Their travels had been uneventful. Or at least as uneventful as traveling outside the city could be. JNPR had become masters at long trips with no respite. They were as close to completely self sufficient as possible.484Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡcrJfcPdhIZ
It was good that the grimm only cared about humans, leaving the animal life alone. They could hunt for their own food, provide themselves water at riverbeds, and carried their tents with them when moving from one base camp to the next. There was very little they needed from Vale as a result. Mostly it was ammo and repaired armor and clothing that couldn't be accomplished in the field.
They weren't supposed to be out for more than a month at a time, but when they found a possible lead they followed it until they reached its conclusion. This trip had been one of those. They were six months in and still following the trail.
What they found two weeks out hadn't been any signs of reapers. Nothing physical at least. There were no tracks or markings. No sign of a trail. What they found instead was grimm, lots of grimm. They moved in packs, which was normal. They ignored the wildlife, which was normal. They ignored JNPR, which was not normal.
They were heading in the general direction of Vale, which Jaune didn't worry about. When they got there the huntsmen that protected it would stop them. Instead his team moved in the direction they came from. If the grimm were willing to ignore them, then they would do the same. No sense wasting energy or risk being overwhelmed.
Nora, of course, was very disappointed in this decision.
Four months ago they ran across the first solid sign that the reapers were in the area, or had been. They had talked about returning to Vale in a few days regardless of the grimm's peculiar behavior. There was no turning around at this however.
Pyrrha was the one who found the footprint. Human in shape, but too large, and it was imprinted deep enough to have been made by something over six hundred pounds.
They followed the trail that reaper had made. Ren and Pyrrha alternately acted as trackers, being the most suited to the job, while Jaune and Nora kept an eye out for possible attacks from the seemingly docile grimm or a hidden reaper.
By the time they found the trail they were outside the range their scrolls could broadcast to Vale, forcing them into radio silence. They weren't going to be able to call for help, or even tell anyone what they had found. That had been the risk from the start and they had all accepted it.
It had surprised Jaune the first time they had been in the field at how focused Nora could be. She wasn't as talkative, or showed any of her usual pranking behavior. It shouldn't have. She was a professional. There was a time for everything and even Nora could accept that.
It made the trip very quiet. Him and Pyrrha had remained as in sync as the day they first found the reapers all those years ago. More so if possible. It allowed them to communicate without even looking at each other sometimes. They always felt the other, and felt the other's love. It helped keep them both steady.
How the other two got by he wasn't sure. Ren had a girlfriend in Vale, but it could never get too serious with the time he spent away, and Nora... well she was Nora. She never really got too serious with her girlfriends.
Maybe it was just how centered his relationship made him that he assumed the lack of one should be bothering them. He was biased.
Pyrrha looked over her shoulder at Jaune, smiling, then returned to finding the next clue on where their prey had gone. She probably knew exactly what he was thinking about, as usual.
When the pause in searching lasted a few minutes Jaune stopped scanning the forest long enough to ask what had happened. "Did we lose it again?" It wouldn't be the first time the trail had gone cold. Fanning out would normally allow one of them to heat it back up.
"Sorry Jaune, but it appears so," Pyrrha answered, Ren nodding next to her.
The hour was getting late. They would have light for another hour, which would give them enough time to set camp and organize when each of them took their turn as sentry. Fanning out would have to wait until tomorrow, unfortunately. He hoped more signs of their passing would not be lost during the night.
"Hey boss man," Nora said in her chipper voice. There was a bit of sarcasm in that. Though Jaune was the leader, and they all accepted he had final say in command decisions, none of them, even Ren, let it get to his head.
"According to my scroll there's an old SDC facility about fifteen minutes that way." She paused only long enough to point to the east before continuing. "It's been abandoned for over twenty years, but there should be something we can use as shelter still standing."
Silently Jaune was happy her speech pattern, which was normally more of a coherent flow of consciousness than actual sentences, was slow and to the point. Behind Nora, Pyrrha's eyes danced with amusement at his unspoken thoughts.
"Sounds like a plan to me," Jaune agreed.
