1. Most Distant and Most Dear
2. Finding the Yellow Sign
3. Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder
4. To the Peak from the Vale
5. Ride On
6. The Carrlands
7. The Bonny Road
8. The Oldest and Strongest Emotion
9. Spring Plates of Green Shoots
10. Avoid Large Places
11. Et Pereat Mundus
12. The Ones Who Bump Back
13. The House of Life
14. Up the Airy Mountain
15. A Borrowed Sword
16. When the Wind Blows High
17. Clothed in a Furious Storm
18. What Don't Live Can't Learn
19. Blue Velvet Rain
Very tentative--any unpublished chapter's title is subject to change.
“What’s going on?” Blake asked.
“Find Gray again,” I told her quietly. “Tell him Yang’s getting agitated. Do not tell him anything else.” She glanced at Ruby, and I said, “I’ll handle it—and I’ll explain when you get back. Go…please.”
Once she’d left, I shut the door and realized it didn’t have a lock. None of us had sat down since we’d gotten there that evening, so I wedged one of the chairs under the handle, then turned back to the building storm.
“Where the hell is our daughter?”
“I haven’t seen her in months, Tai. What makes you think I would know?”
His jaw dropped. Mine probably did, too.
“Dad,” said Ruby, almost too quiet to hear. “What’s going on?”
He looked between the two of them for a moment. “Sweetie…this is Yang’s mother, Raven.” Weiss gasped.
“No. No, she can’t be. How…” Ruby cast around for a way to finish that, and settled on “Why do you think it’s her?”
He hung his head and put a hand over his eyes. “This—I’m serious, pumpkin. I know.” I nodded, even though—mercifully—no one was looking at me by that point. Ruby slumped backwards into the remaining chair, staring into space.
“You’re Summer’s daughter?”
She said nothing, so I stepped in. “Yeah, this is Ruby.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Raven said, with absurd politeness. “I wish the circumstances were different, though.”
Tai patted Ruby on the back. “Raven, do you honestly not know where you are?”
“Of course I don’t!” she snapped. “Clearly this is a hospital; I assume it’s in Vale, but the last thing I remember before this…well, I was a long way from anywhere. I have no idea how I got here, or how I got these injuries.” She pointed to her still-swollen eye.
“…Does anyone have a mirror?” I asked, feeling like a complete idiot.
Weiss—naturally—produced one, and held it out for her. Raven stretched out her free hand to adjust it, but once she got a good look at herself her fingers went slack, and Weiss nearly dropped the mirror before pocketing it and stepping back again.
“Tai—Qrow—you have to believe me. I don’t know how this happened.” Admittedly, I didn’t know how it could have happened, so there was at least some chance she was telling the truth.
Out loud I said, “Against my better judgment, I think I do believe you. What were you doing before this?”
She looked at me for a long moment. “I was investigating something for Ozpin. I owed a favor to someone who owed a favor to him, and they reached some kind of deal and put a message out for me… It’s good to see you too, by the way.”
There was a bite to that last sentence, and I could tell she was trying to get my back up and distract me. You gotta love family.
“Yeah, been too long and all that,” I grumbled.
“…Well…” said Ruby carefully, “is there any chance Professor Ozpin would know what’s going on here? Or what’s happened to Yang?”
Tai and I nodded. “He needs to know about this, at any rate,” he said. “Qrow, would you?”
I opened my scroll and queried him. “Boss? Hey, are you sitting down?”
- - - - - - -
After she ended the call and passed my scroll back, she asked, “Qrow, what’s the date?”
“Third day of the Hunting Month.”
“And what exactly happened to Yang?”
“She was injured…twelve days ago, on the night of the twenty-second. She…well, we thought she was comatose, but clearly there’s more to it than that.”
Raven frowned. “I was…the last I can remember was the sixteenth, I think. For all I can tell, that could have been yesterday.” She shook her head in frustration.
“Where were you?”
“I’ll tell you later, if Ozpin thinks that’s necessary.” My mouth twisted, and I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes, but if she really had been working for Oz, I knew there was no getting around his usual attitude toward sharing information.
The door handle rattled. There was a muffled “It’s Blake—let me in.” Ruby set the chair back and opened the door.
“Gray won’t be here for a while,” Blake said immediately. Tai leaned against the door, bracing it shut, and put his hands in his pockets. “They wouldn’t tell me what he’s doing, but I assume another patient’s recovery is going poorly. I didn’t hear them page him on my way back, either.”
“Neither did we,” said Weiss. “In the meantime…this is Yang’s mother, Raven.”
Blake’s eyes flickered to Raven, then to Ruby, then back to Weiss. When Weiss gave a small nod, Blake’s shoulders slumped, but her expression never changed. “Birch might be back at any moment,” she said quietly.
“Damn, that’s right. Raven—if the nurse does come back, act like you’re tired and confused, and don’t say too much.”
“That shouldn’t be difficult,” she said dryly. “In the meantime, you’re…Blake, you said?”
“Yes, I’m Yang’s partner at Beacon.” Blake tried to meet her eye, but her gaze kept drifting back to the floor.
“And how are Faunus treated at Beacon these days?”
Blake’s bow twitched back towards her scalp. “It varies,” she said coolly. My teammates have been supportive, although the fact that not all our classmates know about me has made things easier. The faculty are…tolerant, at least, but there’s a clear expectation for us to solve our own problems when we can.” A note of bitterness crept into her voice. “Fortunately, most of us are already used to doing that.”
For a moment, Raven smiled, and I could tell that Blake had passed one of her idiotic tests. “Good.”
“Can I ask you a question?”
“What have you been doing, while your daughter has been growing up?”
“Making enemies,” said Raven flatly. “Staying a few steps ahead of them when there were no better options…killing them when possible.”
I rolled my eyes. I doubted she could even stand yet—but she still had to assert herself over anyone who seemed like a threat or a rival.
“Really, Miss Branwen,” said Ozpin, stepping into the room. “You give yourself too little credit sometimes.” Tai jumped away from the wall where he’d been leaning, stared at it, stared at the door, and glared at the headmaster, who smiled at him over his coffee mug. “Very few of her accomplishments have made the news,” he told the room in general, “and only some will ever be mentioned in the history books, but the kingdom of Vale owes more to her than it would like to admit.”
