Just to say I know that last chapter was a slow one and it felt slower being on top of two previous no-action chapters. Since I want to write this story in book format, however, that may occasionally happen. The book ended on a climb down of tension after the Mistral mission, and there was no justification starting book five in medias res, since the ending of book four made it clear no dramatic events were expected to happen.
I suppose it only felt slow because it came two weeks after the last, wherein if it were an actual book it might have been a year. Ah well, on with the story!
Beta: College Fool
Cover Art: Dishwasher1910
Book 5: Chapter 2
There was nothing quite as strange as an over-excited Weiss Schnee, and it was that we were subjected to as we were roused from our beds and marched to breakfast, in time to see even Velvet watching with bemused suspicion. Our resident Mage wasn't often an early riser. Despite how she acted, Weiss often needed to be cajoled out of bed by Ruby or Velvet, and only really came alive once she'd had her first meal.
"Someone's excited," Yang said as we were marched out the door into the early morning air. I shivered and drew my cloak tighter about myself. It was still winter, after all.
"The beginning of a new year is a momentous occasion," Weiss remarked. "Though I have to admit it was warmer when we did it. It's been a long winter."
"Don't tell me the chance to see some midgets run through what we did has gotten you this excited."
"It's not that," Blake sighed. "She's excited about working with Miss Goodwitch."
"Absolutely!" Weiss' eyes shone. "I'm going to be a part of a portal array. How incredible is that!?"
I wasn't sure and looked to the others for inspiration, wondering if my not knowing was just another Labour Caste thing. It looked for once that it wasn't, though. No one seemed to understand Weiss' mood, though Ruby gave it her best shot at faking it, cheering through a heavy yawn. It wasn't very convincing and she gave up half way.
"Oh, you're all a bunch of idiots," the Mage snarled. "Let me explain. Miss Goodwitch is going to open a portal to the destination location; one capable of transporting potentially five hundred people. That kind of power is all but impossible for one Mage to have, however. That's where an array comes in. She's going to use my power, and that of everyone else's, and add it to her own."
Ah, that made sense. Sort of. If portals were an easy thing to do then we'd have been using them all the time, not only for Quests but for trade as well. That also explained the large amount of Mages that had been present during our own initiation.
"And you're exciting about being drained like this?" Yang asked sceptically.
"Yes! Well, no… it's not that. The fact that I'll be drained isn't what has me so excited; it's the chance for me to experience an array with someone so skilled at the lead. Miss Goodwitch is going to take control of our magic and shape it to what she needs. Even if I'm not in control I'll be able to feel what she does and how she does it." She paused, waiting for our excitement, but sighed when none came. She gave up and waved one hand. "It's like swimming. She'll be taking my arms and moving them to show me how to swim."
"Oooh…" everyone said at once, finally understanding.
"So, you'll know how to make portals after this?" I asked.
"I'll know the theory, and a have some experience in the practical, but I won't be prepared for long-range portals for some time. There is a raft of things that can go wrong with experimenting, especially when I might open a portal under the ocean or into a mountain. And, of course, I wouldn't have the power required for a long-distance portal."
"What good is it, then?" Ruby asked.
"It's valuable experience!" Weiss yelled, practically offended. "It's knowledge, power, a chance to do something I've never done before." She glared at us and rolled her eyes when it was obvious we were none the wiser. "Ugh, plebeians. If any of you used magic you'd understand."
I'd have to take her word on that, since for me the cold air was still more deserving of my attention than any magical spells we couldn't actually use. We reached the staircases leading up to Beacon's main ground, which were lit from torches whose flames flickered but held firm, set by the teachers no doubt in preparation for the day ahead. The steps were slippery and treacherous, but we made our way slowly up to reach the top, revealing the white-coated plains. Grass and flowers lay buried underneath. There was almost a hundred figures pooled ahead, huddled into a small group.
"That's a lot of people," Nora said. "I thought there weren't many second years."
"Maybe the third and fourths come down to help," Ren offered. "Or they could be a part of the array Weiss spoke of. The rest of us are probably to gather at our given locations."
"I'll be leaving you here, then," Weiss said, turning to face us all. "I'd say good luck but I doubt you need it for something like this. I'll say this, instead." Her eyes hardened, and all of a sudden she stalked forward. I flinched, but she walked past me and stopped in front of Ruby, digging a finger down towards the Reaper's chest. "You!"