Ren finally gave up on trying to track his quarry and came around to look over his best friend's shoulder. "It does seem optimal."
As had become her custom Pyrrha simply nodded. If anyone was allowing Jaune's head to inflate it was her. That was, as far as he was concerned, the only chink in his wife's armor.
In combat decisions his word came first. That hadn't always been the case. When he was still learning from Pyrrha how to fight, and building his confidence, she sabotaged the second without realizing it by taking control in combat situations. It was only natural, honestly. Jaune didn't have the experience or training yet, but he was still overly sensitive.
Once she realized what she was doing, which luckily after he had grown to understand the role, she had gone into full reverse. He may be in command, but he always valued his teammates input, and especially hers. It was fortunate that he could read the amazon so well. He usually knew what she was thinking.
In this case she was truly agreeing with Nora's planned location to set camp.
"Ok, let’s move out. We'll look for their trail again tomorrow," Jaune said with the authority he had grown comfortable with.
When they arrived at the facility they found a perplexing sight. The exterior walls of the old mining facility were thicker than any Jaune had seen except Vale's defensive perimeter. Despite that there was one area of the wall that had been breached by something massive. There were several buildings beyond it that had collapsed by that ancient force rather than time.
A quick scan with the thermal camera indicated no cold spots that were the tell tale spots of grimm. The light from the sun was starting to go to twilight, so first priority was to find shelter and hopefully a working well to get fresh water. With no grimm to worry about they did so openly.
The building they found had once been the main store house of the facility, but now it was only a cave made by two large slabs of concrete that had once been its walls.
"Do you feel it?" Ren asked into the silence. (Nora was out looking around) He spoke rarely so when he did Jaune took notice.
He closed his eyes and concentrated on what was around them. It was faint, but it was definitely there.
His once teacher answered first however. "Dust."
Dust was still a mystery, but most accepted that it was a natural resource formed long ago, no different than diamonds. It wasn't something that could be reproduced or made, at least if there is no one had discovered it. There hadn't been a lack of effort among the scientists backed by government funding either. Given that the SDC had to have mined the area clean there shouldn't be any dust left.
"We should look into it in the morning," Jaune decided. This was one mystery that needed answered. It may have more importance than the reapers.
The other two nodded their agreement, then finished setting up the interior of their home away from home. After years of doing this they had all figured out the chores they filled the best and were doing them efficiently. That was why Nora was outside. Even after a day of walking she normally had energy she needed to burn off before she could sleep.
Nora came in, stopping her skipping at the door, carrying several newly filled water skins. "I found a working hand pump, so I went ahead and filled these up, because I figured that was what I should do and I don't want to be out there by myself for too long. I mean, I can beat anything up that's out there, but I don't want to take away from anyone else's fun. So I carried all of them at once. It wasn't much really. We should bring more skins next time we come out. What would we do if we went a long stretch with no clean water to refill with? I can take the extra weight easy. I'm small, but I'm mighty."
Now that they were settled in Nora had returned to her more normal way of talking, with interest. Holding all that in for her must be a matter of pure willpower. Jaune leaned back from where he was sitting and simply listened, picking out small pieces of information in the monologue that he was seriously considering.
"Nora," Ren interrupted.
With a casual feel that came from knowing each other since early childhood Ren asked "The door?"
"Oh, of course!"
"The door" was a third slab of wall, which Nora pulled into place. There was no way inside large enough for a dog to get through after that. There wasn't a grimm any of them had heard of smaller than a wolf, so they were confident in this passive defense.
There had been a question that was answered once in their third year: who's stronger, Yang or Nora? At the time Yang had won, but Jaune was willing to bet the results would be different today.
With their lodging secured all four could sleep safely. Dinner had been water and bread, but in the morning they would hunt for better fair. It was enough to fill their stomachs and get one of the rarest of things: sound sleep.
Their cave was small, giving little room for all four to lie down and sleep. It was a good thing they had gotten comfortable enough that invasion of their personal space wasn't an issue.
