No one had expected it to be simple. Well, except for Nora, and for Nora it was pretty simple. But considering that their entrance exam had consisted of divebombing a Grimm-infested forest and fighting their way out, no one was surprised when their impromptu midterms were very much the same.
“A sudden influx of Grimm has invaded the Emerald Forest,” Professor Goodwych had announced that morning. “While this is very unexpected, preliminary surveillance has shown that the situation, while urgent, is not critical. We have decided that it is, in fact, an ideal opportunity to evaluate your progress as Huntsmen and Huntresses in training.” She had closed her scroll and stared at them all severely over the rims of her spectacles. “We suspect that previously-undetected nests of young Grimm may be the cause of this. Please keep in mind when dealing with these young that age is not an indicator of how dangerous a Grimm is. In any case, Professor Ozpin, several members of the staff, and myself will be keeping an eye on your performance, and evaluating you on fighting skill, teamwork, decision-making, and, for some of you, leadership skills.” Her austere gaze had swept over Ruby, Jaune, Cardin, and the other team leaders before her. Ruby had been bouncing on the balls of her feet, grinning from ear to ear. Jaune had swallowed nervously, despite the reassuring smile from Pyrrha, the rough nudge from Nora that had probably been meant as a reassurance, and the deadpan look from Ren that was anyone’s guess. The hulking leader of CRDL had simply smirked in response while his teammates exchanged knowing grins.
“Remaining with your teams is a requirement,” Professor Ozpin had added. “Remember, we established them for a reason. However, if you wish to work together with other teams, feel free.” The headmaster of Beacon smiled cheerfully. “As Professor Goodwych said, teamwork here is key. There are a lot of Grimm out there.”
Dove and Sky had snorted at this. Ruby had caught Jaune’s eye and given him an eager thumbs-up, to which Jaune had looked a bit less nervous and a little more confident.
Not half an hour later, here they were, near the foot of a sheer cliff, close enough to see the opening of a cave that Jaune and Pyrrha had apparently recognized.
Ruby’s head spun almost as much as her scythe did. The battle was complete and utter chaos; she and Yang were surrounded by a pack of Beowolves, which shouldn’t have been too much of a problem, but a good portion of Ruby’s attention was constantly elsewhere. Weiss was skipping over their heads, using her shining glyphs as stepping stones. Every now and then, if a Beowolf happened to leap within her reach, she would aim and strike with an explosion of Dust energy. Weiss was all right, Yang was all right (of course she was, when she had her awesome little sister to watch her back), and Ruby was most definitely all right. Blake, on the other hand, was up to her ears in Boarbatusks. And try as Ruby might, she couldn’t reach her lone teammate. There were simply too many wolves – if she and Yang took down one, two more would pop into its place.
Ruby blew a lock of hair out of her face with a frustrated huff. Time to delegate. “Weiss!” she yelled. “Yang and I can handle these guys! Can you get to Blake?”
Her friend looked ready to protest for a moment, but she nodded. A line of glyphs led her over the heads of the Beowolf pack, and she dashed along it, leapt down to the back of one of the Boarbatusks, and dropped to the ground not far from Blake. The Faunus sent a slight grin her way before dispatching a monster with Gambol Shroud’s blade straight down its throat.
Team JNPR stood between Team RWBY and the cave that had once housed a lone Deathstalker. If there was one thing that Jaune didn’t have to worry about, it was keeping track of where his team was. Nora was easy to find – one just had to follow the explosions. Rapid gunfire drew his eye to Ren, no farther from Nora than he ever was in a fight. Jaune knew where Pyrrha was; she’d taken a tusk to the leg early on, and he’d had her move to the upper branches of a tree closer to the cliffside. There, she was sniping Grimm with Miló’s rifle form. Jaune himself was down on the ground with the first two. He had his shield up, taking blows from Beowulf claws until either an opening allowed him to strike with his sword or one of his teammates took out the offending Grimm for him. Whichever came first.
The Beowolf’s paw came around again. Jaune knocked it to the side with his shield, and lunged. His blade sank deep into the Beowolf’s stomach, and the beast fell twitching to the ground. Heart pounding, Jaune shot another quick glance around. A few of the Boarbatusks that had previously been attacking Blake and Weiss were now occupying Nora’s attention – or amusement, rather. Ren was providing cover fire for her as she ran in, hammer swinging. Deciding they were alright for the moment, Jaune looked toward Team RWBY.