"Eh?" Ruby yelped, backing up. "M-Me?"
"Yes, you. I shouldn't have to say this but I know you, so I shall. Do not do anything against the rules today."
"W-What's that supposed to mean?"
"The laws of Beacon exist for a reason. In fact, they're the laws of every Kingdom in this regard. This isn't just a tradition born of convenience or spite, but something necessary for the protection of the entire world." Weis' eyes narrowed to pinpricks. "Do. Not. Help. Anyone." She said each word slowly, punctuating them with another jab of her finger. "There will be a lot of people today who fail. They will fail their chance to become Heroes and they will be sent down to the Soldier Caste. This is life, Ruby. I know you'll want to help them, but for the love of Remnant, don't. If they're not strong enough to become Heroes then they don't deserve to become Heroes."
"I-I wasn't going to do anything," Ruby protested. She wilted a little under Weiss' disbelieving gaze, and when she couldn't quite meet the Mage's eyes, Weiss turned to Yang instead.
"Keep an eye on her, Yang. You know what she's like."
"Yeah, yeah. I'll make sure she doesn't do anything to get in trouble."
Weiss and Yang stared at one another for a long moment before the Mage nodded and hurried off, leaving the rest of us behind. Ruby pouted and kicked some dirt, mumbling about lack of faith and the fact she wasn't a child.
"Don't think of it like that, sis. Think of it as Weiss knowing how sweet you are and wanting to make sure you don't get in trouble. She's looking out for you."
"Still could have had a little faith."
"I can't say I blame her."
"Yang! You too!?"
Pyrrha clapped my shoulder with a hand, drawing my attention away. "I'm guarding and directing people toward the main hall," she said. "You and Blake are to stop people going down into the Guild Village, right?"
"Yeah. We're watching the cliffs and the stairs."
"I'll see you later, then."
"Come on, Renny," Nora laughed, dragging her friend away. "We have to watch the West Wing."
"The East Wing, Nora."
Before long it was just Blake and I, each of us holding our cloaks shut as we watched the more exuberant members of the Hunters strike out in search of their designated spots. Ours, quite conveniently, were right where we were – and our task was less to guide people in the right direction and more prevent them going in the wrong.
"Stood here in the cold for two hours," Blake sighed. "This is going to be a long day."
I didn't disagree.
It only took an hour for the grounds of Beacon to fill with aspiring students. There had to be at least three hundred and fifty students milling around the building and snow-covered grounds of Beacon, all trapped between the North and East Wing, limited in space so that they wouldn't get lost as Miss Goodwitch prepared the portal with Weiss and the other Mage-type Classes.
There was something strange about the students, I felt. It was hard to put into words but they felt younger – and not just be a year, either. They felt two or four years younger; smaller even though some were easily as tall as me. It was in the way they carried themselves, really. The arrogant ones looked pompous and silly, while the nervous ones hunched and looked about anxiously, appearing smaller than they were.
Was this how the upper years had seen us? It felt likely, and also explained why they'd sent us to the worst farming spots in the Emerald Forest and otherwise treated us like we didn't exist. Even Ruby appeared more mature than these students, and she was ironically still a year younger than them. Sixteen, now. She'd had her birthday and we hadn't even noticed. Then again, so had I. Most of us probably had.
The students had already been in to listen to Ozpin's speech, even if it hadn't been much of one for us. They were now in the period of time between learning what their First Quest would be, and waiting for Glynda to open the portal. I'd used that chance to flirt with Weiss and somehow miss Pyrrha's obvious cue to team up. I sighed out loud. How embarrassing.
A crunch of snow caught my attention a little to the left. Not Blake, as she stood further to my right, blocking the staircase down and scaring anyone away who looked to come near. Instead, I noticed a young girl crouched down by the wall to my left, a good ten metres or so away, and well within the bounds of where she was allowed to be.
She was a girl with mousy brown hair that stuck out at odd angles, curly in a way that was obviously uncontrollable. She had pink skin, flushed from the cold, and she cupped her hands before her face to blow warm air into them. The words above her head provided a name, Ellayne, and a Class, Fighter. A subset of Warrior-based Classes, perhaps. She looked nervously out over the gathering of Heroes and hunched a little further into herself.
