Suddenly, out of nowhere, a wild Chapter 19 attacks!
A solid wave of blue-white fire roared angrily throughout the small room. Payne hurled himself over the sturdy wooden table. It fell after him with a loud crash. Jonas was already cowering.
Payne put his back to the blackened table that valiantly tried to stay whole as it was being burned to cinders. He pulled out his revolver and squeezed off six luminous green slugs into the fray. Six resounding thick thumps called back in reply.
Earth slugs were mostly used for breaching. There was an unwritten rule not to use it on a civilized creature as they had a tendency to blow large holes in anything that wasn't high grade reinforced steel.
"You lost them on the roof, eh?" Payne slammed six more slugs into the chamber and winced as the table began to splinter.
Jonas hissed an oath and scrambled to collect the papers before they caught fire.
Three more slugs burst through the flames. Payne heard the dull thud of falling bodies. The fire began to die down. He peeked out the side and caught a smoldering yellow eye. He blinked and his Semblance kicked in.
One beat. He brought his gun to bear.
Another. He lined up and squeezed off. The eye disappeared in pink mist.
The shower of scalding blood became perfect red droplets in the charged air.
He rolled out of cover and snapped to a crouch. He ran forward, the world overhead was consumed by fire.
The droplets began to fall.
Payne saw two robes through the haze. He squeezed off two slugs, and they met two separate robes. They dug into their meat and burst through the other side. He spun around and slammed six more cartridges into the chamber. These were orange.
The shower of blood fell halfway down the crumpling body.
The raging inferno above his head was nearly put out. He could trace the two remaining jets to their casters. He snapped his gun hand out and let loose. Four explosive rounds tore out of the solid steel revolver. The first wave knocked the cultists back, and the second blew gaping holes into their chest cavities.
The last plumes of fire dissipated.
Payne took a deep breath, his heart beat in his ears at a steady pace.
He blinked and three bodies fell to the ground, his heart thundered in his ears, and scalding heat beat against his body. He stood upright, heaving the hot air in and out of his lungs. His sharp gray eyes pierced the blackness beyond Jonas' charred refuge for any more attackers.
The blackness stared back quietly. The rumbling of the isolated fires that continued to chew up the room met his ears. In the back, the loud snap and spit of an exploding UV lamp snapped him out of his sentry.
He reloaded his pistol on muscle memory alone.
The detective turned and surveyed the damage. Jonas' quaint little office was blackened in the intense blaze. The plants in the black were charred and curled. The lamps overhead were shattered and spitting electricity. The computer had exploded, and the monitor had melted. The sturdy wooden table was little more than a blackened ember.
"Jonas!? You alive?"
The mouse Faunus popped out from behind the overturned table and quietly stepped around the remains of his living space.
"I salvaged most of the papers. We should get moving before more of them corner us in this death trap." His silky drawl was unfazed by the disarray around him.
Payne checked the chamber of his revolver. Six glowing orange bullets greeted him. He snapped the chamber shut and motioned for Jonas to follow.
The pair stepped through the smoke choked room, into the dark hallway. The tired orange bulb had shattered from the heat damage, and crunched loudly under their feet. Jonas stepped alongside his companion, guiding him through the pitch blackness with ease.
Payne trained his gun on the dark and silent elevator car. There was no one inside, but that didn't mean there still wasn't a trap. Jonas silently edged himself behind the law enforcer, in case things erupted again. The pair approached one painfully slow step at a time. Payne pressed his back to the wall just next to the iron grate, and Jonas followed suit just behind him.
Jonas put his hand on the wall for support. He strained his large ears for any noise. One minute went by. Then another. Payne edged forward and pulled back the first heavy iron gate. The interlocked beams groaned loudly as they folded in on each other. Then, a thick snap, a rush of air, and the whirling, whipping of a severed suspension cable. The steel elevator car lurched and fell ten feet to the foundation below.
"Shit!" Payne flattened himself against the wall, expecting an attack. None came.
"They'll expect us at the stairs. There's no other way out." Jonas' cold, calculating eyes glittered in the dimness.
"We could bank on that, try to climb the shaft." Payne cursed under his breath. "No, they'll just pick us off while we climb. Come on, we're just going to have to take our chances on the stairs."
It would be a bad choke point, but they would just have to muscle through it.
Payne and Jonas pulled away from the wall and edged down the hall. They hadn't moved five feet before a whooshing sound met their ears. Seconds later a fiery blast ripped through the elevator shaft. The pair threw themselves to the ground as the world shook around them.
They stumbled to their feet and ran down the jagged hallway to the other side. They ran past dormant boilers and maintenance closets. Decades old dust rained down on them as commotion on the upper floors unsettled the building. Stale hot air clung to their skin as they ran.
