I'm glad people enjoyed the last chapter, and more than that, I was pleasantly surprised at how many people caught onto the lesson hidden within it, or if not lesson, what I aimed to point out. A lot of people asked about whether Jaune would earn EXP for the side quest, and a good portion of those same people then instantly realised how they too had just fallen into the kind of Hero mind-set that I portrayed last chapter; the idea that you do what you do for reward, with little thought to what happens to the NPC's. Off the top of my head, I can't think of an RPG where the main characters decide to get down and dirty to help the average people rebuild. Sometimes they'll invest money or something, as a kind of "I'm rich and have no time, so here you go", but even from a "gameplay" perspective, surely it would be possible, but you'd just have a time skip rather than make the player actually do the work.

But no, they're `just` villagers, and thus unimportant NPCs to be forgotten – or worse – killed for amusement in some cases.


Beta: College Fool

Cover Art: Kegi Springfield (Going to keep his for next 1-3 chapters; you'll see why)

Chapter 22


It took me a while to remember where I was upon waking up. The roof was unfamiliar, the sounds even more so, and while our Guild Hall wasn't the most comfortable of places, it wasn't quite as cramped as this. It wasn't as warm or soft, either, and I had the oddest feeling I must have tangled myself up in my blanket. With a yawn, I reached over to remove it.

My blanket was a little softer than usual.

"Mmm…" Ruby mumbled and snuggled deeper into my side. Her hair tickled the underside of my chin, the scent of it somehow still fragrant; even after all the crap we'd been through. One of her small arms was thrown across my stomach, and her body was tilted into mine.

Panic was surprisingly slow to set in, probably because I was still half-asleep, but set in it did, and with a vengeance. My eyes widened, my breath came out in short gasps – and my stupid mind couldn't help but point out how despite Ruby's short and thin stature, she definitely wasn't as hard and bony as I would have imagined. In fact, she was delightfully warm and soft, especially those two mounds that pressed into my should- and it was time to think of something else.

It was probably time to move too, but I didn't want to. I tried to convince myself it was because I didn't want to wake her up, but my mind – not to mention my lower body – knew the true reason.

If Yang sees this, she is going to kill me.

"Heeeey, Jaune," the devil in question whispered from the other side of me.

Now, the fear was quicker to come on. My heart leapt into my throat as my neck twisted and nearly broke. On my left, opposite Ruby, the blonde Brawler knelt. "Yang," I gasped, "It's not what it looks like, I swear."

"Oh, really? It looks to me like you slept with my sister, lover boy. Hmm, do we need to plan a little punishment for you?" She grinned down on me, but before my tired mind could come up with some kind of excuse, she spoke again, "Never mind, it looks like sleeping beauty is waking up too. Let's see what she has to say."

That was the final nail in the coffin. My head turned back, my eyes meeting silver ones that slowly peaked from behind dark lashes. Ruby yawned cutely and her fingers curled on my stomach, instinctively pulling her body closer.

A moment later, she stilled. Her eyes looked into mine, and while there was no immediate emotion in them, they slowly started to widen. The only sound to come from her lips was a startled squeak, and then I felt small hands push me away, as the Reaper practically flung herself aside.

"Oh my god," she gasped, "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean, it's not that I – oh my god…"

I would have responded, but could only gasp as Yang's knee landed on my chest. It wasn't an attack, however, but rather the Brawler clambering over me to tackle her sister. "Ooh, Ruby, so young and already staking your claim. I don't know whether to be proud or shocked."

"I-It's not like that!" Ruby cried, cheeks flaming red. "I didn't… we weren't that close when we went to sleep. I didn't mean to-"

"So very forward, sis… ah, they grow up so fast."

"But I… I… but…" Ruby's entire frame seemed to shake. Her eyes glanced over to mine, but that only made her more awkward and she quickly looked elsewhere. "Y-Yaang," she whined.

"Ruby…" Blake's voice broke into the scene, the Assassin appearing stood above them without a single person having noticed. Her eyes were as ambiguous as ever, but there was a strange quirk to her lips that hinted at amusement. "Your sister is lying, Ruby. She rolled you onto him five minutes before you woke up. You didn't sleep together."