I shot Blake a look to see what she thought but the Assassin was focused on the task at hand and not paying attention. She was enough to guard the stairs, though, so I plodded over to the girl. She flinched as she heard my footsteps and looked up nervously.
"Hey there," I said. "Is everything okay?"
The girl flinched and brought her knees up, hiding in them for a moment. Her eyes flicked to mine. They were large and green, and obviously nervous. She took a deep breath and visibly tried to relax, managing to at least not look quite so terrified. "H-Hi."
"My name's Jaune," I said, sitting down a little to the side of her. "Second year at Beacon. What's your name?"
"Nice to meet you, Ellayne." I held a hand out, and after a moment's pause she took it. "You here for your First Quest?" I asked, despite knowing the answer.
She nodded. "I'm… I'm not very strong. I'm worried I won't be able to beat it. What if I fail? What if I have to tell my family I didn't make it into the Hero Caste?"
"I'll bet you're stronger than me when I was in your shoes. I was probably the weakest person in all of Beacon, but I was still able to get past the First Quest. I'm serious," I added when she looked at me like she didn't believe it. "Thing is, this Quest isn't about being super strong. It's about being just strong enough. If you believe you can do it, you will."
She looked up hopefully. "Do you think so?"
"Sure. I've been here before so I know it for a fact. Many of the people here aren't all that strong." I looked out to the other aspiring students. "Most of them are probably worried as well. Thing is, there's nothing against working together and that's how many people got through our First Quest."
"I'm not very good at making friends," Ellayne whispered, eyes on the snow between her feet.
"Neither was I," I admitted. I still didn't feel like I was now; the others had just been ridiculously patient with me. "I'm sure you're not as bad as you think, though. Everyone knows how to make friends. It's just that people get too nervous and that holds them back. Trust me, you'll be okay. Just have a little faith in yourself. You've got this far, right?"
The Fighter's face lit up and she looked up to meet mine. Her mouth opened – for the first time in a smile – but it died an ugly death as she noticed something behind and over my shoulder.
"What are you doing?" Blake asked. Her voice was clipped.
"A-Assassin…" Ellayne breathed.
"It's okay," I said. "Blake's my guildmate and friend. She wouldn't hurt-"
"You shouldn't be here," Blake interrupted. "Get back with the other first years."
"I-I'm sorry," Ellayne stammered, jumping to her feet. "I was-"
"No excuses. Go."
The poor girl dashed away, stumbling in the snow before she caught herself and fled back into the crowd, obviously terrified. I watched her go, then stood with a scowl and turned to Blake. "What the hell was that for? Can't you see how scared she is?"
"I should be asking the same of you, Jaune. Why were you talking with her?"
"Because she needed help!" I yelled.
"And you didn't give it."
Blake's statement, calm and measured, cut through my anger. Any thought that it might have been jealousy on her part died an ugly death. Her eyes weren't angry. They were sympathetic, almost pitying.
"I'll bet Weiss didn't expect you to fall for what she warned Ruby against," she murmured. "I suppose I should have known better. You've always been soft-hearted." Blake's eyes met mine and she nodded to the side, drawing me back to my post. Through it, she kept talking. "I know you want to help these people, Jaune. So do I, and so does Ruby, I imagine. But Weiss was right, even if she made it sound callous. If anyone here isn't strong enough to be a Hero, then we don't do them any favours by helping them succeed."
I couldn't quite meet her eyes. "I wasn't trying to cheat for her…"
"I know. You just wanted to bolster her confidence. Thing is, that same lack of confidence might come back if she became a Hero, and it might not just kill her but the people she loves as a result. That's if she makes it through her First Quest at all. Your interference hasn't exactly helped here."
My head shot up. "What do you mean?"
"I saw someone watching her when she came over here. It looked like he was debating whether to approach or not. He gave up when you did and went elsewhere. I know you only did it out of the kindness of your heart, but this period is to encourage them to team up. You might have cost her that opportunity."