He found Ruby watching him with a wide grin on her face, and she gave him a thumbs up even as she was riddling Beowolves with bullets one-handed. Of course, one of them moved in from the side and pounced.
“Watch it!” he yelled, at the same time as Yang called out, “Ruby, duck!” The younger girl dropped to a crouch automatically, only looking up and noticing the the Grimm after it had leapt too high. Her scythe swung up in an arc and sliced the beast cleanly in two, and she was out from under it before its carcass had landed.
Jaune had little time to marvel at his friend’s speed. Two Ursa had burst upon the scene, only adding to the chaos. A quick glance to Pyrrha told him that she was concentrating her fire on the larger beast. The second was smaller, quicker – and heading straight for his other teammates.
One of its paws swung around as it charged, its enormous claws heading straight for Ren’s unprotected back. Jaune readied his shield and charged.
“Behind you!” he yelled. Ren whipped around, just as Jaune sprang between him and the Ursa and caught the thing’s claws on his shield. They scraped harmlessly off the polished surface, and Jaune drove his sword into its body, right where its foreleg met its shoulder.
The Ursa roared, threw itself around, and began galloping back the way it had come – toward the cave. The blade of Crocea Mors was caught fast in its body, and Jaune had a death grip on the hilt that he was too panicked to release. As it passed Pyrrha’s tree, he wailed aloud with dismay. He was nearly at the cave when a familiar red-gold javelin slammed point-first into the beast’s back, but the Ursa kept going, mad with pain and dying. Jaune barely managed to yank the spear out and toss it back in Pyrrha’s general direction before they entered the cave, and everything around him went dark.
Ruby knew that frightened wailing anywhere. By impaling two Beowolves on her scythe blade, she managed to buy herself enough time to look over her shoulder and see the backside of an Ursa vanishing into the cave. Ren was giving chase, but a larger second Ursa managed to bat him away before going down under Pyrrha’s rifle fire.
“Ursa cubs! Coming this way!”
Russel Thrush and Sky Lark came plowing through the Grimm that RWBY and JNPR were collectively fighting. For a moment Ruby could only stare, dumbfounded, as a small horde of half-grown Ursae galloped after them, snapping at their heels. To the credit of Cardin’s two teammates, they carved a considerable path through the Beowolves and Boarbatusks. On the other hand, they continued running while the young Ursae turned their attention to the other two teams.
On top of it all, Ruby could still hear Jaune’s panicked screaming, as muffled and distant as it was now.
Yang sent a cub flying with a single punch, but it rolled over, got back to its feet, and charged again alongside the rest of them.
“Oh, great!” Weiss’s disgust rang out even as her glyphs lit up the forest. “Thanks a lot, boys, that was really helpful!”
“Seriously!” Yang granted temporary flight to several cubs this time, all of which Pyrrha picked out of the air with well-placed rifle shots. “Man, these things just – keep – coming, don’t they?”
The recoil from one of Magnhild’s shots sent both Nora and her hammer spinning through the air toward them, kicking up a veritable tornado of Beowolves and Ursa cubs. “Wheeeeeee!”
Ren, of course, wasn’t far behind, as harried as he looked. “Nora!”
She stuck the landing and turned a few more circles to use up her momentum and ward off dizziness. “Just a minute, Ren!”
“We have to get to that cave!” Pyrrha yelled out, as a gang of the Ursa cubs crowded in front of it. “Jaune’s inside!”
Ruby felt her heart sink with dread. “Pyrrha, what happened?”
“He got dragged in by that Ursa,” Ren said grimly. He had holstered one of his guns so he could keep his free hand on Nora’s arm.
There was one Beowolf left, snarling at Ruby as it prepared to charge. Before either Ruby or the creature could attack first, Blake swung in and sliced through it with a cleave from her scabbard’s edge. “Is he still screaming?” she asked dryly.
“Guuuuys! Guys, oh God, help me! Noooohoohoooo!”
Yang rotated her finger in her ear. “I think that’s a yes.”