Ruby blinked. The colour in her cheeks receded a little, but they puffed out angrily as she looked at the blonde girl holding her. "Heh," Yang grinned, "You should have seen your face."

"YANG!" Ruby tackled her older sister down, face now red for a different reason as the two wrestled and growled between themselves. Blake chuckled and walked away.

So, I hadn't done anything to Ruby… relief pooled inside me as I laughed and dragged myself up from under my blanket. Now, with the truth revealed, and Yang receiving her comeuppance, I could appreciate the comedy of the situation, but there was an underlying tension – mostly in my pants – that still made me move quickly away. The last thing I needed was for Yang to get some more material to tease me with.

The others were all handling their own preparations for the day, though Pyrrha paused to send me a wave that I returned. Nora and Ren were busy packing, or rather it seemed that Ren handled the packs while Nora handed him things and chatted away. Weiss knelt by a few young children, and from the faint light I could see, it looked like she was showing them some simple spell.

It was Viktor and Kaedin I moved towards, however, mostly to ask what it was we'd be doing today. As I approached, however, I realised that they were not alone. A man, a Hunter if his Class was any indication, stood with them.

"T'was a hooded figure," the man, a dog faunus, said. "They moved through the village now a week ago, with a woman in leather armour by his side. I was hunting elk at the time, but I'm told they rebuffed any who dared approach them, the woman violently. The disasters had been going on for some time, but nowhere near how regularly they are since those two passed through."

"And you are sure the hooded one was a mage?" Kaedin asked.

"A youngling saw them, but she's a clever sort and wouldn't make something like that up. She didn't catch the woman, nor their names, but the Class appeared to be Sorcerer."

"Can we speak to the child who saw them? It could be vital to our investigation." Kaedin's eyes sparkled, but when the faunus looked away, expression anguished, the Mage's face fell. "I'm sorry," he said, "I didn't realise."

"She was a good lass… her entire family, though." The Hunter ran a hand through his greying hair. "I can't say for sure if those two are responsible but if they are…"

"We shall deal with them," Viktor said. "That is why we are here."

"A Mage and his Sentinel," Kaedin mused, as the two moved past me. "I suppose the Archmage's fears were founded, then. That is unfortunate."

"Nothing we're not unused to."

"I suppose not."

The two walked on by, and Viktor began to shout orders to the others to pack their bags and be ready to move. I sighed and prepared to do the same.

"You're the young Knight from before," a gruff voice said behind me. The dog faunus looked me up and down, brown eyes filled with exhaustion.

"I am," I nodded. "Is there a problem, sir?"

"Ha, I'm no sir, wouldn't expect a Hero to call me one, either. Then again," he sighed, "I wouldn't have expected a Hero to stop and help us like you all did. I understand we've you to thank for that, lad."

"No, the others-"

"Would have moved on were it not for you speaking out." The old man's eyes were firm, and despite my best wishes there was no way to argue against it. "All too often they move on, in search of the next monster to slay or the next Quest, while we're forced to try and pick up the pieces of our lives. There's many a family here today that owe you their lives, boy. On behalf of them, and of those who didn't make it… thank you."

I should have felt proud. Every part of my mind said so. Those who'd perished were beyond saving, and those who survived could be directly attributed to us, and yet I didn't feel proud. It was hard to in such a situation, in the same way that this man didn't seem pleased either. We both accepted what happened, but we both knew it was still a tragedy.

"Thanks," I said, knowing some acceptance was necessary. "I wish I could have done more."

"Don't we all? I have something for you, and for your people." The Hunter drew me to one side, towards some of the wooden cases that lined one wall of the storage barn. He drew them open to reveal several brown-furred pieces of cloth. As he pulled one out, I realised they were thick, fur cloaks. "There's enough for your entire group and they'll keep you warm on the mountain. The elk here have fur designed to ward off the cold and show, and they'll double as a blanket for when you need to sleep."

I touched the one he held forward, marvelling at how soft it felt. The lining on the inside was some kind of cloth and there was a wrought iron buckle with leather strapped to the bottom side, likely to stop it from freezing to skin.

"I appreciate the thought," I whispered, "but can you spare these?"

