This chapter switches the order around a little – have the 3rd person segment at the start. Obviously, scenes like these are things I decided to add after asking you all whether you'd like some more 3rd person scenes, etc.

The content still existed in the original plan. It was just that Jaune would have been present to see it, or I'd have not shown it if he wasn't there, etc, and let you find out about it later.

Reminder: No update next week due to Xmas break.


Beta: College Fool

Cover Art: Dishwasher1910

Book 7: Chapter 11


She stood there, smiling as calmly as she had the day she'd returned to their household, the night that Summer died. A smile that spoke of not a care in the world, or perhaps even a faint amusement at her current situation. It had burned Yang back then, and it did the same now.

"Yang, who is this?" Weiss hissed.

"A monster."

Raven chuckled. "Harsh words. I'm hurt."

"You deserve no less. After what you did to our family, I'm going to kill you!"

"That, Yang, would be quite the feat…" Raven turned and sheathed her sword, turning her back on them both. "I don't think you're capable."

Yang surged to her feet with a scream, "Rargh!" Her first slammed forward, into the middle of Raven's back.

The silvery cloak twisted and wrapped around her arm, Raven spinning suddenly and flicking an arm back, using it to wrap up Yang's fist. It hooked over as she completed her spin, tightened and dragged Yang forward. Raven's other palm came straight up into her chin, snapping Yang's head back and cutting her feet out from under her.

Yang stared up at the sky, dazed.

"Flat on your back, just like your father." Raven chuckled. "And not in a good way."

"Y-You bastard!" Yang kicked her legs out, but Raven stepped back casually, dodging with ease. Slamming a hand down, she pushed herself up and prepped herself, ready to pound the bitch's smug face into the ground.

A wall of ice shot up behind Raven, cutting off her retreat. "You've taken a member of our Guild," Weiss said, stepping behind Yang. "I'll ask you once to give him back to us, or we'll be forced to take you in and find him ourselves."

Raven crossed her arms and grinned. "Oh? And if I refuse?"

"You can't escape. Your retreat is cut off."

"Who said anything about retreat?"

"She isn't going anywhere, Weiss." Yang clenched her teeth together. "She doesn't need to. She's strong."

"If you say so…" Weiss eyed Raven, who merely smiled back, content to let them discuss their plan as if she didn't believe it would matter in the long run. It likely wouldn't. "She's a Knight? That's somewhat ironic…"

"She gives the Class a bad name. The worst kind of Knight imaginable."

"Such flattery, Yang," Raven called.

"It sounds like you have history."

It was Raven who answered. "We should. It was I who birthed her, after all."

Weiss gasped. "W-Wait, that's your mother?"

"On a technicality only. Summer was the only mom I ever had. This woman doesn't get the right to such a title. She's a murderer. A monster. I'll never consider her my mother."

"Considering how weak you've turned out, Yang, I'm not sure I'd want to be burdened with such a title. I can only imagine how disappointed Summer must have been..."

The words burned in Yang's head, festered and made her want to rush in, even if she knew that would be the death of her. With force of will alone, she tempered them down, pushed them away, and leaned in to whisper to Weiss, "Stall for time. We need Uncle Qrow."

"She's that strong? We're not weak, and Pyrrha should be right behind us."

"Raven is beyond us three," Yang said. "She's a bandit and a murderer. Worse, she hunts strong people down. Challenges them. Kills them. Doesn't matter who they are, what they're doing or what Kingdom they're from. She's a psychopath who lives only for the rush of Exp."

"I prefer to phrase it as an eternal quest to better myself," Raven interjected.

"No matter whose lives are ruined in the process!"

"Yang! Weiss!" Footfalls behind heralded the arrival of Pyrrha, Ren and Nora, each of whom looked a little winded, but fit to fight. They spread out, forming a rough semi-circle in front of Raven. "A Greycloak?" Pyrrha whispered. "Surrender! You're outnumbered."

"Tell me, Yang," Raven said, ignoring the other four. "What level are you now? How has Beacon assisted your growth?"

"You've got no right to ask!"

"Humour me."