Payne shouldered through the peeling red access door that led to the only staircase in the entire building. A robed cultist was waiting for them on the first landing. Two orange slugs found their way into his head. Chunks of skull, brain, and blood splattered onto the moldy brick wall behind him. His body slumped to the ground.
Payne signaled to Jonas. "Stay here. I'll check it out."
The small Faunus nodded and slid into the small pocket underneath the staircase. Payne took a deep breath and took his mind to ten years ago, when he'd just lost everything. He swept up the stairs like a hungry Beowolf. The first floor was two flights up. Payne cleared the distance in seconds.
When he reached the first floor landing, he could see a shrouded cultist staring back at him through the small square window set into the steel door. He leveled his hand cannon and fired. The first slug shattered the glass and impacted the hooded man in the face. His Aura helped him survive the damage with his face significantly rearranged. But the second slug caught him in the throat and soundly detached his crumbling head from his twitching body.
Payne slammed through the door and threw his arm over his face to ward off the rush of heat that washed over him. The moth worn hallway, once dim and aging quietly, now had ropes of fire dancing at every crevice. The whole building was on fire.
"Jonas, get up here!" He thought he could cover his friend's escape. Move up, clear a room, cut a safe path. But now they were trapped in a century old building that was severely out of code. Everything was flammable; the insulation, the walls, the furnishing, everything.
The little Faunus slithered up to his companion and scanned the burning hallway with indifferent eyes. He followed a rope of fire that snaked across the abused plum carpeting. Down the hall a much larger fire barred their path.
"We could try to duck into one of these rooms!" The smoke and heat was beginning to make it hard for Payne to breathe.
Before Jonas could respond, a section of the second floor came crashing down, blocking the main hall completely.
"Or we can go up!"
The pair ducked their heads and ran up the second floor turned ramp. The scene was much the same, but the smoke was thicker, and the flames only marginally more manageable. They stayed low to the ground and kept a steady pace as they crossed the hall.
Payne caught movement through the gray haze and aimed.
"No! To the left!" Jonas' smaller hand grabbed his wrist and wrenched it leftward.
The cop fired, and twin explosive rounds disappeared into the gloom. A mangled cry and a solid report were his reward.
They edged forward, huddled together; Jonas aiming, and Payne firing. A door to their left burst outward and send them reeling back from the sizzling heat that rolled out. A cultist emerged from the blaze unscathed and leering. A green Earth slug barreled through his head before he could react to the police officer and the rat.
"We gotta get out of the hallway. This way!" Payne kicked in a splintered office door and ducked into a ten by twenty hotbox.
They ran across blackened wood and around collapsed desks to the long floor length windows. Payne picked up a nearby chair and smashed it against the nearest window until it was bare of glass. The rush of muggy rain drenched air was almost refreshing against the clinging, choking smoke.
He thrust his head outside. Through flashes of lightning he could make out several robed figures. They hurled large man sized fireballs at the building. One caught sight of him. He cursed under his breath and threw himself down on the glowing embers that used to be the floor. A large section of the outfacing wall exploded inward, showering the pair with hot, burning wood and rock.
His jacket sizzled from contact with the hot wood. He winced as his burning coat pressed into his skin. The detective picked himself up as quickly as he could, dragging his companion up with him.
"Well, it looks like we found our exit," quipped Jonas dryly.
The building shook violently. The pair stayed low to the ground to keep their balance. Out in the hallway, crumbling and splintering from fire damage began to destabilize the entire structure.
"Shit, we don't have a lot of time." Payne grit his teeth. What he was planning was going to hurt, but it was something his ten years younger self would do. And that was just the man they needed to get them out of this miss.
"Follow my lead."
He took a run up and hurled himself out the wet, black maw. The pelting rain slowed to little spherical droplets suspended in the moist air. He could see their wet robes through the droplets of rain. He aimed and fired. His bullets left a trail of empty space as they cut through the rain. One shot ripped through the skull in a downward trajectory, ruining the man's insides and ejecting somewhere near the hip. Another rocketed through a man's shoulder and out his lung. A third scrambled a man's brain and burst out the back of his head. A fourth punched straight through a man's heart. And a fifth broke through a cultist' ribs and shattered his spine.
A fireball came at him from the shadows. He saw water droplets dissolve into steam as the blast of energy hurtled toward his head. He fired blindly into the darkness, guessing at his assailant's position.
He twisted his head away from the oncoming blast. His shoulders followed, taking his chest and hips, then his legs. He felt a hot rush of wind brush against the back of his neck as the blast soared past him by mere inches. As he twisted back to his original position, he slammed six more shells into his gun.
