Disclaimer, I do not own RWBY
Chapter 10: Initiation
Jaune exhaled slowly and watched his breath mist over instantly. The bullhead that dropped him off in the middle of nowhere was rapidly diminishing to nothing on the horizon and the sound of its engines had long been drowned out by the howling winds.
Fingering a small token in the shape of Atlas's symbol, Jaune inspected the proof of his participation in the initiation and attached it to the front of his coat. The thing served as both an entry proof and a tracker, allowing officials to track his location as well as record video evidence of his progress for assessment purposes.
Pulling his coat around himself tighter, Jaune sucked in a breath of icy air before starting the long trek back towards Mantle. The going was slow, his boots sank into the knee-high snowdrifts and the suction made every step a chore.
Ascalon stabbed deep into the snow, searching for any hidden pitfalls. But despite his best effort to feel out a safe path forwards, the uneven ground still played hell with Jaune's footing.
"Shit!" Jaune cursed when his next step found no solid ground beneath his feet. Off balance and unable to right himself in time, Jaune pitched forwards and ended up buried up to his waist in snow.
"Grah! Damnit!" Planting Ascalon into the ground and using it as leverage to pull himself free, it still took the better part of a minute to dig his way out. Shivering slightly as he wiped off the melting snow that got into his clothes, Jaune bitterly wished that aura provided more protection against the biting cold than just a reduction in impact.
After adjusting his pack to a more comfortable position, Jaune started moving forwards again, eyes fixed firmly on the distant horizon. As uncomfortable as his present situation was, remaining out in the open when night fell would be far worse, not to mention the possibility of a blizzard springing up without warning.
With nothing but an almost endless expanse of white in every direction and not a lot of cover, Jaune scrapped his initial plans for roughing it out in the wilds. With no shelter, being ambushed by the Grimm while he slept was always a possibility, and that was something he wasn't keen on experiencing.
"Right, village… village… okay, Eiswald is the nearest one, but damn, that's still a big detour." Jaune grimaced as he consulted his map. Folding up the sheet of paper and stowing it inside a pocket, he grumbled some more before shuffling in the direction of the village.
So far Atlas's initiation was… a lot more boring than he thought it'd be, challenging yes, but also boring. Six days to trek a hundred miles across the countryside and return to the city for a pass. No frills or hidden surprises beyond what the environment itself threw at the Atlas hopefuls.
Just three simple rules to follow, no sabotaging fellow candidates, no hitching a ride back and no messing with the token barring an emergency situation. Failure to comply with those rules would lead to immediate failure and possibly criminal charges.
Anything else was fair game.
On its own, a hundred miles in six days was a challenge, but not overly gruelling for anyone with aura and a decent fitness level… if you were in Anima or the Vale side of Sanus at least. In Solitas where you had snow, ice, barren wastelands and more snow for miles and miles in every direction, it was a different story entirely.
Sub-zero temperatures were a constant drain on aura and source of discomfort. Built up snow bogged him down and hid any number of potential hazards beneath its pristine sheen, and the sunlight reflecting off it was blinding at times. The freezing winds slapped him in the face constantly, stinging non-stop while the arid environment only worked to dehydrate him further and the thirst made rationing his water a massive pain.
By the time Jaune made it to the gates of Eiswald, he was battered, sore and thoroughly exhausted despite not having to fight a single Grimm on his way there. The setting sun dyed the world orange as Jaune stumbled into the village, drawing several curious stares when he simply fell to his knees and kissed the first bit of clear ground he'd seen since beginning his arduous trek.
Shambling through the village in search of an inn to spend the night in, the goofy smile on his face refused to leave and he would be whistling in joy if he wasn't so dog tired. Walking on solid unfrozen ground wasn't something Jaune ever thought he'd be appreciating, but after spending almost a full day in the wilderness eating snow every few hundred metres, solid footing was a godsend.
After arriving at the inn and booking a room with some of the emergency funds he had stashed on himself, Jaune dropped his heavy pack onto the floor with a loud thud and plopped himself down on an empty couch in the lobby.
While waiting for his room to be prepared, Jaune pulled out his map and a pencil, ready to plot his path forwards. His brows furrowed into a frown as he started marking out possible routes, so far none of them looked promising in the least.
"Geez, the direct route is still another eighty…eighty-three miles off. But that's eighty-three miles of frozen hell. There's the main road, a hundred and two but no real rest stops unless a new village appeared." Jaune grimaced as the words left his mouth, villages tended to disappear without warning as opposed to suddenly springing up out of nowhere.