Yang growled, but since Qrow wasn't around, decided to stall. "Forty. I'm level forty. That's twenty-five levels earned in just under two years. No thanks to you."

"Forty?" Raven looked surprised. "Hm, that's not bad. Not bad at all. You'll have to make that go a little faster, though, if you ever wish to catch up. Your `friends` here are dragging you down."

"They're my teammates," Yang snarled.

"Friends, teammates, guild mates… those are all just words at the end of the day." Raven slowly uncrossed her arms, though she made no move to draw her weapon. "If you rely on them to support you, you're handicapping yourself. Sharing Exp, sharing the loot. It's all a waste. This world is made for the strong to survive."

She smirked.

"Allow me to demonstrate."

The movement was sudden. Yang got out a cry of warning, but it was meaningless. Raven covered the distance in a second and drove her fist into Yang's stomach. Air, spittle and blood splashed from between her lips and she slumped to the floor. The entire world zoomed in to the point in front of her eyes. She couldn't breathe. Couldn't even draw breath.

With an agonised croak, she toppled onto her side, eyes wide.

Nora and Pyrrha attacked from behind, determined to save her.

Raven batted Pyrrha's sword away with the back of her hand and caught Nora's hammer in the other. Her fingers dug in and she wrenched it down, slamming the but of the weapon into Nora's knee, breaking it with a wet snap.

Ren was on her before she could finish off the Barbarian. The Monk was a whirlwind of blades supported by lances of ice and frost that cooled the very air and sought to freeze Raven's muscles. Faster than Nora, he forced Raven to take a step back.

A sudden cry pierced the melee.

Raven had Ren by the throat, one of his own daggers buried in his left arm, and his right grasped in Raven's other. "An interesting effort," she said, squeezing once.

Ren's legs kicked once and went still. His head slumped to the side.

"REN!" Nora wailed.

"He's not dead." Raven tossed his body towards Nora, knocking her down. "If he is the same level as Yang, then killing you all serves no purpose. You're too weak for the Exp to make a difference. Grow stronger, train harder, fight more enemies. At least then, you might have a purpose when I slay you."

Another lance of purest ice shot for Raven's face.

It shattered as she negligently waved a hand, slapping it out the air. Shards flicked against her face but did no damage.

"And you, Mage. Don't tire yourself out on spells that mean nothing."

Weiss hissed and spread her arms wide, summoning walls of ice that cut Raven off from Nora and Ren, protecting them. Pyrrha was pushed back as well, and Yang noticed that Ren's other dagger was buried in the Champion's thigh. How it had gotten there, she wasn't sure, but Raven still hadn't drawn her sword, nor gotten serious.

"Where," Weiss gritted out, "is Jaune?"

"Not here. And none of you are strong enough to demand more of an answer than that." Raven turned and drew her sword at last, drawing a flinch from each of them. She didn't attack, however, but instead cut the air in front of her, creating a shimmering, red and black portal. "I'll be making my return in a week or so. If he survives until then, you might have another chance. Tell my brother I came by. Tell him to expect me again. Tell Ozpin, tell the King, tell whomever you might wish."

"S-Stop," Yang rasped, still struggling to breathe. "D-Don't you dare w-walk away…"

Raven looked over one shoulder.

"If you want to stop me, stop me."

No one was able to.

Yang's forehead hit the floor as Raven stepped through the portal and away. The last thing she heard was the frantic shouting of Ruby calling her name.

I failed… again…

/-/

The first thing I became aware of were the voices. Muffled, rushed, there was a man and a woman, but that was all I could figure out. The words didn't make much sense but sounded close.

"Hold him."

"Bleeding-"

"-sn't matter. Take – ven says – out."

"Safety-"

"Irrelevant. He can't die from it."

Other feeling came back slowly, not vision as my eyes felt heavy, but sensation. Something soft yet hard under me, a towel below my face, a burning pain in my back. An ache in my shoulder. Reality was a cruel mistress, made all the worse for the sweat that beaded my brow.

"He's waking up," someone said.

"Hold him down."

Hands settled on either side of my neck, pushing down on my shoulder blades. I instinctively started to struggle, recognising that this wasn't normal, and that the voices weren't those I knew and trusted.