“More than I’d like to admit, either,” Raven grumbled. “The fewer people who know what I’ve done—”
“Yes, yes, I haven’t forgotten. You treasure your status as a wild card,” Oz said smoothly. “At the moment, however, your limitations would be clear to anyone who knew that you were here—and your motives and goals would be, for once, quite predictable.”
“What do you want from me, Ozpin?”
“I want one of my students back.” His tone was still gentle, but it had an undercurrent that I had heard before. He was prepared to make sacrifices. “And I think you can help us with that.”
“I don’t—I’m not sure where she is.” For once, my sister was off balance, and Oz lost no time in pressing the advantage.
“What do you know, Raven?”
“I can feel…something. I don’t know how to describe it, except as a connection or an attraction. It’s like the sense of knowing where my hands and feet are, even in the dark or in the midst of a fight. There’s something, in that direction—” she pointed— “that may belong to this body.”
Ozpin raised an eyebrow. “I think that should be our first step: to try to determine where this connection you’re feeling is coming from. Raven, if you’d be willing to triangulate it from two or three points around Vale, I can borrow a surveying transit from the government and help you use it to take more precise readings.”
“Will they let you just borrow one?” asked Ruby. “I mean, that would be wonderful if it worked, but I don’t know if it’d be a good idea to let them know why you need it…”
He smiled. “I’m fairly sure that they won’t ask too many questions. At moments like this, it’s rather convenient to be me.”
Raven leaned forward. “Just a moment. I’m willing to help you all find Yang—once I’m back on my feet, that is—but I have two conditions.”
Ruby’s eyes widened, and she opened her mouth to protest. Taiyang set his jaw and took a step forward, and I muttered, “Of course you fucking do,” but Oz held up a hand and silenced us.
“What are they?” he asked in a level voice.
“First, if we do find her, and if there’s anything we can do to help her, I will not accept any course of action that would require killing or…erasing me.” Ozpin nodded; nobody else did that I saw, but nobody protested either. “Second, I want my sword and my mask back. If we can identify whoever is responsible for what’s happened, I’d like to be the one to extract ‘payment’ from them as well, but that is negotiable. The other points are not.”
“Yang first,” I said. “Then the sword and mask.”
After a moment, she nodded. “Agreed.” We all exchanged glances, trying to figure out if anyone else had more to add, before Oz finally stepped around the side of the bed and took her hand. They shook cautiously and deliberately, without blinking.
The rest of us shuffled around each other and did the same—Tai and Ruby, then me, then Weiss and Blake. When my turn came, and I held that familiar hand and looked into those familiar eyes, I wondered, Where is this going to end?
- - - - - - -
Ozpin looked to Raven, who nodded. I opened the door.
“Mr. Birch,” said Oz cheerfully. “I apologize for the intrusion, but I’d learned that Miss Xiao Long was awake and lucid, and I wanted to give her my regards.”
“Of course,” said Birch, getting over his surprise. “I just needed to wrap up a few things, and then I’ll leave you all to yourselves. Miss Xiao Long—how are you feeling?”
“Terrible,” said Raven, playing up the rasp in her voice. “Head’s killing me, shoulder and leg are killing me, and the sooner I can get out of this bed the better.”
“Fair enough.” Birch glanced at the monitors. “Are you hearing any ringing, having any issues with the vision in your right eye?”
He nodded to the water bottle and cup. “Were you able to keep that water down all right?”
“So far, yes.”
“Good! One of us will be by in a little while with something resembling food. Also, I’ve scheduled a scan for your other eye the day after tomorrow, so pay attention to how it’s feeling until then.” He tapped his clipboard, then pulled a few sheets from it and dropped them into the folder above the call button. “Have a nice night.”
We gaped at each other after he’d left. “Have a nice night?” mouthed Weiss.
“Force of habit, I would imagine,” said Oz. “Well, Miss Branwen, recovering Aura or no, perhaps we should let you rest. I doubt your hand and leg have entirely repaired themselves yet.” I could tell it was meant only partly as a suggestion to the rest of us.
Raven said something harsh-sounding under her breath. “This gets better and better.” Without looking up, she raised her good arm and pointed to Tai. “Could you stay for a moment, though? I think we’re overdue for a talk.”
“I agree,” he said.
Something about his tone made me nervous, and I realized that he was standing in the over-controlled way that meant he was afraid he was about to break something. I got his attention and raised my eyebrows: Will you be okay?
He nodded—a little bit reluctantly, or at least it seemed that way to me.
I kept my eyes on his: Are you sure?
He jerked his head toward the door: It’ll be all right. Stick with the others and keep an eye on them.
I shrugged. Your funeral.
Out in the hallway, I turned to see how Ruby was holding up, but Weiss had beaten me to it. She had one of Ruby’s hands in both of hers, and the two of them and Blake were talking quietly with their heads together. On second thought, maybe it’d be better if I didn’t interfere.
Before we could start to go our separate ways, Oz caught me by the shoulder. “I think you know what you need to do next.”
I thought for a moment. Then I realized who was missing from the room, hadn’t seen Yang since before the attacks, and had no idea of what had just happened. “Aw, hell.”
- - - - - - -
“My sister’s shown back up.” She leaned forward and raised her eyebrows expectantly; before she could ask ‘…And?’ in that superior tone she enjoyed so much, I added, “In Yang’s body.”
That got her attention. She stared at me for a long moment, and her eyes widened. “King’s ashes,” she breathed. “You’re serious.”
“Deadly. Before you say anything: your sister was there when she woke up, so she knows, and one of us will have to tell Jimmy at some point—” she scowled at me— “but no one else can know. Not until we figure out how it happened, and where Yang really is.”
“Ah. Is there still no sign of her, then?”
“No.” Saying it out loud hurt more than I’d expected.
“I understand…and you have my sympathy.” She planted the point of her sword on the floor and rested one hand on the pommel. “I suppose this means that our assignment from Ozpin is likely to be…adjusted. Is there anything else we need to address?”
“Nope, just thought I’d let you in on that little bombshell. I assume Oz will call us all together soon, to figure out what to do next.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” she said dryly. “I’m going back to sleep; I hope you can do the same.”
“Right. Be seeing you, Ice Queen.”
Her eyes flashed, but rather than rise to the bait, she only shut and bolted the door a little more firmly than necessary. I turned and started back down the street.