"We gather enough fur and food to last each winter. The dark season can be harsh so it pays to stock up. Right now, after what just happened… I suppose you could say we have a surplus. The extras are just a reminder. We've filled your packs with cured meat as well. Please accept it. I'm aware it's no Quest reward fit for a Hero, but-"

"It's more than enough," I assured him. "I… you've seen that some of us aren't dressed for this. You've really helped us out here."

The dog-eared man smiled, the expression weak and faded, but there nonetheless. He gestured to the crate, and I carted out eight cloaks for our group. Kaedin and Viktor were more than dressed for the occasion, but for people like Yang, Ruby and Blake – the thick cloaks would be lifesavers. They seemed to realise that too, for Blake's eyes widened and she practically snatched it from my hands. It was large enough to wrap around her entirely, with her normal hood peeking above, and with her bare legs now covered, she seemed to stand a little straighter.

Ruby accepted hers with red cheeks and an awkward smile. "I'm sorry about earlier," she whispered. "Yang is… ugh, she can be such a pain."

"I think I'm beginning to realise," I said back. We shared a quick smile, which soon descended into quiet giggles. It felt like the awkward mood had dispelled a little, likely because we could both blame Yang and laugh at how she'd tricked us.

I found myself staring at her as she laughed, though. Her silver eyes sparkled and her frame, which really wasn't as boyish as it first seemed, vibrated in a way that was almost… Nope. My throat felt dry, but I forced myself to laugh and ruffled her hair, moving by to share out the rest of the cloaks between the others.

Ten minutes later, after a breakfast of dried fruit and meat shared between ourselves and the villagers, we found ourselves back out on the snow-laden trail. I tugged my new cloak tighter around me, the buckle over my heart and the thick fur hanging across my left arm and shoulder, pulled a little back over my right to allow for freedom of movement. Just like the Hunter had promised, I felt warm, even in the cold air.

"We hunt a Mage and his Sentinel," Kaedin instructed. "The villagers here saw them head directly up the mountain, towards the peak. Our stop was fortuitous indeed, this information might save us days."

"We've full packs too," Yang grinned. "Those guys were awesome."

"I must say," Pyrrha said, "I'm impressed by their ability to keep living here. This terrain is nothing short of merciless, and after what happened yesterday, I can't help but feel that in their place, I'd be too depressed to move." She gestured towards the village, where some people were already out and about, breaking down ruined buildings and repurposing them. A bonfire had been lit, upon which far too many bodies lay.

"What else can they do?" I sighed. "Life goes on and those that remain need to fight to survive."

"They are hardy folk," the older Mage chuckled. "The NPC communities around here are normally hostile towards Mages, and to the Hero Caste in general. It's pleasant to see that some believe otherwise."

"Maybe more would, if you stopped insulting them."

I wasn't sure what came over me. Maybe it was what had just happened, my dwindling patience, or maybe I just forgot who it was I spoke to, but either way, the words passed my lips and brought the entire party to silence.

"Insult…?" Ren asked.

"NPC," I repeated, "the `Needs Protection Caste`. Every time you refer to them as that, you're throwing their helplessness back in their faces, suggesting that they're somehow worth less than anyone else, that they're a burden." I took a deep breath and let it go. "That term is an insult."

"It is?" Pyrrha looked uncertain, her lips pulled down and one hand held before them. "I don't understand, though. They do need our protection. They need it against the Grimm."

"Do they, Pyrrha? Did you see any Grimm around here? These people have lived out here all their lives, and they're living here still. They're not going to run away the moment a Grimm appears… they'll band together and kill it to protect what's theirs. They don't need protection – not even from an avalanche… they just need a little help every now and then."

"Like what we did," Ruby whispered.

"What do they prefer to be called, then?" Yang asked, "You know, don't you - since you grew up with them?"

"Just… normal people," I sighed. "But failing that, the Labour Caste."

At least that spoke of what we did, rather than what we required. Soldiers fought and Heroes slew the Grimm, but they weren't called the `needs weapons classes` or some such nonsense. They were remembered and noted for what they achieved, what they worked to do.