My strength failed me. I couldn't break the flimsy grip.

"Hold him," a young woman said, in a voice lacking any femininity. "He's not going to like this."

I had a vague moment to wonder what it was I wouldn't like before I felt fingers brush over my right shoulder and grip something. The crossbow bolt in my back, the shaft. The moment her hand clenched it, the small shifting had the head grate against my bone. I gasped in pain and tried to pull away.

"I can prepare a salve to deaden the nerves in the area," the man holding me down whispered. "He wouldn't feel it."

"And delay even more? Raven's not going to like that. Fuck it. He'll take it like a man. Or he won't. What do I care?"

I knew immediately what she had in mind and tried to stop her. "W-Wait, no…" My voice was weak, the words mumbled into the towel under my face.

With no warning whatsoever, the woman gripped the shaft and tore it from me in one swift motion. I heard the sound of my skin giving way, heard the blood splatter, heard the man holding me gag at the no doubt gruesome sight.

And then, after a short pause… I felt it.

I screamed myself unconscious.

/-/

An indeterminable amount of time passed before I next awoke. There was no torture that time, though the pain from the last still worked its way through me. My body felt heavy and sluggish, limbs aching and muscles burning as I came to. There was something furry in my mouth, which I quickly realised was my tongue, parched and swollen. I coughed once, and it felt like my throat almost ruptured from it.

"Jaune!"

The voice was familiar, but it still took all the concentration I had to place it. "L-Lisa…?"

A rattle of metal. "Jaune, you're alive! Thank goodness. They wouldn't let anyone talk to you. Wouldn't let anyone close."

"Lisa," I begged, wishing for silence. My head was spinning.

"You're probably still out of it. They took the crossbow bolt out of you and bandaged you, but I heard you screaming. Oh my God, I heard you." Her voice trailed off at the end. "I-I don't know what's happening. No one will tell me anything."

Ignoring Lisa, I forced my eyes open, revealing a bad of straw under my face, the sharp ends pricking into my cheek. The room was dim, but still lit from a pair of torches to the left and right. It was a bare and stone room that I didn't have access to, thanks to the metal bars surrounding me.

I was in a cage.

My armour and equipment were gone, including my pouch and the Whisper Stone within. I'd been left in my tunic and trousers, with even my boots taken. The cage itself was about three feet by three, so small that I couldn't lay down flat, though I could, if I wanted to risk it, poke my legs between the bars. There was no room to stand, the space limiting me to sitting on my ass or kneeling at best.

Still, the bars were iron. I could melt my way out easily enough. Without thinking, I reached for one and began to Stoke the Forge.

Lisa shrieked.

"I wouldn't try that if I were you," a new voice said. A cough drew my attention to the other side of Lisa's cage, where a woman a little older than me stood with a pair of wickedly curved knives as long as her forearm. One was poked between the bars of Lisa's cage, pinning her to the back wall and still tickling her throat. "I've got permission to kill her if you try and get through those bars. Unless you think you can melt steel, climb out, find a weapon and challenge me before I can push forward an inch."

Shit. I hadn't noticed her in the room, and Lisa was whimpering, utterly defenceless. Reluctantly, I let go of the heat, and the bars. I leaned back, holding both hands before me in a clear sign of surrender.

"Better." The blade was withdrawn, and the woman stalked around to face me. She had short-cropped dark hair and piercing eyes. Dressed in leathers, her name and Class marked her as Vernal, a Rogue. "How's your shoulder treating you?"

I'd known the voice was familiar. "You're the one that pulled the bolt out."

"Heh. No thanks necessary."

"I wasn't thanking you." I looked her over. She didn't have a cloak, but considering who I'd been taken by, she had to be a Greycloak. "What's going on here? Why have you captured us, and why are we in cages?"

"Let me answer by asking you a question, instead. Here it is. Why the fuck should I answer any of your questions?"

I clenched my teeth.

Vernal laughed. "Yeah. That's what I thought. I'm here to set the law, not explain shit. Listen up. You're no longer in Vale, so don't go hoping for a rescue. As for escaping, if you try, she dies." Vernal glanced to Lisa. "And you… well, even if you could escape, you shouldn't. You'll not make it far."