A sense of nausea overcame me as I considered her words, finding little I could argue against. It reminded me of our time here, of me looking to Blake but not having the spine, but also of me making friends with Pyrrha – even if I didn't realise I had at the time. If those two events hadn't happened then I might easily have died. If someone had taken pity on me and talked to me at the time, I'd have clung to them, even if they were a year older than me.
Blake was right. In trying to help, I'd provided the girl a shoulder to lean on, but not allowed her to stand on her own two feet. I'd become a crutch. Or I might have, if Blake hadn't interrupted so quickly and scared her away.
It was cruel and callous, but Ellayne would be better served finding allies among those who could actually help her. If a story of being chased off by a terrifying Assassin would help her do so, then Blake's actions had done more for her than my kindness had.
She knew it, too. Her expression softened. "Don't feel so bad about it, Jaune. This is possibly the one occasion where compassion isn't the right answer. I'd rather you be someone who wanted to help and failed than someone who never cared to try in the first place."
"Thanks. I'm… I'm sorry for messing up."
Blake's hand took mine and squeezed it warmly. She smiled behind her mask, evidenced from the way it crinkled. "You're doing fine. Just be careful in the Quest. If we step in to help someone, even if it's to save their lives, then we have to fail them instantly."
"I know. I'll try not to."
"Give them a little time. Someone seemed to think you could stand up to a Beowolf a year ago. If they hadn't had faith in you, none of this would have happened."
That was true, and a little odd to think about. No one should have left me in a spot where I had to fight a Beowolf alone, that being so far above what a first year was ready for as to be ridiculous. That said it worked out… just. If it wasn't for Blake, Pyrrha, Ren and Nora, I'd have died a hundred times over. I caught Blake's meaning, though. We'd be watching people go through similar things, and I'd have to bite back on my desire to help them. Doing so would save their lives but would rob them of the chance to prove themselves.
Everyone here needed to show that they could stand on their own two feet. After all, they wouldn't always have me and the others around to bail them out. Everything is planned with that in mind, from the speech to leaving us alone in the courtyard. If Glynda wanted to, she could have had the portal ready to go beforehand, but they gave us time to form parties and they're doing the same here. In hindsight, every action Beacon took made sense. At the time it was terrifying, and that was what the poor girl was going through.
"Just stand tall and look firm," Blake joked. "My face will keep people away."
"Because they're idiots," I remarked. "If they could see your face they'd think twice. Or the men would, at least."
"Don't get cute. We're not supposed to draw attention, so flirting won't get you anywhere."
The tense moment between us evaporated and Blake moved a little further over to retake her position, leaving me to mine. I took a deep breath and stood taller, trying for the imposing statue look Blake had going on. She was right in the fact she scared people away, and it was the same as it had been all year through, even with the newest generation. Few could look beyond her Class. The same was reflected among the students as I noticed several Rogue-Classes banding together off to one side, taking solace in their exile. Others did what Blake had and remained out of the way, knowing that no one would invite or accept them into a party.
It wasn't fair, but life rarely was. At the very least I knew every single person here had a better chance than I did, being both a Blacksmith and massively under-levelled. If I could manage it, then so could everyone else.
Before long, the hour passed, and Miss Goodwitch sent out the signal for everyone to gather, with us pushing to the front. I joined with the rest of the Guild once more, bar Weiss, of course, who knelt to the side concentrating with numerous other Mage-types. Pyrrha winked at me and then nodded to the side, rolling her eyes at the attention she and her Class was receiving. I laughed nervously back but kept it quiet, not wanting to be heard over Miss Goodwitch's instructions to the assembled throng.
The portal flickered and flared to life. It wasn't the first I'd seen, nor the second, but the sudden shock of salty air washing over me was still enough to make me gasp. Others did too, but none so more than the first years, who recoiled from the sight.
"This portal will lead to the designated area," Glynda instructed. "The boundaries of your territory will be the wooden walls of this fallen village. Do not leave it. Should you wish to retreat or should you be injured, you may fall back to any wall, where you will be protected by older students. This will result in you having failed your First Quest, however." The Warlock paused to allow the frantic murmurs and whispers to die down. They all knew what it meant for them to fail. "Pay attention to your reserves, be careful, and above all, fight as the Heroes you claim to be!"
