blacksmith could have possibly stood atop the walls, commanded men twice his age or more, and come out alive from it? Not just any Blacksmith, that was for sure.
Still, Qrow's gaze was focused on me with an intensity that was unnerving. It was like even he wasn't sure what to make of it – or of me.
"What about me?" I asked.
"I think I pegged you wrong before," he said, beginning slowly. "When I first met you, I judged you by the standard of most Knights I've dealt with – arrogant bastards seeking glory and fame and waxing on about honour, nobility and chivalry. I figured you were a bad influence for Ruby, especially with how she sees Heroes and stuff like it. Seeing a knight in shining armour up close? Well, I wasn't exactly chuffed at that."
"But you said you were wrong," I pointed out with a small smile. "Does that mean you changed your mind?"
"Heh, rub it in, why don't you. Yeah, I changed my mind. Not just from how you treated Ruby, but also that girl of yours. No normal Knight would see an Assassin as another person, let alone care for them like you do. When I heard you were raised by NPC's, it made sense. He doesn't know better, I thought – except that `not knowing better` was a good thing in this case. It made you likable and I let it go. Then, last night came and I had to change my mind all over again..."
"Tell me," he said, staring into my eyes, "do you want to die?"
"What?" I gasped and made to stand, but his hand clamped down onto my knee, forcing me to remain seated. "No," I said. "What on Remnant makes you think that!?"
"What else am I supposed to think after last night?" he shot back. "I didn't think much of it at first. The kid's making the best of a shitty situation. He's holding it in so as not to panic the Soldiers. I thought you were brave, thought you were desperate – but then, when you faced that Ursa – I realised it was neither of those things. You weren't afraid at all."
I had been at first before the fighting had started, but by the time the Ursa came around, he was right. I'd been fairly calm. "Is that such a bad thing? Better calm than panicking."
"Sure, but a little fear is important in keeping a person alive," he returned. "You were dead set on taking an Ursa to the face, would have if I hadn't come in and cut its tendons before it hit you. What the hell did you think was going to happen?"
I'd cut it. That was the only thing that came to mind at the point where I'd stood awaiting its charge. I'd felt a strange calm come over me and the certainty that I could beat it – which come to think of it, was definitely not a sure thing at all. It had been arrogant for sure. I also knew Qrow wouldn't accept that, so I looked away awkwardly and remained silent.
"You're brave," he said. "I know that. I've heard enough of it from Ruby and Yang, and seen as much in person. That's not a bad thing. It really isn't. There's got to be a limit, though. Stop being afraid entirely and you'll give your life in a hopeless battle."
"But we didn't have a choice last night," I argued. I understood his criticism, but it wasn't like retreat had been an option. "It was do or die, Qrow. Forgive me if I didn't panic and run if there's nowhere to run."
"There was the mines," he said, "or just to the side. I told you to get back to the mines on the wall, yet you stayed there and told others to escape instead."
"I couldn't just leave them up there to die!"
"There," he said, tapping my chest. "That's what I mean. You couldn't do this, you can't do that. Those absolutes are the problem. I'll hazard a guess it was that same concept that kept you from running when I appeared to handle the Ursa. You could have left that to me but decided to get stuck in yourself."
"I thought I was helping."
"And you were," he admitted, "but it wasn't necessary. I'm not blaming you for that and I appreciate it, but I've heard from Ruby how much you want to help people. You put them before yourself, and that's admirable, to a degree. Wanting to help people is never a bad thing." He sighed and shook his head. "It only becomes a bad thing when you want to help them more than you do yourself."
I frowned at the stones beneath my feet. "I thought helping people was what a Hero was supposed to do. I thought that was the point."
"Being a Hero is a job, nothing more." Qrow sighed and leaned back. "The point of life is to live it. It's to have a life, enjoy it, and then make sure you leave something behind for those you care about. Don't get me wrong, I like you. Hard not to like a guy you've fought alongside, and we wouldn't be having this conversation if I didn't give a damn about you living or dying."
