Well this took a while hell of a lot longer than i wanted it to. A combination of sluggishness and life pushed this back quite a ways. But i think i'm back to form now. Sorry for the long wait, everyone.
The dance was a medley of sound, light, and laughter. The quick beat pulsed through their thin shoes and into their feet, sending their legs into fluid, frenzied movements. Jaune spun Weiss out as far as he could, before reeling her back in. As she spun into his chest, he effortlessly lifted her up over his head. She twirled in midair, her skirt fanned out flatteringly, before coming back down into his waiting arms.
When she looked up at him, there was a bright smile twinkling in his eyes. His cheeks had a healthy flush cut across them. His every movement felt loose and natural. He was happy.
A thrill shot through her heart as he drew her close and their feet carried them across the dance floor in a mock tango. They cut a swath through the crowd as they marched. She was responsible for this. She was the cause of someone else's happiness. He swung her across his body and dipped her low as the music wound down. With the final note he leaned forward and captured her lips.
Her eyes fluttered closed for the seventh time that night. At the end of every dance he would steal a kiss. She was never prepared for his loving assault. His hands on her back held her in a low dip. She moaned softly into his mouth. Her leg brushed up his side like the girls in those romantic movies. A bit compromising, but it was dark enough, it would be okay.
She was dizzy and flushed when he set her back on her feet. He put his arm around her and quietly guided her over to an empty table. Soft white lamps cast a modest glow over the small dining table. He seated her and told her he'd be back with drinks. She nodded and watched him disappear into the throng of students. She sighed contentedly, crossed her legs, and made herself as comfortable as possible without obviously adjusting herself. It was annoying, but etiquette training tended to kick in automatically when she was in public. Even at a casual function like this.
Jaune came back with two frosty glasses of blue punch. He handed one to her and took his seat across from her.
"Ah, thank you." She smiled gratefully at him as she drew her drink closer.
Jaune slouched in his seat and sighed heavily. A satisfied smile spread across his face. "Man, I haven't had that much fun in a while."
Weiss adjusted the large flower in her hair and drank deeply from her beverage. The cool liquid slipped down her throat and calmed her throbbing and heated body.
"Where'd you learn how to dance like that, Weiss?" Jaune leaned forward and propped his head in his palm.
She perked up. She was always happy to tell him more about the brighter points of her life. "Oh, well, my singing you know about. That was mandatory—but fun."
"Oh yeah, we still have to do that."
"A-And we will! But it has to be absolutely perfect. I won't have my debut concert for my boyfriend be anything but a triple A experience." She had to figure out what song to sing, where to sing it, if they were going to eat something beforehand, she needed to plan what food went with her song. If she needed fireworks or a lighting crew, she'd need to rope Ruby's team into helping her. These were all things she had running through her mind.
A Schnee does not simply 'sing' anywhere, and for just anyone.
Jaune raised his hands in defeat. "Right, right. Go on."
"Well," She took a light sip of her punch. "I got into dancing a bit more naturally. I would be playing by myself in the gardens most of the time, and, sometimes, I would take some flowers and er, I'd sort of, spin around with them." A moderate blush crept up on her cheeks. It was silly, but it was one of her fondest pastimes. Jaune had fun imagining a miniature Weiss prancing around with a bouquet of flowers bigger than she was. "When I got a little older and my schedule became more regimented, my free time was severely cut short. So, I asked the head instructor if I could have dancing lessons." At that point, she needed something to take her mind off all the lessons on fencing, and how to stand, and how to sit, and how to eat, and how to speak, and how to think, and how to feel, and who was important, and who was unimportant. The garden had been a refuge for her as a child, but as she grew, the servants would corral her into her studies every chance they could. She suspected they begrudged their meager wages. They were afraid of her father, everyone was, so they took it out on the only person they could. Her.
When she came out of her musings, she felt Jaune's calloused hand gently caressing her cheek. She leaned into his warm touch and smiled softly at him. She reached up and cupped his hand over her cheek. She was alright now. It was in the past.
"What else?" His tone was quiet and gentle. She almost couldn't hear it over the sound of the pulsing music.
"Well, I learned all kinds of different forms from all over the world. It really helped in my cultural studies; some peoples use dancing as methods of communication for everything from saying hello to marriage proposals. Why, there's this one tribe in Vaccuo..." Jaune noted she was going into lecture mode and slowly slipped into his consequent 'listening mode'. His eyes became unfocused and his head nodded and smiled every so often to help sell the illusion. She noticed about half way through her lecture and adopted a mock pout. "And the women take all their clothes off and take turns—"
Jaune jolted awake. "Wait, what?"
Weiss swatted his arm. "Lunkhead!"
As their conversation turned to idle topics, they swapped more trivia about themselves.
Neither of them knew how to drive, and resolved to learn together.
She liked blueberry frozen yogurt while he was more of a milkshake man.
He told her of the time Crazy Pete saw The Rocketeer and strapped him to one of his strongest fireworks.
Her horrified expression brought the memory into sharp focus. "By the time anyone realized I'd been abducted, he'd already lit the fuse. Kia's the fastest person in town, so luckily she heard my screams of terror and came runnin'. She scratched him up something fierce after that." He held his thumb and index finger out about a half inch apart. "There was only this much fuse left before I'd either be blasted off into space or blown to bits."
Weiss racked her brain for a similarly exciting story. Her eyes lit up when she remembered one time when she was small; she had wormed her way into the Schnee manor ventilation system.
Jaune struggled not to burst into laughter. "H-Hey! I was in there for eight hours. I thought I'd never get out of there. Eventually, I figured out where I was and crawled my way to the servant's wing." Her eyes took on a far away, haunted expression. "I learned things better left unlearned. Heard things, better left unheard." She smiled suddenly. "I got so much dirt, they had to give me whatever I wanted for three months straight."
Jaune laughed as he imagined the very same tiny Weiss crawling around in a dusty vent like a tiny thief on an equally tiny secret mission.
They huddled together during their conversation, bowing their heads during the louder, faster tracks. The pair shared a muffled giggle at their mutual misfortunes. Soon, the warm bubbles of laughter ran out and left the two in a companionable atmosphere.
An idea nagged at the back of Weiss head. The songs were slowing down again, and it was the perfect opportunity. Especially with the foreign students around. Naturally, he would have no idea what they would be communicating to each other, but it was his own fault for not letting her finish her explanation.
"So, do you want to give a new one a try?" She looked up at him with hopeful eyes.
"Silly. A dance. Well, it's not so much a new dance, as much as it's how we dance."
Jaune shrugged. "Yeah, sure. Let's go."