That was the signal. I dashed in with Pyrrha and the others, quickly flanked by the fifty or so students which made up the second year of Beacon. Our job was simple; to spread out and reach the walls as quickly as possible, reaching our assigned spots and holding there, both to provide safety for any retreating students, but also to make sure no larger Grimm from outside made their way into the testing ground.
The moment I passed through the portal the salty scent hit me far greater, and my eyes adjusted quickly to the change in light, flaring slightly as I covered them. We were on a beach, or close to one. I could smell the ocean before I saw it, it being behind the portal, but the village itself was a trading town of some kind with a long wooden jetty off to one side. The walls around it were some kind of stone, sandstone maybe, and the dwellings which made up the village were squat and flat-roofed. The portal had landed us outside the main gates.
"You all know your spots," Glynda called, stepping in behind us. "Get into the gatehouse and up onto the walls. Do not kill any Grimm unless they attack you first or it is to save the life of an aspirant. But remember, doing so will result in their failure. You have your assignments. Go!"
The gates were open – smashed open by the Grimm that had destroyed the place. We ducked in and then twisted left and right, splitting up as we stormed the steps leading up onto the wall and ran across it. Blake and I went left, along with Ren and Nora. The others went right. One bird-like Grimm on the wall squawked but was silenced by someone ahead of me, while those in the village had already begun to react to the sudden incursion, howling in anger and bloodlust.
Blake reached her spot first and stopped, leaving me to run ahead thirty or so metres until I found mine and did the same. Ren and Nora were on the next segment of wall, out of sight beyond several rooftops, and I could see vague shadows on the other end of the village manning the walls in the same spots we were in. The teachers had planned it out well and we covered just about every part of the circumference of the village. I looked behind me but my wall backed onto the beach and the ocean, where no Grimm were likely to come from unless they were amphibious. The opposite wall was the real danger, and those on that part would need to keep their eyes peeled both ahead and behind.
At least until the aspirants started to clear out the Grimm in the village that was. Their fighting would create negativity and draw more Grimm from the surrounding wilderness, and they were ours to deal with. It would be a little ridiculous if the first years were expected to deal with all of that. The First Quest would never end.
The portal flared once more, and in a deluge of brightly-coloured clothing and nervous smiles, the untested legion of students poured out into the city. I wished them luck. They'd need it.
All in all, not much had happened since the Quest began. It had been going on for an hour now and apart from a few Grimm that wandered too close, there wasn't much excitement to be had. I'd been correct in guessing my wall would be without action, as while I'd seen some Grimm in the ocean, none had been able to get up onto dry land. Blake stole my last kill, too, which led to me shooting her a glum glare and her smirking as she retrieved her knife and climbed back up onto her section.
The Quest was going about as well as it had last year. The hundreds of students who came through had dispersed at different speeds, the more confident or just reckless ones rushing off ahead, and the nervous and weaker ones hanging around behind, much like I had.
There were the cowards too, though I hesitated to call them such, who took one look at the carnage and glumly walked back into the portal, giving up before it had ever begun. I had to wonder why they bothered to show up at all if they weren't going to try, but it was possible they hadn't been given the choice. Family might have pressured them, or perhaps they'd felt trapped by the Caste system and forced into it. That would change now. A Soldier's life awaited them.
On the bright side, there hadn't been a repeat of my disastrous First Quest, which was to say there wasn't the bastard spawn of an Elder Grimm running around chopping people to bits. The village was just full of little Grimm, the kind I'd faced in the Emerald Forest, though more of those were airborne, likely something to do with the climate. Those that trod the ground were squat and strong as opposed to quick and ferocious like the Canis I'd faced.
"See anything?" Blake called. She stood twenty-five or so metres away, having taken a few cautious steps closer without actually leaving her post.
I did the same, taking three or so steps towards her. We were both bored, and there was little to do since no Grimm were testing us from behind. "Nothing here," I called. "Looks calmer than our First Quest was."
"Let's hope the entire year is. Our first was a bit of a bust."
I couldn't argue with that. While everything might have worked out in the end, it was only by dumb luck and dogged determination from all of us. One foot different, or Blake not coming to Atlas, and we'd all be dead.
"There's no Torchwick anymore, so I think they should be okay," I said.
"Hm. Greycloaks, though."