Lisa wrapped her arms around her legs and buried her face in her knees. There was no fight in her.

"Someone will be watching at all times, so I wouldn't try it. You can if you like. Orders from above are that the first two times you try, we'll only make her beg for death. The third time, she dies for real. Better make your two attempts count."

I glared at the woman hatefully. "Why are you-?"

"I said, I don't answer your questions!" Vernal roared, kicking my cage suddenly.

It shook and fell back, toppling me over. When I hit the side, which was now the floor, agony seared through my bandaged shoulder. I thought I felt something give and blood begin to flow once more.

"Get it through your head. You do what you're told. If you do, you'll be fed. If not, you'll still be fed, but she won't. Or maybe I'll make her eat glass in front of you. Depends on how much you piss me off. Understood?"

When I didn't answer, she placed her foot on the cage again.

"I said, is that understood?" She sneered and aimed one of her strange weapons at Lisa. "I won't ask again, and she doesn't need all her fingers to be useful. Or even both hands."

I didn't think I'd ever hated someone as I did at that moment. Her face, her voice, her name, I committed it all to memory. "I understand."

"Good." Vernal leaned forward and flipped the cage back up with one foot, rocking me painfully. "Now, the two of you chill in here for a little until the boss thinks you're worth talking to. Galvin!" she shouted. "Get in here and watch these two. And bring someone with you. If he tries anything, stick her good and let her bleed out." She glanced back to me and grinned. "I've got a meeting with the boss. If you're lucky, you'll get a chance to talk to her later. I think she's got something special in mind for you."

I was left with that ominous warning as Vernal stalked out of the room, though two burly men with spears entered, ensuring that Lisa and I weren't left alone. As angry as I was, there was no hope of breaking out faster than they could kill Lisa. And even if I did get out, I had no idea where we were. My body was still weak as well, telling me that whatever healing I'd been provided, it wasn't by a Priest or healing Class. I rubbed my shoulder and winced as my hand came away damp.

Hours passed in relative silence. The guards chattered away, both to one another and then to the guards who relieved them, but neither I nor Lisa were ever involved. Lisa remained huddled in her cage, refusing to acknowledge the world she'd been thrown into. I stayed silent to prevent anything bad happening to her. Nothing important was revealed by the guards. They obviously weren't from Vale and, combined with Vernal's warning, I realised we really had been sent through a portal to somewhere else entirely.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, some food was brought for us. Salmon, tuna and a small chunk of bread. There weren't any vegetables to go with it, but the fish was fresh and plugged the gaping hole in my stomach. Lisa barely touched hers, picking at the edges with an obvious lack of appetite. I guzzled at the fresh water and, with my hunger sated, considered the situation.

This was obviously some kind of Greycloak stronghold. Only one of the guards wore the titular item of clothing, but the other seemed unconcerned with it, so I assumed they were the same. Vernal had said we were away from Vale, and given the seafood, I believed it. Somewhere by the coast, perhaps.

They knew about my Stoke the Forge Skill, and how I could use it to escape – and worse, they knew I liked Lisa enough to have her be used as a hostage against me. That spoke of a lot more information on me than I liked. I'd assumed we'd been captured for Lisa, but it was beginning to look like I'd been the target all along.

Speaking of, Ozpin and the King thought New Dawn was working with the Greycloaks, but Lisa is terrified. She could be acting, but I doubt it. She's scared and has no idea what's going on. So, either they were wrong, or Lisa had been kept in the dark. Either was an option, but both spoke poorly for our chances.

I tried not to think on it as I leaned back and took what rest I could.

Recovering was the first priority. After that, I could start planning for more.

/-/

It must have been six or seven hours of fitful rest when the door opened once more and Vernal returned. She had company; six men, though each came without a weapon. They were an odd mix of Soldier, Hero and Labour Caste, all dressed the same, their grey cloaks on display.

"Time for a change of scenery." she snapped. "You lot, get them moving. If he tries anything, feel free to drop the girl's cage. I'll deal with him."