I was several blocks away before I wondered if her question had had a meaning I’d failed to pick up on—or if there had been something she herself had wanted to ‘address.’ Stupid to think about, though…there was something I suspected she needed to address pretty badly, but I was under no delusion that she was interested in getting it from me.
I didn’t sleep that night. I did, however, resist the urge to go out and buy whiskey, telling myself to at least wait until Tai came back from the hospital. Once he did get back, he took one look at me and stretched out on the couch in the front room. If I left, he’d know, and I had too much pride to go back to my room and climb out the window. So he lay there, dozing off for a little at a time, and I sat at the table in the dark, and neither of us said a word.
Proprioception (ˌproʊprioʊˈsɛpʃən), n. The sense that governs awareness of the position and movements of the body, and the spatial relationships between its parts.
(Algar, I need your help and I need it now.)
A stocky man with a mustache picked his way past several lines of barbed wire, then vanished into the night air. My time was coming…it’s the others who need justice.
Two women—one with dark red hair, the other with eyes like melting ice—held a small boy up at the surface of a pond, while he flailed with chubby arms and a thick, tapering tail. Someone was shrieking with laughter, but it wasn’t clear who.
(How can I help you if I don’t understand what you’re doing?)
A knot of people searched through a ruined town. Their faces were hard, and they wore uniforms marked with an eye.
A Faunus and a human, both wearing masks, collided in a storm of black and white and red.
A tall woman in a hooded robe stared down in fury at a corpse. It’s funny; she said once that she’d make a Huntsman out of me if it killed her.
Countless shadowy shapes boiled out of a crevice in the earth, only to be consumed in fire. Someone with green eyes looked on in satisfaction.
(I don’t understand it either—something went wrong, I don’t know what. I’m still in Vale, but—)
A man with a thick mane of brown hair turned his back against a torrent of blowing sand, and took a metal and glass instrument from under his coat. Be careful, child. He’s both more and less than he seems.
A silhouetted figure, shaking with sobs, raised its arms and clenched its fists—and in the distance, a ship crumpled in midair.
In the cold before sunrise, a white-haired woman swung a ram against the door of a house. She’s not a person who gives up easily—and I think we can trust her.
- - - - - - -
For a long time—maybe an hour, maybe a month—there was nothing but grayness and silence.
It came as a shock when I realized that what I was seeing was a different gray, of stone under dim lighting, and the quiet I heard was far from silent. There was a deep hum of machinery in the distance, and the whine of several cooling fans somewhere nearby.
I tried to ask “Is anyone there?” but there was no sound. There was only an impression of it, like an echo or a memory: Is anyone there?
I thought back to the last clear thing I remembered before waking up, or whatever it was that I was doing now. There had been a tournament…or had that only been one of the images I’d seen? No, I remembered too much of it: I had clear memories from several different days, of watching half a dozen matches and fighting in a few myself. I remembered getting in trouble over something, but it didn’t seem to matter, compared to the trouble I was probably in now.
There had been a tournament. Something bad had happened, and we had had to fight our way out for real.
I had fought alongside Ruby. Ruby was my sister. Her partner was Weiss—it had looked like they were about to become something more, but they were both nervous about making the first move. My partner was Blake. She was a Faunus. Some people knew that, and a lot of people didn’t. She used to be—
No. Tell yourself you don’t know that. If you don’t know it, you can’t let it slip.
All right, so much for that. Blake was a Faunus. She was wary of other people, because of reasons. She was nice, though, especially once she’d gotten to know you, and there was something about her that made you want to pull her into your lap and stroke her ears and keep her safe.
Well, I was making progress. Maybe next I’d remember—
I had been with my team. Something bad had happened.
Whatever had happened, whatever this was…what if it hadn’t just happened to me? Were my friends safe?
Was my sister?
Is anyone there?
Can anyone hear me?
- - - - - - -
Apparently not. There was nothing else to do but take stock.
The room was more or less square. From the size of the chairs, workbenches, and doorway, I guessed that it was thirty feet on a side, and almost as high. The walls looked to have been carved out of rock, suggesting it was underground, but the floor was concrete or something similar. It looked flat, but there was a drain in one corner. Depending on what depth we were at, I wondered where it led.
Several pipes and conduits came in through a panel by the door, leading to a sink near the drain, and several power sockets scattered around the room. There were vents in the walls, high and low, but the upper ones and the ceiling were almost invisible in the shadows—the lamps all shone downwards, into what was clearly some kind of lab.
There were half a dozen workbenches against the walls. A couple were clear (the ones with chairs in front of them), but most were covered in tools and equipment. I recognized a few things—wrenches, chemical glassware, a soldering gun, a jeweler’s lens—and could guess at the uses of some others, but the blocky consoles, and the odd spire-shaped machine in one corner, were complete mysteries.
The spaces between the benches were filled with shelves and file cabinets. The shelves were cluttered with books, battery packs, penlights, and so on—along with an alarm clock, a mug full of pens and markers, and a bottle of headache pills. Whoever worked here, they seemed like a potential soulmate for one or two of the professors at Beacon.
I should keep that in mind if anyone does come back…unless I was out for so long that Beacon isn’t around anymore.
Oh god, maybe this is the past. Maybe I’m in Mountain Glenn, back when it was still settled.
…Well, all right, maybe not.
In the center of the room was a cheap folding table, with a trouble light hanging from a hook over it. On the table was a large, rectangular black object. It was about four feet long and six inches wide. There was a cylinder embedded along most of its length, with a band of color at one end, and—
It was a sword in its sheath.
I’d seen it before.
Ruby and Weiss understood. I think they felt the same way sometimes. Ruby still went to see her, though—I never asked what they talked about, but I could make a few guesses—and Weiss usually went with her. They’d bring back news: she had full use of both eyes again, the cast was off her leg, Professor Ozpin and Taiyang had finally met up with Dr. Gray and sworn him to secrecy about what had happened…
I did ask for details about that last one. Taiyang and Qrow had talked with Ruby, then with Ozpin and Raven, and they’d all agreed that Gray needed to know the truth if he was to have any chance of treating her properly. Not all of them trusted him—according to Ruby, Qrow had used the phrase “about as far as I can spit,” which was probably a euphemism—but he was the best choice to cover for her to the rest of the hospital’s staff, and according to Weiss, he was thrilled about the opportunity the case provided. He was already looking back over Raven’s Aura readings and brain activity. The main challenge was probably going to be convincing him to sit on whatever results he found…but it seemed unlikely that anyone else would have the chance to publish the same results anytime soon.