"You're worried I'll be another Summer Rose," I realised. "You're worried I'll die like her."
Qrow kept my gaze for several long seconds and then shrugged one shoulder. He didn't deny or confirm it, but that was enough. He thought I'd put being a Hero before everything and everyone else, and then die alone as a result – leaving behind everyone who cared about me.
"Summer was the perfect Hero," he said. "Good mother, wonderful sister-in-law, and amazing wife from what I was constantly forced to overhear." He laughed raucously, but it dwindled down into a bitter smile. "But above all of that she was the perfect Hero – and everything else came second to that. Take it from a man who knows, kid. Heroes meet shitty ends. It's what we do."
"Didn't she die helping people?" I had to ask.
"No. She lived helping people. She died failing to help people. That's the way it's remembered, anyway. Every time you successfully save a life, that person will remember you forever. But try your hardest and die, and that won't matter. The person you're trying to save will probably die as well, and they'll die cursing your name for not trying harder. And people like to remember tragedies more than they do heroics," he added. "You could save a thousand children, but fail and cause the death of ten on your last Quest and no one will forgive you for it."
"Are you saying she wasted her life?"
"Watch how you ask those questions," Qrow said gruffly. "Summer was a friend. I loved her in my own way. She didn't waste her life, but she did throw it away. I've nothing against the life of a Hero, but the key is to make sure it doesn't consume you. Do good, save lives, be the Hero – but always remember that a dead Hero serves no one. Risks are necessary, but there comes a point when you have to step back and say `I need back-up`. Summer never did. She took risk after risk until it proved one risk too many. I'm worried you might go the same way."
"I won't," I promised. "I care too much about my own life to die like that, and if you're worried about me dying and hurting Ruby and Yang, then don't. I'm not as brave as you think. I'm a coward."
"Heh, then you've got a funny way of showing it, kid." Qrow sighed and looked reluctantly at his empty flask once more. I could relate. After that kind of conversation, I could use a drink as well. "I promised you I'd tell you why I couldn't use spells very well, didn't I?" he randomly said, changing the conversation.
I nodded and went along with it. "You did. This the time for it or do you need a drink?"
"If I start, I won't stop." He sighed and tossed the flask aside. "Alright, sit down. I'll fill you in on my sordid past. Not much of a story, but hey, maybe it'll teach you a thing or two."
Qrow settled down and crossed his arms, tapping one foot as he looked up towards the sky, as if recalling a time a long, long time ago. I waited patiently, not quite as curious as I was pretending, but interested enough and desperate to change the topic from me being a suicidal idiot.
"I guess it started when I was born," he finally said. "I was a twin, the younger twin – and wouldn't she never let me forget it. My sister was called Raven, still it, I guess, for all that I haven't seen her in years. We were born to a nomadic tribe that wandered the Kingdoms, mainly sticking to Vacuo and Vale. It was a hard life and a vicious one, and the tribe valued strength above everything else. The strong lived and prospered while the weak died or were left to pursue the weakling arts. My being born a Druid was something of a surprise, and not all that pleasant of one as it turned out."
"They didn't want you to be a Druid?"
"They didn't want me to be a spell caster," he said. "Don't get me wrong, there's strength in being able to use magic, but they were old-fashioned people and traditions aren't always founded in common sense. Either way, they decided that if I was going to prove myself worthy of the Branwen name, I was going to learn to fight like my sister. None of that magic bullshit, but cold, hard steel." He chuckled. "I… wasn't very good at it."
"Really?" I asked, surprised. "But you're really strong!"
"Oh sure, after thirty years, but not as a ten-year-old, I wasn't. I was a Druid, kid. That doesn't mean much for strong muscles or stamina, and it didn't mean much against my sister, either. She was an absolute monster with a blade. A real terror."
"Better than you?"