The men spread out and crouched around our cages, lifting them between them. I tried to steady myself and keep myself still, the better not to spook them into hurting Lisa. Vernal seemed amused by my passivity.

The door was held open as we were carried through what turned out to be a stone corridor heading downward, deeper into what had to be some kind of underground fortress. There were no windows and no light that didn't come from torches along the walls. The footfalls of those carrying us echoed on, mixed occasionally by a gasp from Lisa as she was jostled and knocked into the bars.

It took five or six minutes for us to be brought out of the corridor and into a large, open antechamber. It was filled with people – easily two-hundred, sat on benches in a ring around a sunken pit filled with sand. The people were loud and raucous, laughing, singing or just shouting randomly across the huge room.

One person sat above it all, however. Sat on a large chair with two large flags pinned above her, the woman who had come out of the portal and slaughtered the two chasing us looked out over the audience with an amused smile. Her silver cloak was drawn down, revealing long black hair that framed a pale face. Her outfit was a mix of black and red, and a drawn sword stood at her side, propped up against the armrest of her throne.

There was no doubting this was the leader. But was she the leader of these people, or potentially all the Greycloaks?

Raven, her name said. Knight, her Class added.

I felt sick at the sight of it.

"Raven!" Vernal called, leading our procession. "I've brought your guests."

The woman looked over us. Her eyes met mine for a moment, but dismissed me as easily as she did Lisa, to look back to Vernal. "Very good. Set them down here. They're guests of honour today. They should be treated accordingly."

Our cages were shifted and placed down side by side so that we could look out into what I quickly realised was a fighting pit of some kind. Judging from the audience, and the braying, I had the dreadful feeling it wasn't about to be used for a friendly spar.

"Boss," Vernal said. "Do you-"

"You are dismissed, Vernal."

"I-" vernal looked like she might protest but thought better of it. "Yes. Do you want anyone to stay?"

"I think I shall be fine with our two guests. Don't you?"

"Yeah. Not like they could hurt you." Vernal nodded and stepped back, looking to the others. "Well, you heard the boss. Get gone." Vernal nodded one final time to Raven, sneered at me, and then padded away.

Lisa's cage rattled slightly as Raven leaned on it. Lisa scurried back, as far from the woman as she could. Raven paid no attention, watching me.

"I hope you've enjoyed our accommodation so far."

"Not much to enjoy," I said.

"No? Maybe that will change soon. Vernal is not a gentle doctor, but she was able to patch you up, and I did save your life, you may recall." She had, though not – I was sure – for any reason I might like. "After that, I think I deserve a little recompense. Your lives were forfeit when you faced those stronger to you. That you live at this moment is due to my intervention, which means your lives belong to me."

"Not sure that's how it works."

"It does here." Raven turned and reached down into Lisa's cage to cup her chin.

My hands hit the bars. "Don't touch her!"

Raven chuckled, tilting Lisa's head to the side as the younger and weaker girl shook like a leaf. "This is what strength does, you know. You'd both be dead if not for me being stronger than those pursuing you. And because I'm stronger than you, I can do with you what I wish." Her hand tightened just a little, and Lisa began to choke. "I could snuff her life out right now. You can rant and rave all you like but stopping me. You have two choices. One, you break free from that cage, attack me, kill me and save her life. Or two, you surrender. Give in. Accept that you live or die on my whim."

Lisa's eyes bulged.

"I'd make your choice if I were you. Of course, choose poorly and I might kill her regardless."

Wide, frightened eyes sought mine. Lisa silently begged for help.

My hands fell to the floor. "Fine! I give. Let her go!"

"Bwah!" Lisa gasped for air and slumped onto her side, heaving.

"There we go," Raven said, stroking the Farmer's hair like one might a dog's head. "I'm glad we see eye to eye." She stood. "You live at my whim. Your life belongs to me. You owe me your very existence, and you can rest assured I am not one to keep pets. You'll earn back your life. Please me, and you might earn hers, too."

I clenched my hands into fists but waited for Raven to step away from Lisa's cage before I asked, "Are you the leader of the Greycloaks?"

Raven sat on her throne and leaned one elbow on the armrest, her chin atop her fist. "I am."