“The cave’s blocked the cave’s blocked!” Worryingly, Jaune’s voice was accompanied by the shrieks and growls of Grimm, and lots of them. “HURRY UP WHY ARE THERE SO MANY OH GOD NO GET OFF.”
“You heard the man!” Pyrrha urged. “We have to get inside that cave!”
Ruby could hear Weiss muttering under her breath as she bounded over their heads on her glyphs. “Oh for love of–” There was an explosion of red Dust, and two Ursa cubs fell dead to the side while another staggered away, injured, until Pyrrha finished it off with one bullet.
“Weiss, Blake!” Ruby called out. Weiss sprang back toward her, out of the way of a charging Boarbatusk. Ruby never actually saw Blake move to stand by her; the Faunus girl was simply there, waiting for Ruby to lead. “Yang and I will focus on pushing forward. Keep an eye on our backs, okay?”
“Fair enough,” Blake answered, while Weiss simply nodded.
Jaune, in the meantime, was still alive and letting everyone know about it. “Aaarrrrrgggghh MORE OF THEM?!” he howled from inside the cave. “No no no, GET AWAY FROM ME! GUUYYYYS!”
On Team JNPR’s side of things, they were managing well enough with Jaune absent. Nora was running point, rushing the bands of Grimm with her hammer swinging. Ren covered her back – pretty much the same game plan as RWBY had, divided by two. Pyrrha shifted her weight on her injured leg and reloaded her rifle.
The Ursa cubs were deceptively difficult, just as tough as adults and several times as fast. Ruby felt teeth in her calf before she even saw the miniature monster lunge at her. She cried out, but the creature was too close for her to swing her scythe properly and she wasn’t sure there was time to switch it to gun form –
Before her eyes, the Ursa’s body practically exploded, hit from either side simultaneously by a shot from Yang’s gauntlet, and another from Ren’s gun. The monster’s jaws flew open, releasing her leg, and Ruby slammed her scythe down into the body of the next one she saw.
Dimly, through the haze of adrenaline, she could hear Yang’s voice. “Ruby, get back!”
“I’m fine!” she yelled back, and promptly stumbled. Maybe not. Reluctantly she limped back, searching around for white. “Weiss, push forward!”
“Already on it.” Her teammate dropped from a glyph into her place before the monsters in front of the cave had the chance to take the lost ground.
The Grimm were already severely depleted, and most of them stood between the two teams and the cave, so it was little trouble for Ruby to make her way to the foot of Pyrrha’s tree. Jaune’s panicked screaming was still audible from inside the cave, which was a good sign. At least he wasn’t dead yet.
“Get off my leg get off my leg get off mY LEG OH GOD NO WHY.”
From the foot of the tree, Ruby picked off monsters all around the five frontrunners. Her leg throbbed, but it wasn’t too bad – baby Ursa teeth were small, and she didn’t have to worry about stopping to bind it just yet.
And then Yang was through, and Jaune had fallen silent.. Ruby saw her sister’s bright hair vanish into the shadows of the cave, and dashed forward without thinking. Nora was close behind Yang, with Ren slipping between two cubs to stay at her side. Ruby limped rapidly forward, raised her scythe, and dispatched the two monsters with one swing. Weiss and Blake finished off the last of the cubs, and one final Boarbatusk fell to Pyrrha’s Miló before Ruby limped into the cave. She thought she heard Weiss yell at her, but her thoughts were on Jaune. There was a dead Ursa not far past the cave mouth, presumably the one that had dragged Jaune inside, and she hobbled around it, nearly tripping over its massive forepaw.
The fiery glow of Yang’s aura lit her way, and she found her sister standing motionless further inside. Ren and Nora were beside her, and they were stock-still, side by side, staring at something that Ruby couldn’t see yet. The cave was silent, and Ruby felt her heart drop as she joined them. Behind her, she heard Weiss and Blake catch up.
She stopped, too. And gaped.
An entire nest’s worth of Ursa cubs lay dead on the floor. Two adults were among them, one of them nearly beheaded entirely. There were more Grimm monsters than Ruby could count on both hands, and not a single one was still alive.
Jaune stood in the middle of the carnage, his sword still raised and gripped in both hands. His chest heaved with each breath, and his body glowed with his aura.
The leader of JNPR stared at them, his eyes wide as saucers.
“What the hell took you guys so long?”