But first, a nasty fall. His shoulder slammed into the pavement. He slid across the coarse blacktop, each grain of asphalt bit into his side as he was dragged across the ground. The last sensations he felt from his left arm was an explosion of pain. It had likely shattered from the fall. He lost his concentration and the world resumed its usual speed. Rain fell on him in sheets. The quaking Metroilite seeped black smoke. Orange fires winked impishly in the dirty windows as they consumed the aged building at their leisure.
Something slithered through the waves of rain that battered down around him. He brought his gun up, but his hand shook. It didn't shake ten years ago. A small plume of fire blinked into existence.
He fired. He missed.
It moved closer, the flames hissed and spat as rainwater tried to put them out. The solid revolver rattled in his hand. He desperately tried to aim for chest center. He squeezed off another round; the shock zipped up his arm and settled in his shoulder painfully. He could see the dark hood of the arsonist hover over him like an agent of death. His burning yellow eyes took on an ethereal, strangely innocent quality in the downpour.
He raised his gun. A boot sent it clattering across the pavement. A fork of lightning arced through the soupy sky. He blinked and the sheets of rain became droplets again, falling like stardust. He rolled his body away from the hungry, lapping fire that leered down at him.
Time resumed and the cultist fell to one knee. Then, an arc of lightning and a clap of thunder, a slight figure scrambled up the figure's back and slammed a small club where the brain met the spine.
The body fell heavily to the ground. The fire that danced in his hands, licked desperately at the ground, but was quickly snuffed out by the rain.
Payne was ripped back to the reality of the situation when he heard distant sirens. He grabbed Jonas' offered hand and scanned the immediate area for his gun. Spying it glittering in the rain he swept over and snapped it up. He pointed it at the downed cultist and shattered his skull with a luminous green slug. No hesitation.
"Quick, get in my speeder. We have to get lost before they show up."
Jonas followed orders quietly.
The detective and the thief clamored into the low standing speeder. It was covered in broken chunks of facade, but was none the worse for it. The engine came to life with a warble and a hum. The wipers shot to attention and swept away the rubble and the rain.
Payne put it into gear, the tires wailed, and the speeder trampled over the meager shrubbery separating the parking lot from the street. The car lurched as its wheels squealed for traction on the slick road. In his rear view mirror he could see the first flashing lights of the fire team. He pushed the gas just a bit, hoping the rain would obscure his departure. He ran the next red and turned down onto a quiet side street.
"Do you still have the sheets?"
Jonas nodded. "Where are we going?"
"My place. Can't take you to the station, they'd book you in a second. No offense."
The car went left. Then right. Another left. Jonas tried to keep track of all the turns, in case he needed to make his way back, but the thick rain and the heavy night made it difficult, even for his enhanced vision.
"Was it necessary to kill the last one? Perhaps the police could have picked him up."
Payne wiped the rain from his face and shook his head. "A small handful of them turned a warehouse full of people into charcoal. What do you think one of them could do to a tired beat cop and an unprepared fire team?" He swerved right and slowed the car. They were probably safe. He glanced into the rear view mirror to be sure. All he saw was rain. "I couldn't risk lives just for the sake of exposing these freaks. That's what the documents are for."
Jonas knew better than to ask if his word would have done any good. Payne hadn't been made detective for his sharp mind alone. He'd caused enough trouble for the VCPD for his stunt ten years ago. They wanted him out of the way.
Jonas peered down at the worn satchel. It had survived much tonight. He only hoped something would come of the information inside. He slouched down in his seat, partly for rest, and partly so as to seem invisible to outsiders.
The car swept aside the curtains of rain at a steady clip. The empty streets, the shimmering droplets in the headlights, the distant sirens. It felt like an old nightmare. Payne held his left arm against his chest, allowing his Aura to fix what it could.
"And in other news, the iconic Metrolite, popularly known as the Flatiron, sustained heavy damage during a midnight fire. Officials say arsonists were to blame for the blaze. Police on the scene reported several of the criminals had perished during a possible internal altercation. In light of the Snow Mountain warehouse burning, concern was raised for the safety of patrons of the annual Vale City festival. When asked for comment, Chief Magnatta of the VCPD had this to say..."
The shot switched from a battered, but standing Flatiron building, to a sweaty, plump, red faced man with a scalp that had beaten back his white hair to the fringes of his head. His brown overcoat was stretched to the breaking point across his wide belly.
"The two fires were in no way linked. What we're looking at are copycats, really; thrill seekers who wanted to ruffle Vale's feathers. Our top investigators are working on the case, and so far they have found no connection with these, and the arsonists from the warehouse burning. Nevertheless, security will be visible at festival locations. Further—"
The TV clicked off with an audible blip.
"He's burying it." Payne cursed under his breath.
He knew this would happen. It was cop instinct. Nobody wanted to be the guy who caused an entire city to start panicking in the middle of the biggest event all year.