"By far… and even stronger now, I'd imagine. She was the pride and joy of the tribe, and that only made me look worse in comparison." He laughed to himself. "Ray wasn't always cruel about it, though, even if the others were. She took to their teachings and hated weakness but never really considered me weak. I just looked weak stood next to her. We always trained together and she always kicked my ass, but I kept getting up and I guess she liked that about me."
"Things continued like that for a while," he went on. "I was taught how to use a sword and told to keep using one, even when I wasn't very good at it. If I learned a Spell, I'd ignore it. If I used a spell, I'd be beaten for it. I got a little practice in since Ray always told me to use them on her in private spars; she didn't like the idea of being caught off-guard by anyone later in life. The point is, I learned how to do everything without using spells for the most part, and after a while, that started to change me."
"You mean it changed the way you fought? Or it changed the way you thought?"
"No. It changed me." He met my eyes sternly. "As in, it changed the very core of who I am. This isn't a lesson taught in most schools, but I'll give it to you because I promised. Have you ever heard of Paths before?"
"Cinder said something about them the other day, but she wouldn't tell me what they were," I said.
"I'm not surprised she'd know. Mistral seems like the kind of place that would still teach it." He clearly didn't think much of that, and I leaned in to hear more. "Paths are a part of a Hero. No, they're a part of everyone on Remnant. They're just like Passives and everyone has them, or comes to develop them sooner or later. Here's a quick test, kid. What's the difference between a Warrior in heavy armour with a sword and shield, and one in leather with a two-handed sword?"
"The equipment," I said. "Well, and the role they'd take, I guess. One's clearly equipped to tank, while the other is more of a damage-dealer."
"Yeah, and one of them will learn Skills like `Shield Strike` or `Steel Wall`, and the other will suddenly develop abilities like `Mighty Blow` or `Cleave`. I'm making those up, by the way," he added. "I don't know Warrior skills. It's for the sake of an example."
"I get it," I said. "Are you trying to say those people will actually grow in different ways based on what equipment they're wearing?"
"Close, but not quite. The equipment doesn't matter as much as the method. This is what a Path is. A Warrior who dedicates his life to being a tank will start to subtly gain Skills that help him in that. Meanwhile, take someone who likes to two-hand or even dual-wield, and they'll go down that path instead – gaining Skills that help them with that."
"Two different Warriors," I whispered.
It felt like my world had exploded. My mind whirred but I wasn't able to make any coherent thought, and the implications of it were staggering. They were also staggeringly obvious. Warriors fought in different ways – that was blatantly obvious. Hell, I'd just seen a Lancer in Neptune who clearly fought from horseback and used a trident, while Glenn Vuori had been on foot and liked to throw her spear around.
Did that same logic apply for the Labour Caste, though? And if so, how?
"Mages get it too," Qrow said, "and everyone else as well. Take your little Mage, for instance. She can use fire, but you ever noticed how she prefers to use ice?" He waited for me to nod. "She's growing into a Control Mage, whether she realises it or not. Most don't. They just naturally gravitate to whatever feels natural, and then count their lucky stars when their Skills coincide with that."
My hands shook. "Wouldn't that apply to the Labour Caste as well?" I asked desperately. "Wouldn't that mean they could fight like Heroes!?"
"What? No, not like that." He laughed, unknowing of how my stomach plummeted. "I mean, they'd still get a Path too, don't get me wrong, but it only changes how you develop and what Skills you get. It doesn't change Stats or what they grow like, and it's not like a Cook could develop some kind of combat skill. Everything they learn would still be related to their Class, so they'd still be screwed in a fight."
But I was proof that wasn't quite right, wasn't I? Or if not that, then I was proof something could work. My head span at the possibilities. My Runesmithing… I'd assumed my father hadn't told me because he thought it pointless, but what if I'd only unlocked it because I was a Blacksmith who was constantly in combat.
It sounded unreasonable – especially since these `Paths` Qrow spoke of were probably meant to develop over a lifetime. But then I was Level 13 when I entered Beacon. I'm Level 27 now, which is means I've grown more in under a year than I did in seventeen years before now.
That was… thinking about it like that was shocking.