"Hopefully they'll be dealt with before these lot have a chance to go out on Quests. We were early, remember. Most didn't go on a Quest outside the academy for at least six or seven months. I guess we'll have to keep an eye on them."
"Speaking of!" Blake pointed ahead and my attention was caught by a figure scrambling to fight off two lizard-like Grimm, Gekans. It was a dark-cloaked figure wielding a long knife in one hand and with a bow in his or her back. The latter was useless since it looked like the Grimm had gotten the drop on the person.
My hand fell instinctively to Crocea Mors and I bunched my legs. Before reality came back to me, that was. It was with a frustrated sigh that I forced my hands to let go. I couldn't interfere. Not yet.
"It's your call," Blake said, now a little closer and crouched on the wall fifteen metres away. "I can get to them quickly but it'll still take a few seconds."
I swallowed nervously. "Why am I the one making the decision?"
"Because I'm the faster one. I can get there if they need help."
That didn't really answer my question – or explain her reasoning – but such thoughts were torn away when the beleaguered Hero howled in pain, their leg having been slashed. My eyes widened. "Blake, go-"
Something fell from the roof nearby, or from a second-floor window. It landed on one of the Gekans and dragged it down, saving the first's life. The cloaked figure looked back but managed to block the attack in front of him. The two tussled for a while, but the one that had brought the other down managed to kill it and assist the other in dispatching the last Gekan. The two chatted briefly, before the cloaked figure leaned down to bandage his leg and limped on, the two now as a pair.
Blake relaxed and stood, while I let out a long sigh of relief. That had been close. So close that I'd almost sent Blake to intervene and robbed them of a chance to become Heroes.
"It's a surprisingly heavy decision," she whispered. "I was about to attack."
I sighed and wiped some sweat from my brow. "Tell me about it. I wonder if the others are having as much trouble."
"I'm sure they are. Weiss warned Ruby for a reason, after all. You know how she is about Heroes. Yang probably has her hands full keeping her from rushing in to kill the Grimm herself."
That sounded like Ruby, alright. Hopefully she'd have some Grimm to keep her distracted.
"I really want to help them," I admitted.
"You're not alone in that. We have to remember that this is to judge their capability. If we help them here, it'll only lead to them being killed later along. We need to do what's best for them. Not what we want and not what would be best for us if we were in their situation."
"It sounds uncaring…"
"It sounds it, but it's not. We need to let them decide their fates for themselves."
"You saved me," I pointed out.
"We were both students."
"You were as strong as a second year, maybe even stronger."
"That doesn't change the fact. Besides, I only gave you a chance. I bought you time to escape, and chipped in to damage it at the end. It was your will to fight that led to you completing the Quest. All I did was give you that chance."
As we had to now with the students here, she didn't say. I nodded to her, understanding. Maybe I was pushing my own expectations onto these students, imagining myself in their shoes when I should instead accept that they were their own people with their own fears, hopes, and dreams. Who was I to decide they needed to attend Beacon? Maybe they genuinely wanted to know where they deserved to be.
With our little theatre show over, Blake had no excuse not to go back over to her post and did so with a bored sigh. The Quest was about halfway over by now, though I didn't really have any way of measuring it. I'd estimate that three-quarters of the village had been reclaimed, but I knew from personal experience that more Grimm would spawn in the taken parts. The Quest Objectives were to liberate and then hold the village, which meant killing those spawns until the Grimm ran out of steam.
There was still plenty of time for people to run into trouble, and judging by the crowd of students sulking at the gates, many already had. If I remember right it was about half of the participants who failed on our run. Of that number, only a quarter made it to the second year.
It was hard to tell if this year's batch was doing better or worse.
But it was a shock of curly brown hair that quickly caught my attention. It was the girl from earlier, Ellayne, and she was running down a narrow street near my side of the wall. Not close enough to see me, maybe a few houses in, but enough for me to see her. She was being pursued by four Grimm.
"Jaune," Blake called.
"I see her." I replied, and then lowered my voice. "Come on, Ellayne. You can do it."
The Fighter turned a corner and ducked behind it to catch her breath. She didn't seem to realise the Gekan would follow her regardless, and she screamed as they rounded the corner and lunged for her. She managed to bring her weapon up in time, a short spear, and impale the lead one – much to my relief – but another scored an ugly cut on her arm and she dropped the shield she carried in her other hand. She fell with one Grimm bearing down on her.