"Interesting," Kaedin murmured. "Well, then, our thanks should be to these members of the Labour Caste for their aid. Come now, children, we've a mountain to climb and I expect our journey will only become more difficult the higher we ascend."

Everyone nodded, myself among them, more relieved than they for the interruption. That damned name… it ate away at me, and now with my patience worn thin, I'd snapped at the worst possible time. Still, as I looked towards my friends, it was to see them each walking with a contemplative expression.

I smiled down at the snow.

Maybe it wasn't such a wasted effort after all.

/-/

"I see something ahead." It was Blake who broke the silence that pervaded over our forced march. The Assassin pulled ahead a little, darting through the snow and out onto the open plain ahead of us. It was a rare moment where the steep incline gave way, and a chance for us to catch our breath. At least, it would have been, if not for Blake's eyes.

I shared a quick look with Ren, but we all hurried after the cloaked figure, now knelt down by something.

"What is it?" I panted.

"A cloak," Blake said. She lifted it up and showed it to the group. It was a thin one, made primarily of cloth and something that wouldn't do much against the cold weather.

Viktor stalked forward and snatched it from her hands, shooting the girl a glare before he looked down at it. "Silk," he said, "Not exactly what one would wear in a climate like this. There is damage too, from claws by the look of it."

"Our hooded Sorcerer?" Kaedin asked.

"Perhaps. The snow has blown over any signs of damage, but it's possible a battle might have occurred here. There are no bodies, however, and I'd expect to see a discarded weapon if they perished. The Sentinel would not leave her Mage."

"I shall see what I can find," Kaedin sighed. The Mage shucked off his pack and settled his staff down into the snow again. It was the same he'd done the last time, and we all sighed and dropped our own gear nearby, knowing what our job would be.

"Fan out and cover him," Viktor ordered regardless. The Knight crossed his arms but didn't make to move himself. He didn't trust us with his Mage. To him, we were nothing but a hindrance.

"There were no Grimm the last time," I grumbled, taking a position off to one side. Ren stood nearby, the Monk's thin blades in hand.

"The storm the day before likely cleared the immediate area. Apart from that avalanche, there hasn't been anything that would do the same. Grimm may easily have spawned by now, keep that in mind." Ren tapped one blade to the side of his head in warning.

I nodded and drew my sword, wincing at how cold the hilt felt. Hopefully, I wouldn't need to use it.

The dark specs on the horizon said otherwise.

We're too open, I realised with a sigh. The entire area is flat and white, so the Grimm can see us from miles away, especially if they're further up the mountain. The ones approaching certainly had, and they covered the distance with an almost untiring vigour.

"Prepare yourselves," Viktor called. "I shall slay those you fail to stop."

"He says that as though he expects us to fail," Ren sighed. "This Knight is starting to try even my patience."

"Good… I thought it was just me." The two of us shared a quick laugh, but that soon died out as Kaedin began to loudly chant. The snow around him rose and fell, almost like some hand attempted to pick it up, and then let it run through its fingers. It didn't do much, however, and my attention was soon on the Grimm before us.

They were unfamiliar… deer-like, with wicked horns that looked capable of skewering a man in one lunge. Their shoulders were armoured in bone as well, with jagged spikes that came off at unusual angles.

"Cervus," Weiss spoke. "They're native to Atlas and primarily use speed and agility to their advantage. They will seek to charge and kill you in one blow. Their fore bodies are heavily armoured."

"Weaknesses?" Yang asked.

"Their hind quarters, from around the mid-point back, are entirely open. Almost everything about them is built for charging. Dodge and cut their flanks and they shall fall. Their hind legs are also weak, and they can barely move without them."

I nodded and held my shield before me, taking a deep breath as I focused on the one that looked most likely to come for me. It was hard to judge, particularly because they didn't move like normal animals, but rather hopped and skipped from side to side, a zigzag pattern that drew them inexorably closer.

At about twenty metres, however, the pattern stopped – and the closest one lunged and dashed towards me.

"Fight!" Pyrrha, yelled.

The Cervus struck like a rampaging horse, except five times as deadly. The jagged horns skittered off my shield, pinging above my head, their tips glinting in the light. One threat avoided did not mean the other, however, and its body slammed into me.