Payne leaned into the one good window in his office. He allowed the aluminum shutters to dig into his forehead. The world outside was still overcast, but he rain had long since passed; the sky was lighter. He could hear the ghostly cheer of the festival crowd carry from a few streets down. The tournament was really heating up.
Magnatta knew the two fires were linked. Of course he knew. They had the same damn perps. If he looked at the fire damage, he'd see they were consistent in temperature and blast scarring. But he was willing to let the creeps crawl away just so he could save face.
After the warehouse fire, Magnatta had the perfect opportunity to get a good spearheaded operation going. Get a few good detectives on the case, turn over the stones that needed turning, get the manpower that they needed to get a good search net up. But he closed down the case. He had Hendrix patched up without fuss, and put the files on ice before they could even think about looking for the bastards.
Payne sighed and turned, sweeping up his lukewarm black coffee, and taking a bitter gulp. Hendrix had dragged his desk lamp closer as she puzzled over the yellowed sheets that they'd saved the previous night. The dry, crusty pages crinkled as she gently turned them over and subject them to the light.
He pushed off the window and walked around his desk, looking over her shoulder. "Anything?"
She clicked her tongue. "It's legal stationary. There's a number down here I'm starting to suspect is their commercial ID, but most of it's obscured by water damage, curiously enough." She leaned back and stretched. "Wherever these guys are hunkered down, they're using what's been left behind to draw up their plans. So, we're probably looking at a place that's either abandoned, or at least recently so."
Payne didn't voice the possibility that their hideout might also have been captured by siege.
"If I can figure out where these papers originated, we might have a beat on their location." She swiveled to his computer and beckoned him closer. "I've got a couple different engines up. Nothing yet. But, if this place is a legal business, we'll find it eventually."
Every business, whether public or private, had an identification number. Chances were, the number Hendrix had found was just that number. Track those digits down, and they'd have the company the stationary originated from. The bigger the company, generally, the more visible the number would be. They'd stamp it on just about every piece of stationary they could. Little mom n' pops would probably have the number on their yearly accounting books, but not much else.
Just then the thin wooden door to Payne's office opened and slammed against the wall with a cheap clatter. Chief Magnatta stood in the door way huffing through his mouth. He looked like a round, angry tomato. No different from any other day, really.
"Payne!" He pointed a thick, shaking finger at him. "In my office, now."
He stomped off. Payne and Hendrix shared a look.
"Is this about the fire last night?"
"Guess I'll find out. Keep working on it, Sarah. I'll be back."
He pat her on the shoulder and calmly walked out of his office. He walked past detectives offices, which were mostly closed and dark inside. A lot of them were out on the street, working cases; there was always a backlog to chew through. He made it to the pit, which was basically just row after row of cubicles. This was where most of the beat cops hung their hats and wrote up their reports. The shrill trilling of phones and click clack of fingers on keyboards surrounded him. Cops popped in and out of their hidey holes carrying papers here or consulting with each other in small groups.
He caught small snatches of conversation as he passed.
"Coast Guard found two bodies clogging up a gutter, horribly burned, possibly Faunus."
"Check out dental records. Hopefully these poor bastards were legal."
"I think Eric's working that district. I'll get him to look into it if dental comes back empty handed."
"Jeez, why's all this shit happening now?"
"Strange times. Hey, you catch the match last night? Nikos has this one in the bag."
"Yeah? Her partner looks pretty solid herself."
"What do you expect from a four time champ?"
His shoes clicked across the cheap tiling as he walked up to the Chief's office at the other end of the pit. A first year rookie would take five minutes calming his nerves before going into Magnatta's office. But Payne walked right in and closed the equally cheap wooden door behind him.
The outside noise was only barely muffled.
He emerged at the far corner of Vince Magnatta's office. It was actually rather cozy if not for the surly man that lurked inside. It had the only good chairs in the entire building; one behind his desk, two in front. His desk was sturdy and had ample room and many drawers. It was made of some foreign hard black wood, probably imported from Atlas. All of this sat on a rather tacky, but well-meaning rug; the little multicolored triangles, swirls, and squiggly lines made it look like a little party had exploded in the room. No one knew how it got there, but no one was exactly chomping at the bit to have it removed. On the wall fixed to the door, there was a window that looked into the pit. The aluminum shutters were currently down. On the wall opposite, a modest black bookshelf that matched with the desk and some filing cabinets that weren't on the verge of collapse. The far wall was dominated by two floor length windows which let the soft overcast light wash out the room.
Magnatta fixed Payne with a black, bloodshot eye. He opened a drawer, pulling out a small pill bottle. He struggled with the cap before shaking out two long pills. He swallowed them dry. Payne recognized them to be painkillers.
"Dust, Payne. Why is it every time this city goes to hell, you're in the middle of it all?"
"Don't know what you're talkin' about." Payne stood firmly between the two leather chairs in front of the desk.