"Jaune!" Blake hissed.
"She can still do it," I whispered. "Give her a chance."
Ellayne managed to put a foot into the maw of one of the Grimm trying to bite her, pushing it away and giving her the chance she needed to get to her feet. She grabbed her spear but abandoned the shield to limp away. Two of the Grimm followed, the third still confused over the fact it was clinging to a shield that had been left behind.
Two on one is good odds, I thought. You can do it. Just believe in yourself.
The Grimm caught up with her before the next turn. She heard them at the last second and spun to lunge at one with a two-handed grip on her spear. The tip missed, or rather scratched the thick hide and was deflected by it. She brought a hand up to block a claw aimed for her face but it raked across her skin, earning another pained cry. Unused to the pain, she stumbled, the instinctive action allowing her to dodge the attack that might otherwise have decapitated her.
"She can do it!" I snapped. "Have some faith in her!"
The Grimm's claws rose and fell. Ellayne screamed as they cut into her back. The second slashed through the haft of her spear, unbalancing her enough that one was able to tackle her to the ground. I bit my lip until it bled, watching as the brown-haired girl cried and covered her face with both hands. Come on. You can do it. Don't give up now! She still had the potential to pass. She-
"Jaune, she's going to die!"
She was going to die. She was going to die because I was determined to see her pass or die trying.
"Someone help me!" Ellayne screamed.
I was already moving. My feet hit the ground hard and propelled me the last few metres to her with a furious roar. Even then, a silvery blade overtook me – puncturing into the eye socket of the Grimm on top of her, about to swing down and end her life. It fell to the side while the second watched on in confusion.
Crocea Mors bit into its skull a second later. The lizard-like thing had a tough hide but that did little against my Strength and I hurled it from its feet and into the air. I swung again as it fell, cutting it in two and spraying the ground before me with blood. The third Gekan, a little further behind, leapt from the building above in an attempt to surprise me. I caught it instead by the throat, slamming it against the nearby building and driving my sword into its stomach. It twitched once and died, right as Blake jogged up.
A body crashed into mine before I could say anything to her, and for once it wasn't Blake's arms that wrapped around me. "Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you," the injured girl babbled into me, practically crying in her relief.
Shame and guilt warred within me as I placed my hands on the small of her back, Crocea Mors held awkwardly as I did. Gods, what had I almost done? I'd nearly let her die for the chance to become a Hero. I'd put success ahead of her own safety – with no thought as to what she wanted. Blake had been right to shout at me. I could see that in her eyes as she watched, standing a respectful distance away so as to not frighten the girl. Sadly, that left the difficult task to me, not that I didn't deserve it.
"It's okay," I said. "You're safe now."
"I-I was so scared. They came out of nowhere."
They hadn't, of course. If she'd been paying attention she might have been able to spot them, but she'd clearly been afraid. Even then, four Gekans wasn't a terrifying foe. Difficult, yes, but if she'd had someone to watch her back… if she'd found someone to watch her back…
Either way, I had my responsibility.
"I'll escort you back to the portal."
"Escort…?" Her eyes were wide and afraid. "What… what do you mean?"
Damn it all. This wasn't easy. Maybe the best bet was to just get it over with. "I'm sorry, Ellayne. You didn't pass the First Quest. The rules of Beacon are clear; I can't let you continue on."
"I… I failed?" Ellayne posed it as a question, surprised or shocked, but when she saw me nod, she wailed in despair. "No… no, no, no. I wasn't strong enough. I knew I wouldn't be! I'm sorry, I'm so sorry!"
Her tears were the last thing I wanted. I look to Blake for help but she shook her head wildly, making it clear I was on my own. To be fair, an Assassin probably wasn't what the girl needed right now. I took a deep breath, tried to imagine it was one of my sisters, and patted her back. "Hey, it's okay," I whispered in what I hoped was a comforting tone. "Look, not everyone is cut out for this life. You don't need to feel ashamed. Most of the people who pass here still won't gradua-"
"But my parents," the girl blubbered. "They've always been Heroes. They'll never forgive me."