Qrow didn't even notice, and kept talking. "I never really questioned it myself, but before long I'd gone and locked myself into the Path of a Druid who specialises in melee combat. Even if I could use a few Spells, I never learned any new ones. That's why my healing Spell was so useless."
"Because it's a beginner's spell," I said, realising what he meant. He nodded grimly. "But… this sounds so important," I said. "How has no one told us this before now? Why wasn't this taught in Beacon?"
It was huge knowledge. If people were using Spells or fighting in certain ways, then they might lock themselves onto a Path before they ever realised – and that would have repercussions that would last a lifetime.
"It's not taught because of what happened to people like me," he said. "Think, Jaune. What do you think happens if people know the way they fight will influence who they later become? There are always more and less glamorous ways of doing things. My tribe knew about Paths, and I only realised later that they were trying to force me onto mine. I never had a choice in the matter." He scowled down at his hands, a faint, emerald glow appearing about them. A vine broke through the dirt of the ground, but the plant wilted and died before it reached his fingers. He sighed and let it go. "I never had the chance to become what I was meant to be. What I wanted to be."
I couldn't help but feel something stir inside as I stared at the Druid. "I'm sorry…"
"What's done is done, and it's hardly your fault. The reason why no one teaches you about Paths is just this, though. It's so that kids don't rush to make decisions that will be irreversible. We teach you everything else and let you discover what Path works best on your own. As you fight, as you live, as you survive, you'll slowly start to pick and choose what works best for you, and then your Path will come from that." He brushed his hands together and smiled at me. It was an envious smile, jealous, almost. "That way, you get to choose your own fate – and you do it without even realising it. You're happier that way, trust me."
There was no way I could deny that, even if I wanted to. I was a bad example, but there were probably Heroes who would be forced into one way of fighting because of family honour or tradition – Qrow being a good example. Even if it was never revealed, it was maybe better this way.
"Can someone change their Path as they grow?" I asked.
"Some say yes, others say no. I say your Path grows with you. Take me, for instance. I could start to use Spells again and I might gain some new aptitude in them, but it would be worthless at this point. I've spent the best part of thirty years being a purely melee Druid. I'd be shooting myself in the foot trying to specialise in something else now. Weiss, though? She could switch over or try to incorporate more fire-based attacks, and she might gain a few extra spells for it. It would be as well as her ice spells, though, and she might have to strike a balance between them."
"So, she might get some new fire spells, but that might cut her off from getting the best ice ones?"
"That's a simple way of looking at it, but not a bad one. Sure, we'll go with that." Qrow stood and sighed, dusting himself down. "You shouldn't let this talk of Paths control you, to be honest. The best way to do things is to fight how you want to – in a way that feels natural – and then benefit from that. Don't force yourself to do something you don't like, or you'll soon find yourself locked into it like me."
I nodded, but something stuck in my mind. "Why tell me all of this? Why me, specifically?"
"Because it ties into what I was saying earlier," he said, stepping past me but pausing with his back facing mine. "You need to watch yourself moving forwards. If you keep putting other people's lives in front of your own, you might find yourself locked onto a Path you can never back away from. Summer did, and it killed her." He sighed and moved away. "Think on that a little. Some Paths are lonelier than others."
Qrow had told me to think on it, but I doubted he expected just how much I would. I stood atop the walls of Stoneskeep, my eyes fixed on the road ahead, and found my thoughts plagued with the revelation that had just been laid upon me. Be natural, he said. Just do what feels normal, he said.
"Easy for you to say, Qrow. How does that work for someone like me?"
I was a Blacksmith, but I'd never felt less like one than I did right now. I could remember back when Beacon started and that reality had plagued me every day. Would I be found out? Would I mess it up? Would I do something that wasn't right for a Knight?
Now, such doubts never crossed my mind. I didn't care what normal Knights did; I was Blake's Strange Knight. I didn't fear not being good enough, because I knew that if I faltered, the Guild would have my back. I was still afraid of being found out, but it felt like the only way that would happen was if my amulet was discovered. No one could look at me and think I was a Blacksmith. I never acted like it.