One evening, it was well after dark before the girls sent a note saying they were on the way back, and another hour or two after that when they finally got to the room. I had started to worry, but one look at Ruby’s puffy eyes and flushed face, and I knew it was a bad time for questions, much less a lecture. Weiss held her close, running one hand slowly across her back, and whispered “They talked about her mother” to me over her shoulder. I nodded and left them alone.
Eventually, I ended up spending most of my time at the library. Shocking, I know, but just like after the fight on the expressway, I had good reason. This time, though, Yang wasn’t there to rein me in—and if she had known what I was doing, she might have been a little more understanding than before.
I checked out every book I could on Aura theory, traumatic injuries and recovery from them, psychological and perceptual disorders, and that elusive collection of ideas known as the soul. I went through the catalog for anything to do with genetic memory, the nature of consciousness, the collective unconscious, the relationship between Aura and the mind, the relationship between Aura and Semblance, and certain aspects of the paranormal. Whenever I found a book listed for one of those topics, I went through its index for all of the others, just to make sure. Several of them couldn’t leave the library, but I reshelved them in the wrong places, so that no one could snap them up while my back was turned. As for the ones that I could check out, I started stacking them on my bed. If there got to be too many of them, I’d move up to Yang’s.
By the end of the first day, I realized that—well-read as I was—growing up outside the kingdoms and focusing my education on becoming a Huntress had left me with some serious gaps in my knowledge. Still, I was able to cut through at least some of the jargon. I suspected that, despite their best efforts, nobody in the fields of neurology, psychology, or philosophy understood what consciousness and the mind really were.
By the end of the second day, I knew what dozens of scholars in eight different religions had had to say about possession, souls, and the netherworld, but even if any of them had gotten it right, there was nothing I found that I expected to be helpful.
I did keep a few of the mythology books and print a few articles, particularly the ones that covered how ancient cultures had treated cases of possession or what I’ll call “spiritual injury.” It couldn’t hurt. I also took a short break to look into artificial intelligence, on a hunch that Ruby’s friend Penny had something in her past that might be related, but whenever I got close to finding something promising, I hit a security barrier of one kind or another.
The third and fourth days I spent searching through reference books and databases on known Semblances. Sun joined me for that: I wasn’t sure how much I could safely tell him, so I gave him the impression that something was interfering with Yang’s recovery, without making it clear that I actually knew any of the details. It meant that I didn’t have to lie to him.
He’d started wearing a jacket as the weather got colder, but for the time being, he still refused to zip it up—or button his shirt. I can’t say that I minded.
“You know, I’m almost glad the weather’s so lousy today,” he said quietly.
“You said that already.”
“I wasn’t sure you heard me, since you were in the middle of a book when I got here.”
He was quiet, but not for long. “Blake, look me in the eye for a second.”
“What have you eaten today?”
“Oatmeal with dried apricots, and a turkey sandwich.”
He relaxed a little bit. “Okay. How long did you sleep last night?”
I looked away and made the “I dunno” noise. “Probably five hours.”
“All right. All right. Sorry. I know you’re worried about Yang—I am too—and I know you have to do something constructive about it. But if you aren’t going to take care of yourself, somebody darn well has to.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“I mean that in a few hours, I’m gonna gently suggest that you give your eyes a rest, get some dinner, maybe go for a walk. That’s if it stops freakin’ raining.”
“Until then, will you leave it alone?”
“Yeah. I promise. And I’ll do what I can to help out—are you done with that stack?”
I nodded. He loaded up with books and marched off.
“I checked the Red List boards just now,” he said when he walked back to the desk.
“Well, Take a Bao has been changed over from ‘definitely anti’ to ‘possibly supportive.’”
“Seriously?” I’d met their manager, and she struck me as…set in her ways. Not to mention a self-important bitch, even toward people she thought were human. “Who made the change?”
“Someone who goes by ‘CinnamonBunBun.’” He grinned.
I smiled back, knowing that name would have appealed pretty strongly to his sense of humor. It was interesting, though. I’d have to find Velvet sometime and get the story from her—assuming her account hadn’t been hacked. “Thanks, Sun.”
“’Course! It’s what I’m here for,” he said, winking and picking Aura: Evidence for the Astral Self? back up.
Some of the Semblance guides were worth taking back to the dorm that night, but I wasn’t looking forward to going through the ones that were alphabetized by last name. Several were clearly sensationalized accounts, the facts of which had probably been forgotten, and I suspected that one or two had been published as propaganda for one cause or another. Others focused only on public figures; those were at least well-researched, but unless some famous athlete, former Mistrali council member, or Schnee Company executive had miraculously had the exact ability that could explain Yang’s situation, I had more promising avenues to search—at least for now.
“Now, you are done for the day, right?”
“Almost. I was going to look through a few of these before going to bed, so that I can return the ones I don’t need—” I tried and failed to hold back a yawn.
“No. Absolutely not. You’re gonna go to sleep, and I’m gonna start going through these books.” He picked up a pad of yellow sticky notes and waved it at me. “If I find anything good, I’ll mark it. Anything about altering consciousness or Aura, right?”
“Sun, let me—”
“Ruby and Weiss will back me up on this, Blake. You want me to call them?”
I sighed. “No. Fine, you start looking and I’ll try to sleep.”
The last thing I remember was him turning off the overhead light. I woke up once or twice, when he stood up to get another book, but I told myself I’d wait until daylight to rejoin him.
The next morning, that dog hopped onto my bed and I found myself standing on the bookshelf under the window before I realized it.
That woke Sun up. He was still sitting at my desk with the lamp on—well, sort of sitting—but he’d been using a softcover book as a pillow, and either Ruby or Weiss had put a blanket over his shoulders. There were two stacks of books on the desk: one with the occasional sticky note marking a page, and the other with just one note, stuck to the cover of the top book, that read “DITCH.” That was the taller stack.
“You all right?”
My mouth twisted. “I’m fine. He just caught me by surprise.”