Of course Jaune and Pyrrha snuggled closely. Behind him, back to back, Nora was snoring soundly, an arm lying on Ren's chest. Of the four she was the most restless sleeper. Occasionally Jaune would wake up with her cuddling up behind him, asleep and unaware that the person she was holding wasn't the female she was dreaming about. That was a painfully embarrassing at first, for obvious reasons. After a few years it was merely awkward.
This arrangement meant that when one of them got up they all woke up. Nora was the morning person in the group, so normally was the one who got them up first. Today it was Ren however. He was the one who slept the lightest, waking at any unusual sound around him.
All three of the others were instantly in combat mode, grabbing their weapons and ready. "What did you hear?" Jaune asked quietly. Prepared for possible combat he took full control of his squad.
"Something on the door... Like scratches." Ren replied, an usual tint of worry in his voice.
Nodding his understanding, he then looked at Nora and swung his head to indicate she needed to move the door. With a smile she raised her grenade launcher to move it permanently. Quickly Jaune put his hand on the barrel and pushed it down. He wanted it intact.
With a frown of disappointment Nora moved up to the slab and pushed the door to the side, all three others covering her.
The cover turned out to be unnecessary. There wasn't anything outside except buildings in various states of decay, just as it had been when they went she had closed it. Automatically Jaune grabbed his thermal scope, searching around for any form of life that posed a danger.
If it was possible his hair would have gone white at what he saw. In the barest of whispers he said "We're surrounded."
There were enough grimm around the exterior of the compound that the thermal signatures all blurred together, making it impossible to know what kind of grimm they were. The breach, the easiest exit for them that wouldn't leave them vulnerable, was the most packed.
JNPR was one of the best teams in Vale, but even they had no chance of getting out without being overwhelmed with those numbers.
"I have a feeling they're going to attack if we try leaving," Jaune said, speaking the obvious. "But why aren't they coming in?"
"Jaune... Come see this," Pyrrha said, sounding unusually unsteady.
Moving around their makeshift door, he looked at the wall. Carved into it was a single word. "Vengeance."
The meaning was lost to him at first. Vengeance for what? "Jaune," Ren said, pointing to the left of the breach. Standing above the rest of the grimm there was one form he could clearly make out, a reaper, arms out to be sure he was identified properly.
It was a hulking sized monster. Jaune remembered Coco's description of the grimm she had fought in their final battle with the reapers. This one must have been of the same type. The one Coco had gone against had nearly killed her, and done so easily.
"If he's like the one Coco fought only Nora's weapon has a chance of breaking his armor," Jaune said, still in command with the possible threat. "Keep that in mind if we have to fight him."
As if he somehow knew that he had been spotted their prey turned around and left.
Understanding came. "It's a siege. He wants us to die slowly."
Unexpectedly Pyrrha fired a single shot from her rifle into the air. Looking up Jaune saw a small nevermore no bigger than an eagle falling, disintegrating to nothingness before it hit the ground. A lookout? That possibility scared him. It meant a reaper had a level of control over the rest of the grimm beyond any of their possible guesses.484Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡWQDK4tWg5l
"Well that figures," Nora said sarcastically. "We've been thinking there had to be a connection between the grimm acting weird and the reapers, but to hell if we could figure out how, or how well." She let out a quick snort. "Well, we know how well now. It only took being put in a death trap."484Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ0Yq86Wt1P8
All grimm fed off of fear and other negative emotions. Inevitably they were going to have all they could crave from them as their food ran out and desperation set in. They weren't there yet however.484Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡfYXkzNrUXb
"We were going to investigate this place anyways, so we might as well do it," Jaune ordered, hoping it would keep everyone's minds, including his, away from thoughts of doom. "Ren, you're the best at sensing the dust, see if you can pinpoint the source, or sources, and let us know what you find.484Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡTRfDA1J8ZS
"Pyrrha keep an eye on the grimm while we're busy." Yeah, it would have been nice to have Pyrrha at his side, but that wasn't where she would be the most effective. Personal bias had no place in command decisions.484Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡUVopReoQ8R
Looking over at Nora, Jaune finished with "and why don't we see if there's anything here that's useful?"484Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡONehmKyVbi
The search was largely worthless however. No food of course, which as the most important item on his list. Their own supply of food was thin. They were going to go out hunting today to replenish. There were no heavy weapons, or any other ways to get out, like maybe an old bullhead. Honestly, Jaune hadn't expected to find anything.484Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡzKrw0WSUnz
He had gotten excited when they ran across the communications tower. It would give them a chance to call for help with its improved range. It looked to be intact except for its antenna, but when he tried to use it all he got was disappointment. Though reception would have been bad without the antenna, they should have been able to get at least one of the closer outposts. All he heard was silence.484Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ3299FGuqK6
Returning to base camp he found Pyrrha still scanning the perimeter. "No change, she reported over her shoulder.484Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡFPm34CijHU
Jaune nodded his understanding, pulling out his own infrared to view the surroundings. It wasn't that he didn't trust Pyrrha's assessment. If she told him to jump off a cliff he would without pause. It was so he had a clear mental image of what was around them. "Any idea what we're dealing with out there yet?" Jaune asked while he scanned.484Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡ8TRfRBIGU0
"I saw at least ten of what I think are deathstalker tails, but otherwise I could not tell," Pyrrha replied.484Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡM2C3RIts0S
That was actually more than Jaune was hoping for. "I also shot down five more nevermores of about the same size as the first."