And whenever a new one popped up, there was usually some fanfare to go with it, a rush to update the maps with the new human settlement. Optimists said it was to give people hope, remind them land could be reclaimed from the Grimm. Pessimists said it was to ensure someone remembered to send burial detail.
In any case, no news meant no new settlements, not even bandits or terrorists would be bold enough to set up camp so close to the highway. Following the highway all the way back to the city meant he'd be sleeping rough, but the bright side was that he wouldn't need to slog through the snow anymore. Fire dust embedded beneath the road kept it warm and prevented snow from building up, making the journey a lot easier than trying to cut a straight line through the tundra.
Jaune chewed on his pencil, pondering his next move aloud. "If I follow the highway all the way back… I should finish in three-maybe four days. Hmm, there are a few villages I could bounce to… but damn, talk about out of the way."
After Eiswald, there were a few more villages he could stop at for the night. The problem with them though was that none of them were 'close' to the highway and even the least troublesome one would add a four mile detour. Not a very appealing option for someone on a time limit.
"Five days left, I can hit one, maybe two of em. Still gotta camp at least two days like that, gonna reach Mantle maybe five night or six morning. Ah… it's gonna suck anyways." Jaune grumbled and scratched his hair in frustration.
"Ah your room is ready, is everything alright?" A voice cut into Jaune's thoughts and pulled him back to reality. Looking up, Jaune found the elderly innkeeper hovering over him with a mildly worried look on his face.
"Oh, err, thanks. I'm fine, just planning how to get to Mantle." Jaune got to his feet and stretched, feeling his joints pop and his various aches return in force. Once again, he gave himself a pat on the back for having the sense to set course for Eiswald, a warm bed had never felt so appealing.
"The city? There is an airship coming to deliver supplies in the nex-" The innkeeper began before being interrupted by Jaune's headshake.
"Nope. No rides, that'll fail my initiation. Gotta walk the rest of the way back." Jaune replied and slung his heavy pack over his shoulder.
"Initia… oh, you're joining Atlas to become a huntsman!?" The innkeeper exclaimed in surprise, more than a little taken aback by Jaune's age.
"Yep. Thanks for the room, I'll leave the key on the reception in the morning, gonna be off early." Jaune pointed to the token attached to his coat to prove his words.
"I… I see. Will you be following the highway back then?" The innkeeper asked.
"Yeah, that's the plan so far." Jaune nodded.
"Would you be stopping at Asche along the way?"
"Asche? Hmmm…" Jaune pulled out his map to check again, sure enough there it was as one of the possible rest stops. It would be the second settlement he'd pass along the way back and one of the two possible rest points for day two.
"I might. It is along the way. Why?"
"Ah nothing, if you do drop by, I recommend you give their beef roast a try. It is exquisite if I do say so myself."
"I'll keep it in mind, thanks again for the last-minute room." Jaune gave the innkeeper a small bow before trudging off to his room for his well-deserved rest.
"Asche huh… hmm I'm making good time, I think I'll head there after all." Jaune mused to himself. High above him the sun peeked through the clouds, its golden rays illuminating the world but lacked the blistering heat normally associated with the noonday sun.
The frigid air remained a constant aura drain and the ground was slick from melted snow but Jaune would count his blessings and take what he could. His boots easily maintained their grip and a little bit of mud never hurt anyone, more importantly, there were no more snowdrifts to plough through thanks to the heating beneath the road surface.
Without the insane difficulty of having the environment itself fight against him, things were so much easier now. And with the pace he was maintaining, Jaune estimated he'd reach the town of Asche just after sunset instead of around midnight as initially predicted.
The rest of the day passed quickly, time just melting away with Jaune's high spirits. Nothing could douse his good mood, not the cold, not the mud, not the long trek and not even the Grimm.
The first bit of opposition Jaune ran into came in the form of a pack of Sabyrs who were initially unaware of him. Jaune sniggered when he sighted them through the snow-capped trees, rapidly deploying Ascalon into cannon mode, Jaune loudly announced his presence with cannon fire.
Angry roars and surprised yelps wafted over on the wind as the Grimm were blown to pieces with high explosives while Jaune laughed madly in the background. When survivors of the initial salvo came charging through the trees, Jaune's grin widened considerably.
Stowing Ascalon, Jaune retrieved a single grenade from his pack and waited for the Grimm to group up and close to throwing range. Pulling the pin and letting it fall, he let fly with a cheer. "Kaboom!"