And now, I had the reason why.
If Paths were born from how you lived your life, then it was possible most people in my Caste never discovered them, or if they did then they were probably absolutely mundane Paths that made them better at their craft. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy where a Blacksmith would work in a smithy and then slowly become better at it – specialising in a prison that kept them chained to the forge. I'd always just assumed everyone was the same apart from their Passive Skill, but this suggested otherwise, and the proof was in front of my very eyes, shimmering lightly on the steel of Crocea Mors.
A simple, elegant rune…
Most would have assumed it decoration; I knew better. It was magic and nothing less, and something I should never have been able to create. Something I wouldn't need to create if I was just making normal tools for villagers. I only learnt this because it's the closest my Class has to a combat-related Skill.
My Class was trying to help me in its own strange way. It was trying to follow me on the Path I'd chosen, and probably struggling to do so. In its efforts, it had unlocked a Skill I'd never heard of before – and suddenly the lack of any information in Beacon's library made sense.
It wasn't that no other Blacksmith had reached a level as high as mine, but that no other Blacksmith had chosen a life of combat and near-death experiences. No other Blacksmith had chosen to pretend to be a Hero and live a life like one.
It was quite possible that I was the only Runesmith in all of Remnant. That was a heady thought. Watt' weapon had runes on it too, but that could have been from a drop – the more common way of securing items. There'd been a fair number of those from the Grimm that had died in Stoneskeep, but none had really fit our party – most being relatively weak weapons and equipment. We'd given them to the people to help fund the rebuilding effort. It was they who had fought and died for it, after all.
But I might be the only one able to create and alter them at will, and that was still amazing.
"That means it's possible I'll discover other things no one else has seen," I whispered, staring down at the palm of my hand.
It meant I had potential no one knew – but also that I couldn't rely on anyone else for understanding on what exactly that was. I was on my own; walking that lonely Path Qrow had spoken of. But no, I wasn't completely alone.
Nor was I now, as I noticed a group of people hurriedly approaching the gates of Stoneskeep – one breaking off into a harsh sprint as they came close. I could notice that black figure anyway, especially as she melded into shadows and scaled the wall I was stood on as if it were flat ground. The Skill might have been designed to come upon an unsuspecting foe and kill them, but I was not unsuspecting and I caught her as she slammed into me.
"Are you okay?" Blake hissed, golden eyes roving across my face, my neck, my shoulders and arms – and then down my body, hunting for any injury with an intensity that stole my breath away. She caught my right arm, drawing it up before her and looking at a wicked cut on the underside – one that had been bandaged and had stopped bleeding hours before. "What happened?" she asked. "We got the letter but there were no details."
"We were attacked," I said. Her eyes widened but I pushed on. "We beat them back. We're safe. I'm safe."
"We saw the graves," she whispered.
I nodded. "There were a lot of Grimm. Hundreds. It was… not an easy battle."
Blake took me in once more, checking yet again to make sure I was alive and well, and though such doubt as to my ability should theoretically have annoyed me, it didn't. I understood the reason for it. "Are you okay, though?" she asked. "I know you're alive, but after all of that…" She stared into my eyes, making her concern clear. "Are you okay?"
I had no idea.
Qrow thought me suicidal. I wasn't sure whether I agreed or not. I'd felt no fear and felt strangely calm even now, and that was before I thought of what might have caused the Grimm incursion – the sheer amount of negativity required, and what might have caused it. By all means, I wasn't well, and I knew things would only get worse moving forwards.
But my hands gently settled on Blake's hips, winding about the small of her back. She didn't resist as I drew her towards me, and I felt her arms wrap about my neck. The arms of a killer; the arms of the woman I trusted implicitly.
"I'm perfect," I whispered, pressing my lips against hers. "Everything is perfect."