That didn't confirm they were acting as aerial spies, but it was close. "Okay, I'll take over, get some rest love." He didn't normally use endearments when in situations like this. Like Nora, he was a professional and there was a time and place for everything. In this case he was making an exception. Even if she didn't need the comfort hearing that one word would bring, which he knew she did, he needed it for the comfort saying it brought him.
How Prryha caught the small details like the thin tails of a deathstalker, by the standards of their scopes, Jaune didn't know. She was simply better with the fine details, which is why she made such a fine sniper. 484Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡFMZmcDje2x
"Nora, take a look at the breach and see what we're dealing with visually. Be careful though," he said, putting emphasis on careful. He knew her tendency to go into a fight without thinking. Hopefully this danger was enough to keep her back. "Stay as far back as you can, and from cover. If you even see a hint of aggression..."
"Run for it," she interrupted. "Yeah yeah. I'm not stupid. I got it." She sounded annoyed, and abashed Jaune had to admit she had good reason. Before he could apologize she was already off. Surprisingly she still look annoyed. That girl could let anything pass by her without bothering a hair on her head. He had messed up by the numbers.
About fifteen minutes later Ren ran up carrying something. When he got close Jaune was able to make out a sword. It had a thin blade, light hilt, he guessed perfectly balanced, and a red rope of some kind hanging from the pommel nut. That last was what allowed him to identify it as a dancing sword.
When Ren reached him the last clue on why Ren was running instead of walking came out: It had an aura. A very feint, very familiar, aura. It wasn't identical, but felt disturbingly close to Ruby's. He ran through the possibilities quickly to think of how that could be and came to the only possible conclusion. To be that close it had to be a parent. Taiyang's weapon had been with him when he died. That only left Summer. Though he hadn't known what weapon she used before, he had no question now.
Running through the bits and pieces of what he knew of their family history, which were very few, he was amazed that the weapon was this far away from Vale. "Pack it up. Ruby will want it," Jaune somberly told Ren before he could give the story behind its discovery.
Returning from their temporary home a couple minutes later Jaune was anxious to hear about how Ren had found it.
"I believe the dust is only small amounts of powder mixed into the soil throughout the facility," Ren said. Jaune expected this would take no longer than three sentences. "No matter where I went the strength did not change noticeably. I located the sword in the center of a battle from long ago."
Nailed it. Ren was nothing if not succinct. "I'll want to look at it later. I want to be the one to give it to Ruby, if no one minds." Pyrrha placed a hand on Jaune's elbow silently. She would be coming to. Ren only shook his head calmly. He doubted Nora would want to either. This was the painful responsibility of leaders, but he hoped it would give Ruby some form of comfort.
Jaune didn't have much hope, but he had to ask. "We located the communication tower, what is left of it. It seemed intact except for the antenna, but is only giving static. Do you think you can look at it?" None of them were technicians, but of the four Ren was the closest.
"Yes," Ren said simply. "Lead the way."ns22.214.171.124da2