They moved out onto the dance floor and took their positions. The song was a slow tune you could just sway to. Nothing too complex. He put his arms around her waist and she secured hers around his neck.
She slipped off her frosted ice heels and perched delicately on top of them. "Okay, now take off your shoes and stand on them. Your socks, too." He did as he was told. It was a bit awkward standing barefoot on top of his dress shoes, but he muscled through it. "Right, now," she pushed her heels up against his shoes. "Step off one foot at a time." He placed his feet on the ballroom floor, one, then the other. It felt warm and smooth; he expected it to be cold. It was probably because of all the activity. Weiss gingerly placed her feet atop his. She looked up at him and saw mild confusion mixed with amusement in his dark eyes. "Right, now we dance around our shoes."
It wasn't nearly as uncomfortable as it might have seemed. Jaune was used to holding his partner close, and thoroughly enjoyed the feel of her body pressed against his. And she was light enough that the acute weight on his feet wasn't a problem. They slowly swayed and turned around their shoes. The students gave them a generous circle in which to move. Jaune could feel the beat of the slow dance thump through the floor. And he could hear the hushed whispers of the onlookers.
The blonde cradled his partner's slight form securely in his large arms. He traced little circles on the slope of her back as they swayed to the music. He brought his lips down to her ear and brushed them against the soft lobe.
"What are they whispering about?" he breathed into her ear. Two boys in foreign uniforms, one blonde, the other with electric blue hair, lounged at the far end of the dance floor giving him approving nods.
Weiss noted that most of the conversation seemed to come from the visiting students. Her cheeks went pink. They knew what she was doing. "D-Don't worry about it."
He smiled down at her. "Come on. What does this mean? Am I declaring my undying love for you or something? You could have just asked."
Weiss buried her head in his chest to hide her flaming blush. "Qu-Quiet! It's nothing of the sort. Don't worry and just enjoy it."
Jaune shrugged and left it alone. He rested his head atop hers and smiled as her hair tickled his chin. They spun, stepped, and sashayed about their joined shoes. Jaune could make out Weiss whispering into his chest. He strained his ears, but couldn't make out what she was saying. Judging by the inflections, it sounded almost like a chant, or even a prayer. He'd never quite heard a proper prayer before, but he figured it sounded about right. He decided not to interrupt her as she seemed to be concentrating rather hard.
The song wound down and Weiss ended her whispering. She popped her head up from his chest with a small smile on her face and twinkling winter blue eyes.
"Did you finish sacrificing me to the gods?"
On the final note, Jaune picked up his little angel. She dangled a foot in the air, finally at eye level. She bent forward and pressed her lips softly against his. Her toes curled happily as their lips gently moved against one another. When they broke apart, Jaune continued to hold her up.
"And what was that for?"
She gave him another peck on the lips. "The future."
Jaune used his forearms to block a flurry of punches from his fuchsia eyed teammate. He rolled his shoulders and angled his arms such that he could easily redirect the furious blows. Every now and again Jaune would get a lucky jab in. A cuff about the head, or a quick jab to the gut. But this exercise wasn't about winning or losing. It was about endurance. The blonde was fast, but Ren was faster, and that's what was important.
They stood their ground on the sunny hilltop. Jaune caught Ren in the ribs and they switched positions. The knight began his offensive with a vicious uppercut. Ren leaned out of the way just in time to miss having his nose shattered. The other fist came low and connected, nearly knocking the wind out of him.
Sweat rolled off Jaune's bare back. Ren was neither fazed by the intense activity or the heat beating down on them. Ever since Ozpin mentioned temperature regulating, he told his friends about it so they'd be in top shape if it ever came down to going back into a harsh climate. Naturally, he was at a bit of a disadvantage, but that was nothing new.
They continued to trade blows until they'd each successfully switched from the offensive to defense twenty times and sustained their position for at least three minutes. The two young men broke apart and took a moment to collect themselves. Jaune wiped the sweat from his brow, stretched his arms, and cracked his back. Ren stood with his limbs loose and a pensive expression on his face.
Their investigation had come to a grudging halt at the behest of Oobleck, who insisted they give his contacts some time.
"My people are working the Faunus network; hideouts, safe houses, dives, meeting places. It will take time, but rest assured we should have some tangible results at the end of it all. So, until either Ozpin or I give the word, stay ready and be patient."
All that really amounted to was that there was nothing they could do right now, and to go about their live until they had something. At first, Jaune had nearly gone stir crazy with the abrupt halt of momentum, but quickly found training to be a refreshing and productive distraction.
Jaune adopted a loose stance and bounced on the balls of his feet. Ren fluidly dropped into a low stance, his eyes focused and alert. A hot breeze blew past the two combatants, signaling the start of their bout. Jaune ran forward and leaped into a flying kick. Ren shifted out of the way and ducked for a leg sweep. Jaune hopped over it and peppered the boy with a series of light kicks to the head. Ren rolled back and snapped to his feet. He rushed forward, bobbing left and right to keep his opponent guessing. Jaune caught his first punch, but the next two dug painfully into his solid chest.
Jaune lost his grip on his opponent. The fists came from every direction. When he got a beat on an uppercut coming from the low right, it would flash away and be on the left. Pain registered in his mind before he even realized he'd been hit.
Confident, Ren closed the gap. Jaune hooked his leg around the green clad man and nudged him off balance. As he went down, the blonde slammed his fist into the unfortunate boy's face. He took a few retreating steps and tucked into a more defensive stance. Ren was too fast to go head to head. He'd need to wear him down. It didn't help that his Aura kept him light, fast, and protected the whole time.
Jaune clenched his fists. He'd just have to hit harder.
Ren came at him like a striking snake, but he was ready. He caught his wrist and pulled, using his momentum against him. Ren stumbled right into Jaune's waiting knee. Ren hunched forward, the wind completely gone from his lungs. The spike of pain was instantly washed away by his Aura, but the elbow that crashed into the back of his neck made his vision blur.
He rolled out of the way of an oncoming boot and got back on his feet. He ran at Jaune, delivering a devastating scissor kick. It connected with his crossed arms, but it helped push him back. As he landed, Ren peppered Jaune's chest with a multitude of punches. Each connected squarely with the boy's solid stomach. Jaune reeled back from the assault.
They continued to trade advantage as the fight wore on. Nora and Weiss who spectated under the shade of a nearby tree, thought they looked like two animals, a great panther locked in battle with a large, wily serpent.
Weiss kept track of their stats in her Scroll while Nora cheered for both hunters. Ren was in the low yellow by now, and Jaune, naturally, read N/A. He would simply fight until he passed out or he started bleeding profusely. Her eyes dimmed slightly
The two teens were locked in a fluid exchange of punches and kicks. One roundhouse for a double backhand. Punch, block, punch, kick, feint, uppercut. They were evenly matched and evenly tired. It was hard to tell who was winning from the sidelines.