She nodded and pushed against me, sealing her lips to mine even as our friends down below hooted and laughed up at the two of us kissed above the open gates of a half-destroyed village. This Path I'd chosen was definitely a frightening one, but it had given me so much more than I'd originally imagined. It had given me my self-respect, my friends, my Guild, but also the woman in my arms.
I didn't regret any of it.
The two of us were still hand in hand as the Guild congregated in Stoneskeep once more. I watched fondly as Ruby leapt onto Qrow, unbalancing him and revealing him to be unsteady on his injured leg – which soon led to a barrage of questions from Ruby and Yang as they tried to sit him down and tend do it, much to his indignation.
I explained patiently what had happened to various concerned people, none of which seemed to come at once, but instead questioned me one after the other, asking the same questions. Was I okay? Was I feeling alright? Again, it should have annoyed me – especially to face the same questions over and over – but it didn't. I squeezed Blake's hand tighter, accepted hugs from Ruby, Pyrrha and Nora – and even teasing about a hug or more from Ren. I smiled and laughed through it all, listening to them speak of their own small adventures; the occasional Grimm, but nothing on the level of what had befallen Stoneskeep.
Blake stayed beside me the entire time, content just to sit and wait. I had a feeling I'd be getting an earful from her later – possibly mixed with an interrogation on every little detail. To be fair, I'd likely have done the same in return, so I was prepared for it.
Cinder, Mercury and Emerald had a chance to meet up as well, though their greetings were less concerned than ours. "Looks like you had all the fun this time," Mercury laughed.
"I'll be sure to save some for you next time," Cinder replied with a little smirk.
"The other villages have been reinforced," Emerald said, stepping forward. "That means all three will be safe for the short term."
"Unless something like this happens again," I said.
"That's why we need to return to Mistral," Cinder said, silencing us all.
Qrow looked concerned. "You're leaving?"
"We have been summoned by Julianna Verdant." She flashed the scroll from before. "Our Quest was always to find the source of the Greycloaks and then return back to Mistral to report on it. From there, we could mobilise a larger force to attack them directly. That same force could be used to clear the Grimm in the area and further reinforce the villages in case of another attack."
"But what about the Greycloaks?" Ruby asked. "We can't let them get away with the prisoners."
Cinder glanced to me, no doubt recalling what I'd said the night before about sacrifices. Her eyes hardened but when they turned back to Ruby, they were soft and understanding. "We're not leaving them be, nor ignoring them. We're simply making sure there is a larger force capable of dealing with them. Our rushing in now when we might not be enough will only allow them to continue getting away with such terrible schemes."
Something in that caught my attention – and Qrow's too, for he leaned forward. "You were only to leave when you found them," he said. "You know where they are, don't you?"
She nodded, and then laid a map on the table before us. It was not actually a map of the surrounding area, however, but of various tunnels and strange corridors.
"This is a subterranean map of the mines here in Stoneskeep," she explained. "The quakes originated here, and this is where the Grimm spawned and attacked, some even spawning atop the mountain itself. I don't believe that to be an accident."
"The epicentre," Qrow breathed. "Of course. It makes perfect sense!"
"History teaches that Mistral used to have many temples built atop and within mountains. It's a testament to not only our religious past, but of the necessary defences against the Grimm. Tunnels prevented larger Grimm from entering and allowed smaller forces to defend civilians and priests. I didn't think there was one such temple here in these mountains, but the quake opened a passage here." She pointed to a tunnel which had a red X marked on it. It looked like a dead end. "While we fought up above, one of the miners noticed this opening, and told the commander here that it's a passage with strange, sculpted walls and pillars."
"A hidden temple?" Pyrrha guessed.
Mercury snorted. "That or the home of the mole-men, may they spare us when they rise to reclaim Remnant."
"Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit," Emerald sniped.
"It is almost certainly a temple," Cinder said, ignoring them both and fixing her eyes with Qrow's. "The Greycloaks must have found another entrance. It's the only explanation for how so many prisoners were removed from the area without us or the villages seeing them. They weren't removed at all."