"Of all the Greycloaks!?"

Another smile. "Indeed."

I couldn't believe she admitted it, though given our situation, maybe she didn't care if I knew or not. The information was all kinds of useless to me and she knew it.

"Do you have any idea what you've been doing?" I raged, slamming my hand into the bars. "Summoning Salem, ruining lives – causing natural disasters. The entire world is suffering because of you and your band of psychopaths! You started a war! Tens of thousands died!"

"Yes."

I glared at her and waited for more. When it didn't come, I growled angrily. "What the fuck does yes mean?"

"I was answering your question. You asked `Do you have any idea what you've done`. The answer is yes." She smiled. "If you're asking whether I feel bad for it or regret it, then the answer is no. If you are asking whether I cared for the thousands that died, my answer is no. If you are asking whether I would, and will, do such again." Her eyes flashed crimson. "The answer is a thousand times yes."

Words failed me. I'd always known the Greycloaks didn't give a shit, but I'd expected at least some degree of empathy. They were human, after all. Even if they did horrible things for whatever twisted purpose they had, they were still people. Raven's face spoke of nothing.

"W-Why?"

"Do you expect me to spill my plan to you now? How trite. For a wish, of course. For a dream."

"If you want to make a wish, summon her and make it." If she did, she'd die like all the others. A part of me honestly wanted her to make the attempt, even if it would mean having to face Salem once more.

"Ah, ah, ah. I'm not quite that foolish. We know quite a lot about Salem now, thanks to our… efforts in understanding her."

"Throwing away your own people to see what happens, you mean."

Raven appeared unconcerned with the insult. "They were not my people. Useful individuals, but little more than strangers in the end. They had their wishes; they leapt at the chance to have them come true. All I provided was the means, and a little… surveillance." Raven crouched beside my cage. "Do you know that Salem works on a series of strict rules?"

I hadn't, but I refused to give her the satisfaction of knowing that.

"We've come to understand many of them through trial and error. Rule One: Salem cannot deny a wish. Rule Two: Once summoned, a wish must be made. Rule Three: Your wish will kill you." Raven paused to let a small smile creep up her face. "The latter should be of interest to you. I should note that there is no time limit on when it will kill you. Salem can be as patient as she desires."

The wish I'd made, the amulet. I was possibly the only person to have made a wish and lived, though with the way things were currently going, that might change.

"There are other rules. Some interesting, some less so. All those who make a wish are made aware of each. They knew the risks. But for those with something to wish for, it is often worth it. There will never be a shortage of desperate fools."

"And you'll be at the end of them."

"I will. But my wish shall be granted."

"What wish?" I asked. "What do you want that you'd do all of this for? Kill so many people, start a war, ruin lives. What wish could possible be worth all of this?"

Raven didn't answer for a moment. Her eyes remained on mine, but I didn't think she saw me. She was lost in thought, eyes piercing through my head and far beyond. Her shoulders rose and fell, her lips tugging down into what was the first frown I'd seen from her.

She hummed and focused again, looking down at me. "Allow me to counter with a question of my own. How do you grow stronger? How does a Blacksmith like you gain levels and Exp?"

The question seemed an obvious one. I looked for the trick to it but couldn't find it. "You train. You fight Grimm, go to Beacon or another Academy. Do Quests, spar, train and get better over time. I can also forge weapons and armour for Exp."

"True, true. Of course, some are too weak to attend, and some Classes are excluded altogether. Not to mention that crafting is limited by wealth, availability and material supply. The vaunted Caste System that the Noble Caste hides their inadequacy behind doesn't really support it, as is their goal no doubt. Even if they did, levelling is a slow process, isn't it? Fighting Grimm, constantly training. Four years, though many take five or six to truly graduate. You are around level forty, yes?"

I wasn't sure how she knew. "Around that…"

"Not bad for your age. I'm sure you've noticed that it gets harder and harder to gain Exp. The early levels come quickly, the rush of danger and conflict driving us to improve. Later, however, well, it's all downhill from there. You must have found yourself unable to improve in the Emerald Forest by now. It's even harder once you go further. Did you know that the average level for a graduate of Beacon is fifty?"