A duck around the side for a jab to the ribs was met with a quick pivot and a knee to the head. A high kick was caught and twisted around, sending Jaune to the ground. And as Ren hesitated for just a moment, wondering how he'd end the fight, Jaune sprung up and put everything he had into one final uppercut. Ren's head snapped back as he was lifted into the air several inches. Jaune swept up behind him and wrangled his neck into a hard headlock. Ren wriggled and flailed, but the pressure around his neck only increased. The world was going dark despite his Aura's best efforts.
Jaune dragged him to his knees.
"He's in the red!"
And he was free and back on his feet as if he'd never been brought down. His vision cleared instantly as his Aura recouped itself. Jaune appeared in front of him a bit on the knackered side, but otherwise in good spirits with a broad smile on his face.
They bumped fists good naturally. "You can't let me get close, Ren."
The pistol wielder had a small smile on his face. "I had you on the ropes."
The pair walked back to the shady tree where their lady friends were waiting. Nora clapped loudly for her two male teammates.
"Woohoo! You guys were great! Ren you were like whoosh pow, and Jaune you weren't having any of it! It was great! A battle for all time!"
Weiss had a far more measured reaction. She grabbed a bottle of water nearby and cooled it with a spark of Aura. She passed it over to Jaune, who collapsed next to her and immediately began chugging it gratefully. She passed another to Ren.
When he had let the last of the refreshing water slip down his burning throat, he put his head on Weiss' lap. She flinched slightly at the sudden intimacy, but relaxed quickly. She set aside her Scroll, which had an article for History class, and smiled down at him.
He couldn't get over how heavenly she looked with her pure white hair and blue eyes against the vivid blue of the actual sky; they were virtually the same shade. She really was otherworldly.
"So, are you quite done getting yourself beaten up?"
"I am. You may now do with me as you please."
She smiled and hovered her hand over his chest. Her healing glyph materialized in thin air. She ran it up and down his chest until all his aches and pains dulled, and all that remained was pleasant coolness coursing all throughout his body.
"Appreciate it, love."
She hummed in response, a small smile on her lips.
She busied herself with her Scroll once more. The digits on her free hand wove themselves through his golden hair. A small growl of appreciation rumbled at the back of his throat. With how much he played with her hair, he was surprised she didn't take more opportunities to return the favor.
He watched with increasingly heavy eyes as the wind gently played with her white locks. Her piercing blue eyes scanned the Scroll face. Back and forth, back and forth. In the distance, he could hear Nora's bubbly giggle, and a faint chuckle that had to be Ren. They had gone off a ways to play Frisbee.
He sighed contentedly and nestled himself deeper into Weiss' lap. Her legs and the soft fibers of her plaid skirt made for a rather comfortable pillow. He breathed deeply and took in her sweet, familiar scent. It stilled his heart and caused a pleasant warmth bloom at his core. The spring wind carried the light, flowery scent of the newly budding flowers nearby. The thought dizzied him slightly. The scent of the fresh grass tickled his nose.
And the bitter stench of ash chilled every nerve in his body.
His eyes snapped open. A blackened and blasted skeleton hunched over him. A brittle, spidery hand was dug into his hair, and a black, cracked skull smiled down at him, lolling on its side. Thin wisps of sickly white hair whispered in the mute breeze.
Jaune hastily untangled himself from the clutches of the macabre display and got to his feet. The land around him was blackened and slick with ash and silt. The sky above was an oily canvas of heavy, black clouds, with small breaks of dim, dirty sunlight.
His eyes bulged. His lungs heaved the heavy, dank air. Where was he? What was happening? He gaped, open mouthed at the burnt skeleton at the base of the now gnarled and dead tree. His mind refused to process who it might be.
"I tried to reach the girl, but her mental fortifications are strong. But you, on the other hand, were surprisingly easy to crack."
The menacing rumble was both booming—everywhere, and a slithering whisper in his ear. Jaune wheeled around. On the hill where Nora and Ren had been, stood a tall, powerfully built man. A thick mane of golden hair, tough, tanned skin, blazing golden eyes, and silken honey colored robes that flowed from his broad body. He stood calmly amongst the ruin, unfazed, placid.
The two men watched each other for a long minute. Their only spectator was the hollow eyed skeleton. A dead wind blew between them. Jaune's mind reeled as it took in more of the blasted landscape. The man stalked forward with a predatory gait.
"The human race is a parasite on the face of this planet." His lips moved, but the voice felt more and more to be coming from inside the young man's mind. "It multiplies and spreads to a new habitat, finds the climate too harsh for its delicate tastes, and sets about changing the world, bending it, breaking it, to fulfill its whims."
Jaune took a step back as the fierce looking man advanced—he tried to. He couldn't move. His feet were firmly rooted to the ashen ground.
The man walked around him in a slow circle. Even when he couldn't see him, Jaune felt those horrible eyes burn into the back of his head, into his unprotected mind.
"I've seen Man tame the harsh heat of Vaccuo,"
The burnt and desolate land blew away in a violent torrent of sand. It cut into the young man's face like glass. The gray sands blew across his vision, leaving long stretches of barren gray desert as far as his eye could see.
"But they used my people to scrub and wall away the sands. I've seen Man level the peaks of Atlas."
The sand froze and crystallized into white barren tundra. Impossibly huge mountain peaks sprung up from the ground in seconds. Chilled to the very marrow in his bones, he thought he'd never be warm again.
"But they forced my people to brave the elements, to cut the rocks, and die in the rock slides. I've watched as Man cut into the bowls of the world, to mine out their precious Dust."
Flashes of dark cavernous tunnels, frantic screaming and demonic screeching assaulted his mind.
"But they sent my people to the deepest parts, leaving them entombed under miles of solid rock. No one would hear their pleas for help."
When his eyes refocused, the ashen hilltop returned. Jaune stared into the infinite burning eyes of the lion faced man. This was the man Blake spoke of. The ageless, othered Faunus that plotted in the shadows of history.
"But if I have learned anything in my long years, it is that all things find their end with time. Even the empires of Man shall fall. And I will be the hand that topples the first brick."
Jaune felt sick. The smiling skeleton that he'd woken up to creaked as it was dragged by some unseen force to the man's feet. It lay on its side staring up at the young knight with dark, hollow sockets. He couldn't look away.