"Bullshit. You were involved with the warehouse fire, and you come in all busted up after the Metrolite goes up." The angry little man got up from his chair and began pacing like a little gremlin. "I thought after they benched you, you'd be done with pullin' all this action hero crap."
"Did the coroner have a chance to look at the bodies? Were there markings? On the wrist?"
The Chief stomped over and hissed, waving his hands. "Shut up! Shut up, Payne. Dust, of course there were markings."
Payne stared down the smaller man. His gray eyes were unnerving in the right light. "Then what's being done about it?"
The little man breathed hard through his nose, his wrinkled mouth, a perpetual frown. "I'll tell you what's being done about it, Payne. Those bodies? They're zipped up, tagged and stowed. The medical examiner's been shut up. The press is miles away covering the festival. And that's how it's going to stay, Payne."
"Damn it, Vince. I've got papers, scooped up from one of their holdouts. They're planning something big. An attack on this city. I need people on this so we can ferret these guys out."
The severely balding man pinched the bridge of his nose. "I don't need this right now. I've got the festival to secure. That Nikos girl is participating, and she always brings in a big crowd." His voice dropped to a slithering hiss. "Do you know how the citizens—hell—the delegates would react if they knew there were wackos out there burning our buildings and cooking our people?"
"That's why I need—"
"No. No, goddamn it!" He went, if possible, even redder; his face twisted into a rather impressive imitation of a pulped tomato. "I need this shit buttoned up until this Dust forsaken festival is over, you hear me? That means none of your rampaging cop bullshit. It worked when you got your wife and kid killed—"
Payne dug his large hand into Magnatta's shirt and lifted the round man with one arm. He slammed his free fist into his face and sent him flying into the edge of his desk. His head snapped back and he crumpled onto the festive rug.
"Don't talk about my family." Payne spoke in a low voice. He wasn't mad; he was just setting the record straight. "You can drag me through the dirt all you want, but you don't bring them into any conversation you and I have. Clear?"
"Ah! Ah, fuck!" Vince Magnatta staggered to his feet, his face only slightly rearranged. "Shit, Payne. Fuck!" He gingerly dabbed at his forehead with his palm and came away with blood. "My Aura ain't what it used to be." He fixed the steady detective with a pained glare. "Do whatever the fuck you want. But if word gets into the press about this shit. I'll have your and Hendreix's badge." A red sneer crossed his face. "Yeah, I know you roped her into this miss. So you're responsible. Now get out of my office."
Magnatta stumbled behind his desk and collapsed into his chair. He dug out his pill bottle and downed two more pills.
Payne turned and left. The door slammed behind him with a violent rattle. He took a deep breath and marched down the hall toward his office. He shouldered past worker bee police and moved through the silent detective offices. When he quietly entered his office, Hendrix shot up from her seat and pulled him inside, closing the door after him.
"What the hell was that all about?"
"Nothing we weren't already expecting." He fixed her with a steady gaze. "We have to be careful. He'll have our badges if this gets too public."
She huffed and folded her arms. "Well, we might not have too much of a problem there. I found something. Here, take a look."
The pair moved over to the desk and Hendrix plopped down. Payne hovered over her shoulder.
"I constructed most of the number from the few pages we had. I had to do a little guesswork, but by and large, most of these results belong to the SDC." She pointed to a list of entries all belonging to the Schnee Dust Company. She turned and tapped her finger on the edge of one of the sheets. "Here, look at this. These numbers all end in 'S-17'. I thought it might be significant so I ran a search. Turns out, there's a place called Site 17." She turned back to the results and scrolled down to the entry on Site 17. She clicked it. "But the SDC hasn't exactly been known for their transparent business practices." There was no information, other than the name of the site, that it belonged to the SDC, and that it had been shut down somewhere in the earlier part of the century.
Payne stood upright and racked his brain. He wasn't much for undercover work, and infiltrating the SDC would take too long. He briefly thought of sending Jonas out on another B n' E mission, but thought better of it. He didn't want to lose his best informant. There were rumors of the SDC sending 'unsavory elements' to Atlesian work camps miles and miles below the highest peaks in the country. No proof had ever surfaced, of course, but perhaps that was the point.
Hendrix swiveled around and folded her arms. "I tried a few other search engines. Nothing. This place is a ghost, even as far as SDC holdings go. Inquiries are shut down by their lawyers. Whole web pages have been white washed." She shrugged. "I mean, the only place you'd have any hope of finding more info is in the Schnee archives themselves, and good luck getting into those. The only way you could even think about getting access is, hell, if you knew a Schnee."
Payne snapped out of his thoughts. "What did you say?"
They knew something was wrong when Professor Oobleck walked into class. The dim roar of idle students fell to a hushed whisper as the normally speedy professor took the stairs down to his lecture area one step at a time. His shirt was tucked in, his tie straight, his glasses unblemished, his hair combed, and his coffee was absent.