He smiled. “What are we gonna do today, Blake?”
“Feel like making a trip to the hospital?”
- - - - - - -
“Not permanently,” said Raven. She was still putting that rasp into her voice, but Sun seemed to buy it. She glanced over to him. “There’s been something strange happening to me, and the headmaster thinks it might be affected by different locations.”
So they were finally going to test that “pull” she was feeling. “Is anyone going with you?”
“Just Ozpin. They gave us a two-seater; he’ll be driving us to Patch.”
“Let me get this straight,” said Sun. “You’re getting pulled out of the hospital for some kind of science experiment? Is that safe?”
“Welcome to the glamorous life of a Huntress,” Raven and I said in unison. We stared at each other in shock.
“I am doing better, though,” she said. “I’ve been getting a little bit of exercise in, before Ruby and Weiss’ visits.” She clambered out of bed and walked a few paces with her IV stand.
She walked differently than Yang did. I couldn’t decide if that made things better or worse, though, because I didn’t know if it came from Yang’s injuries, or if it was the way she normally moved.
“Oh yeah, that totally makes it all right,” said Sun, rolling his eyes.
“Our enemies aren’t resting,” said Raven with a smile. “Besides, it might be interesting.”
At this point, that was practically guaranteed.
Raven and Ozpin returned from Patch that evening. Back in his office, we laid out a Kremyen-projection map of Remnant that took up half the floor. Raven marked Beacon and the docks on Patch as accurately as she could, unfolded a slip of paper with her notes on it, and sketched out two headings on the map. Both of them went generally southeast from Vale, but eventually met out in the forests near the east coast.
Once she was done, Raven stared down at the map for a moment. “…Damn it.”
For the record, “Kremyen” is Remnant’s equivalent of “Mercator”—usually not the ideal map to use, but excellent if you’re measuring headings and nothing else.
Apologies to any businesses out there that are actually called Take a Bao.
Chapter 4: Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder
We learn a little more about Qrow and Winter’s mysterious assignment.
The desk was crowded with nine chairs, including Ozpin’s, and had a stack of folders sitting on it. Each of us took one and sat down. Ruby and Taiyang started flipping through theirs, but I kept my eye on the people I assumed had prepared them for us.
Qrow rubbed at his face. “Glyn, is there any coffee?”
“There’s a grinder and a press on the floor below us,” Goodwitch said airily. “I daresay you could find some water somewhere in the building.”
“Ugh. Atlas needs to develop a version of the Knight that can do things like that for me.”
“We are, actually,” said Winter.
We all stared at her. It took her a moment to realize it, though, since she was staring at Qrow—perhaps trying to gauge his reaction. Once she noticed the rest of us, she shrugged and said, “Rather, we’re working with a firm that’s developing civilian models, for household tasks and home defense. It’s partly intended to recoup the costs of the main project, but also to influence public opinion about their use by the military… It’s public record, although you’d have trouble inducing anyone to make an official statement as to that latter motive.”
“Home defense?” Ozpin asked incredulously.
“I’ve been assured that they won’t be nearly as heavily armed as the military models, but I’m afraid I don’t know the details.” Winter’s tone made it clear that even if she had known the details of that aspect of the plan, she wouldn’t have shared them with the rest of us. “Presumably, the recent security breaches will significantly delay their release as well.”
Ozpin shook his head and stood up. The sun was just creeping over the hills east of Beacon, and it blazed into his face as he came around the desk, but he ignored it.
“I’ll look into that later; we should probably start on the topic at hand. Qrow and Winter already know all of this, but I’m having them sit in anyway, to ensure that all of you have the same information, and so that I don’t forget to cover anything.” Well, that explained that. “Is there anything else we need to address before I start?”
The rest of us looked at each other, then shook our heads.
“Very well.” He went into the ‘enigmatic sensei’ mode that we were so familiar with. “Recently I asked Raven to investigate a pattern of suspicious deaths in the kingdoms. I haven’t found any unambiguous proof that they were murders, but I suspect very strongly that they were—and furthermore, that there are connections between them. The first occurred at Haven Academy, over twenty years ago—”
Raven interrupted. “What? When did you learn that?”
“Very recently. I asked the administrators at Haven to look farther back into their records than they had before, and they were able to find a case fitting our pattern. As I was saying, twenty years ago a student at Haven went missing during a field assignment, and his partner left the school at the end of that year. The partner, Dominic Castileo, was cleared of any wrongdoing at the time, but the picture on file for him bears some resemblance to two men associated with the later victims…and I’m fairly sure that their names, William Whydah and Donovan Dodder, were merely pseudonyms. I’ve included what pictures we’ve managed to recover of Castileo and ‘Dodder,’ as well as two sketches of ‘Whydah’ based on statements from friends of one of the victims.”
I flipped through the folder to the pictures. Two were fairly standard identification-style photos—no smiling, pale background—but one was of a dark-haired, nervous-looking boy in his late teens, while the other showed a middle-aged man with alert eyes, who I would have guessed was his father if Ozpin hadn’t told us otherwise. The third photo was a still from a security camera, showing the same man from about the ankles up. There was a scribbled date from two years ago, and the height of the bookshelf nearest his head had been noted, from which I guessed he was a little under six feet tall. The sketches roughly matched the newer photos, but I suspected they weren’t as reliable.
So. We were looking for a middle-aged man, medium height and build, dark hair (possibly graying, but it was hard to tell), brown to hazel eyes, no other identifying marks, probably human. That narrowed it down—to about a tenth of Remnant’s male population. I scribbled a note to ask about anything that might help us identify him by other means.
Ozpin went on. “Since then, there have been four other deaths: two in Vale, another in Mistral, and one very recently in Atlas. In all cases, there were no obvious motives—or cause, for that matter—no clear beneficiaries, and only traces of physical evidence; although these commonalities might seem coincidental, they don’t appear together as frequently as certain genres of fiction would lead one to believe. Likewise, although they might seem to cripple any attempt at investigation, they do highlight the other notable pattern at work.
“Most, but not all, of the victims had been blessed—or ultimately, cursed—with rather interesting Semblances. The most recent, Terry Shale—” Winter fumbled with her pen for a moment— “was capable of what I’m tempted to call alchemy. Although he couldn’t break the laws of nature, he could certainly bend them, manipulating chemical compounds in ways that even skilled engineers with state-of-the-art equipment can’t. The fact that a large portion of his notes went missing around the time of his death may have been intended as a diversion…then again, it may not.