"Once I realized who the girl was, I had one of my assassins put an end to her life; a message to Mankind. I was rather surprised to learn that you had thwarted my plan. I commend you. Few have successfully stood against me." His eyes flared. The note of finality in his voice sent a zip of cold through Jaune's back. "But I'm afraid there will be no place for you in my kingdom."
The charred skeleton lurched and cracked as each bone buckled and splintered before him. The result was an odd sort of dance as each move broke off another link in the body of the ghoulish puppet.
Jaune begged his mind not to make the obvious connection, as the skull, complete with its wisps of ghostly white hair, crumbled and caved in on itself.
The world began to shake and fall away around him. The land disappeared from under his feet, but his cobalt eyes were still locked with the orange inferno of his tormenter. The world went dark around him. Up and down lost their meaning as he tumbled for infinity toward some black oblivion. He tried to gain his bearings, to scream, but it was for naught. All he had was the horrible burning eyes, like twin suns in the blackness of space, beating down at him as he fell.
Somewhere in the impossible blackness, he could hear a faint whisper. The tentative pleas of an innocent thing.
"Wake up. Oh, please wake up."
He strained to hear the whispering plea. He fixated on it, pushing the burning eyes away from his mind. If he concentrated enough on the sweet voice, perhaps he could escape this madness.
"Come on, now. Please wake up, Jaune. Please."
He struggled and pushed against the blackness, holding onto the distant voice as hard as he could. He filled his thoughts with his angel. He thought of her pure white hair, her eyes, her face, her smile, and pushed away the darkness, the horrifying eyes, all of it.
And he was awake.
He stared up at Weiss, whose cornflower blues, peered down at him in concern. Her pink lips were curled into a small frown. Her soft hand gently shook his shoulder to rouse him from his nightmare. He blinked away the last vapors of nightmare and reached up, sliding his hand down her smooth cheek. Her frown disappeared.
"You're finally awake." She leaned closer. Her ponytail spilled over her shoulder and caught rather fetchingly in the mid afternoon sunlight. "You were groaning and tossing in your sleep. I've been trying to wake you for five minutes."
"I'm alright now, thanks." He willed his thundering heart to settle down.
She bit her lip. "Do you want to talk about it?"
She hadn't ever told him about how she'd been plagued with nightmares for the majority of her life, and they had only come to an end when he became a permanent fixture in her life. She reasoned that this would be a good enough opportunity to thank him for everything he'd done for her.
Jaune shook his head and breathed in the sweet scent of the grass, and the warm spring breeze. He didn't want to be responsible for spoiling her mood any further. He could sense she was about to protest, so he closed the gap between them and captured her lips. He poured everything he had into that kiss. Desperation held up a mask of innocent passion; he needed to reassure himself that what he saw wasn't reality. As their lips moved against each other so very eagerly, Jaune resolved to do whatever it took to make sure his vision never came to pass. Even if it meant facing those horrible blazing eyes head on.
Jonas slunk further into the shadows of the alleyway as a car sloshed down the rain washed streets of Vale. His calculating black eyes glimmered in the overcast evening twilight. He pulled his thin brown cloak closer around his shoulders. A steady rain had been battering the city for days. It was going to get worse. The strange weather coupled with the coastal city created the perfect recipe for violent, punishing storms.
And yet, the festival plodded along dutifully.
His dark eyes flickered as he sensed movement across the street. Dark shadows flashed through golden squares of light. Rooms lit and extinguished with nervous frenzy. The occupants were agitated. Something was different tonight.
It didn't take long for him to find this place. All he needed to do was follow the stench of burning flesh. Oh, he knew of the stories, the legends, but given his line of work, he never had much time for tall tales. Remnant was filled with terrible and wondrous things. This was no different.
He had watched them for weeks; planning, plotting, scavenging information, maps, blueprints, anything that would tell him about what was inside. It was rather refreshing, really. He hadn't done something like this in a long time. He hoped he wasn't too rusty.
Through the heavy curtain of rain, he could see the squat noodle factory. It was an unassuming two story concrete building; more concerned with function than aesthetics. Two silent chimney stacks poked out of the top of the building. Interesting, but probably ultimately useless. For all he knew, it would just lead him right into the waiting maw of a furnace.
He set about finding a point of entry. He dug out his Scroll and consulted the soft glow of the map. A basement entrance was viable, but he didn't want to go through the main floor until he knew how dense it was in there. His eyes flicked about the face of the building. There was a fire escape from the second floor leading to a sopping alleyway to the left. Likely leading to the upper offices. The first floor was the production plant and tantamount to waltzing in through the front door. The whole facade was sturdy, but worn from time and misuse. It had been abandoned for years, and had only just reopened for an entirely different business venture. The shadows stopped flurrying between squares of light. The occupants had settled down. An anticipatory tingle zipped through his hands.
It was time to begin.
Jonas slunk along the shadows, crossing the street without so much as the barest suggestion of a footfall. He appreciated the heavy rain. It would help shroud him against any Faunus that might be keeping a lookout.
He darted around the side of the factory and crouched low in the alleyway, straining his large mouse ears. The shadows were always useful, but in Menagerie, everyone had good night vision. It called for minding one's line of sight and knowing how to improvise with one's circumstances.
The fire escape was retracted, and would only lower under the weight of a descending body. He lifted an abused garbage can and set it under the fire escape. He scrambled atop the metal cylinder and felt it sag under his weight. Cheap aluminum wouldn't hold for long. He jumped and grabbed the ends of the swinging staircase. He shimmied his small form up and over the last step. He felt it sag and groan under his weight. He quickly twisted around and pulled himself up over the railing of the platform. The stairs creaked back into place.
Jonas waited one minute. Then two. His enhanced hearing picked up the rolling thunder in the distance and the clattering of the rain on the metal surface. No disturbances. They hadn't heard his commotion.
He forewent the door for a dark window and placed his large ear over the glass. He breathed in to still his body and focus his hearing. He could make out faint traces of footfalls on the cheap wooden floors. He waited until the noise faded away and tested the window. It was jammed shut. The rails were rusted and old.
He dug into the folds of his cloak and produced a bottle of grease and a small crowbar. He held the crowbar between his teeth, freeing his hand. He expertly worked the grease into the aged rails, massaging them with lubricant. Then, he wedged his pry bar into the lip of the window and began wrenching it upward.
The wood creaked, groaned, and protested, desperate to stay shut to the intruder, but eventually it gave with a thick snap. Jonas worked his thin fingers under the lip and carefully lifted the window. It slid up jerkily, but it was relatively silent, and that's all that counted.
He squirmed in through the open window and dropped into a low crouch. He slipped into a dark corner and surveyed the room with glimmering eyes. A battered desk, a moth worn chair against the far wall, rusted filing cabinets lolling open and empty.