Jaune and Weiss shared a look as they took out their books for class.
Oobleck set his bag on the lecture podium and rolled down a map of the world in front of the blackboard. He paused for a moment before pulling down a projector screen. He turned to his bag and took out his portable projector at a sedate pace.
Jaune watched as the professor set up his lecture for the day. His movements were robotic. His normally sharp eyes seemed far away. Oobleck wasn't all there; his mind began to tread down dark avenues for an explanation, but he clamped down on his train of thought. He'd only just gotten his mind off that horrible nightmare these last few days, he didn't need it again.
The history professor stood behind his podium and placed his hands on either side of the post. He looked like he was holding himself up. He spared a glance at the front row where Velvet sat with Russell and his friends. Somehow, she'd convinced the punkish boy to sit with her during their joint classes. She noticed the professor's gaze and did her very best to look small and nonthreatening.
Oobleck took a deep breath and addressed the class. His voice was slow, deliberate and a touch distracted. "Today, we'll be covering the Atlesian expeditions."
He pressed his clicker and the projector switched to a slide of the vast snow topped mountains of Atlas. Weiss regarded the sight evenly. She had grown up right next to those very peaks. They tended to lose their majesty when you saw them every single day. Then again, the sun rising and falling along those purple crests resulted in the most beautiful scenes the world over.
"You'll remember that after the Great War, much of the land had been freed of the threat of Grimm. Explorers took to the newly exposed lands to see what the world had to offer."
The slide switched to a charcoal drawing of several men and women in thick cloaks braving the frigid slopes of Atlas. The picture was yellow and cracked from age.
"But it wasn't humans that pitched the first stakes or braved the treacherous, crumbling terrain." A hint of bitterness entered his voice. "Scores of Faunus were sent up the mountain with the promise of land and money."
The slide changed to a quick sketch, also in charcoal of two Faunus bundled in heavy winter gear.
"It took hundreds of lives to reach these summits. Some fell from loose rocks. Others succumbed to the harsh climate. Once they reached the top, they mapped out lands they could use for settlements and blasting points for tunnels and leveling."
The slide switched to a charcoal rendering of the same two Faunus at the peak of a mountain. One pointed off into the distance, while the other scratched away on a sheet of fluttering paper. The artist had made sure to express the fatigue on their faces.
"Problems arose when negotiations were held for divvying up the land. Since the humans now had all the data they would need to survive the harsh climbs, their building teams were far better equipped for the task. Talks were conveniently held just before the harsh winters. When the Faunus tried to move in, it was already mid spring, and much of the land had begun development. Promises were forgotten and the Faunus settlers were given meager footholds at the base of mountains where the sun was often blocked by the mountainous region, and travel was difficult."
The slide switched to a small group of Faunus huddled under the jutting lip of a cliff. For a freak moment, Jaune thought he saw the grizzled face from his nightmare, but he blinked and shook his head. It was someone else—surely. Weiss caught his momentary confusion and placed her hand on his knee in silent support. He remembered to squeeze back in reassurance.
The professor continued to drone on in his bitter tone about man's inhumanity to man. Jaune was sad to think this was what most of History was comprised of. He'd asked Bill once, if it ever got any better, and he said he'd have to wait a semester for when they studied the heroes of the progressive movement, which did much to smooth the transition from the turmoil of the Great War to the tentative peace of the modern age.
Jaune frowned down at the green haired professor. He was just fine the other day. Had something gone wrong? He wasn't normally a nosy person, but in this case, he felt he had to know.
Weiss' Scroll began to beep, signaling a message. She muted it without a second thought and went back to taking notes on the lesson. As Oobleck rattled off important explorers' names, she chanced a glance at Jaune. His jaw was set, and a hard gleam flickered in his eye. She didn't like that look. It had started weeks ago, after that strange dream he had. She noticed he had taken to holding her tighter than usual—not something to be concerned about by itself—but his face was often twisted in discomfort. It pained her that she didn't have the same unconscious effect on him as he had on her.
She told herself that people have bad dreams, that people have their off days, and this was probably just a small patch of them. But another part of her couldn't help but tally up all these signs. If she noticed this go on for much longer—and if it changed his behavior, she would do something about it.
The class hobbled to an uncomfortable close as Oobleck lingered on the hardships of the Faunus in ancient Atlas. He dismissed the class five minutes late, and only as if just remembering he was a professor and was in charge of dismissal. He forgot to assign homework, but no one thought to correct him.
Jaune rose and watched silently as the bespectacled professor stood, as if in a daze, at his podium. Normally, he'd blast out of the room in a rush of wind and papers. The young hunter squeezed his partner's arm.