“Proceeding from the hypothesis that the victims’ deaths were tied somehow to their Semblances, the intuitive conclusion is that their killer has been working to quietly weaken the kingdoms, by removing people with strategically valuable abilities. It’s not impossible that the perpetrators of the recent attacks on Vale are collaborating with him towards that goal…and I’m sorry to say it, but if that is his true motive, it follows that he deliberately planned and carried out an attack on Miss Xiao Long because he considered her a threat.” Ozpin paused, and the words ‘we need to make him regret that’ hung in the air.
…Actually, that may have just been me.
“The main exception to this pattern was the death of a Faunus named Jacqueline Golden, here in Vale. We investigated her background thoroughly, but it appears that whatever her potential Semblance might have been, it had shown no sign of developing by the time of her death. Since, to the best of my knowledge—” which was probably saying something— “there is no means of predicting such abilities ahead of time, I am supposing for now that there was some other motive behind her murder. If it weren’t for the fact that she and the other victim in Vale around the same time, Ash Titus, had a shared acquaintance in Mr. Whydah, who vanished around the same time but does not appear to have died, I would have assumed that her case was entirely unrelated to the others.”
I skimmed the case descriptions at the front of the folder. Ozpin hadn’t bothered to include anything to summarize or compare the key details across cases, so I started sketching out a table and a timeline on the back of one sheet.
“I offered the case to Raven at the end of the summer; when I lost contact with her recently, I began planning for the worst, and started to prepare Qrow and Winter to approach it from a different angle. Considering the circumstances of her return, I decided that a more serious, carefully planned investigation was warranted.”
Glynda snorted. I don’t think anyone else heard it.
“Ms. Branwen, would you care to bring us up to speed?”
Raven stood. “As Ozpin said, I had been investigating the case as a favor to him for a month or two before—” she motioned to Yang’s body— “this. I found hints that Whydah had gone to ground in the forests near the east coast; when I looked more closely in that region, I found an installation with no ties to any agency of the kingdoms’ governments, or any known non-governmental organization, legal or otherwise. When I tried to infiltrate the site, something went wrong, and I woke up in the hospital a few days ago in a body that didn’t belong to me.” She sighed. “Which is why I recommend that we go in on foot this time.”
“Sword let you down?” asked Qrow.
Raven gave him a look. He met it, leaned back nonchalantly and folded his arms, and I wondered if she’d ever drawn a weapon on him.
Winter cleared her throat. “Am I to understand that your last location before…complications arose…was near the area toward which we’ll be traveling?”
“In that case, how can you be sure that the presence you’ve triangulated is Miss Xiao Long’s, rather than your own body?”
“I can’t. Frankly, Specialist, my main goal is still to bring in Whydah—or bring him down, if I get the opportunity. Whether I’m interpreting these impressions correctly doesn’t really have any bearing on that goal, but they’re unfamiliar enough that I don’t believe they’re my own, and Yang is the next obvious candidate. Even if that interpretation proves to be a mistake, I suspect that where we find him we’ll find her, but I would recommend being prepared for further wrinkles in the case.”
“Oh, I am,” Winter said, mostly to herself. At a normal volume, she asked, “Is everyone in this room going to be actively involved in the investigation from now on?”
“Indeed,” said Ozpin happily. “I made the, in my opinion, reasonable assumption that I wouldn’t be able to keep Team RWBY out of it for long, in one capacity or another. Rather than ushering in an extended period of farcical cover stories and mutual interference, we can all collaborate openly from the beginning, and wrap this case up once and for all. I’m still pondering whom to send back out with Raven, but leaving Vale without attracting attention shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll be traveling soon to the settlement formerly known as Menagerie; the flight path will pass within walking distance of the location Raven’s identified, and there’s an abandoned town that should serve as a decent staging area. We won’t even need to slow the ship down.”
“Are you sure it’s wise for you to leave Vale right now?” asked Qrow. He and Glynda shared a significant look.
“If you’re referring to the possibility of more attacks by the White Fang or their allies—because I know that’s the only thing you could possibly be referring to, Qrow—rest assured that I have taken steps to address that.” All of us except Qrow and Glynda exchanged confused looks of our own. “Specifically, I’ve delegated someone I trust to act, at their sole discretion, on the information from incoming field reports, and I’ve arranged accelerated training for a special anti-terrorism unit. Besides, if all goes well I won’t be gone for more than a couple of weeks.” He paused. “Actually, that’s not very reassuring: a lot can happen in a couple of weeks.”
“So what are our next steps?” I asked.
“Start a packing list,” Qrow grunted. “That goes for the rest of us, too—start pulling together things like tents, all-weather clothes, and antiseptic. Get familiar with the area—there should have been a map included in these folders, but I’ll rectify that. And just a hunch: stock up on ammunition.”
Ruby’s face lit up. Weiss nudged her, but she took no notice.
“Weiss and Winter, if you don’t mind I’d like to discuss a few things with you both. The rest of you are free to go; if anyone else needs to talk to me, please wait until the Schnees come downstairs.”
We filed into the elevator and descended in silence. In the lobby, I tapped Ruby on the shoulder. “I’ve got to talk to him once they’re done; I’m going to wait in here.”
“Okay! Mind if I wait with you until Weiss comes down?”
“Have I ever minded?”
She smiled—probably thinking about our first night at Beacon—but didn’t say anything. In fact, she was remarkably quiet once we sat down, and I wondered if she was still processing what Ozpin had told us. I tried to keep one eye on her, but still made it through half a chapter of The Paper Garden before the elevator doors opened again.
Ozpin came out along with Weiss and Winter, all of their faces carefully neutral. Ruby trotted over and whispered to Weiss, who sighed and said, “I’ll tell you later.”
I walked up to Ozpin, who nodded and made an “after you” motion toward the elevator. On our way back up, I asked, “Should the rest of us know about what you told Weiss?”
“We discussed what the best role for her might be in this investigation. I think she may want to tell you the results herself.” This wasn’t very illuminating, but I don’t really know what else I had expected. “Did you have a question about the case?”