Muffled voices soaked through the thin flooring. They were quick, sharp clips of dialog. He couldn't discern what was being spoken, but it wasn't pleasant. He peeled off his wet shoes and tucked them into his cloak. His thick black socks were still fairly dry and would make less noise and leave less of a trace.
Jonas shot around the room with practiced ease. He checked inside drawers, under the desk, behind the filing cabinets. He knew there was nothing there, but old habits die hard; it was always good practice to be sure.
When he was finished with the room, he slunk up to the door. A small dirty rectangle of burnt gold light signified the hallway was well lit. He tried the knob, it turned easily. He peeked out into the empty hallway. Moldy bulletin boards and cracked drywall. His eyes flicked over the floor; it wasn't in much better shape. He'd have to watch his step if he wanted to avoid making unnecessary noise.
Jonas edged out of the dark office into lit hallway. A series of tired yellow bulbs bathed the hall in dirty light. He skipped over the uneven floorboards, keeping his footing light. He could hear the voices, louder now. He shot across the hall, quick as a rat. He emerged onto a dark catwalk that wound around the entire perimeter of the upper factory. He slouched into the shadows, avoiding the wide overhanging lamps. He found a satisfactory perch at the far end of the catwalk and observed the level below with cold, critical eyes.
Concrete support pillars cast long, thick shadows at the outskirts of an otherwise barren, concrete floor. The equipment that had once been bolted to the ground had long since been removed. Rows and rows of bowed, hooded heads sat on their knees, facing a makeshift dais, on which a similarly hooded figure sat. His robes were brown, like the others', but had a bronze trim along the ends.
Jonas filed this information away, and prepared to make his move. Before he could take a step, the leader raised his hands and addressed his congregation.
"Our master basks in his throne of light! Daily, he grows stronger, and reaps the rewards bestowed upon him by the life giving sun!" At this, the entire assembly erupted into a low, rumbling chant. Jonas couldn't make out the language. "And when the master's word is given, we shall act as his hand and burn the lands of Man, so that His greatest work, our great paradise, may rise!" There was another rumbling chant of agreement.
Jonas blinked and refocused. He was wasting time. He made a mental note of all the best hiding spots and shot back down the catwalk. His socks did much to muffle the rattling metal.
He returned to the hallway, turned abruptly and opened a door. It was another dark office space. His eyes adjusted quickly to the dim light. He swept about silently. There was nothing of value. He moved to the far corner of the room and moved aside a rusting filing cabinet. At the base of the wall was a small ventilation grate. If he had the map memorized correctly, then this particular passage would help lead him down to the first floor.
He knelt down and produced a small leather pouch from within the folds of his cloak. He unfolded the pouch, revealing gleaming, slender tools of the finest quality. He hadn't used them in years, yet they still felt every bit as familiar as if he'd used them just the other day.
He inserted a fine metal screwdriver into the fastenings, and twisted them apart one after another. He paused as sounds of a struggle carried through the aluminum vent. His ears twitched and listened.
"Tie him to the post. For interfering with the Father's work, he will feel the Father's wrath!"
Jonas' brows came together as he mentally checked his plans. He hadn't accounted for innocents being here, but they could prove a useful distraction. He dug his fingers into the dusty grate and pried the cover off with a dull creak. He set it aside and burrowed into the new opening. His small frame allowed him to slither easily through the metal duct work.
Faunus came in many varieties. One could have a vicious appetite and slightly large canines and be considered a Faunus, and one could resemble an ape with the mind of a man and still be within the spectrum. Gifted with a long, pointed nose, shifty black eyes, big round, floppy ears, and a short stature, Jonas was decidedly more mouse than man.
This came in handy in Menagerie where there were more... extreme, examples of Faunushood. It was considered a plus, really; the more one resembled their given animal, the more, it was believed, that they would represent that animal's core philosophies. And in his line of work, people could appreciate one so tuned to the finer art of stealth.
Of course, Vale didn't take too kindly to his profession. But then, he'd been rather lucky in that regard.
The rats squeaked and scurried about as Jonas squirmed past. He paused and fixed one of the rodents with his dark gaze. He put a finger to his mouth. The mouse ceased its squeaking and stared up at him with glassy black eyes. It stood on its hind feet in a daze. The others followed suit one by one. Satisfied that they had all gotten the message, he shimmied on. It wouldn't do to have them give away his position.
As he shimmied down the air vent, he could hear the echoed cries of a man in agony, as well as hissed oaths in an ancient tongue reveling in his pain. Their exclamations sounded far away, as if from another world. He peered over the edge of an abrupt drop. It was a fair way down but it was exactly what he was looking for. A twisted part of his mind connected the man's tortured screams and the downward decent of the ventilation shaft with some strange portal to the underworld.
The little Faunus braced his thin arms and legs against the smooth walls of the metal chute and gently pushed his body downward. He slid down with a silky, metallic hiss. The moment his feet planted firmly against the cool metal floor, he dropped back into his mouse creep.
He shimmied on; as he neared the exit grate, his sensitive nose cured at the unmistakable stench of burnt meat. Small slits of light filtered through the dusty gaps in the metal vent. Here, he was closer to the ranting cultists. He could hear them clearly.
"Let the interloper be put to the Father's test. The Father's gaze shall judge them as it shall judge the world!"
He steadily worked at the screws as the cultists raved on.
A rattling hiss of agreement reverberated throughout the congregation. Things were about to get bad. He worked faster and quietly undid the screws. He eased open the grate and shot out into the shadow of a concrete pillar. The stench of burning flesh dizzied his mind. He looked to the front of the congregation. His black eyes reflected the blaze.
The dais had been outfitted with chains, and at the center was the hunched figure of a man—a Faunus—his skin, red and puffy from prolonged exposure to unnatural fires, his dark green eyes, hooded and dull. Jonas noted the wolf ears atop his head, sagged and torn in places. He tucked himself deeper into the folds of the shadows and watched.
"Speak the name of your masters, dog!"
The wolfman's response was to groan and slump further on his knees. Every nerve in his body was shot. His mind was as far from his body as possible. He was ready to die.
"Speak, dog!" The head cultist's white hot hand struck the Faunus along the side of the head. A small fire broke out on the man's cheek, charring it, and sending him into a fit of agony.
The wolfman raised his head, slowly, inch by terrified inch. His broken, glassy eyes met his torturer in defiance. "Kill me..."
Jonas tore his gaze away from the scene, and concentrated on staying mobile. He rolled on the balls of his feet and launched himself toward the next column of shadows. He moved from pillar to pillar, silently, amongst the humming, cultists, and the wailing wolfman. Finally, he made it to the head of the room undetected.