"Beneath us all this time," the Druid mused, "or in the mountain, anyway. You say this route connects to it?"
"So the miners tell me. I've not explored it, nor have they. I ordered the passage closed to any but Heroes or those with permission from the city of Mistral itself. I did, however, explain that you would have permission, should you wish to investigate. However… it would be without us."
Cinder might not have meant it as a threat but it had all the weight of one. While we hadn't fought together long, the battle the day before had more than showed how powerful she was. Without her, we'd be severely weakened. At the same time, we couldn't ask her to stay, though. While she could send a message back to Haven, there was a chance a Greycloak spy might intercept it – and that would mean they'd remain unchallenged if we failed. From her point of view, she had to make the best decision for the people of Mistral.
Not some Heroes for Vale, no matter how well we got along.
"That's fine," Qrow said. "We'll handle things from here. You just focus on making sure we have back up if things go wrong."
"I shall. I promise." Cinder rose to her feet, leaving the map behind. "Emerald, Mercury, come. We will borrow some horses from the Soldiers who just arrived and ride back to Haven."
"Yes ma'am," the two replied, scrambling to their feet. The three of them were gone a moment later, with just a brief nod and a farewell. All of a sudden, it was just the nine of us. Qrow was strong, undeniably so, but there was no telling what kind of people the Greycloaks had among them. People like Arthur Watts, for instance.
"It's our job to infiltrate the temple, then?" Ren asked.
"Our job to find and stop the Greycloaks," Qrow said. "We don't yet know they're in there, or what they're doing. Ideally, I'd like to wait for those from Haven to get here, but if that takes too long the Greycloaks might finish what they're doing and move on. We need to find the other entrance to this temple. The one they're using to get in and out."
"And then what?" Blake asked.
"Then we wait. We wait and watch, and if they leave then we follow them. We're not going to rush in and fight if that's what you're thinking," he said. "If we see a fight we can take, we'll take it, but you've heard my thoughts on needless risk before."
We had, and I now knew the real reason behind it.
"We'll get some rest for tonight," he said, rolling up the map into a scroll and storing it away in his leather jerkin. "The Knight and I are bushed, and you lot can't be much fresher after marching all the way here. We'll sleep things off, fill up on food and supplies, and then take it slow into these mineshafts. We'll find the temple, get in, sneak to the entrance and set up an ambush. There, we'll wait for the lot from Haven to arrive. I'll keep an eye out from above and lead them to the side entrance, cutting off the Greycloak's chances to escape." He slammed a fist down on the table to emphasise the fact.
So, this was to be it. I listened to the others as they asked questions and sorted out where they could get food and drink from, but my true thoughts remained on the temple hidden within the mountain, and what would be waiting deep inside. Last time, we'd only survived our run in with the Greycloaks because Miss Goodwitch and the Priest Kitsune had intervened. This time, we had Qrow, but there was no telling how many waited within. This was their home, after all. Not ours.
But this was our battle. And there was no backing down now.
And the end is cometh – or it approacheth at any rate. Their legend began with a descent into a deep, dark, dungeon. Now it comes back to that; except that it's a mineshaft leading into a hidden temple.
Goodness, the RPG tropage. Now all we need are Draugr and rats the size of dogs.
Oh, and yeah, someone was missing – but he hasn't been forgotten. Life just takes a… different turn for some people, I suppose. Worry not, for the abs of destiny will be seen one day. They shall be seen and they shall shine so brightly!
On "Paths" – think of them as talent trees, if you like. It's an easy comparison. Except that instead of "choosing" which you like, you naturally develop them as you fight in such a way. While some Skills would be Class-specific (and thus every Warrior would have several identical skills), others might be more "path-specific".
Note: I've mentioned it on other fics, but shall do so on each this week. I am taking a week off this Christmas to rest and enjoy Christmas. As such, no story will update from the 25th to the 1st. That means Forged Destiny will update 11th December, 18th, and then 1st January.
Next Chapter: 11th December
P a treon . com (slash) Coeur