"I'm sure they will," I lied. I had no idea who they were or what they were like. I hoped they would. My heart broke inside as I rubbed my hands over her back, watching Blake watch me with a sympathetic expression. "If your parents love you then they'll want what's best for you. Glory is fleeting. It's… not all it's cracked up to be."
She sniffled loudly and looked up. "R-Really?"
"Really," I said, smiling. "Come on, now. Do you think life as a Soldier is terrible? You still get to save lives and you'll make friends among them. Do all the Soldiers you see look like they're poorly treated?"
"N-No. I guess not…"
"There you go." She was coming around and I breathed a sigh of relief. "Maybe it's not what you wanted, or what you thought you needed, but it doesn't mean you can't be happy. Have a little faith, Ellayne. Everything will work out."
A horn sounded from behind.
Blake and I froze, even if Ellayne had no idea what it was and remained with her face pressed into my breastplate. It was the emergency horn, one provided to each second-year student as a means of announcing an emergency. Mine was hung on my waist. This call came from further down the line, by the gatehouse itself. My eyes looked towards it, seeing the fog washing over the early-morning ocean in thick waves. It rolled and billowed, almost like smoke from a mid-winter fire.
But something else moved within it, several somethings.
They were tall and dark, but not Grimm. They floated above the waves, within the smoke, and as they moved closer the dark shadows began to cover the horizon. They pushed the fog from their path, dispelling it as tall beams of wood pierced through, followed by fabric black in colour and sporting a familiar symbol etched in pale blue. Sails. Ships.
Ships were approaching the shore, and as I watched more appeared – easily fifty or more, and there might easily have been hundreds beyond that, filling the ocean. It was a fleet. Or perhaps even an armada.
"Mistral," Blake breathed, spotting the insignia on the sails. "But the peace- I thought…"
"They weren't waiting for peace," I realised. "They were waiting for the ice to thaw. No army marches through winter. Now that it's nearly spring..."
Blake didn't say a word. She wrenched the horn from her belt and brought it to her lips, blowing out a loud blast that echoed over the village. More caught it and repeated it, students spotting the danger and bringing the First Quest to a crushing, grinding, halt. At the gatehouse Glynda Goodwitch stood, dark cape flapping behind her as she faced the ships.
Despite our best efforts, despite everything Ozpin had tried, peace had not been achieved. The war had begun, and Mistral had just landed its invasion force unchallenged on our very shores. Ellayne, the poor girl, watched it all with wide eyes, before she hid her face against my chest once more. Having failed her First Quest, she was no longer a Hero. She was a member of the Soldier Caste; the very Caste which would be fighting against the invaders who had just landed. The horn had made a liar of me, that or Mistral. The girl in my arms wasn't going to be fine. Things weren't going to work out.
Ellayne's broken sobs were the only thing I could hear.
It's happened. Mistral has invaded, officiating the war that Vale began. I suppose it hardly comes as a surprise to anyone since it would be a rather ridiculous writing sin to tease a war and then just not have it happen. There have also been plenty of hints with Oobleck and Ozpin's conversations in the past. While I again can't exactly give the book title away straight away, I'm sure you can guess what it involves.
I also wanted to look at the First Quest (initiation) a little more closely, or rather from a distance, as Jaune was very much IN it the first time. I always wanted it to feel unfair, especially with the level discrepancies, but I also wanted it to make sense from a world lore perspective. Beacon isn't trying to make the most Heroes it can, lacking the resources for that. It's trying to get the best it can from a limited pool, and for that it needs to weed out those not strong enough - no matter the method.
And yes, my comment last chapter about OC's was sarcastic. I know 99.9% of people understood that but some genuinely didn't seem to, which is a little scary. But hey – I gave you an OC here. She appeared, was shy, and then failed the First Quest and will be thrown out of the Hero Caste in disgrace. In a very real sense she is an example of what could, and possibly should, have happened to Jaune. Or, if you like, what does happen to a lot of applicants. Also, because I know there are some lore lovers out there; if someone like Ellayne were to have a child, it would likely still be a Hero Class, and the child would have the chance to attend a school and try for their own First Quest. It's the Class that matters, not the Caste it came from or its background. Hence why even if Jaune was a one-in-a-million Knight born from an NPC family, he would have still been allowed to try and become a Hero.
Next Chapter: 19th February
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