The mouse Faunus ducked low as a large cultist lumbered past. Jonas watched as the fierce looking cultist descended a staircase and disappear into the warehouse cellar. Now, what could possibly be down there? There was a fair stretch of open space and light between him and the cellar. If he went out to follow now, he'd be spotted for sure.
Jonas took a deep breath, held it, counted to four, and exhaled, counted to four. He repeated this process until his heartbeat had calmed considerably. He pressed the palms of his thin hands onto the cool, course, concrete. His Semblance pulsed through the pads of his fingers. He beckoned to the shadows, pooled them at his feet, and stretched them over his body. He blinked, and the world came into focus in sharp black and white. The shadows deepened, the lights brightened. He wanted to recoil from the light, stay in the comforting veil of darkness.
He put his trust and faith in the shadows that nurtured him, and swept out into the open. He darted forward, straight, no deviation. The more he moved around, the more his shroud would have to work to keep him hidden. The light burned as he shot across the room. The shadows curled around his small body as he followed the cultist down into the damp darkness of the warehouse cellar. The pained howls of the wolfman tumbled after him. He stayed low to the ground and followed his query's footfalls exactly, masking his own movement.
The stairs wound around themselves, doubling back into a wide chamber underneath the factory floor. It was pitch black, and smelled of dirt and rain, but any Faunus who wasn't blind could see perfectly fine, even in this total darkness. Jonas ducked to the side and followed along a parallel path, winding around silent, rusting industrial furnaces, and huge, yawning vats.
He shouldered past grimy pipes, and still conveyers, shadowing the cultist in the blackness. As they moved deeper into the cellar, a small flicker of yellow light burned at the far end of the room.
His keen ears could make out the rattling of chains. And the soft sobs of a woman.
Jonas shot around a corner and stopped himself from skidding out into the light. He pressed himself against the grimy wall of some industrial machine and watched the scene before him. A dying bulb hung over a red, rusted, metal pole. Tethered to the rod by the arms and legs was a beaten Faunus; a fox girl who looked to be in her mid thirties.
The woman hung limp and defeated on the pole. She stood straight and hardened her chocolate brown eyes as she saw the head cultist approach. She willed her tears to stop.
"What have you done with Kiba, you monster!"
The robed figure lashed out a thick, pale hand and gripped the foxgirl by the throat.
"This is your final chance. Speak the name of your master, dog, or incur our Father's wrath."
The fox struggled bravely against the unyielding grip of her captor. "I'd rather die."
She spat in his face.
"Imbecile!" The cultist's hand burned white. Smoke hissed from the fox's neck, the poor girl began to wail in agony. Jonas' nose curled as the bitter stench of burning flesh reached his sensitive nose.
The torturer wrenched his hand away from the foxgirl. She sagged down as far as her tethered arms could allow. A curtain of soft honey blonde hair caught in the dim light. The beastly cultist unhooked the limp woman form the pole and dragged her down the cellar, toward the stairs, toward her death.
Every instinct told Jonas to let things be. He wasn't in the business of saving lives, he never had been. The sound of her body scraping lifelessly against the unforgiving concrete caused the blackjack resting against his thigh to assert itself in his mind. A relic from Payne's days as a beat cop.
Jonas hissed as the accursed rod prodded impishly against his leg, demanding action. He brought the heavy club to bear and ducked around the corner. In the darkness, Faunus had excellent night vision, but they still lost color like every other human. He could clearly see the gray folds of the thuggish cultist dragging the thin wisp of a woman by the wrists.
He dashed forward, running on the balls of his feet. He only had one chance at this. He wasn't huge and strong like Payne. All he had was the element of surprise, and a few elementary disarming tricks for when he crossed paths with the citizen watch.
The cultist was facing away from him. That was good. Jonas put on a burst of speed and jammed his foot into the back of the man's knee. He lost his grip on the girl and crumpled to one knee. The mouse reeled back with the earth Dust infused blackjack and slammed the thick club into the side of the man's head. A dull, thick, thwack met his ears as the hooded head snapped to the side.
The body went rigid for a moment before going limp and falling to the ground. Green veins of earth Dust roped around the billy club like an arcane spider's web. It allowed for a heavier strike for about the same power as a mundane club. It did the job admirably.
Jonas checked the fallen man's pulse and found it beating steadily. He was sticking his neck out, but he wasn't in the business of killing. He hoisted the body up by the arms and dragged it behind a grimy conveyer belt.
He'll be out cold for a while, but these things varied from person to person. Jonas scurried around to the fallen woman. She lay motionless, softly weeping as the wails of her comrade carried down to the dark cellar. He pulled her up and propped her up against some machinery. He pat her cheeks to bring her about.
She tried to curl in on herself, but he held her head up. He didn't have time for this.
"Wake up. Focus. You don't have time to weep." His eyes were hard, uncaring. He wasn't in the business of saving lives. "What were you doing here? What do you know? Answer me." A small part of him wanted to punctuate his demands with a threat of some kind, but he wasn't in much of a position to intimidate a half dead woman.
The fox's eyes cleared gradually. The curtain of honey blonde hair hung limp around her pale face. In better light, she would have been considered rather fetching. She fixed him with dull broken eyes. Tears trailed silently down her cheeks.
"Kiba... Kiba and I... we had to find out what was going on." She spoke in a dull, lifeless tone. "The Professor wanted to know where they were, what they were planning. We'd had our suspicions—we were raised on the stories as well—but Oobleck confirmed it."
Jonas' sharp ears held vigil for intruders. The wolfman's howls had been silent for some time.
"At first they used paper. Messages and maps. They were easier to steal." A note of desperation slipped into her voice. "W-We took what we could—whatever looked useful. Put it all under a floor board and made it look inconspicuous. But a few days ago they started getting messages in their heads. They would just suddenly stop in the middle of whatever they were doing and zone out for minutes at a time."
"Where?" He gripped her by the shoulders. "Where are the documents you found?" Originally, he'd been sent to snoop around, find what he could. This was exactly the kind of thing Payne was looking for.
The girl's brows came together in remembrance. "Upstairs, in the manager's office. Third—no fifth plank from the far corner of the east wall." Her eyes dimmed even further. "We wanted to keep it close to a window in case we needed to make a break for it."
He silently cursed himself for missing the hiding spot. He really had gotten rusty in his inaction. Before the girl could continue, Jonas picked up the rapid thumps of stomping boots down the staircase. He wrenched the girl to her feet and heaved them behind the machine.
He clapped his hand over the girl's mouth and brought a finger to his lips. She stilled her fidgeting, having understood his meaning.
"Custus, bring the girl. The dog expired sooner than the Foreman expected."