The grenade fell short of the charging Grimm as planned and the oblivious Sabyrs rushed to their doom. The first passed with no issue, then the second, and when the third leapt over the patch of grass the grenade landed on, it detonated.
The blast of heat, light and sound consumed the pack of Grimm entirely, incinerating all of them at the same time. Jaune cackled as debris rained down over the area and surveyed his handiwork, a patch of the surrounding forest had been completely cleared out and only a massive crater served to mark where the trees used to stand.
"Hahahhaha, the MK II is working as expected, now if only I had a better way to mass produce it." Jaune shook his head and continued on his way, once he was in Atlas and had a bigger budget to work with, he could see about refining his explosives manufacturing process. In any case, field testing for his thermobaric grenades were coming along just fine, all he needed now was a proper name for them.
Pushing aside thoughts of the future to focus on the present, Jaune returned his eyes to the road ahead, staring down the mostly straight path as it disappeared into the distance. Sighing softly and adjusting his pack, Jaune increased his pace, he had miles to go yet and none of his explosives could help speed up his journey.
"Speed up… hmm… I'll look into it in the future." Jaune mumbled under his breath as he pondered the issue, most problems could be solved with explosives after all. It was just a question of how much and how to apply them.
The rest of the march passed without incident and Jaune left the highway, heading down the side road that lead towards Asche just as the sun was beginning to dip below the horizon. Looking forwards to another warm bed to rest in, Jaune sped up his pace again, eager to get back to civilisation after a full day on the road.
But as he got closer to Asche, Jaune's smile faded and became replaced with a worried frown. He could smell the tell-tale stench of smoke on the breeze and several trees had been knocked over as though something large had passed through in a hurry.
"Oh no." Drawing Ascalon and holding it at the ready, Jaune broke into a dead sprint, already dreading what he might find at the end of the path.
The closer he got the stronger the stench got and the more evident the damage to the surrounding forests. When the trees thinned out and the town of Asche came into view, Jaune skidded to a halt and stared at the devastation before him with a crestfallen expression.
Of what was once a thriving little town bustling with life, only ash remained. The entire town had been razed to the ground and wisps of smoke still rose into the air from where the fires hadn't gone out yet. Most of the buildings had been flattened or at least partially demolished and Jaune prayed their occupants had managed to get out before everything went down.
Jaune's eyes narrowed and his grip on Ascalon tightened when he noticed the Grimm prowling around inside the destroyed town. Pushing his anger down for the moment, Jaune skirted around the destroyed walls and slipped into Asche unseen. The Grimm hadn't noticed his arrival and there could still be survivors trapped somewhere however slim that chance, starting a fight now would jeopardise all of them.
The one bright side was that whatever giant Grimm had flattened the town's defences and demolished half the buildings was nowhere to be found. Just a few stray Beowolves and Ursas poking around the ruins.
Swallowing hard and forcing the bile back down, Jaune's face took on a greenish tinge as he sidestepped a particularly gruesome sight. A half-burnt arm stuck out of a pile of rubble, Jaune didn't know if it was still attached to a body and he really wasn't interested in finding out.
A loud roar coming from behind him alerted Jaune that the element of surprise was lost. Spinning around with Ascalon at the ready, he deflected the paw swipe from the Ursa that detected him before leaping back to get some distance.
"Bring it you sons of bitches!" Jaune growled and switched to cannon mode, firing a shell right into the Ursa's open mouth and blowing its head off. Jaune ignored the howls and roars coming from the other Grimm and shifted Ascalon to minelayer mode, deploying as many mines as he could before the Grimm swarmed him.
Retreating slowly and allowing the Grimm to run over his mines, Jaune slipped into an alleyway to force the Grimm down the chokepoint. In the cramped alleyway he barely had to aim as the Grimm crowded in, cannon fire boomed alongside his mines' detonations, whittling down the Grimm's numbers in droves.
"Come on! I'll take you all on!" Jaune roared back once the Grimm closed to melee range, switching to lance mode and stabbing away at the mass of black and white. Burning with righteous anger, Jaune refused to even slow down when the Grimm landed blows of their own, instead retaliating with twice as much force.
Jaune kept the Grimm at bay for a good while, depleting their forces with every swipe of his lance and grenade toss. Bit by bit their numbers began to thin and to Jaune's surprise, he began receiving support fire from someone midway through the battle.