Surprised, I leaned back. I hadn't known that. Fifty? I was forty-two now and only in my second year. Sure, I knew that levelling got harder and harder because it took exponentially more Exp to do so, but I was sure I'd get more than eight levels in two years.

"Most Heroes never make it past seventy. They graduate at fifty, usually around the age of twenty-two or so, and then only gain another twenty levels, even if they survive another forty or fifty years. The world simply isn't geared for us to keep growing. Beacon's faculty are exceptions, of course, the best of the best. You need to be Level seventy-five or higher to teach. The greatest, the truly amazing, might make it to level eighty, or even eighty-five. There are legends of those who have reached Level ninety." Raven leaned forward. "Do you know what level I am?"

"Ninety," I guessed. She wouldn't have looked so smug otherwise.

Raven smiled. "I am Level one hundred and twelve."

My stomach dropped. I'd felt lost before, but the sheer hopelessness of the situation slammed into me like a hammer. She was almost three times my level. And worse, she couldn't have been older than forty-five.

"Let me show you how the strong truly level." She stood and walked past me, to the edge of the pit. "Release the competitors."

Gates on the edges of the arena were opened, revealing gaunt and frightened figures that were pushed out onto the sand. They were many and varied. Men, women, old and young. Most of them were, to my eyes, Labour Caste, but there was the occasional Soldier mixed in. Each was dressed in tattered clothing smothered with dirt, and each clutched a small knife in hand. There were forty or fifty of them in total.

Raven held her hands high and the crowd of Greycloaks went silent.

"Welcome, guests, to the Mirage Isles. You have each been collected for straying too close to our shores. Those of you who fought were buried at sea. You are the ones who chose not to fight, but to kneel down and surrender, to accept your defeat." Her eyes narrowed. "Cowards one and all."

The people watched her with clear fear, many huddling together for safety.

"But rest assured, you will have a chance to redeem yourselves. Or one of you will. We, the Greycloaks, are recruiting! This is your audition. The rules are simple. The last one to survive wins their life and freedom. Those who fall, die. One survivor, one victor."

Down in the pit, several people began to cry.

"If you refuse to fight, you will be shot from above." Raven gestured to a small group of Archers. "If you attempt to escape, you will be shot and killed. If you try to surrender or beg for mercy… you will be shot and killed."

Raven held her arms out wide.

"May the strongest survive."

I wanted to say no one would play her game, that no one would stoop to such a level. I wanted to say they'd rise up, band together and reject her offer. That would have been a dream come true.

It was too much to ask.

The first cry came after thirty seconds of silence. A man fell, reaching futilely for a knife stuck in his back. The killer looked as though he could hardly believe what he'd just done. He backed away, shaking his head as if to deny it.

He was cut down by the victim's friend or family.

From there, it descended into chaos. Screams and angry roars cut through the air, drowned out by the cheering of Raven's crazed followers. Men and women were cut down, first by groups and then by individuals, as team members turned on one another, each eager to betray first. Among the mass, small pockets of resistance tried their hardest to hold out.

A member of the Soldier Caste fought back aggressors, defending a small cluster of frightened women. His knife got caught in someone's ribcage as they fell. His arm was dragged down. A knife found his eye socket, but before the Soldier had even died, more rushed past to tear those being defended to pieces.

Lisa clutched her head with both hands, screaming loudly to drown out the noise of the slaughter, even as she refused to watch it. Tears streamed down her cheeks. I was no more used to the madness than she, but I found myself unable to look away. Disgusted, but also stricken by the cruelty of it all.

It hadn't been ten minutes and only eight or so remained. Bloodied, battered, but far stronger than they had been before. A mix-match of Classes with torn bodies and blood oozing from dozens of wounds. Two stood together, clearly having decided to team up. That proved a threat to the other six – who hastily made an alliance to kill them.

The alliance didn't even last long enough to serve its purpose.

Betrayal after betrayal, including the two had allied since the start. Blood flowed, and bodies fell, mingling among others, most face down – a haunting few staring up at the audience. Eventually, only two remained.