Jonas could sense the girl go ridged behind him. The last shred of hope she had for her companion's survival had just been snuffed out. He turned to her and signaled her to stay put. He didn't wait to see if she registered his command. He brought the blackjack to bear, tracking his target's movements by judging the distance of the sound within the room. He edged out into the open just as the hem of a robe passed by. He dropped low and crept up to his target. The man was taller and thinner than the first, his stride was a bit on the long side, but Jonas could manage.
As they came upon the red, rusted pole, the man stopped short, stunned.
Jonas shot forward and delivered an upward swing to the back of the man's head. He grunted and hunched over. The slippery mouse brought the cudgel down on his knee, shattering it. The man collapsed under his own weight. Once more across the head, and he was out.
Jonas searched the body, but came up with nothing. With the healing properties of most Aura, it was important to strike first and fast. There was no telling how much of the damage would be mitigated by natural protection. He lifted the body and spied a dark corner to stash it, but his ears picked up a commotion at the stairs.
He wheeled around.
The foxgirl, gripped in blind panic, staggered toward the stairs. He cursed under his breath and dropped the body unceremoniously. His feet slapped against the hard concrete as he sprinted up the staircase. He took the stairs two at a time and hunkered down in a shadow against the wall.
The foxgirl was surrounded by cultists. Her comrade was a charred husk on the ground. She raved incoherently as she lashed out at her captors with her hands. They caught her arms in their monster grip and dragged her to the same shackles had had held her friend not minutes ago.
Jonas produced two of the three smoke bombs from within his cloak and tossed them at her feet. Earth and fire Dust reacted with a resounding crack. Thick gray smoke quickly filled the room. Hissed oaths and frightened cries hung in the choking air.
He threw up his hood and darted into the cloud. He ducked and weaved between one frightened woman and several enraged cultists. He didn't stop to guide her through the smoke. She was in a hell all her own, and he had information to gather.
The smoke thinned as he ran through the factory floor. He could make out robed figures darting in and out of the thickest plumes, seeking frantically for their prisoner. He hoped their agitation would be enough to let his brown cloak pass for one of their own.
The keen eyed Faunus reached the stairs to the catwalk and took them two at a time. He passed three cultists hurtling down the stairs as he went. The upper floor didn't gather as much light. He slipped in and out of patches of shadow, skirting past baying cultists, as they squawked over the minor chaos.
He heard the first screams as he reached the offices. He hurled himself into the floor manager's room and slammed the door behind him. It did little to muffle the woman's shrieks. He wasn't in the business of saving lives.
The mouse dropped into a crouch and crossed the room silently. He found the far window the foxgirl spoke of and tried to life it. The rusted rails wouldn't give. He produced his mini crowbar and wedged it under the lip. The wood groaned and cracked as he wrenched.
It finally gave with a jerk and a snap. Jonas raised the bruised wood frame window and stuck his head out into the pouring rain. There was a gutter pipe that led from the roof to the alleyway opposite the one he entered through. He judged the gap between this and the next building to be about six or seven feet.
He was confident he could take it at a run.
The woman's screeching crashed through the closed office door with ease. His heart began to race.
The mouse moved over to the floorboard she had indicated. He tested it with his foot, it was solid. He bent down and jammed the hook end of the crowbar into the wood, harder than was absolutely necessary.
He uttered a string of oaths under his breath.
The thick stench of burning—
The wood splintered and came loose.
The beam clattered to the side. His quick hand reached down and groped around in the dusty space. He grabbed a long leather pouch and pulled it free. The portfolio was stuffed with yellowed paper and folded sheets. Potentially outdated information, but it could provide additional—
"What was that noise?"
"It came from this room. There isn't supposed to be anyone in there."
The door burst open. A splash of yellow light flooded the moldy office space. Two robed figures swept into the room.
"You!" One pointed accusingly at Jonas.
He'd been caught black handed. The mouse thrust the package into his cloak and came out with the last of his smoke bombs. He threw it at the cultists' feet and sprang for the window. He could hear a startled cry as he lurched out the window and grabbed onto the storm drain. A heavy torrent of rain battered his body as he scrambled desperately up the pipe. Only his long years of experience prevented him from slipping and falling to the ground.
He pulled himself up over the lip of the roof and broke into a sprint. His feet kicked up the wet gravel as he sprinted across the rooftop. A crunching, sloshing sound followed as he pumped his feet. They would be upon him if he hung around for too long.
He made it to the other side and leaped to the next roof without a second thought. He ran up the slanted shingles and slid down the other side. He jumped, caught a storm drain and scratched up ten feet to the top.
The next roof was flat and long. He shouldered past a caged transistor and made it halfway across before a shape materialized before him. A hooded cultist stood in the sopping rain with angry golden eyes, barring his path. Instinct took over and he dropped into a slide. A fork of steam and fire lashed over his head. He came up with his blackjack. He cracked the club against the man's jaw, sending him sprawling to the ground. Jonas grabbed the man by the neck before he could get up. He slammed the sap across his head once more and his eyes lost their glow.
He ran the second half of the distance with a racing heart. He hopped and skipped over several more low profile buildings, putting as much distance between himself and that accursed factory as possible. He couldn't relax until he'd made it back to base.
Above, lightning forked across the black horizon, punctuating the wailing winds and weeping sky. The distant beat of festival drums thumped throughout the drenched city. And on the streets, men in robes scattered like ants in pursuit of a rat.
Detective Payne cranked up the wipers on his speeder as he prowled down the Searchlight skyway, a land bridge which allowed quick transport between the northern and southern ends of Vale. The rain beat down relentlessly as he drove along. He could barely make out the dark outline of his destination through the thick, black evening sky.
The Metrolite was an old office complex from the Vale's boomtown infancy. There had been a resistance against making the city too big; the people were still married to the idea of a sturdy little fishing village. As businesses streamed in, accommodations needed to be built. Architects needed to create spaces that were large enough to appeal to corporate space, as well as keep a small enough footprint that the locals would allow them to build.
The Metrolite was just such a building. Twenty one floors tall, and taking on a curious wedge shape, with triangular offices at one end, spreading out rather unevenly to the other end; someone had called it the Flatiron building on account of it looking rather like a literal flatiron. The name stuck and its original name had been lost to dusty library archives. It had been abandoned by its tenants as more conventional solutions sprang up, citing fire hazards, and a general uneasiness with how absurdly narrow the thing was. When the city erupted into a fledgling metropolis, it had been slated for demolition several times, but by then the Vale City Historical Society had been established—thousands strong, and shrugged off demolition requests routinely, citing the curious architecture as a possible tourist attraction.