Caught in the unexpected pincer, the Grimm trapped inside the kill box were swiftly eradicated and Jaune was left standing alone, watching the Grimms' essences dissipated into nothing. He didn't have to wait long before his unexpected ally showed up, an Atlas huntsman looking worse for wear and wielding a long rifle.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?" The huntsman asked, getting straight to business.
"Jaune Arc of Prometheus academy sir, I'm taking the Atlas initiation now and was passing by when I saw the smoke." Jaune answered.
"Right initiation is going on now, isn't it? Bloody bad timing… no never mind, come, we should leave before every other Grimm in the area come swarming. No way they don't know we're here now." The huntsman shook his head and began walking away with Jaune following behind.
"W-what happened here?" Jaune asked as they skirted around the bloody remains of several civilians who hadn't been able to evade the Grimm in time. The huntsman simply shook his head with a bitter expression while Jaune had to force the bile down again.
"Heh, I want to know too. Whatever the hell is going on here is way above my paygrade. I'll leave it to the spooks to figure this one out, if they even care. Right now, HQ better send support fast or the survivors aren't going to make it, if they even realise what's happened."
"You've called for help right?" Jaune asked.
"No. CCT's coverage here is spotty, we can't get a signal through. If we don't get through soon, we're not saving anyone." The man replied in a grim tone.
Jaune frowned for a second as he wracked his brain before looking to the token on his coat. According to Headmaster Ironwood, the token would also serve as an emergency beacon, should it be destroyed or damaged, help would be dispatched immediately to its location, hence do not mess with outside of emergencies.
As far as Jaune was concerned, this counted. Ripping off the token and tossing it to the bloodstained ground, Jaune stamped down on it and smashed it to pieces.
"What are you doing?" The huntsman asked in confusion.
"The token's a beacon, right? I smashed it so help should be coming soon."
"…Smart move. I just hope they send enough people."
"Kid! You got any bandages? We're running out!" A medic yelled out. The makeshift field camp was buzzing with activity as Atlas huntsmen and the few still healthy survivors rushed about trying to aid the many, many, many wounded.
"Yup! Coming!" Jaune shouted back as he rummaged through his rapidly shrinking pile of supplies and grabbed the second last roll of bandages before rushing over. Wiping away a bead of perspiration as he handed over the roll, Jaune gave thanks he had the foresight to overprepare an abundance of supplies beforehand. They were certainly coming in handy now with so many wounded and a critical lack of medical supplies.
"Thanks, help me support her while I dress the wound." The medic instructed and Jaune did as told, gently lifting and supporting the injured faunus woman while the medic replaced the bandage around the stump that used to be her arm.
A pained groan left the woman as she shifted in Jaune's hold, exposing the side of her face that had been mauled by the Grimm. Jaune blanched and managed to maintain the shaky grip on the woman until the medic was done.
Gently lowering her to the ground again, Jaune rose quickly and sprinted off to a corner, voiding his guts into a bush. Sinking to his knees as another wave of nausea took him, Jaune vomited again until there was nothing left inside.
"Here." A bottle of water was thrust into Jaune's field of view and he grabbed it gratefully, immediately gulping it all down.
"Pace yourself before you throw up again." The huntsman said.
"Right… thanks." Jaune said after a moment to fortify himself, returning the now empty bottle to the man.
"First time seeing this I assume?"
"Y-yeah. I… I saw some stuff during the Incursion, but…" Jaune trailed off, unable to find anymore words.
"Yeah, Grimm attacks get… messy. We got off light, shit like this, it happens all the time outside the kingdom's walls." The huntsman said, shaking his head in disappointment.
"Can't we do anything?" Jaune asked.
"Not much we can do. There are only so many of us, and by the time we get there… sometimes there aren't even pieces to pick up. Being a huntsman isn't easy, you sure you want to do this? You're young, plenty of time to choose something else, something that doesn't involve… this." The huntsman gestured to the chaos around them.
Jaune shook his head and rose to his feet, his voice remained shaky but the determination in them was undeniable. "No. I want to… I will become a huntsman, one day I'll be able to stop something like this from happening. I will become a hero."
"…That's a nice dream. But you realise you can't save everyone right?"
"Doesn't matter, I'm going to try anyways. Someone has to." Jaune looked the huntsman in the eye as he replied.
"Heh. Well, far be it for me to keep you from your destiny. Just know what you're walking into kid. This world is uglier than you can imagine." The huntsman grunted out, a modicum of respect in his voice.
Any further conversation was cut off when a loud shout pierced through the din. "I see em! Atlas bullheads! Two of em!"