Snow gave way beneath me, and a strange hardness beneath it that drove the breath from my lungs. My muscles ached but I staggered back onto my feet and faced the beast, confident that without its momentum, it would now be easy prey.

If the Cervus knew that, it seemed unwilling to accept it. Its powerful legs propelled it forward once more, but at a fraction of the speed it showed a moment ago. It skidded in the snow, missing me as I dodged, but quickly reared up with sharp hooves that lashed kicked towards my face.

They clattered against my shield, and although the force was honestly surprising, my high Strength was enough to let me push forward. Its forelegs trapped between its body and the shield, the creature toppled back into the snow. With a yell, Crocea Mors plunged down into its sternum, just beneath the bone armour.

It twitched and wailed - a strange, undulating noise that made me grit my teeth together. It expired a moment later, body slowly fading away.

Something slammed into my back and drove me down. Sharp objects clattered on my armour, muffled somewhat by the thick cloak. Snow pushed into my mouth and face, threatening to suffocate me.

Panic shot through me, a sense of helpless fear as I struggled to flip myself over, in time to cry out as two hooves dashed down towards my skull.

A black shape hit it. The Cervus was dragged off before it could finish me, its half-stamp posture unable to save it as the cloaked form of Blake drove it to the side and pinned it down. One of her hands raised into the air and crashed down, tearing back up in a gout of blood.

"Thanks," I gasped, but the Assassin shook her head frantically.

"Behind you!"

This time, I was prepared. My feet dug down, the shield whipped about as I spun on the spot, crashing into the antlers and driving the beast's head down. Its frame struck me once more, but I squatted and bore it, pushing back and twisting my arms to the left.

The Cervus caught and righted itself. It staggered unevenly for a second and shook its head. A loud snort came from its lips as it pawed at the snow.

I growled back. The last one had caught me off-guard, but no more. I wasn't going to be useless like the Dungeon and I was stronger than I had ever been. I'd killed Grimm, I'd killed a person – and as the monster dashed forward, I knew that I would kill it too.

Time didn't slow, but my perception of it perhaps increased. Unlike the previous times, I lunged in for the creature, between its horns. Crocea Mors jammed into the groove of one and twisted, snapping the bone with a horrifying crack. My left hand wrapped around the other, and although it was too solid to break, I was able to pull the Cervus from its feet and drag it around my body.

It stumbled and fell, fighting to keep its footing but unable to as its legs tripped over mine. It landed clumsily, bucking on its side.

I planted a foot on its flank and rolled it over, driving my sword down once more.

"You're getting better at this," Blake noted, having long since finished hers. I was about to respond when another rushed towards us, but she put it down with an almost contemptuous flick of one hand – a throwing knife buried deep into its left eye socket.

"Not as good as you," I grunted.

"I believe I have more than a few levels on you yet."

That was a point… I'd never thought to ask on Blake's level, even if it was considered rude. She was very strong, however, almost unusually so.

Our hurried conversation was cut off by a mighty cry that rocked the area. As one, our gazes snapped in the direction of it, to see a far larger darting loping across the snow. "A Duneyrr," Blake whispered, eyes narrowed.

"A what?"

"It's an Elder Grimm, a larger form of a Cervus… kind of like comparing a Beowolf to a Canis."

An Elder Grimm? I took a step back, throat dry as it came close. Blake didn't retreat, however, and that small fact gave me the confidence I needed to stand my ground.

"Guys," I yelled back to the others, "I think we need some help over here."

"Huh?" Nora looked over, crushing the head of a Grimm under her hammer. "What is-? Ooh, that looks pretty."

"Elder Grimm!" Yang yelled.

Pyrrha leapt into action, rushing over to stand before Blake and I. She turned to the others, shouting orders. "Nora, you and I tank, everyone else focus on damage. Weiss and Ruby, you two finish off the Cervus, and then back us up."

"Got it," Ruby said, darting off.

Part of me wondered if that was an attempt by Pyrrha to keep her safe… not so difficult to imagine after the girl's last run in with something on this level. My hands started to shake, recalling my own experience with the Beowolf on the First Quest.