"I'm gonna go talk to the professor for a bit, okay?"
Weiss hastily collected her books and placed them in her bag. "I'll come with you."
They shouldered past the rushing herd of students. Oobleck stood at his podium, staring at a point somewhere between the top of his lecture stand and the floor. Jaune waited until most of the students had filed out. Ren and Nora gave them a meaningful look and hovered around the exit.
Jaune glanced at Weiss. "Uh, Professor?"
Oobleck started. His eyes focused for the first time all day. He blinked confusedly at the pair before hastily collecting his notes, trying to look busy.
"Ah, er, Mr. Arc, Miss Schnee. Excellent grades the both of you. Your whole team, really. I very much enjoyed your commentary on the hardships the borderland villages are facing." His hands shook.
"I understand, that you, Mr. Arc, are from one of those very villages. Fascinating, absolutely fascinating. We will have to sit down one day, Mr. Arc. I simply must know how it is to live in such a frontier all your life." He was using his rapid fire speech in an attempt to shotgun through the conversation. "No homework today. Thought I'd give everyone a break, but you're the sort to stay on top of things, so read the next chapter on—on—"
"Professor!" Oobleck ceased his ramblings.
The history professor sighed and eyed the nearly empty classroom. Only Ren and Nora hovered in the back, shrouded by the dim overhead lights. He suddenly looked quite a bit older than his youthful demeanor would suggest. The lines around his face deepened, his pale cheeks took on a green tint, and his eyes lost their excited sparkle; they were dull, almost hollow. His shoulders sagged as if he had shrugged off a tiresome weight and he stepped heavily over to one of the long tables where students would be found listening attentively. He leaned against the hard wood, folded his arms, and stared down at the gray slate tiles.
"Ozpin had come to me with the question of these Black Sun cultists. I had never had direct contact with them, but I had a small file on their actions; about as much as any good historian." His voice was miles away, in a different place, a different time. "I had heard stories of the villainy they had spared during their last up swell, and I wanted to do something to help." He swallowed hard. Jaune suspected his throat had gone dry. "I let slip to my two friends what I was working on. They took great offense to these ruffians mucking about and committed to finding anything they could for me. That was a month ago." He squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose. After a moment, he seemed to have regained control of himself. "A police friend in Vale told me they retrieved two bodies from the shore. Horribly burned. Faunus." His fist slammed onto the tabletop. Weiss squeaked and gripped Jaune's hand. "I'm responsible for their deaths!"
Oobleck shook his head and ran his hand through his forest green hair.
"I'm sorry, the both of you. I shouldn't have snapped like that. I just—I should have done more to protect them. I should have turned them away. They were just civilians. They had no place snooping around among such foul elements."
Jaune tried to think of something that could help assuage the older man's feelings, but the best he could come up with was that 'they knew the risks'. It felt cliché and hollow the second he thought of it. A respectable stretch of silence passed where Oobleck's eyes became glassy and moist, and Jaune held firmly onto Weiss' hand.
"What's next?" the blonde asked quietly. "What other leads do we have?"
Oobleck wiped a hand across his face and let out a long, tired sigh. "I don't know. I have to talk to Ozpin and Goodwitch. We'll come up with a plan of attack." He stood up straight, or at least as straight as a grieving man could. He clapped his hands on his charges' shoulders. "Now, off you go. The both of you. Don't think too much on it, and do try to enjoy the warm weather."
He ushered the two students out of the room and parted ways with them at the hall. They suspected he wanted to be alone, so they didn't press the issue any more than they already had.
Jaune, Weiss, Ren, and Nora swept out into the bright, hot sunny sky. A stark contrast from the dark topics that brewed in their hearts. They each walked closer together as they made their way across campus in the direction of the dorms.
The sound of laughing and chatting students mingled with the cicadas that were out well before their season. Prismatic birds tweeted about the fair weather and flew about excitedly from tree to tree. Only the light clip clop of the four friends' shoes passed between them as they walked through the school grounds.
Weiss' Scroll beeped again, interrupting the natural soundtrack. She fished it out of her pocket and checked who was calling. Her eyes widened when she saw it was Detective Payne's number.
She slowed down her pace and accepted the call. "Hello?"
"We found something you might be able to help us with." The hawk eyed detective looked at her through the video call.
"Like what?" Jaune eyed her curiously and she waved him over.
"We found some papers at one of these cultists' hideouts that seem to lead to one of your holdings. Does Site 17 mean anything to you? Here."
Her Scroll indicated it was downloading information. When it was done, Weiss looked through the scanned documents. She noted the string of numbers circled in red, and recognized them as her company's identification numbers.
Weiss stood scrutinizing the pictures.
"Has your company reported any of its holdings going silent in the past?"
Jaune peered over her shoulder. "I don't know off the top of my head, but I could find out. Why? What does this have to do with those maniacs?"