Payne turned off at the exit, went down four blocks, and turned into the empty little parking lot that sat in front of the odd structure. He killed the engine and mentally prepared himself for the blast of heat and rain that would assault him the second he opened the door. He stepped out into the drench and gazed pensively at the office building. Torrential downpour, hundred degree weather. He was done with this shit before it began.
Jonas had sent him a message an hour ago. Short, to the point; all it said was that he'd found something. After nearly a month of silence, it was good news.
Payne ran up to the unassuming glass doors that led into the strange building. His sneakers made a wet squelching sound as he plodded across the flooded parking lot. During his days on the beat, he'd nabbed Jonas for some petty theft. He hadn't done it out of any great criminal intent, he was just hungry. He had a good head for finding information where the law couldn't, or wouldn't go. Payne cut him a deal, and he made himself available if his services were needed.
The gray eyed detective eased open the door and immediately stepped through the meager receiving area, into the main hall. The hall was a slightly twisting passageway that allowed entry into the strange, angular, and misshapen office space provided by the building's antiquated architecture. The elevator was closest to the offices at the 'point' of the wedge; the staircase was on the other side.
He ignored the glass case that held the interchangeable directory. Most of the letters had fallen to the floor of the case, and none of them were accurate anymore. The wallpaper that had once been eggshell white had yellowed with age. Along the corners nearest doorways, it had even begun peeling. His shoes padded along the moth worn plum carpeting. The lights that sat in the inverted lamps buzzed and burned yellow.
He reached the far end of the hall and pulled back the iron elevator gate. It groaned in protest as Payne pulled it back. He pulled back the second shutter, which was on the elevator itself, and stepped into the muggy silver box.
He slid the shutter closed, pulled out a small brass key, and inserted it into a slot next to the basement level button. He turned the key, pressed the button, and the elevator started with a lurch. The ventilation fan sputtered to life, blowing stale, hot air down on his head. He let it dry off his dripping body.
The elevator lurched violently as it stopped itself at the desired floor. For a split second he thought the old thing would finally collapse. None too keen on finding out, he pulled back the shutters and swept out of the sheet metal coffin.
The basement floor was shaped much like the rest of the building; only this time, there were long hanging pipes and only one bare, near dead, orange bulb lighting the far end of the hall. The twisting corridor cast long, eerie shadows onto every dusty, dripping, rusted surface.
The detective maneuvered around the industrial obstacle course with ease. He'd been through it so many times, he was sure he could cross it in the dark, backwards. He finally came to the door over which the single orange bulb dangled precariously. The lettering was white and crisp in comparison to the yellow and stained frosted glass.
It read: J. Burbank.
He knocked one slow, a beat, then two fast.
The door opened an inch and the barest flicker of an eye glinted in the darkness beyond the door. Payne met the eye just as the door slammed shut. He could hear the rattling of several locks on the other side. A moment later the door swung inward.
Payne stepped into a low ceilinged room. Two long UV lamps hung over two steel tables set against the back of the room. They provided most of the light for the room, as well as nourishment for a host of potted plants. Between them was a single wooden desk, pilfered from the upper floors. On it was a large black tower computer with wires running up the wall and through the ceiling. Next to it was a monitor with a glowing blue screen. In the middle of the room hung a single lamp with the only good bulb in the whole building. It overlooked a sturdy wooden table. It might have been at home in a kitchen at one point, but now it played host to a leather portfolio. There were documents strewn across the table. The door behind him closed with a clap.
"I've found something." Jonas' silky drawl blanketed the whole room like a long velvet cloak.
The small, thin Faunus came around and stood behind the table. Large round ears, a narrow face, and a pair of sly black eyes that saw the opportunity in even the blackest pit, Jonas was more mouse than man. His body was swallowed up in a large faded purple sweater and baggy blue jeans that he'd picked up at a thrift store, or a dumpster. The difference was the same.
"What have you got for me, Jonas?" Payne stepped over, scanning the slightly damp documents with the keen eyes of a true detective.
"There was more activity than I anticipated." His long hands sorted through the documents, gently fanning them out for Payne to inspect. "It would seem another party had taken an interest in the cultists at about the same time we did. Only, while I watched and waited, they inserted themselves into the flock."
"How?" Payne ran his thumb along the corner of a yellowed page. It was filled with wind speed calculations, directional notations, mentions of several cells working in tandem. A smudge of caked dirt fell off, revealing a small insignia. The rain had obscured it slightly, but the mostly circular shape felt familiar.
"A man and a woman, both Faunus. By the time I made my move, they'd been captured."
The gray eyed detective tore his eyes away from the papers. The mismatched lighting of the room cast Jonas in a bizarre silhouette. His whole form was shrouded in the half shadow, only the beak of his mouth peeked through the white beam of the overhead lamp. His black eyes twinkled with something. Apprehension? Anticipation? The detective could never tell.
The mouse paused. Then, "they'd done most of my work for me; gathering what they could until about a week ago when the cultists stopped using paper altogether. Instructions were being transmitted mind to mind." The mouse shook his head. "I don't quite believe it, but stranger things have happened."
"What about the people?" A part of him didn't want to know.
Jonas responded without hesitation. "They were made an example of. Burned to death. I tried to help, but I needed to remain undetected so I could retrieve their intel and escape."
"Damn it, Jonas. I should have come with you. The person they were working for could have known something we don't."
"I doubt that. They were unorganized. Their work was sloppy. And they had no escape plan. More likely, they were civilians doing someone a favor out of good will."
"It didn't have to cost them their lives."
A pregnant silence settled between the two; reconciliation for being on different sides of the law.
"Were you detected?"
Jonas clicked his tongue. "On my way out. But I don't think they got a good look at me. Besides, I'm confident I lost them on the rooftops."
Payne unfolded several sheets of yellowed paper. They were maps, outdated by about thirty years, but maps all the same. There was the South Quarter, Eastend, the downtown district, corporate district. Ten in all, it was almost the entirety of Vale. On each sheet were small red circles and scribbled notes. Payne and Jonas squinted down at one that looked most legible.
It read: 'By the Foreman's calculations, we must be ten strong at this junction at the hour given by the Father.' The annotation indicated a large circle near Vale stadium. They were mobilizing for something. But what?
His train of thought was interrupted by a thin hissing sound that slipped into the room. The two occupants exchanged mutually confused looks. Those looks quickly became suspicious when the hissing increased.
The door burst inward in a shower of splintered wood and thick, choking smoke. Several pairs of burning yellow eyes glowered in the darkness beyond. And just as suddenly, searing arcs of white-blue fire filled the room.
Thanks for reading, everyone! Chapter 19, on the way.