It started slowly at first, as though the people didn't dare to believe it. Then as others looked up and saw the growing dots in the sky, it grew and grew and grew until the cheering had drowned out pretty much everything else.
A single black bird flew overhead before alighting on the ground and shifting into human form. Qrow surveyed the field camp and strode over to where Jaune was. "Mind explaining? I really didn't need the heart attack you gave me when your signal died."
"I was passing by Asche on the way back. Some kind of Grimm attack happened, I don't know the details but we needed to get help here from Atlas somehow." Jaune replied, his shoulders sagging in relief as the bullheads approached.
"And you couldn't call on your scroll? Oh what the hell, no signal right? Usually I'm the one with this kind of bad luck." Qrow replied with a small sigh.
"So… can I get a ride back to Prometheus?" Jaune asked.
"I failed right? I destroyed the token."
"Yeah, I think this counts as extenuating circumstances. I'll talk to Jimmy about this, but you did good Arc, you did good."
"Jaune Arc… I'm going to become very familiar with that name, aren't I?" Ironwood said as he put down Jaune's file.
"As I recall, this is the kid you picked up after you crashed the hammerhead. He was involved in the Incursion too, got dragged into the Jillian debacle."
"Yeah, one and the same. And I didn't crash it, the ship was defective." Qrow replied, cheerfully ignoring Ironwood's irate glare.
"Well, his case is problematic. Technically, he failed initiation since he destroyed the token, but it was a legitimate emergency." Ironwood mused.
"So, pass him. What's the problem?" Qrow said and casually uncorked his flask, nonchalantly taking a big swig from it.
"My problem is I don't know where to put him. Initiation was supposed to be a gauge of students' skills, mindset and give us an idea of what kind of team they'd be suited for. Jaune Arc's initiation lasted two days, and with the token completely unsalvageable, we don't have any footage to analyse. According to him, before Asche, he was mostly just walking anyways, not a lot to go on. Then of course, he's here by skipping grades, making what team to put him on an even bigger issue." Ironwood sighed out.
"He won't be a handicap if that's what you're wondering. I've trained him myself. And books… who needs em." Qrow said.
"Your objection against paperwork has been noted and ignored Branwen. But it still leaves me the problem of how to sort him out. Unlike most of the other initiates, he doesn't have any friends with him here according to his file, I can't even put him on a team with people he already knows."
"An older team? Not all of the teams were complete four-man cells as I recall. Some are… not an option, but there were a few teams that were short a man to begin with, right?" Qrow offered.
"Older team… hmm… I might have something. Not a team, but maybe a partner." Ironwood sorted through some files on his desk before pulling out the one he wanted.
"Oh?" Qrow looked on in interest.
"Bit of a complicated case this one. Originally part of a full team, but he's the only one left now."
"…You sure that's wise?" Qrow muttered.
"No. The rest of team isn't dead if that's what you're worried about, none of that baggage here. It's just… one has been medically discharged for injuries suffered in the field and the other two voluntarily dropped out." Ironwood said, unsure of who he was trying to reassure, Qrow or himself.
"Again, you sure that's wise?" Qrow repeated.
"No. But I think this is the best option, at least for the time being, there's just nowhere else I can see Jaune Arc slotting into. And with a fourth-year student as his partner, he should be able to help bring Arc up to speed. I've heard quite a lot of good things about this student from the instructors. It should work."
"And what happened to the rest of his team?" Qrow asked.
"…One hell of a clusterfuck mission he missed thanks to a broken arm. The details are sketchy but it has some similarities to the Asche incident. Some giant unknown Grimm and then something about waking nightmares, we're still investigating. In any case, this partnership should help them both. Of course, as your protégé, I expect you'll continue to have a hand in teaching the boy so in the worst case where it doesn't work out, expect to get an apprentice." Ironwood said, causing Qrow to roll his eyes.
"Eh, business as usual then. I- relax Jimmy, I'll make sure he does his homework, we won't start burning paperwork until after he graduates." Qrow jested when he saw Ironwood's warning look.
"You won't be burning anything period. Get out of my office Qrow, go give your student the good news and quit drinking in front of my face before I have you shot."
"Whatever Jimmy." Qrow laughed and spun around, heading out of Ironwood's office with a smile.
The general himself returned to the two documents that demanded his attention. The incident report on Asche and the ill-fated mission that wiped out three quarters of a team. Sighing as he began to read through them again for more insight, he spared the file of Jaune's partner to be one last glance before looking away, hoping he wasn't making a mistake.
The name written on the file?