“Sort of. It seems to me that, even assuming the photos and sketches of this person are reliable, they could fit a huge number of people across Remnant.”
“I was wondering if there were any other resources we could use to identify him—voice recordings, for example, or belongings that might still carry his scent.”
He thought for a moment. “There aren’t any recordings that I know of—at least, none that have been verified as being of him. If there are any of the latter, they’re likely to still be in the Atlas Specialists’ possession, from the Shale investigation. I’ll remind Winter to ask her colleagues about that, and you might want to share the idea with Weiss and Ruby.” I nodded. “Speaking of Winter…how are you feeling about working with her?”
I shrugged. “I’m not sure how well we’ll get along, but that doesn’t really matter as long as we get Yang back.”
“That’s a reasonable attitude to adopt. At this point, she knows the basics of your background: about your growing up outside Vale, and the Faunus-rights work you’ve done in the past. If she learned who some of your old friends ended up working for instead—which she won’t from me or Mr. Branwen—she might…jump to conclusions.” He doesn’t know. He can’t know. “Are you prepared for that?”
“…I guess I’ll have to be. How is she with Faunus in general?”
“Her record is exemplary,” he said carefully. We both knew that that left a variety of possibilities open, some of which could spell trouble if she spent long enough in close proximity to me. Still, even in a worst-case scenario it suggested she’d be able to act civilly. As long as she didn’t find out the truth.
Because the universe has an odd sense of humor, my scroll chimed almost as soon as I turned it back on in the elevator. “Belladonna.”
“Scarlatina,” said a teasing voice.
“Velvet! How are you?”
“Keeping busy. How are you? How’s Yang?”
“Up and moving around…we’re still a little worried for her, but she’s doing better.”
“Of course,” she said sympathetically. “I, er, I got your message—just wanted to let you know that it was me who edited that entry on the Red List.”
“Interesting. Do you know what brought on the change?”
“We’ve heard some things secondhand. Coco’s aunt and uncle were there on an evening out, about a week ago—it had just reopened after all the excitement—and apparently the owners and the manager had a row in the middle of the dining room. It sounds like they were arguing over what was and wasn’t ‘good for business.’”
“Well, that’s a little mercenary, but I guess it’s about the best we can expect.”
“For now, I think so. Fox went down the next night to talk to the kitchen staff, and they said someone had come round during the tournament, to tell them Take a Bao was ‘on the Fang’s shit list’—their words, not his.” I could practically hear her blushing through my scroll. “Suggested they close early and look for anything out of place; naturally they found a bomb in the basement, right below the center of the dining room.”
In one corner of my mind, a small voice remarked, You know, there was a time when something like that, coming from the White Fang, would have horrified you.
Velvet went on. “They brought in the police—as quietly as they could, to keep from tipping anyone off—and apparently managed to get it deactivated and out of the building without anyone the wiser. Then they closed for ‘special employee training’ for a few days, in case there were others they’d missed. It turned out that there was only the one—it had been set to explode just after the attack on the stadium, so when all that started, the plan became pretty clear.”
“And that was what changed the owners’ minds about Faunus?”
“Sort of. It sounds as if the person who came by to warn them made a bit of an impression. They were considering changing their policy—thought it wouldn’t look like they were caving to the Fang, as long as they were able to keep the bomb hushed up, but the manager disagreed. She wasn’t very diplomatic about it. So now she’s out of a job, and Yatsu and I might drop by in a few days to see what sort of reception we get.”
“Do you think there’ll be any repercussions with that manager?”
“Can’t rule it out,” she said sadly. “We talked about adding a warning note to the restaurant’s entry, with her description and a few accounts of her interactions with Faunus, but let’s be honest—that would only invite trouble from somebody else. For now, we’re just going to keep an eye on things ourselves.”
I was about to offer to help…but I realized I might be leaving town soon. Then I realized I should probably act normally until (and unless) that got confirmed. “I could help with that, if you like.”
“Cheers, Blake! I’ll send you a note if it looks like we’ll need you.”
Sorry in advance if I end up letting you down.
In our room that evening, Ruby, Weiss and I went back over the files and looked for patterns that might have been missed, hints that could corroborate Ozpin’s theories about the killer’s identity and motives, and areas where we needed more information (or I should say, areas where that need was especially bad). Weiss began making a list of topics to research before we left, and Ruby began strategizing. Are there ways Whydah might still be innocent with the available evidence, and if so, where do we go from there? What Semblances or other abilities could help someone to carry out these attacks and get away with them?
If When we do find Yang, what shape will she be in, and how do we get her back? None of us could bring ourselves to write anything under that third heading.
Sometime after midnight, Weiss browbeat Ruby and me into turning the lights out and going to bed. It didn’t do much good. I stared up at where Yang should be, mulling over what could have happened to her, and all the things that might go wrong in finding her again. From Weiss and Ruby’s breathing, they were still awake too, and probably thinking the same thoughts, but none of us broke the silence. At some point, I fell asleep.
From the field notes of Winter Schnee:
The mission assigned to
Branwen Qrow and me by Headmaster Ozpin has been…altered significantly—out of necessity, of course, since our original goal of finding Raven Branwen, or determining what had happened to her, is no longer applicable. On top of that, we have been assigned additional teammates: Raven herself, her former teammate and husband Taiyang Xiao Long, his daughter Ruby Rose, and Weiss and Ruby’s teammate, Blake Belladonna.
Weiss has been ordered to remain at Beacon. I cannot be entirely sure that she will do so, but I do have faith in her: she knows that the rest of us are relying on her, both to pass along any new information that is uncovered and to help maintain the fictions that may protect us in the field. Moreover, it will be difficult to assess how completely she has recovered from her injuries (particularly the concussion) until she returns to combat—and the more time she has to rest and train before that happens, the better. That she was singled out to be left behind must frustrate her, even worse than it does me, but to do otherwise would have been strategically and ethically indefensible, and Ozpin was more diplomatic about saying so than I could have been. After we left his office, I reminded her that security strategies, information management, and counterespionage are crucial to success (and survival) in the field that we’ve both chosen, and that this experience will go far beyond any training in those skills that she would otherwise receive at Beacon. I did not need to remind her that if she fails to fulfil her role, especially as a result of her own choices, the rest of us will want an explanation when we return (and in Raven’s case, possibly her scalp).