"We think they might be using one of your facilities as their base. If we can track down which one, we might be able to nab these wackos before any more people get hurt."
The young hunters thought of Oobleck's two friends who'd met their demise.
"Right. I'll find out where this is."
"Keep me posted." The call ended.
Weiss sighed and pocketed her Scroll. She and Jaune walked in silence as they caught up with their teammates, who'd stopped to wait for them. They quietly filled their waiting friends in on what the detective had told them.
"So, what are we going to do?" A pensive gleam hovered in Ren's bright eyes.
Weiss clicked her tongue. "I'll call my information network. They should have something on this facility the detective mentioned."
"You have one of those?" Jaune asked. He tried to picture a vast army of shadowy librarians rushing about, at the information hub of the world's largest corporation.
Weiss shrugged. "Sure."
Team Junior Mints turned into their dorm and unloaded their burdens. Weiss excused herself to make a call. She walked up to the roof of their building and breathed in the hot spring air. She was going to have to talk to the secretary if she wanted any information on Site 17. And if it had gone silent, and nothing was done about it, then it was being buried. And if it was being buried, there was a reason why. And that could be dangerous. If word got out to her father that she'd asked—
She didn't continue that train of thought.
The young heiress put on her coldest mask and prepared to call home for the first time since she'd come to Beacon. She already knew how the conversation would go.
Oh, Weiss, how are you?
Is there anything we can send you? A little care package for our favorite girl?
No, thank you.
Would you like to talk to your father?
Oh. What can I do for you?
All of this in that sickly sweet voice. It was fake. She was only using it to look good in front of her father. That was about the only good thing she could say about the man. He never went after another woman after her mother passed.
Her heart tugged a bit as she remembered her mother. She had only seen one picture of her. She had the same alabaster hair, icy blue eyes, and creamy complexion. The only real differences were that her cheek bones were more pronounced, more regal looking, and her hair was often done up in elegant knots and braids.
She wasn't allowed to keep the photo.
If she thought of her hard enough, she'd get a vague impression of light and distant humming. It could just as easily have been her own imagination romanticizing her loss, but it made her feel warm nevertheless.
A soft wind brushed against her moist cheek, gently bringing her back to the present. She flipped out her Scroll and dialed home.
It rang once. Twice. Then someone picked up on the other side.
"SDC information desk, this is Pete speaking, how may I help you?" Pete's floppy mop of brown hair and sleepy chocolate brown eyes appeared on the screen. Weiss recognized him instantly.
"Peter? What are you doing at Information? I thought you were in R and D."
The young man yelped and fell out of his chair with a loud clatter. He scrambled to his feet and thrust his face close to the camera.
"M-Miss Schnee! Aw, jeez." He ran a shaky hand through his thick hair. "Well, after I nicked that Dust for you, Schnee senior thought it would be a good idea to turn the place upside down looking to lynch whoever stole his Dust." His voice dropped to a conspiratorial hiss. "I covered my tracks as best I could, but I figured a 'lateral shift'," he made air quotes, "was the best course of action if I wanted to avoid getting caught. So, here I am. In the library." His eyes flicked about the room quickly before settling on Weiss once more. "What do you need?"
"I need you to find out anything you can on Site 17. It might be a mine, an administrative office, anything. Whatever it is, I need you to dig up everything you can."
Pete shrugged. That was easy enough, employees came by all the time looking for information on various Schnee holdings. Then again, this was a request from Miss Schnee. The last time he entertained one of those, there was a companywide manhunt for the thief that was stupid enough to listen to her. Him! "Okay, what's the catch?"
She had the good sense to adopt a sheepish expression. "Would you believe me if I said lives were at stake? Maybe even the whole world?"
Pete fixed her with a blank stare. "Of course I would."
"I promise I won't let this come back to you."
"You said that last time. I never did get my raise."
Weiss floundered a bit. "Th-That was a bad situation. I need to go through the proper channels with these things and there wasn't enough time. I'm sorry." She was genuinely apologetic. He'd stuck his neck out for her and Jaune and there was nothing she could do to repay him but to ask him to do it again.
Pete rolled his eyes and huffed. "Alright. Alright, I'll do it. With any luck they'll can me."
Weiss smiled. "Not if you keep coming through for me, you won't."
"Oh joy." Pete groaned good naturally and ended the transmission.
Weiss sighed and stared out at the sunny campus. Students darted about here and there for evening classes or early dinners. She looked up at the blazing sun. The large white disk loomed angrily in the otherwise calm blue sky. She shivered, despite the heat.
This was supposed to be out weeks ago, but i got sick, then the holidays came up, and then the last segment ballooned out into chapter 20. Jeez. Anyhow, sorry for the long wait. Chapter 20, right now!