An image flashed into my mind. In it, a shocked woman, axe cleaved in two as she stared up at me, blood splattered across the two of us. My shaking stilled. I gripped Crocea Mors and hefted it, shield in my other hand as I fanned out with Blake, ready to flank once Nora and Pyrrha had the thing's attention.

The Duneyrr cantered past us, its form huge, even by the comparison of the Beowolf we'd faced before. It was smaller than the monster we'd fought at the end of the Dungeon, and hopefully weaker too. Where the Cervus had two horns, however, this had six – two pointed forward, two at a downward angle, and two that stuck from its back hips, like blades on a chariot's wheels designed to scythe through people. Bone armour covered most of its body, the carapace-like nature of it sharp to the touch.

Pyrrha and Nora dodged to either side as it slammed down towards them. Snow flew in every direction, creating a cloud that hid the beast from view, cutting mine and Blake's attack off before it could even begin.

"Pyrrha, duck!" Ren yelled, and the Champion did so, sparing herself from receiving a vicious kick that might have torn her head clean off.

Nora took advantage of the opening it created, and darted in with her war hammer raised. She used it on the food and knocked it aside. In terms of damage, the Duneyrr seemed unconcerned, but it did stagger and fall to one knee.

That was our opening.

Blake and I set off at the same time, but the same couldn't be said of our arrival. She leapt onto it, finding purchase on the jagged armour and clambering up it with an agility I couldn't hope to match. Fortunately, I didn't have to, and I drove the tip of Crocea Mors into the joint of its hind knee. Ren struck the other, blades glinting as he tried to hamstring it.

The armour proved too much for that, and for me, but the creature roared its pain nonetheless. It turned to face us, but Pyrrha darted before it, leaping up and twirling to cut a line across its snout. The Grimm roared and chased after her, ignoring us entirely.

It's working, I realised. Before, with me as the tank, the fights with the more dangerous Grimm had been dicey and fraught with peril. I'd failed Ruby, but Pyrrha and Nora were more experienced than I. Each time the redhead got into trouble, Nora would come in and push her aside, less deflecting attacks than forcing them away with mighty swings of her hammer.

I couldn't do the same, but I could swing a sword as well as anyone – and that I did, into every exposed crack in the armour I could find.

Something shot through the air above us, a huge chunk of ice that crashed into the beast's face and kicked up clouds of shards. It fell back with a pained sound. Weiss stood with one arm out, Ruby beside her and the remainder of the Cervus slain.

"We're doing it!" I yelled. The elated tone belied my shock, but no one seemed to notice. "Keep pushing!"

Nora whooped happily and caught its left leg with her hammer. The beast fell onto one knee, and atop it Blake hacked away with her knives. Ren darted in to strike at the back legs, with me close behind. It kicked out at us, but we ducked and rolled beneath the hooves, slashing at what flesh we could find.

The beast's size worked against it, especially in the slick snow. Like ants we chipped away, a little bit at a time, darting in and out of range when it tried to focus on us, until Pyrrha or Nora could reclaim its attention.

After a few more minutes, the Duneyrr began to slow. It wasn't obvious at first, but the beast's flails became weaker, and when one caught my shield and only sent me tumbling back into the snow, the others seemed to realise it. Pyrrha dashed in and baited it into striking at her with its antlers, but the moment it did, she ducked beneath its chin and cut out the underside of its throat.

The monstrous Grimm reared back and fell, throwing Blake from its back as it crashed into the snow in an explosion of white.

I rushed to try and catch the Assassin, but she struck the snow a small distance away, rolling and bouncing twice, before she flipped herself into a standing position and sheathed her daggers.

It made my own clumsy landing look pathetic by comparison.

Victory… I looked to the others, to see them sharing looks back and forth. We were all thrilled with it, particularly because of how clean it was. No injuries, no difficulty and no disasters. It was a perfect fight.

"Not bad," Viktor called. He didn't sound overly impressed. "At the very least, it's not a terrible piece of teamwork."

Blake rolled her eyes at me, and I couldn't help the laugh that burst from my lips. Yeah, that was the arrogant Knight in a nutshell. Well, screw him – we'd done well and I was going to feel good about it no matter what he thought. Snow rained down from my new cloak as I shook it out and headed back to the others.

"Weiss…? Weiss, what's wrong!?"

My eyes darted to Ruby, crouched down by the Mage, who was on her knees. The white-haired girl reared back and vomited onto the snow. "I-It's coming," she gasped.

"What is?" Ruby cried, "What-"

"Be ready!" Kaedin yelled, and it wasn't until he spoke that I noticed he too was on his knees, supported by his Sentinel. "There's another wave. It… it feels…" He couldn't finish.

He didn't need to.

My stomach rolled as something, some miasma, seemed to wash over me. It was cloying and sick, like thick, black tar that seeped into my lungs, even if my eyes told me there was nothing at all. Blake gagged and fell to a crouch beside me, and the others were all visibly affected in some way. What the hell was it? It felt… dirty, sickening.

The ground vibrated too. The wave; they must have meant the magic – the phenomena that was causing the disasters. Another earthquake meant more danger, and I spared a prayer for those in the village we'd just left. We would be safe on the snowy plain, however, with no incline to start an avalanche and no boulders as far as the eye could see-

Beneath us, something cracked. It sounded like… glass?

"No…" Kaedin stood with difficulty and thrust his staff towards the ground. A great blast of air came forth, blowing snow and frost in every direction and revealing – to my mounting horror – solid blue ice. "This isn't a snow plain," Kaedin cried, "It's an ice sheet!"

Viktor hauled the mage aside. "Run!" he screamed. "Get off the ice!"

A curse slipped past my lips as I followed his command, feet crashing down as I pushed myself onward, in the direction the others fled. The vibrations grew worse by the second, and in the distance there was a sound like thunder. At least, I hoped it was thunder.

The world before me shifted. Or rather, I shifted – and the ground that was under me. A great crack rent the ice, a fissure that cut across the ground like lightning through the sky, and the grinding of ice against ice as the world gave way. The others cried out. I did too, even as I struggled for purchase and to stay standing. One hand grappled with the ice, as my feet struggled for grip.

"Jaune!" Blake's voice reached my ears, the Assassin visible before me, on the safer ground and with one hand extended over the edge. "Jump," she shouted, "it's your only chance!"

My only chance, yet the rapidly giving way ground didn't give me it. I staggered forward as the ice behind me gave way, fell onto one knee with a gasp – but as the cracks grew larger, I pushed forward and leapt for her.

My hand missed by an inch, and for a moment I expected my death. Blake howled and reached further, and with a gasp, her hand gripped my wrist, holding it tightly.

It was a mistake.

My height, my weight, not to mention the armour I wore… Blake had not the time for to scream, only to stare into my eyes with wide golden ones as she was torn from her spot and dragged into the depths with me.

The world lost all light, little more than blue glimmers of reflected sunlight as the walls seemed to shudder and quake around us. In one last attempt, more desperate than hopeful, I dragged the girl close to my chest.

Ice slammed into my back as I struck and bounced off something. A gasp and a cough escaped me, followed by a startled shout as we fell again – cut off by another impact on solid ice, and then another. Blake's face was crushed into the fur cloak over my breastplate, my bruised and battered body taking the agony as we skittered and slid across jagged protrusions and the icy walls. Rather than fall elegantly to one, merciful impact, our bodies struck every piece of rock and wall on the way down.

With a cry, we both landed on a slanted outcrop, slipping down as gravity and momentum took us. My eyes opened, past the pain and the agony, to see a solid wall of ice approach.

I flipped us over, kept Blake before me – and as my body struck the ice – knew no more.


You know, it's kind of just coincidental that Jaune and Blake have essentially both suffered falls in two of my fics this week - coincidental… but suspicious. Also, not so suspicious is the fact his quest chain involved ye olde "defend the escort from waves of mobs as they do some generic task that only they can do." You're certainly hitting all the tropes here, Jaune.

Ah well, anyway – hope you enjoyed the chapter. Yes, Jaune will have received EXP from the Cervus and the Duneyrr, but no, it won't be listed here as he hasn't exactly had the chance to dwell on it or notice.


Next Chapter: 27th March

P a treon . com (slash) Coeur