On the subject of Raven, I am still unsure of what to expect from working with her (or rather, I suspect, working “with” her). Qrow and Taiyang’s behavior since her reappearance suggests that she is, at least, a more than competent Huntress, and what I’ve seen of her personality has been considerably more mature and professional than her brother’s, but how well she’ll ultimately be able to handle an assignment involving her own daughter remains to be seen. Frustrating as it is to admit, I myself certainly couldn’t be trusted to keep my emotions under control, were Weiss in
the same situation some comparable situation. In addition, all of us remain unsure of her reliability—although I do trust her stated desire to recover her weapon (as well as a “mask” of some kind that no one has yet explained to me) and take revenge on whoever has separated her from it. Once she has accomplished those goals, what she does next will be anyone’s guess, but if she recovers them by chance, before we have resolved the question of Miss Xiao Long, I doubt that we can expect much further help from her. At least, that’s the impression Qrow has given me, and as hard as that attitude is to understand (her daughter, for god’s sake!), I’d expect him to be telling the truth about something so important.
By comparison, I’m fairly optimistic about the prospect of working with Miss Belladonna. A month ago, I wouldn’t have expected to feel that way, and to be honest I haven’t always dealt effectively with Faunus in the past, but over and above the skills she displayed during the tournament attack, her concern for her partner is no less obvious or laudable now than it was then. I’m inclined to trust Weiss’ judgment about her as well, for the time being. Ozpin and Qrow claim to know little about her background—probably more than they’ve told me, mind—but her upbringing outside the kingdom, and her previous involvement in the Faunus-rights movement, do produce some misgivings. If our target did eventually prove to be working with the White Fang, I would be far less inclined to trust Miss Belladonna at my back than I currently am to trust Raven. (It’s not impossible that one of the other groups with similar methods and goals could become involved, but the Fang was responsible for the recent events in Vale, and remains the most plausible such actor here… Besides, several of those other groups have gone quiet in the past few years, and the reason isn’t difficult to guess.)
Enough. I’ve seen what unwarranted suspicion does, to individuals and to entire countries, and if I don’t keep mine under control it may spell the end of this investigation. Blake has acquitted herself well since being brought in: in particular, I am impressed that she took the initiative in looking for other potential methods of tracking or identifying Dodder. I’ve arranged for his personal effects from Shale’s lab to be sent to Beacon in sealed containers, ostensibly to better familiarize Qrow with the history of this case. If the storage and transport protocols that I’ve specified give any of my colleagues the impression that my new—ugh—partner is a Faunus passing as human…well, so be it.
There is one last thing that deserves mention. The General summoned me for another meeting this morning, and requested that Weiss come as well; we are now in (temporary, and highly conditional) possession of two Steinmetz Star communication units. These were developed shortly before the CCT system; upon its completion, they were rendered obsolete for most purposes, but they have two advantages that make them ideal for this assignment. First, like the CCT, they allow instantaneous long-range communication, but they do not rely on relay stations or other intervening structures. Second, each unit can communicate with only one other; obviously this was previously considered a liability in most situations, but it neatly solves the problem of maintaining secure contact with our allies in Vale.
General Ironwood is confident that, because of their “obsolete” design, the Steinmetzes will not be vulnerable to the security failures that have recently plagued the CCT and some of our other information systems. I am less confident, but using them appears to be the best option available. He did not explain what scientific principles they make use of; this does unsettle me a bit, as it implies drastic limits on the degree of repairs I will be able to make in the field if anything goes wrong. I am relatively sure that we could accomplish the mission’s primary goals in isolation if necessary, but extraction afterward would be another question entirely.
Seriously, think about it: things like speed and electrical capacity can be bought. Even Pyrrha’s Semblance, if it were widely known, could be replicated with the right technology. Yang’s, from what little we know about it, bends if not breaks the rules of nature.
"Ta" to bigfatcarp93, Scheduler, rcsgd, and everyone who provided input on Velvet's lines--even those of you who derailed the discussion to make Yugioh! jokes. The Red List subplot isn’t really going to go anywhere; it just occurred to me when I was stitching Chapter 2 together, and I figured what the hell, let’s do a little character- and worldbuilding.
Finally, I hate to screw Weiss over like that, but apparently concussions are a “serious medical issue.” Go figure.
Chapter 5: [Preview/placeholder]
Just a preview of Qrow and his partner's new assignment. No big deal, just getting sent out into the middle of nowhere to hunt a suspected killer...
My eyes shot open. After a moment, the tent fabric above me and the feel of the sleeping bag reminded me of where I was, and why. Still, my heart was going a mile a minute, and my neck and shoulders felt like they were made of cheap rope.
“Qrow?” Winter shifted next to me and put a hand on her saber. We’d gone to sleep head-to-heel and back-to-back, to avoid causing any trouble. “Did you hear something?”
“Just a bad dream, I think—but I’ll take a little walkaround to make sure.” I sighed. “Gods, I could use a drink.”
She sat up. “You really must be unsettled. This is the first time I can recall that I’ve heard you say something like that.”
“It was an especially bad dream. I’ll tell you later.” I stuck my bare feet into my boots, not bothering to tie them or tuck in the laces, and ducked out of the tent before settling my sword across my back.
[this section pending]
“Do you think you’ll be able to get back to sleep?”
“I’ll try.” I sure as hell had to try: I knew I wouldn’t be worth much otherwise when morning came around.
“I’ll help. Turn your sleeping bag, so that you’re facing the same way I am.”
“Uh, we agreed that—”
“I haven’t forgotten, you dolt. The situation has changed, nothing more.” There was a now-familiar edge to her voice that suggested arguing would not be in my best interests, so I did as she said, and then kicked my way back into my bag. Winter scooted up behind me and laid her arm over my shoulder. “If you’re having misgivings, tell yourself that there’s an old superstition from Mantle—that lying with your head in a different direction helps against troubled sleep.”
“I couldn't say. The superstition certainly exists…if you set any store by such things. Now be quiet.”
I heard her fall back asleep after a few minutes, but it took me a while longer. Ice Queen or no, Winter was only hard and cold in some respects. Still, she made it hard to dwell on that dream…or the anxiety and mistrust that I assumed had spawned it. As far as I can remember, my last thought before going under again was You know, doing this every night wouldn’t be so bad.