And then one, as the victor – a Sailor – took his opponent's knife in the arm, twisted it away and then tore out the throat of his attacker. The last body fell, and the survivor fell after, slumping to his knees as he panted for breath.

The crowd roared. Hands were slapped against stone, weapons against armour and the tell-tale tinkle of lien changing hands. This was a game to the Greycloaks, I realised. Something to gamble over and enjoy.

It was madness.

"And we have a winner," Raven announced, clapping slowly. "A true survivor, a wolf among sheep. Tell me, warrior. What is your name?"

The Sailor shuffled to his feet. "R-Reynald, ma'am."

"Reynald. Reynald." She tasted the name. "Hm. Garret," she suddenly shouted.

A Greycloak stood, a Barbarian. "Boss?"

"What level are you?"

"Thirty-five, boss. Nearly thirty-six."

"Sounds about right." Raven gestured towards the ring. "Kill him."

The Sailor panicked as the Barbarian hauled himself over and fell into the arena, drawing a large, two-handed sword. "B-But I won! You said the winner lived. I survived!"

Raven crossed her arms. "And do you think we would want one who would so readily turn on his own to join our ranks?"

"But I did what you said!" he screamed.

"I say many things." Raven turned away. "Not all are true."

Reynold screamed and rounded on the Barbarian, pulling up his knife and lunging in desperately. Garret laughed and brought his two-hander down to block it, then drove the cross guard up into the Sailor's face, cracking his lip and knocking a few teeth loose. The Sailor tried to crawl away, but the Barbarian placed one foot on his back and pinned him down, reversed his sword so that it was held above the downed man's body.

I looked away as it fell.

The cheering of the crowd drowned out the poor man's dying scream.

Raven continued to clap, though she let the crowd get their mirth out their system before she spoke again. "Well done, Garret. What level are you now?"

The Barbarian grinned. "Thirty-eight."

"Do you see?" Raven asked, turning to me and smiling cruelly. "Three levels in fifteen minutes. A fine improvement on your own methods, no? No grinding. No Grimm. No time wasted in the wilderness or slaving away for some entitled Quest-giver living on the other side of the Kingdom. It might have taken a Hero months to win those levels. We have found a better way."

"Why!?" Lisa sobbed. "Why kill them all? They couldn't hurt you! They didn't stand a chance!"

"That was the very reason she made them fight," I growled, glaring into Raven's eyes. She stared back, unconcerned, but I didn't care. I wanted to lash out. I hated her. "They were probably too weak to be a threat, level twenty at best, most were probably lower. Killing all of them individually wouldn't have given her people any Exp because they were so low-levelled, but if she makes them kill each other, they grow stronger. Strong enough to be the same or higher level than one of her own, who then kills them while they're unarmed and exhausted. Like fattening a pig for slaughter."

"But they're people!" Lisa screamed.

"Not to me, they're not," Raven replied. "They gave up the right to such a title when they threw down their arms and refused to fight us. At that point, they became property. And property exists to be utilised." She placed a foot against the side of my cage. "That goes for the two of you, as well."

It was all the warning I got as the world shifted. Raven's strength was so much that she could push me and the cage off the edge with ease. The metal cell crashed down to the arena below, exploding on impact and spilling me out onto the sand in a twisted mess of metal, straw and blood from my freshly re-opened wound.

I coughed as sand worked its way into my lungs. Through the dust that had been kicked up, I could make out little, but Raven's voice spoke out over it, and the suddenly excited cheers of the crowd watching.

"You're level thirty-eight now, Garret. He's forty or so, but injured and unarmed. Let's see how many levels you gain from killing him."

The Barbarian in front of me hoisted his sword eagerly.

"My pleasure."


Well, Raven wins bitch of the year award, I suppose. I wanted a rather different outlook to her than canon, so decided to think what a "strong rule" obsessed person might be like if they lived in an RPG world that worked on concepts such as Exp.

This is what I came up with. The system can be gamed, as Raven has discovered, and it can be done to your benefit if you're willing to set aside your morals. Some of Jaune's greatest leaps in Levels have come from fights to the death with other Heroes.

Raven has… refined the process.


Next Chapter: 31st December (Two weeks)

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur