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After the Fall

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Trouble is brewing . . .
After Beacon Academy fell, Coco, Fox, Velvet, and Yatsuhashi made a vow: No one else is getting left behind. It's been more than a year since Team CFVY saw their school destroyed by the creatures of Grimm, their friends felled in battle or scattered across the world of Remnant. Since then, they've been settling into life at Shade Academy in Vacuo, fighting hard to finish their training so they can find their friends and save their world.
When a distress message comes into Shade, asking for huntsmen and huntresses to defend refugees from a never-ending stream of Grimm, Team CFVY answers the call without hesitation. But in the heat of the desert, they're forced to relive their former battles, both from the fall of Beacon and from everything that came before.
Don't miss this exclusive original story straight from award-winning author E.C. Myers and RWBY's head writers, Kerry Shawcross and Miles Luna!
Scholastic Inc.
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After the Fall

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Velvet Scarlatina’s least favorite thing about Vacuo was how it tasted. Of course, Vacuo didn’t have much going for it, unless you enjoy blistering heat, scarce food, and scarcer water. Do you like getting lost? Then come to Vacuo, where the desert landscape completely changes overnight—or even from one hour to the next. The most popular items in the tourist gift shops were T-shirts that read, VACUO: THE WRONG PLACE AT THE WRONG TIME and A TERRIBLE PLACE TO VISIT, BUT YOU WOULDN’T WANT TO LIVE THERE.

Of all the things included in Velvet’s mental list of “cons” about Vacuo, number one was the lack of anything to include under “pros.” Number two: the way sand kept getting in her mouth, even when it was covered with a pithy T-shirt.

Chewing fresh cactus leaf helped neutralize the sand’s bitter flavor, but all such luxuries were hard to come by in Vacuo. Used to living with hardship, Vacuans simply factored the sand into their food preparation. And hey, if you couldn’t deal with the “local spice,” you probably didn’t belong there.

Velvet definitely didn’t belong in Vacuo. She was supposed to be in Vale―beautiful, cool, green Vale. She was supposed to be training at Beacon Academy to become a Huntress to protect people. But Beacon was even less hospitable than the desert these days, as hard as that was to believe. Instead, she and her team―Coco Adel, Fox Alistair, and Yatsuhashi Daichi, known collectively to their schoolmates as Team CFVY (Coffee)―had made their way to Vacuo more than a year ago to finish out their training at Shade Academy. And they had more important things to worry about than the taste of sand.

“What are these things?” Velvet shouted. She;  ducked as a massive crablike creature thrust a claw at her head. The pincer snapped shut loudly right between her long rabbit ears.

That was too close, she thought. I’d hate to end up as a “split hare” pun. Especially after everything else she had survived. The natural wildlife roaming Vacuo was tough for sure, but as a Huntress in training, Velvet had seen the real monsters lurking in the darkness.

Using his Semblance—a special ability unique to every warrior in the world of Remnant—Fox answered her question telepathically, via their special teamspeak. “Mole crabs,” he sent. “Kinda small for the species.”

“Small, huh? Maybe they’re babies,” Coco said. “They sure fight like babies.”

To her left, Velvet heard rapid shots from Coco’s Gatling gun, the explosive impact of her Aura-enhanced bullets on a crab’s carapace, and soon the sound of the shell cracking and crumbling. The creature screeched horribly as it died.

But Velvet’s crab was still very much alive and frisky. It lunged for her again. She dove and rolled out of the way. She just needed her camera—

Suddenly Yatsuhashi was by her side, as always.

The large crab didn’t look quite as intimidating next to Yatsu, who was a foot and a half taller than Velvet and much broader.

The creature chittered nervously. Yatsu grabbed its claw with both hands, holding it closed. Then he twisted his torso and tossed the creature up and away with a roar. It spun through the air like an oversized discus with spindly legs, until it crashed into a dune fifty feet away. There it lay, stunned, half-buried in sand.

“Hey, that one was mine!” Velvet said.

“You’re welcome. Give me a hand?” He nodded to another nearby crab, which he had also flipped onto its back. Its legs twitched frantically in the air as it struggled to right itself.

Velvet approached the overturned crab, getting close enough to see her face reflected in its beady black eyes, each the size of her head. She looked away, almost feeling sorry for it. She turned to face Yatsu, knelt on one knee, and interlaced her fingers.

Yatsu sprinted toward her, drawing his greatsword from behind his back. As he stepped onto her linked hands, she heaved upward and stood, boosting his jump so he catapulted high over her head. She spun around and watched him fall toward the crab, sword pointed downward purposefully. The blade pierced the mole crab’s soft underbelly.

The crab keened and thrashed, but Yatsu held on to his sword and stayed on top of it. He plunged the blade in deeper. Clear liquid gushed from the wound and drenched him.

Ew, Velvet thought.

The crab’s death throes sent sand flying everywhere, including right into Velvet’s eyes and—of course—her open mouth. She coughed and rubbed at her stinging eyes until she could see again.

The crab’s body still twitched, but it was clearly no longer a threat. Yatsu jumped down and walked toward Velvet. His green robe was soaked dark, almost black. She backed away from him, covering her nose.

“I think it’s just … water?” Yatsu swept his fingers through his short, damp hair and then examined his hand.

“Stinky water. You smell like a swamp,” she said.

“I know,” he said sadly.

The liquid was already evaporating in the hot afternoon sun, but the stench remained.

Yatsu wiped his eyes and looked around. “How are we doing?”

Velvet assessed the battlefield with him. Fox was dancing just within reach of his crab, the smallest of the group. It had only one claw; the other jutted out of the sand beside them, neatly severed. Whenever the crab snapped its remaining claw at the lithe, red-haired teen, Fox dodged and slashed at the limb with his bladed tonfas.

“At least Fox is having fun,” Velvet said.

Coco walked calmly toward Velvet and Yatsu, the shredded remains of a crab behind her. She’d managed to avoid getting any of its guts and gore on her brown-and-black ensemble. Lucky thing, because Vacuo wasn’t big on designer clothing, although Coco’s beret and aviator sunglasses were gaining popularity among Shade Academy’s students as fashionable and surprisingly functional desert-wear.

Coco folded her gun up into a handbag and slung its bandolier strap over her shoulder. She flashed a thumbs-up: mission accomplished.

As Velvet returned the gesture, she abruptly remembered the crab Yatsu had tossed into a dune. She looked for it, but the mound of sand it had landed in was gone … and so was the crab.

Good, she thought, followed almost immediately by, Oh no. She watched as the sand in front of Coco geysered, and Velvet lost sight of their leader.

“Coco!” Velvet bolted toward her, Yatsu right on her heels.

“Fox! Stop playing around!” Yatsu called.

“Coming,” Fox sent.

Velvet glanced over as Fox lopped off the crab’s head with its own dismembered claw. He dropped the limb and darted toward Coco, who was struggling in the claw grip of the last mole crab. She strained to keep the pincers from closing around her.

Velvet stopped and reached behind her for the rectangular brown box she always carried on her belt. She pressed the stitched heart emblem to open it and then removed Anesidora, her high-tech camera that used special Dust, an energy propellant substance, to print photographed weapons in hard light. Combined with her Semblance—photographic memory—Velvet could wield these 3-D replicas with skills and moves that otherwise would have taken years of training to master.

Yatsu sped past Velvet, and soon he was engaging the crab. But he couldn’t get close enough to hack away its claws like Fox had; this one was too fast. It was all Yatsu could do to parry attacks from its other claw with his sword.

Velvet thumbed through the images stored in the camera, looking for just the right one to help her friends. Professor Port, blunderbuss raised and aimed at a flock of Griffons in Amity Arena. Weiss Schnee, in a rare unguarded moment, with a giant glowing arm and sword hanging from a glyph floating behind her. Green-haired Reese Chloris leaning on her hoverboard after she and the rest of Team ABRN (Auburn) had defeated a Death Stalker.

Velvet came across the last snapshot she’d taken of her friend Ruby Rose and her high-caliber sniper scythe, Crescent Rose—the perfect weapon for cracking open a crab. Still, Velvet hesitated, hand trembling as the memories flooded back.

Beacon was burning. Beacon was falling. All around them.

And they couldn’t save it.

The sky was full of the wings and cries of Griffons, terrible flying Grimm monsters that had carried off several classmates and tourists, shattering the peace of the festival. Other Creatures of Grimm—Beowolves, Creeps, Boarbatusks—rampaged through the rubble-littered streets as people ran screaming. The clang and clatter of battle echoed throughout the city, struggling to be heard over the softer sounds that now haunted Velvet’s dreams. At least the military’s hacked defense robots had been deactivated; now all CFVY had to deal with was the Grimm.

But the Grimm were relentless and vicious, and there were so many of them. More of the dark, deadly creatures poured into Beacon with every passing hour, faster than they could be destroyed. The monsters were the stuff of nightmares, all shadow and bone, fire and fury. They only hunted humans and Faunus, such as Velvet, and they were drawn to negative emotions. They fed off fear and anger and hatred. No one knew where Grimm came from, or why they existed, but they were killing machines. The only way to survive an attack by a Grimm was to kill it first.

Velvet limped along, leaning against Yatsu, who wasn’t in much better shape than she was. Still, his strong arm around her shoulders did more than keep her moving—it held up her spirit. Yatsu and the rest of her team made Velvet feel safe, even while they were facing the greatest danger of their lives.

But she also felt guilty; if Yatsu had to take care of her, it kept him from saving other people who needed him more. So far they had rescued seven frightened, hurt tourists and citizens, who were now following them to the docks. But there were plenty more out there waiting for someone to help them.

“I’m fine,” Velvet lied. She felt as if she’d been hit by a truck, which was close to the truth. “We have to make sure everyone evacuates.”

“An Atlesian Paladin punched you,” Yatsu said. “We must get you to the docks. You need medical attention.”

“Yatsuhashi’s right,” Coco said. She paused to fire her gun at a Beowolf. The bullets did little more than annoy it, but still created enough of a distraction for Fox to sneak behind and neatly slice off the Grimm’s head. Fox walked through the black mist to rejoin his team as the Grimm disappeared.

“Your Aura’s critical, Velvet,” Coco continued. With her Aura—the powerful, protective life force tied to everyone’s soul—at that low level, one more hit would finish her off. “If it hadn’t been for Weiss’s Semblance …”

“Who knew she could do that?” Yatsu asked.

By “that” he meant summon a massive sword and a giant, ghostly hand to hold it, from out of nowhere.

“It’s a Schnee family thing,” Fox sent telepathically, somehow managing to sound smug about it. “They can summon avatars of enemies they’ve beaten to fight for them. Handy, huh?”

Coco groaned.

The avatar Weiss had summoned had sliced up the war machine just before it would have finished off Velvet. What was even more impressive than the lifesaving stunt was the fact that Weiss had stepped between Velvet and the Paladin’s killing blow, without seeming to know she could stop it.

“I think Weiss was just as surprised at what Velvet’s capable of.” Coco smiled wearily. “You were terrific.”

“Thanks,” Velvet said. In taking down the attacking military robots, she’d finally had a chance to prove what she and her camera could do. Unfortunately, she had to burn through some of her best pictures, using weapons she had been saving all semester and losing photos of dear friends—friends she suddenly wasn’t sure she would ever see alive or whole again—in the process.

Velvet knew that many Beacon students considered her dead weight on Team CFVY. Some others didn’t like her because they discriminated against Faunus-kind—people who possessed animal traits—and Velvet’s rabbit ears weren’t so easily hidden by a simple disguise. She’d been hoping she would be chosen to fight in the Vytal Tournament, show off a little for a change, but Coco had ended that idea pretty quickly. Velvet wondered if she and Yatsu would have done any better in the battle against Emerald and Mercury.

Coco had wondered that, too. She still smarted from that defeat, the bruises to her ego lasting longer than the bruises on her body. And now she had new bruises on top of those, from fighting a seemingly endless onslaught of Grimm.

The team was utterly spent. In the last hour, they had seen their friend Penny Polendina torn apart by her own weapons. They had helped take down a Nevermore at Amity Arena, fought Griffons and Ursai, faced off against Atlas’s finest military machines. And there still was no end in sight. The Grimm just kept coming, and now there was a giant winged Grimm circling Beacon Tower. The smart thing to do was retreat so they could fight another day.

“Heads up,” Fox sent.

Coco lowered her sunglasses. Two people were heading toward the school—away from the docks and away from safety. A girl in a white dress and a girl in a black dress with a red cloak. Weiss Schnee and Ruby Rose. Every time Coco turned around, one or more of the girls from Team RWBY (Ruby) was there, right in the middle of the action.

The first-year students skidded to a stop in front of Team CFVY.

“Aren’t you going the wrong way?” Coco asked.

Ruby pushed past the question. “Has anyone seen Jaune and Pyrrha?”

Coco shook her head.

“The school’s overrun with Grimm,” Velvet said. “If they’re still back there …”

Weiss set her jaw. “We’re going to find them.”

Weiss should have stayed at the docks. It was obvious that she was running on empty … but she was still running.

“What about Blake? Yang? Did they make it?” Velvet asked.

Ruby closed her eyes briefly, swallowed whatever she was going to say. She opened her eyes again, and they flashed in the moonlight. “They’re all at the docks. We’ll see you there soon. With Jaune and Pyrrha.”

“We’ll help you look,” Fox said.

“Are you crazy?” Weiss cocked her hip. “You need to get Velvet out of here.”

“I’ll take Velvet,” Coco tried. “Yatsuhashi and Fox will guard your flank.”

“Then who’ll guard yours?” Weiss gestured to the civilians who had been following CFVY. They looked uneasy about standing out in the open like this.

Ruby unfolded her weapon and used the sniper rifle to pick off a Beowolf approaching from their right. “Don’t split up your team, Coco.”

Coco struggled to not smart against what sounded like an order coming from her friend; she’d never seen such a somber look in Ruby’s eyes before. Chaos ruled in the ruined city, but for a moment, the two team leaders calmly regarded each other.

“We have to stick together, now more than ever,” Ruby said.

Coco nodded.

Then Weiss and Ruby took off again.

“Ruby!” Velvet called. Ruby turned back one last time, her cloak billowing in the bitter wind, the shaft of her scythe draped over her right shoulder. Velvet’s camera flashed as she snapped a photo. “Be safe.”

“You too.” Ruby collapsed Crescent Rose and disappeared into the smoke.

“We should have gone with them,” Fox sent.

Coco considered. “They’re the best two for the job. And we’ve got our own job: Getting these people out of Beacon. Making sure Velvet is all right.”

Velvet flicked past the photo of Ruby, pushing away the thought that it could be the last photo she’d ever have of her friend. While Velvet’s injuries were being treated at the docks, Ruby’s uncle, Qrow, had arrived with an unconscious Ruby and whisked her onto the next airbus. Velvet never even saw them.

Team RWBY hadn’t returned after the fall of Beacon, and no one knew exactly where Ruby, Weiss, Blake, and Yang were now.

Velvet settled on one of her favorite weapons, Sharp Retribution, Fox’s bladed tonfas. She was about to activate them and leap into the fray, when she heard a dry, whispery voice nearby. So soft she might have imagined it.


Velvet whipped around and scanned the area until she noticed sand sliding slowly down a small hill. She shielded her eyes from the sun and squinted. Something was peeking out of the sand. It looked like the corner of a wagon …

And then fingers broke through, frantically pushing more of the sand away.

“Over here!” rasped the voice.

So that’s why the mole crabs were hanging out in the area, Velvet thought.

The ground rumbled and more sand fell away. Velvet turned and saw the source: A huge mound of sand was moving toward them, like Pumpkin Pete tunneling under the ground in the old cartoons. Something told her it wasn’t going to be an animated bunny.

She glanced back at her teammates. Coco was still in one piece, still trapped in the crab’s claw. Fox was on the monster’s back, chipping away at the shell with his blades as the crab tried to burrow into the sand. Yatsu had changed tactics and was holding one of the crab’s legs, to keep it from submerging in the sand with Coco.

They’ll be fine for now, and besides, we don’t leave people behind. Not anymore.

Velvet summoned hard-light replicas of Fox’s weapons and recalled Fox’s fighting style as she ran past her friends, toward the buried wagon.

“Uh, Velvet? Where you going?” Fox sent. “Could use a little help here.”

It was hard to pretend you didn’t hear someone when they spoke in your head.

“Be right there,” Velvet said. I hope.

She ran alongside the tunneling mole crab, struggling to keep up with it. It was hard enough to run on sand without its surface swelling and swirling in the creature’s wake. Then the front half of the monster burst from the desert.

So they do get bigger, she thought. If those other crabs were babies, this could be their parent, easily three times their size, and three times as angry.

Velvet pushed herself to go faster, cutting ahead of the crab as its forward end dropped to the ground, practically on top of her. She looked up and saw the claws preparing to grab her.

Velvet quickly dove forward onto her hands, then pushed off and back. Her feet slammed against the bottom of the crab and she fired bullets from the tonfa blades on her forearms away from it. Her momentum and the recoil from the gunshot blasts carried her and the crab back up off the ground.

When she kicked off of the creature’s underside, it tipped up onto its rear legs, while Velvet landed clumsily on her hands and knees.

The giant mole crab balanced precariously above her, waving its claws almost comically. Velvet gave herself a running start and launched herself at it again, this time face-first. As she flew through the air, she twisted her body into a corkscrew and locked the arm blades forward, all while shooting at the crab’s soft belly.

The bullets started the job, and the spinning blades finished it, spewing briny fluid and guts everywhere.


The crab’s shrieks set Velvet’s teeth on edge. It fell backward, already dead by the time it hit the ground. Velvet felt the body’s tremors still as she climbed out of the hot, gory mess she had made of its belly, trying not to gag on the awful stench. The hard-light arm blades faded away.

She jumped off the carcass and surfed down a crest of sand, skidding to a halt in front of the now half-exposed wagon.

Velvet knelt in the sand, coughing and trying to catch her breath. Yatsuhashi was the first to reach her.

“Ugh. You okay?” He covered his nose and mouth. “Why didn’t you wait for us?”

“Couldn’t.” Velvet coughed. She gestured urgently toward the wagon.

“Oh.” Yatsu strode forward, grabbed the front of the wagon, and heaved. He grunted and grimaced, straining and sinking to his ankles in the sand. Then up to his knees. But the wagon slowly slid free of the ground. When he held it aloft, sand streamed out of it from the open cabin and wheels. He carefully righted the wagon and eased it down.

Coco and Fox arrived. Velvet glanced back and saw her teammates had cracked the other crab open like a nut.

Fox put a hand on Velvet’s shoulder. She nodded. “I’m fine, but I could use a bath.”

He wrinkled his nose.

“Hello? Anyone in there?” Coco called.

“Here.” An older woman with spiky gray hair and a leathery face poked her head out of the wagon. “Thanks for the rescue.”

Yatsu helped her down gently. She was stocky and short, half a foot shorter than Coco, but she looked rugged, like most Vacuo nomads. The woman cradled her left arm, which looked to be dislocated at the shoulder. “And who might you be?” she asked.

“We’re Shade Academy’s newest star pupils. Team CFVY. I’m Coco, and that’s Fox, Velvet, and Yatsuhashi.” Coco pointed out her teammates.

“Slate. Nice to meet you all.” The woman ran her fingers through her hair, sending sand drifting to her shoulders. Velvet realized that her hair was light brown, not gray.

“How long have you been out here?” Coco asked.

“A day, maybe two?”

Velvet handed the woman a canteen and she sipped the water slowly. “We were fleeing the Gossan settlement after a Grimm invasion. Just when we thought we were in the clear, we found this oasis had dried up and those crabs had moved in.”

“Your family just abandoned you here?” Velvet asked.

Slate shook her head. “No family. Not for a long time.”

“What about the other survivors, then?” Yatsuhashi asked.

“They survived, I hope. I can tell you’re new here.” Slate looked them over, taking in their outfits. Most Vacuans wore simple, light-colored tunics and linen cloaks and head coverings for crossing the desert. But Team CFVY had to strike a balance between staying cool and being combat-ready, and their clothes were a reminder of where they had come from, who they were. Something normal in their lives when everything was very much not normal.

Besides, Coco would always choose fashion over sensibility at the drop of a beret.

“Surviving is what we do here, or don’t,” Slate went on. “We look out for one another, but if it’s down to your life or someone else’s, you choose your own. No hard feelings.”

“You really believe that?” Velvet asked.

Slate shrugged, then winced and grabbed her shoulder. “What I believe is my own business, but if you’re smart, you’ll heed that advice. At any rate, the survivors fled, and I couldn’t leave the wagon—when I took even a step, the crabs woke up. They use vibrations to find prey, but they lose interest the moment you stop moving.”

“You couldn’t have mentioned that?” Yatsu glared at Fox.

“Where’s the challenge in tiptoeing around our enemies?” Fox said.

“Fortunately, I had this broken wagon,” Slate went on. “I stayed with it and hoped for the best.”

“That’s us,” Coco said. “The best have arrived.”

“And I’m glad for that. I didn’t want anyone else dying on my account, but if someone was gonna show up and distract those crabs, I’m glad it was Huntsmen like you.”

“We did more than distract them,” Fox said.

Velvet still couldn’t believe that Slate’s friends had left her to die in the desert. If that was the way of life out here, that was one more thing to dislike about Vacuo.

I wish we hadn’t come here, Velvet thought, not for the first time. Probably not for the last.

Professor Port had ordered a mandatory evacuation to a safe zone northwest of the city, and General Ironwood had made it clear that there was no shame in leaving.

“You have two choices,” he had told the students at Amity Arena. “Defend your kingdom and your school. Or save yourselves.”

For Team CFVY, there was no question: They were going to stay in Beacon as long as they could. There were still defenseless people trapped and hiding throughout the city, and a steady flow of Grimm to dispatch.

The only question was whether Velvet would stay with them, or go to safety on her own. They stood in front of the last transport ship while they debated.

“I’m already way better,” Velvet said. The on-site medics had patched her up. Her muscles were on fire, her body felt like a giant bruise, and her head was throbbing … but she was tougher than she looked. Tougher than anyone gave her credit for, even her own team, apparently.

“I’ll be back to normal after a good night’s sleep,” Velvet said.

“Which you aren’t likely to get here, fighting Grimm,” Coco said. “Go, Velvet. You can rejoin us after you’ve rested up. We’ll still be here.”

Velvet crossed her arms, recalling Ruby’s parting words to them. “Don’t split up your team, Coco.”

Yatsu nodded. He wanted Velvet to be safe as much as anyone, but he figured the safest place for her was close to him. And he certainly didn’t want to miss out on the Grimm-bashing action at Beacon.

“We won’t be a team if you’re dead,” Coco said.

Velvet looked hurt. “You don’t think I can hold my own.”

“You’re injured.” Coco held up a hand before Velvet could protest again. “And you used all your best photos.”

Velvet whipped out her camera and snapped a photo of Coco.

Coco lowered her sunglasses. “Cute.”

Velvet stuck her tongue out.

“But you know what I mean,” Coco said.

“Hey, we have to get going. They’re gonna close the air space soon,” the air-bus pilot called.

“Give us a minute, flyboy,” Coco snapped.

“Coco,” Fox said. Coco looked at him—they each did. Fox spoke aloud only when they were in mixed company, or when he really wanted people to listen. But that was all, a gentle admonishment to their leader.

Coco sighed. “I’m tired. Not thinking clearly.”

“That’s the first sensible thing you’ve said today.” Professor Glynda Goodwitch strode toward them. “Port told me you were insisting on staying. I’m here to convince you otherwise.”

Coco straightened. “With all due respect, Professor, if you’re staying, so are we.”

Glynda hid a smile. “Is that so?”

“We’re students, but we’re still Huntsmen,” Yatsu said.

“Huntsmen in training,” Glynda said. She looked back at the fallen school wistfully.

“Huntsmen don’t run,” Coco said. “Even in training.”

“We’re sworn to defend those who can’t protect themselves. And this is our home,” Velvet said.

“I assume there’ll be some sort of extra credit for staying,” Fox sent.

Glynda studied each of them, no longer trying to hide her smile or her pride in them. Team CFVY, all of the students who had defended Beacon this day, were a testament to what Beacon stood for. They were every bit the shining inspirations, the sources of light in a world filled with darkness, that Professor Ozpin had hoped they would be. He had staked his reputation on his ideals, put his life on the line countless times to uphold them.

And if he had given his life in the end, as it seemed he had, it was even more important for his trusted followers to pick up where he left off.

Glynda could certainly use all the help she could get to keep the peace while she rebuilt the school, brick by brick if she had to.

“Velvet, go to the medics. See if they can find you a bed to rest in,” Coco said, taking her cue from the professor. “We’ll come back and get you at dawn for another sweep of the city.”

“What are you kids doing out here, anyway?” Slate asked. When she noticed Coco frown, she held up a hand. “Everyone’s a kid to me. Didn’t mean nothing by it.”

“Shade Academy received a distress call from Gossan. Professor Rumpole sent us to help,” Coco said.

“From Gossan?” Slate said. “We haven’t been able to talk to Shade since the CCT went down.”

The Cross Continental Transmit System had been offline since the attack on Beacon Tower, which also housed Vale’s CCT Tower, cutting off communication among the kingdoms of Remnant. Wireless communication still worked within Vacuo thanks to support towers relaying signals across the continent, but it was spotty farther away from the CCT Tower at the Academy. Sandstorms also tended to cause interruptions, and the smaller towers were often lost to Grimm, further breaking down the network.

“We think someone must have hardwired directly into the Gossan support tower, which boosted the signal strength enough to reach us,” Velvet said.

“Must have been someone clever, then. Did you get a name?” Slate asked.

Coco shook her head. “The transmission was faint, but we heard Gossan was under attack, and survivors were going for Feldspar. We were on our way there before all this.” Coco swept her hand out.

“That was the plan,” Slate said. “Feldspar is the closest big settlement; it has a small oasis, and another CCT support tower.”

“Good, then we should be able to report back to Professor Rumpole and update her on our status,” Coco said.

“My status is hot, tired, and hungry,” Yatsu said.

“You forgot smelly,” Fox said.

“I’m trying to ignore that,” Yatsu said, “and failing.”

“When we get to Feldspar, we can probably take care of most of those problems, at least temporarily,” Slate said.

“Then let’s get you to your new home,” Velvet said.

Slate smiled tightly. “The only home you have in Vacuo is the people you keep close. Don’t forget that.”

“We’ll get you back to your people, then,” Coco said.

The ones who abandoned you, Velvet thought. Some home.

“One moment.” Slate climbed back into her wagon. A moment later, she emerged with a large canvas pack on her back, a sturdy walking stick, and a scary-big knife.

“What’s that for?” Yatsu asked, eyeing the knife.

Slate gestured at the giant crabs baking in the desert around them, already being covered by the drifting sand. Unlike the Grimm, when you killed an ordinary animal, even one of an unusual size, it left behind a body.

“We can’t let this food go to waste,” Slate said.

“Food?” Velvet covered her mouth and tried not to gag.

“You’re kidding,” Coco said.

“Mole crab is a rare delicacy,” Fox sent.

“Rare because those who hunt the mole crab usually end up feeding the mole crab. But five of them were no match for you!” Slate laughed. “We’ll just scoop the meat out of the shell, pack it in sand, and we’ll be heroes in Feldspar. There are a lot of mouths to feed. At least I hope there are.”

Velvet felt sick. “I’d rather fight another crab than eat one.”

“If we take much longer here, you might get your chance,” Coco said. “Come on, team. Let’s help, but make it quick. The sooner we finish, the sooner we’ll be safe at Feldspar.”

“I don’t know how safe we’ll be,” Slate said. “Something odd’s been going on.”

“What do you mean?” Coco asked.

“Let’s just say we aren’t one big happy family lately. Not anymore. But there’s time for that later. I’m taking the big one. Looks like she might be carrying egg sacs.” Slate scampered off toward the dead mother crab and then carved out a hefty chunk of meat.

“Gross,” Velvet said.

“Dibs on the legs,” Fox shouted. He ran off after Slate, arm blades out.

“Even after all the time we’ve known each other, sometimes Fox is a complete mystery to me,” Coco said as she watched him hack off a gigantic crab leg. “I didn’t figure him for a leg guy.”

“He’s different since we got here,” Yatsu said. “Vacuo is his home.”

“If it’s his home, then why did he leave?” Velvet asked. But there was another unanswered question she’d much rather be asking: Why did we have to leave Beacon?

Coco stayed back until her team and Slate entered the makeshift walls of the Feldspar settlement. She lowered her sunglasses and took one last survey of the sweeping desert landscape behind them.

It was just past twilight, and the full moon hung low over the horizon, giving the sand a silvery glow. It was actually kind of pretty, but dangerous things often were. Coco wasn’t sure if the moving shadows in the distance were wildlife, lurking Grimm, or the desert sands shifting in the starlight.

Coco had learned that the sand was in constant motion, but even Fox didn’t know exactly why or how; for instance, their trail, only a few minutes old, was already disappearing. Vacuo seemed like a good place to go if you didn’t want to be followed, if you wanted to disappear yourself. It was also a good place to go to die, unless you were strong enough to survive the extreme temperatures and the even more extreme dangers.

Coco pushed up her glasses and rejoined the others, shaking off her apprehension about what might be out there. There was always something out there. She relaxed slightly—not that she would let anyone notice—now that Velvet, Fox, and Yatsuhashi were safe inside the nomadic settlement. Of course, “safe” and “inside” were relative terms, she realized as she took in the makeshift village.

Coco’s dark glasses made her seem casual and aloof, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Her whole appearance was carefully cultivated to give her an edge over opponents and classmates alike while, of course, looking fashionable. She liked that the glasses hid where her attention was and what she was thinking until she wanted someone to know. Plus, they looked damn good on her, though didn’t everything?

But underneath all that fashion, Coco was studying everything around her; silently sizing up everyone, sometimes not so silently. And Feldspar was a dump.

The so-called settlement consisted of scattered tents, trucks, vans, and squat adobe homes haphazardly arranged without any visible defenses. There was no way it could ever compare to Beacon, let alone any village in Vale; there wasn’t even a lookout tower, or any sign of guards patrolling. Well, that was what Huntsmen were for, right? That was why Team CFVY was there.

Coco nodded. She always felt better when there was a job to do.

Then it hit her, what was so odd about Feldspar. A moment later, Fox’s thoughts echoed her own.

Where is everybody? Fox asked.

The sand was smooth, packed down from the collective weight of people walking over it all day, every day, for months. But fresh footsteps were visible, suggesting people had been here recently and cleared out in a hurry.

Coco held up a hand and looked around. Fox, Yatsuhashi, and Velvet nodded at the familiar signal to stop and listen. They froze. Then, in the still night, they heard a slight rustle of clothing. Gentle breathing.

“They’re all around us,” Fox sent to the team. Coco caught Slate’s eye and moved her hand in a circle.

Here we go, Coco thought.

“Come on out, folks,” Slate called out. “These are my friends. I vouch for them. And they’re Huntsmen to boot. Good ones.”

They waited. Slate raised her walking stick.

“Slate!” an excited male voice called out. And in a blink, the courtyard was bustling with people, swarming toward Slate.

“You’re alive, you old so-and-so.” A tall man with dusty hair, dusty skin, and dusty clothes grabbed Slate in a bear hug.

“She seems popular,” Fox sent.

“So why’d they leave her?” Velvet asked.

“Bast, put me down or that situation might change,” Slate said in a strained voice.

“I’ll put you down on the condition that you never pull a stunt like that again,” Bast said with a laugh.

“You know I don’t like conditions,” Slate said. “And I break promises like I break wind. Sometimes you just can’t help it.”

“Slate.” Bast rolled his eyes and then lowered her gently. “You certainly have a way with words.”

“What? Everyone does it.”

“Which? Breaking wind or breaking promises?”

“Both. And it’s polite not to call either of them out when it happens.” Slate patted the dusty man affectionately on his broad arm. “How’d we do?”

“Everyone got away, thanks to you,” Bast said.

Coco narrowed her eyes behind her glasses. “Why do I get the feeling there’s something you aren’t telling us?”

Bast turned to Coco and appraised her and the rest of the group quickly. He seemed to make a snap judgment that they were worth talking to. That was the way of all Vacuans. The fact that they’d clearly just survived a fight, and were bringing back the spoils as well as one of their own people, likely spoke in Team CFVY’s favor.

“Slate here saved the lot of us. Again,” Bast said.

“Alabaster—” Slate said sharply.

“She never wants any credit for keeping us alive, but you should have seen her. She held off that pod of sand crabs while the rest of us escaped. We got worried when she didn’t catch up to us, though.”

“Just doing my job,” Slate said.

“Are you a Huntress, Slate?” Velvet asked excitedly.

“She’s better. She’s our mayor,” Bast said.

Coco’s eyes widened. It wasn’t every day that someone surprised her.

“I didn’t think nomadic settlements had mayors,” Coco said.

“Every group needs a leader,” Fox said. “Especially when the group settles down for a while. We need someone who doesn’t get complacent, who keeps everyone ready to move on at a moment’s notice. That person doesn’t always get a formal title.”

“Titles are meaningless, anyway.” Slate turned her attention to Fox. “You’re from here. Who’s your tribe?”

“I’m from Kenyte,” Fox said. “But it’s been a long time.”

“No matter how long you’ve been away, you’re always part of your tribe, and your tribe’s always part of you,” Slate said.

Fox smiled.

“Kenyte is a great distance from here, but last I heard, they’re thriving,” Slate said.

“As well as anyone can in the desert,” Bast added.

“Slate, so you were mayor of … Gossan?” Coco asked.

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” Slate said. She wasn’t playing at being humble, or feigning discomfort. She really didn’t want the attention.

“Slate is mayor of Tuff. That was the name of our original settlement, and it’s what we call ourselves,” Bast explained. “Wherever we go, wherever we settle, we call that place by our name—unless we join permanently with another tribe of nomads. We’ve had to move a few times now. Grimm. They always seem to find us, but more quickly lately. Something strange has been going on.”

“Like I said, just doing my job. A job no one else wants,” Slate says.

“Including me. I’m glad you’re back, Slate.” Bast lowered his voice. “Like Gossan, Feldspar has weak leadership. They’ll be happy to have you.”

Coco looked around. It was impossible to tell apart the recent Gossan refugees from the Feldspar tribe. Maybe some of them were slightly less rumpled and dirty than the others, but that could have just been a matter of personal hygiene.

“The politics here can get interesting. Like I said, most tribes and settlements don’t have elected officials,” Fox sent. “As a general rule, we don’t like rules. It’s even more unusual for a tribe to have a leader that they trust and like, especially after they’ve connected with a larger group. Slate must be really good.”

Coco licked her dry lips. She was actually starting to like the bitter-tasting sand, but it was no replacement for her favorite lip gloss, which she had run out of a year ago. The boutique that made it had been trashed along with the rest of Beacon.

“I doubt they elected her, but it sounds like no one else was in the running,” Coco said. Slate seemed like the kind of person who stepped up when she had to, and most people are naturally inclined to be followers.

“Speaking of jobs,” Slate said. “Where are Bertilak and Carmine? They were supposed to be fighting those Grimm.”

Coco raised her eyebrows. “There are other Huntsmen here?”

Slate shrugged. “Sort of.”

“I’ll find them.” Bast ran off.

Slate called out to a few boys on the edge of the crowd. “Hans, why don’t you and your friends make yourselves useful? This here is fresh sand crab. Take it to the mess and make sure it gets rationed. You three take an extra share for your trouble.”

One boy with a dirt-smudged face nodded. “You got it, Ms. Slate!”

“It’s just Slate, kid.”

Hans and his two friends grabbed the cloth-wrapped bundles of crab meat from Yatsuhashi and Fox.

“Why didn’t you mention that you sacrificed yourself to save your people?” Velvet asked Slate.

Slate gave her a penetrating look. “Would it have changed anything? It didn’t seem relevant, and you were just as eager to save me when I was some defenseless old woman, which, thank you again, by the way. Fortunately, I didn’t end up dying after all. This time.”

Slate crossed her arms and looked around. “These aren’t my people, either. They’re just people. Good people. And I believe in helping others when I can. I don’t care who they are or where they’re from.”

She’s incredible, Coco thought. She saw why everyone rallied to Slate, and it wasn’t just because she helped organize and protect them. It was because she cared more about them than she did herself, and that was a rare quality in Vacuo. As Slate herself had implied back in the desert, it was the kind of quality that eventually got you killed, unless you were also very lucky or very strong.

“Why don’t we go to the saloon for a drink and some of that food we brought back,” Slate said.

Coco hid a smile. Slate was deft at making an order seem more like a friendly suggestion.

Slate led them to a one-level hut built from sandstone, canvas, and good intentions. It was remarkably spacious and clean inside, and pleasantly warm. The night was gradually getting colder, as it did after the sun went down in Vacuo, but the saloon had a number of roaring fire pits. The laughter, conversation, and music stopped when people spotted Slate.

She smiled and waved. “Can’t get rid of me that easily.”

Several people called out well-wishes to her, or banged their clay mugs against the long shale tables.

Coco thought Slate would pick a table in the corner for some privacy, but she walked right up to one in the center. CFVY followed her and sat down. The rest of the restaurant soon went back to their business as if they weren’t there. Coco figured it was naïve to think they were really being ignored, though; people in Vacuo didn’t trust strangers easily, and CFVY had a way of attracting attention wherever they went.

A perky Faunus waitress with a pig snout came over. She rattled off the offerings: “Today’s specials are crab burgers, crab steak, crab cake, and crab rangoon. All very fresh.”

“This one’s on me,” Slate said. “I’m gonna need an ale, Topaz. Make it two to start, and keep them coming. And as much as I love crab anything, I’ve been dreaming about your spicy bat stew for days. Got any of that left?”

“For you? Anything,” Topaz said.

“And get these folks whatever they like. They earned it.”

“Coffee,” Coco said. She madly needed caffeine, and she also liked to stay on brand. “And I’ll try the crab burger.” When in Vacuo.

Yatsuhashi ordered the crab steak and desert lotus tea, and Fox ordered fried crevice worms, lightly toasted cave beetles, and water.

“Cactus tea,” Velvet said. “And the gecko cake, please.”

“You know it isn’t really cake, right?” Coco smiled.

Velvet sighed.

“I’ll get those orders right—”

A tall, broad man with a green Mohawk and matching goatee shoved Topaz aside. Coco registered the mace on his belt before she took in the rest of him. A brown hooded cloak made of coarse fabric was draped over his broad shoulders. He wore a green chestplate over a dirty black tunic; his biceps bulged from the short sleeves, showing off a long scar stretching down his right forearm.

“Hey.” Yatsuhashi rose and faced him. They were about the same height, but the newcomer ignored him. Meanwhile, Velvet was checking on Topaz.

“You okay?” Velvet asked the waitress.

Topaz nodded. She was shaken, but fine.

“Bertilak, apologize to the girl,” Slate said.

“I’m sorry you were in my way,” Bertilak growled. “Now run along, piggy.”

Fox frowned and fingered the tip of one of his arm blades.

“I apologize,” Slate said to Topaz.

Topaz put a hand on Slate’s shoulder and then left, casting a scornful look at Bertilak behind his back.

“Well, well. What have we here?” Bertilak stuck a toothpick in his mouth. “Not every day you see new Huntsmen in these parts.”

“It’s nice to see you, too,” Slate said. “You’ve gotten comfortable in Feldspar already, I see.”

“You’re tougher than you look. I’m surprised you’re alive,” Bertilak said.

“No thanks to you,” Slate said.

“Everyone got here just fine,” Bertilak said.

“Well, thanks for that much, then.”

“We didn’t do it for you. Thanks for being crab bait.” He laughed.

“Bertilak Celadon, this is Coco, Velvet, Fox, and Yatsuhashi. Team CFVY, from Shade Academy.”

“Team CFVY, huh? So you’re Huntsmen in training?” Bertilak’s face registered surprise, and something else Coco couldn’t place. Annoyance?

“You attended Shade, too, didn’t you?” Slate asked.

“You’re a Huntsman?” Coco asked, incredulous.

“Sometimes it’s even hard for me to believe.” A woman walked up and stood next to Bertilak. Unlike her partner, she was clearly a Huntress—and she was stunning.

Another benefit of wearing sunglasses was people couldn’t tell when you were staring, and Coco couldn’t take her eyes off the fit, dark-skinned woman. Tinted goggles were perched atop her head, and her wild, unbound scarlet hair reached just past her waist. Freckles dotted her nose and cheeks. A streak of silver hair starting at her left temple shone in the firelight, mirroring the short silver cape draped over her right side. A chain mail crop top exposed her midriff, and she completed the ensemble with a black belt, red mini-shorts, and thigh-high black boots. Holsters on her belt held a pair of long sai.

“Bertilak here barely graduated,” the Huntress said.

“Theodore had it in for me,” Bertilak says.

“Only because you couldn’t follow the rules. I apologize for anything off-color my partner says. If he hasn’t offended you yet, trust me, he will.”

“I’m Coco Adel.” Coco rose and extended a hand.

“Carmine Esclados.” She shook Coco’s hand firmly, each of them applying just enough pressure to let the other woman know she was holding back.

“You have to tell me where you shop,” Coco said. “I love your outfit.”

“This old thing? I’ve had it forever. Picked it up in Mistral years ago. I want your purse. Who’s the designer?”

“Coco Adele,” Coco said.

“You made it yourself? Must be one of a kind. Careful, or I might have to take it from you.” Carmine winked. Then she nodded at Velvet, Yatsuhashi, and Fox. “So, you guys just passing through?”

Coco shook her head. “Someone called Shade asking for help, so Professor Rumpole sent us.”

“Who called?” Bertilak glared at Slate.

“It’s a great mystery,” Slate said. “And not the only one around here.”

“Well, I want—” Bertilak began; Carmine interrupted him with an elbow jab.

“We’re glad to have some backup, of course.” Carmine smiled. “We’ve had our hands full.”

“It’s strange for someone to send a distress call when there are already Huntsmen around,” Velvet said.

“We didn’t hire Bertilak and Carmine,” Slate said. “They just assist us on occasion. When they feel like it.”

“Lucky that you two happened to be close by,” Coco said. “What brought you to Vacuo?”

“That’s none of your business, sweetheart.” Bertilak moved his toothpick to the other side of his mouth.

“We’ll be moving on pretty soon,” Carmine said.

“The sooner the better,” Bertilak said. “I want to get out of here before things heat up again.”

“Are you expecting trouble?” Velvet asked.

“Always, darling.” He winked.

Velvet crossed her arms and turned back toward Slate.

“Trouble’s been following us around,” Slate said. “Every few days, something gets people here worked up for no reason. Arguments and fights break out, people get afraid, and of course all that negative emotion brings Grimm. More and more of them every time.”

“How long has this been going on?” Coco asked.

“About a month. Half of the folks here have survived three separate attacks at as many settlements.” Slate counted them off. “Tuff, Schist, and now Gossan. We’ve lost a lot of good people along the way.”

“Would have been more if not for us,” Bertilak said.

“Cool it,” Carmine said.

Coco wiped her brow; it was getting a little toasty in the close quarters of the saloon.

Topaz brought over a tray of drinks and food. She gave Bertilak a wide berth as she unloaded the cups and plates on the table.

“Care to join us?” Coco asked, looking at Carmine.

“I’ll take a rain check,” she said. “And I don’t mean that in the Vacuo way.” At Coco’s puzzled expression, she explained. “It rains so infrequently here, a ‘rain check’ is kind of their version of ‘when pigs fly.’ ”

“Hey,” Topaz said, with a hurt expression.

“No offense intended,” Carmine said.

“Where are you from, Carmine?” Coco asked.

“Originally? Atlas, believe it or not. Could you picture me in a uniform?”

Yes, Coco thought.

“A lot has happened since I left. If you have time later, I’ll gladly regale you with some hunting stories, but right now I should check on the Caspians.”

“They’re fine,” Bertilak snarled.

“Did you forget we’re on the clock? We work for them. Let’s go,” Carmine said pointedly. “Good to meet you. Looking forward to getting to know one another better.”

Coco sat down and sipped her coffee. It was scalding hot. They needed to turn down the heat in here.

“Who are the Caspians?” Coco asked when the other Huntsmen had left.

“Edward Caspian and his grandson, August. They seem nice, but they don’t socialize much,” Slate said. “They’re from a village called Sumire.”

“Sumire? That’s in Vale,” Coco said. “That’s a long, dangerous journey, even before you hit the desert.”

Team CFVY had experienced it for themselves when they had traveled from Beacon to Shade Academy on foot. Along the way, they had encountered an unusually high number of Grimm, which were being drawn to Beacon Tower. They had taken care of as many of them as they could, feeling like they were helping to defend their home even as they were running from it.

“What brings them to Vacuo?” Coco asked.

“Where are they going?” Fox asked.

Slate shrugged. “Good questions. They’ve never answered them. The Caspians arrived at Tuff with Bertilak and Carmine, in pretty rough shape. Like they’d been running for days. We couldn’t turn them away like that. By the time they were back on their feet, the Grimm were at our gates. The four of them have stuck with us ever since.”

The group tucked into their food. Yatsuhashi gingerly cut through his crab steak with a fork and knife, the way he did everything when he wasn’t wielding his greatsword on the battlefield; he was always afraid of damaging something or hurting someone with his strength.

He took a bite and chewed it thoughtfully. “Not bad. Could use some Mistral spices.”

“You think everything could use Mistral spices.” Velvet laughed.

Coco thought the burger was maybe too spicy.

Slate took a bite of bat stew, briefly closed her eyes, and sighed happily. “I needed that. And this.” She took a big gulp of ale from a frothy mug. She frowned. “Ugh. It’s warm.”

She gestured to Topaz and then turned back to Coco and the others.

“So you’ve run from Grimm attacks twice?” Coco asked Slate.

“That’s right. I got on this wild ride when we evacuated Tuff. Grimm have been on our heels the whole way. I’ve never seen anything like it. Sometimes things get tense, sure, and that brings a few stray Grimm. But things always calm down, and life goes on.

“This is different. When emotions start to run high, it just gets worse and worse. And the Grimm come, and they don’t stop. So we run. We settle down somewhere else, and pretty soon it all starts again. I don’t know what we’ll do when those Huntsmen leave with the Caspians.”

“We’re here now,” Coco said.

“I was hoping you’d say that. I don’t know who summoned you, but we can’t pay you. I’m sorry. Even if we took up a collection, it wouldn’t be enough,” Slate said. “We barter for most of our business, and we’ve all taken a big hit with the evacuations.”

Fox slurped a fried worm into his mouth. “We’re doing this for school credit,” he said, his mouth full.

“And we’ll help because it’s the right thing to do,” Velvet said.

Yatsuhashi nodded, chewing.

“Whatever the reason, we’re here,” Coco said. “Maybe we can fight the Grimm off without needing to evacuate again.”

“Maybe the Grimm won’t bother us this time,” Topaz said. Coco hadn’t even noticed the waitress return to the table.

“Maybe.” Slate handed her the mug and explained kindly that ale should be served cold. The waitress looked confused.

Coco realized that Topaz wasn’t the only one who had been lingering near their table. A small crowd had gathered around them, the better to eavesdrop on their conversation. No such thing as privacy in Vacuo, not when most of the walls were made of adobe and canvas, and someone else’s business usually affected your own.

A crash came from the other side of the saloon, followed by the sound of plates breaking. Two people started yelling. Coco stood and saw two men circling an overturned table, fists raised.

“It’s already starting.” Slate sighed. She carefully wiped her mouth with a napkin and rose. “This is what I was talking about.”

“We’ll get to the bottom of it,” Coco said. “Just try to keep everyone calm.”

Slate nodded and walked toward the impending fight.

“What can we do here, anyway?” Fox asked.

“We can start by learning more about what’s been happening here. There has to be a reason for these fights breaking out,” Coco said.

“There you go again, making decisions for us,” Velvet said.

“Excuse me?” Coco felt a surge of anger. “I’m the boss.”

“You’re the leader, not the boss,” Fox said.

“Whoa,” Yatsuhashi said. “Calm down, everyone. We’re tired—”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know why I said that! I didn’t mean it.” Velvet took a piece of flatbread from Slate’s plate and chewed it quietly.

“Anyway. Clearly something is causing people to get … emotional.” Coco studied Velvet and Fox. Where had that outburst come from?

“We could interview the nomads.” Yatsuhashi was also casting a worried eye on Velvet.

“It’s a start,” Coco said. “As soon as we’re done eating, I’ll find the CCT relay tower and let Professor Rumpole know we made it and we’ll be staying a few days.”

She sat back down to sip her cooling coffee and watched Slate at work. When the brawling men saw the mayor coming, they lowered their fists and looked deeply embarrassed. Slate talked to each of them softly. She took a deep breath and let it out, watched as they mimicked her. Then they shook hands and picked the shale table back up together.

Slate looked plenty tough to Coco. It was no wonder these nomads—even the strangers who had joined the group from other settlements ravaged by Grimm—looked to her as a leader.

Like Slate, Coco hadn’t chosen to lead Team CFVY; she had been chosen. Sometimes she still didn’t know if that had been the right choice. In the beginning, she hadn’t particularly wanted responsibility for her team, or now the nomads in Feldspar; she was just trying to do her job.

Coco hoped she’d be as successful at it as Slate one day.

The First-years had been at Beacon for barely a day, and they were all about to die.

The twenty or so new students were currently flying through the air over the Emerald Forest. More like falling, really. And if they did nothing to slow or cushion their fall, they would certainly go splat. In about fifty seconds. Even if they survived the fall, they would be in a forest lousy with Creatures of Grimm, left to fend for themselves.

Fifty seconds was plenty of time to consider the choices that had brought each of them there. Plenty of time to regret them.

Coco Adel had no regrets. She was loving initiation so far. This was why Beacon Academy had been her first-choice school. Professor Ozpin had a reputation for being very mysterious and a bit reckless with his students. Coco liked a challenge.

Besides, Vale had been her home all her life.

She still wasn’t sure what to make of Ozpin. The youngest headmaster Beacon had ever had, he had a mischievous streak and a boyish charm that reminded Coco of her younger brother. But at the same time, Ozpin seemed oddly ancient—not just because of his silver hair but because of how he always stood tall, how he talked like he meant much more than he was saying out loud.

Professor Glynda Goodwitch, on the other hand, was the strong leader Coco aspired to be. She might have been Ozpin’s second in command, but she gave the sense that she was the one in charge. She was a bit severe, utterly humorless, and her body language said she was all business. And to top it off, she was also hot, with impeccable fashion sense. Her whole outfit worked—with that blouse, the pencil skirt, that cape, those heels!—and she seemed very comfortable with who she was. The fact that Goodwitch clearly respected Ozpin somehow conferred more authority on him than his title.

Coco prepared to land, assessing the tree line ahead and all her options. She yawned. Okay, maybe she had one regret. Even though being flung off a cliff kind of woke you up and got your adrenaline flowing, she wished she’d had a second cup of coffee at breakfast.

Forty seconds.

About twenty feet away from Coco, also falling, Velvet Scarlatina had some regrets.

She couldn’t believe that on their second day at Beacon, their headmaster, Professor Ozpin, had catapulted the entire first-year class into a Grimm-infested forest.

Toward a Grimm-infested forest. There was still the little matter of landing in it safely. But more than the falling, more than the Grimm, Velvet was worried about whom she would be partnered with.

Everyone had known they would have a partner for their four years at Beacon, but Velvet had thought she’d have some control over who it would be. Turned out it was going to be completely random.

“Each of you will be given teammates. Today,” Professor Ozpin had said. “These teammates will be with you for the rest of your time at Beacon, so it is in your best interest to be paired with someone with whom you can work well. That said, the first person you make eye contact with after landing will be your partner for the next four years.”

“What?” Velvet said.

If she had had a choice—which she apparently didn’t—she would have chosen Coco Adel. They’d both come to Beacon from Pharos Combat School, so Velvet knew her … sort of. Coco probably had no idea who Velvet was, but Velvet knew all about her. Coco had been popular at their school, breaking performance records—and breaking girls’ hearts.

Even from twenty feet away, Velvet could see Coco was falling with style. It wasn’t only because of the shades, but because of her whole form. She wasn’t slowly tumbling in the air like most of their classmates—she had her feet pointed toward the ground, as if she expected to just land like a cat.

As far as Velvet knew, Coco wasn’t hiding cat ears under that beret, though. One hand was keeping the hat on her head, the other was at her waist holding on to her purse. And Coco was smiling. Anyone who could look completely confident and happy while plummeting to the ground at thirty-two feet per second was someone you wanted on your side.

Mostly, Velvet knew who she didn’t want to be paired with. At the top of her list was the tall dude from Mistral. Less than a day, and Velvet had already been bullied by some of the upperclassmen at Beacon for being a Faunus, and of course, her tormentors were from Mistral.

Velvet loved her ears, which only made it worse when people called her “bunny girl” or made those awful jokes she’d heard hundreds of times before, from the harmless-but-hurtful “hop to it” jabs to the squicky comments that made her feel threatened … the boys who joked about hunting rabbits or asked if she could teach them multiplication.

The big kid hadn’t said anything like that to her yet, but his people didn’t like Faunus and didn’t mind letting them know how they felt. Thinking about working with him for four years, Velvet didn’t want a partner at all. She’d never had any close friends before, and besides, everyone managed to disappoint her sooner or later.

Thirty seconds.

The “big kid,” Yatsuhashi Daichi, knew more about being bullied than anyone could have guessed. He’d always been the big kid growing up, and because of his size most people had assumed he was stupid, or they were scared of him. Other kids didn’t want to play with him, thinking he would hurt them, either accidentally or intentionally. Consequently, Yatsuhashi had grown up afraid of what he might do, always self-conscious about his size, his strength, and his Semblance, especially around his parents and little sister, who were pretty much his only real friends.

Yatsuhashi tried to keep his mind free of distracting thoughts like these as he fell, eyes closed and arms crossed over his chest. The wind whistled past his ears, and he blocked that sound out, too, trying to imagine himself floating like a leaf on the wind. That wasn’t making him any lighter, but meditation did leave him clear-eyed and ready to handle the situation, which was going to resolve pretty soon, one way or another.

He was always thinking several steps ahead, but until he actually met his partner, he couldn’t see his path to the abandoned temple in the forest and the relics that Professor Ozpin had tasked them with finding. Yatsu didn’t like leaving anything to chance, and the next four years at Beacon had a big question mark hanging over them. The events of today would have a tremendous impact on his Huntsman training and likely set his course for the rest of his life. He wondered how such a momentous decision could be left to chance.


Yatsu opened his eyes. He had to take control of the situation. This was too important to let the whims of a professor, or Fate, or the gods decide.

Yatsu thought about classmates he had researched and who would make a good partner. He ranked them and then picked out their coordinates as they descended toward the Emerald Forest. He made up his mind quickly, already angling his body into position and considering how to get himself on the ground safely at exactly the right moment.

Twenty seconds.

Today was the day Fox Alistair had been waiting for, not just since enrolling at Beacon but for practically his whole life.

So far it was kind of a disappointment.

Growing up as an orphan in Vacuo, he’d never had a permanent home, or even permanent people in his life. His tribe, the Kenyte—the tribe his parents had belonged to—had taken care of Fox communally. He was grateful for all the sacrifices it took to raise him, but he knew he didn’t truly belong there. He had given a lot of thought to the place he would want to call home and the family he wanted one day.

As he had survived the tense, quiet years in the desert, he knew he would become a Huntsman one day. He’d always been drawn to Vale, which seemed to be the opposite of everything he had grown up with. Lush plant life, plenty of water and food, friendly people, fewer things trying to kill you on a daily basis … Vale sounded like a nice stable place to settle down and make a life without the constant fear of encountering Grimm—or worse. Vacuo was probably the one place in Remnant where some of the natural wildlife could be considered more dangerous than the Creatures of Grimm.

He figured this whole wild initiation thing must be some kind of ill-conceived hazing for First-years. They couldn’t really assign students to each other so randomly—that would be almost as bad as how nomadic tribes and settlements formed back home.

That was probably something the professors said to make the exercise more interesting. And Fox was 100 percent sure Ozpin wouldn’t actually put students’ lives in jeopardy on their first outing, without any adult supervision … not that Fox needed the help, of course. But still, Fox hadn’t even signed any kind of liability waiver.

Fox wondered what Ozpin had been thinking when he decided to throw a blind boy off a cliff. He thought it seemed a tad irresponsible, but then again Ozpin also seemed like someone who appreciated a good joke. And that’s all this was: a joke.

For his part, Fox liked practical jokes, too, especially when he was the prankster. But on the off chance that some or all of this scenario was exactly as advertised, it was time to get serious.

Fox flipped forward in the air and pointed himself headfirst in the direction he was falling. He tapped the almost-invisible earbud in his ear to activate voice commands on the Scroll in his belt.

“Ada, engage proximity alert. Silent mode.”

“Engaged,” the Accessibility Dialog Assistant said in its female monotone voice, at its lowest volume.

His Scroll immediately began buzzing in periodic pulses, increasing in intensity the closer he got to the forest.

Fox relied on his Aura for more than just shielding or special boosted attacks like most people; it was one of the ways he could orient himself in his environment without vision. His Semblance allowed him to track where his classmates were in relation to him, at least over short distances. But since they were basically strangers, all he had was a strong impression of their presence. There were very few people Fox had known well enough to pinpoint their locations more precisely, and they were all back in Vacuo, or dead.

His Scroll buzzed steadily. Fox crooked his arms so the blades of his weapon, Sharp Retribution, were ahead and extended to either side of him, just as he breached the canopy of trees. He grimaced with the impact as they sliced through the treetops, but his Aura held and his momentum slowed.

Trees cracked and snapped in his wake as he cut his way through the forest, Ada continuing to send out pulses that helped him feel his way through the canopy. It was exhausting. Around him and in the distance, he heard gunfire, explosions, trees crashing as his classmates found their own methods of arresting their descent.

When he had slowed down enough, he brought his arms up and hooked the blades around a thick tree branch. He spun himself around it several times, stripping away bark and cutting into the wood before he jabbed his elbows downward and launched himself up and over to a higher branch. He grabbed it with both hands for a moment, then let go, falling at a much more manageable speed toward another branch a little lower. As the trees grew wider and closer together toward the ground, he sprung from a branch and kicked off a tree trunk, landing lightly on a lower branch. Drop. Kick. Grab. Spin. Flip.

Fox landed in a crouch.

“Yes! Too bad nobody saw that,” he said.

Someone clapped behind him. He felt a nearby presence in his mind, and he smelled chocolate and caramel. He turned to meet his partner for the next four years.

Just before Coco reached the top of the forest, she flicked her purse and it unfolded into her Gatling gun, Gianduja. Coco swung the massive weapon under her and pointed the muzzle down. She braced it between her knees.

She fired Gravity Dust rounds and hoped no one—at least no people or harmless animals—were in the way as the bullets shredded leaves and wood. Enhanced by her Semblance, the Gravity Dust slowed her fall. For a moment she hovered in zero gravity, hanging in midair, and then she began drifting slowly down into the forest.

The world was darker under the canopy, especially with sunglasses on. As she fell and picked up more speed, she yanked her gun up in front of her and angled it toward the ground again, mowing down trees just moments before she would have slammed into them. Her designer shades protected her eyes, but splinters lacerated her face and she tasted sawdust and smoke. The recoil slowed her fall even more.

When she saw an opening in the trees, she pressed the release switch and collapsed the artillery back into a fashionable accessory that no trendy Huntress should be without. Holding on to the strap of the purse, she flung it out and it caught on a branch, forming a slingshot around the limb. The bough bent and then broke, and she was falling again, only slightly out of control.

She used the purse again to lasso another branch, this time spinning herself around the tree trunk, letting go, and repeating the maneuver in the other direction. She slung through and down the trees this way until she was near the forest floor.

Then she opened up the gun again and fired another round straight down, amplifying the Dust’s explosiveness. The shock wave from their impact gave her another small boost while also creating a crater in the dirt below. She landed on the edge of the new pit and slid gently down the slope to the bottom.

Coco crouched there for a moment, listening. Someone was slicing through the trees above, sending branches raining down around her. She glanced up and saw a flash of red pass overhead. That had to be Fox Alistair, one of the possibilities on her list of potential partners.

To her left, she saw another classmate, Iris Marilla, float down to the ground. That was a cute trick, and she was cute, too, with those flowers in her hair, but Coco knew Iris also had an annoyingly high-pitched voice that would get old real fast. Besides, Coco wasn’t looking for a girlfriend, she was looking for someone who wouldn’t hold her back or get her killed on the field. Someone who could keep up.

Coco folded up her gun and sprinted away from Iris, up the side of the crater and deeper into the forest, following the sound of Fox’s progress through the trees. Then she couldn’t hear him anymore.

She stopped, listening, wondering if he had landed badly—if she needed to save him. She thought that would be a shame, especially because it would mean she had misjudged him. But no, there he was, springing down silently from the trees. He landed ten feet in front of her, catching himself on his hands and one knee. He was facing away from her.

His arm blades looked wicked sharp. People must always be giving him plenty of elbow room.

Fox turned around suddenly and looked straight at her.

“Hello?” he said.

Coco waved. No reaction. She lowered her sunglasses so she could see him better.

“Oh. You’re blind,” she said. So much for her thorough research.

Fox clapped his hands to his eyes. “Oh no!” he said. “Whyyyyyy?”

Coco put a hand on a cocked hip and grinned. “You are not what I expected. I like that. I’m Coco Adel.”

“Fox Alistair.”

“I know.”

“Do you suppose this counts? ‘First person you make eye contact with’ and all?” Fox asked. He aimed two fingers at his own eyes, then pointed them at Coco.

“Do you want it to count?” Coco asked.

“You have an absurdly strong Aura, and you smell nice. Uh, don’t take that the wrong way.”

He can sense Auras? Coco thought. That’s a high-level technique. Fox was turning out to be even more interesting than she’d first thought. She could work with that.

“There’s a right way to take it? Don’t worry, Fox. I don’t take offense easily,” Coco said.

“Then I think this could work,” Fox said.

“I was just thinking that. All right. Shall we?”

Fox nodded.

The headmaster’s next set of instructions had been:

After you’ve partnered up, make your way to the northern end of the forest. You will meet opposition along the way. Do not hesitate to destroy everything in your path, or you will die. You will be monitored and graded for the duration of your initiation, but our instructors will not intervene.

You will find an abandoned temple at the end of the path, containing several relics. Each pair must choose one and return to the top of the cliff. We will regard that item, as well as your standing, and grade you appropriately.

“Let’s find that temple,” Fox said. “You lead the way.”

He and Coco headed off together.

Velvet had the perfect weapon in mind to help her land in one piece. She had surreptitiously preprogrammed her camera, Anesidora, with a photo of a smiling Vega Bleu, a classmate back at Pharos Combat School who had gone on to Atlas Academy.

She was glad she had, because her camera would have been much trickier to program while tumbling through the air. Now it was a simple matter to call up Vega’s weapon, a pair of arm-mounted grappling hooks.

As Velvet broke through the treetops, she grabbed the controls of the weapons, accurately reproduced with hard-light using special—and especially expensive—Dust from the Schnee Dust Company. She experienced only the briefest moment of disorientation before her Semblance allowed her to mimic Vega’s moves.

And just like that she was firing one grappling hook, swinging on the razor-sharp wire, firing the other hook, releasing the first and retracting it, and so on, swinging effortlessly through the forest like a monkey, or at least precisely like Vega would have. Velvet wondered if her old friend was going through initiation at Atlas right now, and what that was like.

Grappling from tree to tree, Velvet gradually dropped closer to the ground. She kept swinging. A few times she caught a glimpse of dark creatures sniffing around below. She glanced behind her and saw branches breaking and foliage shaking as some of them began following her. Through the leaves she spotted a pack of Boarbatusks, and they spotted her. They gave chase.

So that was about to become her next problem. She picked up speed, trying to stay ahead of them.

But now she had something else to deal with. Her hard-light weapons only lasted for a limited time, and her time had run out; the grapple lines faded away while she was still a hundred feet above the ground.

She found herself plummeting again, but she managed to twist around and grab hold of a thick branch as she fell. The bough snapped, barely slowing her down, but she held on to it.

She clutched the makeshift staff in front of her and managed to use it to bounce off a trunk that she otherwise would have smacked into headfirst. Her Aura absorbed some of the blow. Jarred by the impact, she dropped straight down the side of the tree, crashing through more branches that broke her momentum. Her Aura continued to protect her from breaking any bones in the process, and she used the branch to push herself away from the tree and out to avoid hitting any more, but now she was falling backward, legs swinging, arms flailing, hoping she could grab hold of something before she hit the ground.

Velvet screamed.

Yatsuhashi felt bad that he and his fellow students were inadvertently destroying the forest, but not bad enough that he let it hold him back.

He drew Fulcrum and swung the sword hard from right to left, twisting his body and using the momentum to start spinning. “Hyaaaah!” he cried.

He held the blade out, flat side up, using it to slice his way through the trees as he spiraled downward. Not so much a leaf on the wind as a helicopter seed, the kind he’d loved dropping from heights as a child.

The forest whirled around him. He burst into a clearing with a flurry of twigs and leaves. He focused on a sturdy tree in his path, seeing it loom larger in flashes as he continued spinning. He tensed his muscles, and at the right moment he flipped the sword around and plunged it into the trunk, blade side down.

“Sorry!” Yatsuhashi mumbled to the tree.

The sword embedded itself to the hilt in the tree and then slid downward. He grunted as he held on, planting his feet against the trunk to slow his momentum further. The wrapped sword hilt grew warm, then hot, then burning under his gloved hands.

He hit the ground hard enough to rattle his teeth and staggered backward, somehow maintaining his balance, even while still dizzy from spinning. When he yanked Fulcrum from the trunk, the tree split in two and fell on either side of him. It screamed.

Yatsuhashi shook his head. Trees didn’t scream. Then he looked up and saw a girl falling. He dropped his sword and ran toward her. Leaped into the air. Caught her.

“I’ve got you,” he said.

He landed with her in his arms, more gracefully this time. It was the Faunus with the pretty rabbit ears. He flashed her a goofy smile. She scowled and looked away, shielding her eyes.

“Put me down.” She struggled and pushed herself out of his arms. She opened the box behind her and pulled out a camera.

“You’re welcome?” Yatsuhashi said.

She cast her glance downward, rabbit ears drooping over her eyes. Then she sighed and looked up. “Thanks.”

“So … I guess we’re partners?” Yatsuhashi said. He suddenly felt shy.

“This is all a mistake,” she said.

Yatsuhashi walked back to the split tree and picked up Fulcrum. He checked it for damage. He knew where every scratch and ding on the blade had come from. He found the new one, a tiny dimple near the hilt that he would forever associate with today’s initiation.

“But those are the rules,” Yatsuhashi said.

“This isn’t going to work,” she replied.

“Why?” he asked.

“Because I’m a Faunus, and you’re—”

“What?” Yatsuhashi narrowed his eyes. She was looking at him the way people so often did, like she was scared of him, towering above her. His shoulders tightened, and he pressed his arms against his sides, as if he could make himself smaller somehow. Less intimidating.

“You’re from Mistral,” she said.

Yatsuhashi blinked. “So?”

“Your people don’t tend to like my people,” she said quietly. She folded her arms against her chest and turned away from him. For her the gesture worked, and she seemed to shrink a little.

“I’m—” Yatsuhashi began. At the sound of his voice, the girl tensed. He lowered his tone as much as he could. “It’s clear that people from Mistral have hurt you before. I’m sorry that you had to experience that.”

Her shoulders tensed, but she peeked over her shoulder at him.

“I would never mistreat you because you’re a Faunus, or for any other reason. It’s not who I am or who my mother raised me to be. And if I ever slip up and make a stupid joke or say something insensitive, you have full permission to punch me … so I can know how to be better.”

The girl looked back over her shoulder at him, uncrossing her arms.

“Can we start over?” He offered his hand.

She nodded, ears bobbing up and down, and turned to face him.

“I am Yatsuhashi Daichi,” he said.

She looked up at him—way up—and smiled a little. “Velvet Scarlatina.”

“Pleased to meet you,” they both said at the same time.

“So if we’re partners, I guess there’s something you need to know,” Velvet said.

“What is it?”

“There was a pack of Boarbatusks on my tail.”

Yatsuhashi couldn’t help but check. Faunus typically only had one animal feature, but if she said she had a tail—

She blushed, covering her rear. “Excuse you! It was a figure of speech!”

“Oh. Guess that means I’ve earned my first punch.”

Three Boarbatusks suddenly burst into the clearing in front of Yatsuhashi. Their large, curved white tusks and bone masks with four red eyes looked eerie in the dim light filtering through the tree canopy.

“Later, though.” Yatsuhashi slowly brought his sword around. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.”

A bright light flashed. Momentarily stunned, when the spots in front of his eyes disappeared, he saw Velvet holding a camera.

“What was that for?” he asked.

Velvet pressed something on her camera and a minute later she was holding a glowing, transparent copy of his sword. Yatsu stared, dumbfounded.

“Don’t worry.” Velvet smirked. “I’ll protect you.”

“Check out that cave,” Coco said.

Fox tilted his head questioningly.

“Right. Well, it has all these drawings around the entrance of stick people attacking a big scorpion,” she said.

“So it’s a Death Stalker den. Only an idiot would go in there,” Fox said.

“Yeah. It just looks interesting.”

“I’m more interested in finding the temple.”

“The temple should be just up ahead,” Coco said as she climbed out into a clearing.

Fox marched forward. It really was hard to tell that he was blind. Coco watched him carefully, and even when he stumbled on a rock or a root, he quickly adjusted to maintain his balance without missing a beat; you had to be looking to even notice the misstep. Coco envied Fox’s complete awareness of his body and how it moved in his environment.

“Four people just left that area, in a hurry. Heading back to the cliff,” Fox said.

“How do you know that?” Coco asked.

“I can detect other people’s minds, just an impression of their consciousness. And—” Fox shook his head and fell silent again.

“Like when you can feel someone watching you?” Coco asked.

“Sure,” Fox said. He found it exhausting, carrying on a conversation, speaking out loud. But it seemed like it was probably necessary for them to bond a little bit. They were supposed to be partners for the next four years, but it would be better if they were friends, too. And they still had to face together whatever was at this temple of Ozpin’s.

“Is this it?” Coco asked when they arrived.

Fox waited patiently.

“Oh, sorry.” Coco walked toward the small ruin, Fox following. “It’s circular, with six pillars supporting a ring of stones above us. Careful, there are two steps up. Okay, we’re standing in the middle now. Around us are twenty short pedestals with small stone tablets on them.”

Coco walked to one of them. “It’s etched like a playing card. This one is the Joker.”

Coco moved around the temple, examining the other tablets. “Here’s the King of Hearts. Queen of Hearts. Ace of Spades … some cards are missing, so our other classmates must have grabbed them.”

She tried to hide her annoyance, but Fox picked up that she was really bothered that they were already behind.

“You like being first,” he said.

“And best.”

He nodded. “Those aren’t always the same thing, or mutually compatible. But maybe we can still beat the others back if we hurry.”

Coco folded her arms. “Pick a card, any card.”

“Me?” Fox asked.

“Go for it.”

Fox turned in a slow circle and then walked purposefully toward a pedestal.

“Um. That one’s empty,” Coco said. “Try a little to your left.”

Fox adjusted his course and reached out to take the stone card: King of Hearts.

“All right, let’s go,” she said.

Fox tucked the card into a pouch at his belt. Then he held up a hand. “We have incoming.” He pointed behind Coco.

Two people were heading toward them fast with a spinning black-and-white ball chasing them. Velvet Scarlatina, whom Coco remembered from Pharos Combat School, and Yatsuhashi Daichi, who generally walked softly and carried a big sword. Only now he was running, waving his sword to get their attention, and shouting a warning.

“I guess we should help them,” Fox said.

“I guess we should.”

Coco calmly strode to the top of the temple steps and flicked open her Gatling gun. Then she opened fire on the rolling Boarbatusk. Yatsuhashi and Velvet veered out of the way while her bullets rained past them. As the rounds penetrated the Grimm’s tough hide, she used her Semblance to boost the volatility of the Dust inside the bullets to blow them up—and tear the creature apart from the inside out.

On her application to Beacon, Coco had named her Semblance “Hype.” Her three favorite things in life were fashion, explosions, and killing Grimm, and Beacon allowed her to combine all three.

“Nice hustle, Coco,” Fox said. “But heads up.”

Coco threw herself back as the Boarbatusk’s decapitated head crashed into the ring of stones above her and then onto the temple steps.

“How did you know—” She was cut off as one of the pillars fell to the side. She was getting an idea of how abandoned temples became temple ruins.

The Boarbatusk’s head rolled down the steps, and as the red glow in its four eyes dimmed, it evaporated into black smoke.

Velvet looked up at Coco as she hefted her Gatling gun.

“Thanks for the assist,” Yatsuhashi said, approaching the temple.

“Sure,” Coco said. “But why didn’t you just smack that thing with your sword to knock it out of its spin?”

Yatsuhashi rubbed the back of his head. “I didn’t think of that. But hey, I did defeat two other ones before. Big ones.” He spread his arms wide to demonstrate.

Velvet put a hand on her hip and cleared her throat.

“Velvet got a few of them, too,” Yatsuhashi said.

Coco stared at Velvet. She didn’t even have a weapon. How did she—

Suddenly Yatsuhashi looked past Coco and assumed a fighting stance, sword at the ready. “More company.”

Coco turned and saw four Ursai, large bearlike Grimm armored in bony plates.

“I’ll hold them off while you get the relic,” he called to Velvet.

“But I can help!” she said.

“We don’t have to fight all of them. All we have to do is get a relic to the top of the cliff.”

“Is that all?” she said. She supposed he had a good point, though. She raced toward the temple, vowing to return to back him up as soon as she had one of the relics. The guy in red with the arm blades sprinted past her, on the way to help Yatsuhashi. Coco remained at the temple, her massive gun locked and loaded on the arriving Grimm.

“Thank you for helping us,” Velvet told Coco. “But we totally had that Boarbatusk where we wanted it.”

“We just didn’t want to miss all the fun,” Coco said. “I know you, don’t I? From Pharos?”

“Velvet Scarlatina. I saw you around, but we never spoke.”

“I wish we had,” Coco said. “I’m Coco Adel.”

Velvet figured she would just grab the first relic she saw, but when she realized they were all stone tablets fashioned after a deck of cards, she figured it must mean something. She had dabbled in fortune-telling when she was younger, and of the remaining cards, the only one that didn’t make her nervous was the Queen of Hearts. She tucked it into Anesidora’s box where she stored empty holographic plates. It was a perfect fit.

But while she was busy doing that, Yatsuhashi and Fox had retreated, joining Coco and Velvet inside the temple—which was now surrounded by eight Ursai.

“Can anyone fly?” Coco asked.

No such luck.

“Then it looks like we’ll have to fight our way out.” Coco grinned and held up her gun.

“It’s only eight against four. I like those odds,” Fox said.

“I don’t believe in luck,” Yatsuhashi said. He looked at Velvet. “Got any ranged weapons?”

Coco looked at the box Velvet carried, wondering what was inside.

Velvet shook her head. “What if we attack them one at a time from in here?”

“I’m almost out of bullets,” Coco said.

“We could attack them in turn,” Yatsuhashi said.

“Dart out, strike, and return?” Fox said.

“That would take all night, and more Grimm will keep coming,” Coco said. “I have a better idea.”

Velvet hated Coco’s idea, but at least it had worked.

It was only later, when the four of them were assembled in the amphitheater watching replay footage from initiation, that they realized how outrageous Coco’s plan had been. They watched her open fire with her gun to clear a path through the ring of Ursai—by blowing one of them into pieces—so Yatsuhashi and Fox could charge through first. Instead of trying to cut or stab the Grimm that lunged for him, Yatsuhashi used his sword to knock it out of the way, while Fox sliced through the creature in his path with his tonfa blades. Velvet stayed in the middle while Coco brought up the rear with covering gunfire, preventing the Ursai from closing the gap and attacking them from behind.

It was fast, and it was dangerous. It also played well for the crowd.

Velvet knew that she had been keeping track of where all the Ursai were for the team. Her voice was still hoarse from shouting warnings and directions to the others while she fired off a hard-light gun to keep any remaining Grimm off their flank. But on video, it looked like her three classmates were protecting her the whole way to the stairs leading up the cliffs. More than one Beacon student commented on that—and her ears.

So while Professor Ozpin announced and named the new four-person teams, Velvet was looking down and feeling sorry for herself … until she heard her name.

“Coco Adel, Fox Alistair, Velvet Scarlatina, Yatsuhashi Daichi,” Professor Ozpin droned.

Each of them looked up as their faces and names appeared on the screens and rearranged themselves.

“The four of you retrieved the suit of hearts. From this day forward, you will work together as Team CFVY, led by Coco Adel.”

“What?” Coco and Velvet said together.

The new team considered one another thoughtfully.

Yatsuhashi looked up at their pictures. “Team CFVY,” he said. “I’m a tea drinker, but I like the sound of that.”

Velvet did, too.

“This is going to be fun,” Fox sent to his new teammates for the first time.

Velvet yelped when she heard his voice in her head. Coco’s mouth fell open. Yatsu looked as placid as ever, as if he’d been expecting all of this.

Fox smiled and winked. “Yeah, that’s a thing I can do.”

Yatsuhashi liked watching Velvet work with the townspeople at Feldspar. He was supposed to be helping her interview them, but he was never much of a talker, so Velvet took the lead while he lent quiet support—his specialty.

Most of the other students at Beacon had the wrong impression of Velvet. She was only shy and reserved around people she didn’t know, protecting herself from whatever hateful and hurtful things they might say. When she was with her team or hanging out with friends like Ruby and Weiss, she was more comfortable, more herself.

And when she had a job to do, Velvet was great at connecting with new people.

“What did you feel before the Grimm attacked?” Velvet asked.

The young mother from Gossan, Amaranth, rubbed a hand over her eyes. “I’m not sure what came over me. Ash started crying and crying and crying.” She jiggled the infant boy in her lap, who giggled and reached up for Velvet’s ears. “And I felt this awful, burning … rage. I’ve never felt anything like it before. I was so scared I was going to hurt him. And then I started crying uncontrollably.”

Amaranth’s hands shook. Velvet put a hand over hers.

“Would you describe it as a ‘wave of emotion’?” Velvet asked, echoing the words of many of the other people they had spoken to.

“Sort of.” Amaranth shook her head. “It was more like … a dam breaking, only it didn’t let the feelings in, it let them out. Like all the frustration and fear and anxiety I had been holding in all flooded out at once.”

Yatsuhashi gritted his teeth. This sounded like a nightmare.

Amaranth closed her eyes and tears rolled down her cheeks. Ash patted her wet face gently. She opened her eyes and smiled at him.

“It had been going on for a while,” she said. “And once the emotions passed, all you were left with was guilt for feeling them—or anger. People argued with one another over things they’d said or done.”

Velvet nodded.

“We were always wondering when it would happen again,” Amaranth went on. “And it did happen, over and over again, but the next time it was always worse. The feelings got bigger and blacker every time. Jealousy. Regret. Anger. Sadness. Everyone was feeling it, some more than others. Then the Grimm came. We had to run, leave our homes behind. Some of us even left friends and family, people lost in the attack … We can never take back our last words or apologize to them again.”

Yatsu and Velvet had heard similar stories from all the recent arrivals at Feldspar. Amaranth and her son had come with dozens of others from the Gossan settlement, but some in their group had experienced the same thing in the Schist and Tuff settlements before that.

And as they had seen the night before, whatever was happening was moving with the group and getting more powerful, spreading like an infection. It was at Feldspar now, and Slate estimated they had a few days before their first mass Grimm attack.

It was Beacon all over again.

“Can you think of anything that connected these surges of emotion?” Velvet asked. “Did they happen in a certain place, or at a certain time? Was anyone else around?”

“I’m not sure,” Amaranth said. “I think it happened most often at night. But usually I was alone. I mean, with Ash, at home. Once, it happened during the busiest time of day in the market, and everyone was affected at the same time. That was terrible. A Ravager came for us that time. Thank goodness we had those Huntsmen around.”

Ravagers were nasty flying Grimm, like uglier, meaner versions of the Nevermores, with dark, leathery wings like bats. Yatsuhashi had seen them circling in the distant sky, but Team CFVY hadn’t fought any of them yet. He hoped it stayed that way.

“Bertilak and Carmine helped evacuate?” Yatsu asked.

Amaranth blinked up at him, as if she had forgotten he was there. Yatsuhashi briefly worried that he had accidentally used his Semblance on her, but if he had, she’d have forgotten a lot more than Yatsuhashi’s presence. He glanced at the kid on her lap.

No, just like Yatsuhashi’s quiet, reassuring presence helped Velvet be more outgoing, Velvet had a way of making Yatsu less intimidating. Seeing someone small like her with a big guy like him put others more at ease—another reason why he hadn’t attempted to interview anyone on his own. They made a good team. Perhaps Professor Ozpin had known what he was doing after all when he paired up the teams at Beacon.

“The Huntsmen were leaving, anyway,” Amaranth said. “We just tagged along. As long as we kept up with them, they didn’t mind. Much.”

Velvet frowned.

“I lost my best friend on the way. We lost a whole family. We’re cursed,” Amaranth said.

Cursed. There was that word again. They had heard it so many times as they talked to people in Feldspar, who now were really people from the Gossan, and Schist, and Tuff tribes—the survivors of numerous Grimm attacks, all the way from the outskirts of Vacuo to here.

Amaranth’s huddled posture said she was tired. Defeated. Hopeless. Yatsuhashi wanted to put an arm around her shoulders supportively, but better to leave that to Velvet. He had already made the baby cry when he got too close.

“Thank you,” Velvet said. “Don’t worry; we’ll help figure this out.”

Amaranth smiled gratefully. Velvet and Yatsuhashi had told everyone the same thing, and Velvet sounded so convincing that even he believed her. But they’d spoken to more than forty people already, and they weren’t any closer to figuring this out. He wasn’t, anyway. Velvet was making charts.

“Would you mind if I took your picture?” Velvet held up her camera hopefully.

“Really?” Amaranth wiped the tears from her face. “I’m such a mess.”

“You look perfect.” Velvet peered through the viewfinder and focused.

Ash’s face scrunched up. By now Yatsuhashi knew that meant he was about to start bawling. Was it another one of those emotional outbursts? No, just him being a normal baby.

“Shhh … ,” Amaranth said soothingly.

Yatsuhashi held up his index and middle fingers in a V behind Velvet’s head, between her ears. Ash’s eyes lit up. He clapped and burbled happily. Velvet snapped the photo.

Yatsuhashi quickly pulled his hand back to his side and tried to look casual. Velvet turned and looked at him suspiciously.

“What were you doing?” she asked.

“Nothing,” he said innocently.

Amaranth caught his eye and smiled.

The next five interviews went much the same. They talked to young newlyweds, Opal and Jasper, who had to marry in secret because it was too dangerous to gather so many people in one place. Cursed.

Celestine was a schoolteacher from Schist, who was too afraid to go back to work when her classroom erupted into a violent argument. Cursed.

A weaver named Beryl lamented the loss of her home and business, then tried to sell Velvet a new cloak to keep the desert dust off her. Cursed.

Exhausted, Yatsuhashi and Velvet joined Coco and Fox to share their findings with Slate. They found the mayor in a small tent near the center of town. Ten other people were waiting to talk to her, but when CFVY joined the end of the line, she waved them forward.

“Give us a few more minutes, folks,” Slate told the waiting settlers. They didn’t seem as annoyed at the delay as Yatsuhashi would have expected.

“What’s this?” Coco asked, gesturing to the small crowd.

“People like to tell me their problems.” Slate shrugged. “Even if I can’t do anything about them. It’s either me or a therapist, and my ear is free.”

By now, Yatsuhashi knew most of the people in Feldspar and those who came with Slate from Gossan.

“The people in Feldspar seem to have embraced you as their mayor,” Yatsuhashi observed. “I thought Vacuans don’t like authority.”

“They don’t. But there’s a difference between being a leader who tells their people what to do and a leader who cares about what they want. My job is to convince them that, more often than not, those are the same thing,” Slate said.

Coco nodded. “Didn’t Feldspar have its own leader before you arrived?”

“Every settlement and tribe has a person, or several people, who end up being in charge. Your natural organizers, those who can motivate others to do more than just scrape by day to day, looking out for themselves and their families.” Slate glanced behind the team at the people waiting in line. She lowered her voice. “The fella before me didn’t want the job any more than I do. But someone’s gotta do it, and I’m just being honest when I say I know I’m the right one for it.”

“How’s everyone doing?” Coco asked.

“Absorbing a bunch of new people always takes time. Right now, most folks are worried about Grimm. The Feldspar tribe have started to hear about what happened to everyone from Gossan, Schist, and Tuff, and they aren’t so sure they want us to stay here.”

“Understandable.” Coco took in the line of people, then looked around the settlement.

“Have you learned anything helpful yet?” Slate asked.

“We’ve interviewed almost all the refugees. Their stories are similar, but other than the shared fits of uncontrolled emotions, the Grimm, and the evacuations, we don’t know what else the incidents have in common,” Coco said.

Velvet thumbed through a spreadsheet on her Scroll. Slate looked interested, so she tilted the screen toward her.

“I compiled the info from all our interviews. The data suggests that the emotional outbursts happen to everyone at the same time, but not necessarily with the same force.”

Velvet held up a graph showing a line rising from left to right. “They’re also happening with more frequency, with greater intensity, and lasting for longer periods of time.”

Velvet showed a couple more charts illustrating the progression and then stared at her Scroll thoughtfully.

Slate blew out a breath. “I don’t need a fancy chart to tell me that.”

“We need more time,” Coco said.

“I’m afraid we’re running out of it,” Slate said.

“If the trend continues, this is just going to get worse,” Velvet agreed. “It won’t be long before everyone will have to migrate to another settlement again.”

“It’s also going to get harder to find settlements to take all these people.” Coco twirled a finger in a long lock of her caramel-colored hair. “Feldspar had more than a hundred people before you guys showed up.”

“The next settlement certainly won’t roll out the welcome mat,” Slate said. “Even with casualties along the way, we’ll probably bring more mouths and bodies than they’re willing or able to accommodate.”

Yatsuhashi was surprised at how dispassionately Slate spoke about losing people to Grimm, but that seemed to be the reality here. Not feeling every death personally was one of the hardest things he had to learn in his Huntsmen training—or at least not letting that loss paralyze him.

Yatsuhashi was simply determined not to lose anyone ever again, but he knew all too well that one day he might fail, whether it was a stranger or one of his friends. Enough of Beacon Academy still stood as a testament to their greatest loss.

Velvet’s ears perked up.

“What?” Coco asked.

“I just realized. There is a common element linking all these incidents,” Velvet said.

The group waited. And waited.

“Well?” Slate asked.

“I was being dramatic,” Velvet said.

Coco turned a hand over, telling her to get on with it.

“The common element is the four people who came from Vale,” Velvet said. “They’ve been there for every attack.”

Fox facepalmed. “Of course,” he sent.

“The Caspians, Bertilak, and Carmine?” Slate frowned.

Velvet spread her Scroll wider and leaned over it, zipping through her notes. “How long after they arrived did you start experiencing periods of heightened emotion?”

“I don’t know. We didn’t think anything of it at first. It was only when it got really bad that we realized something unusual was happening, and even then it didn’t become suspicious until we had relocated to Schist and it all repeated again. But if I think back … maybe a few days?”

“That’s hardly conclusive, but it’s a start,” Coco said.

“Are you suggesting one of them is causing all this?” Slate asked.

“I don’t know,” Velvet began. “But Yatsu and I haven’t interviewed them.”

“Neither did we.” Coco glanced at Fox. “Clearly we need to talk to them, see if they have any idea what could be causing the emotional surges.”

“Good luck with that,” Slate said. “They aren’t the sharing type. The Caspians hired Bertilak and Carmine for protection, and whatever their faults, those Huntsmen are serious about protecting them—from everyone.”

“Isn’t that a little paranoid?” Coco asked.

“You tell me. You’re Huntsmen. I figured it was part of your training.” Slate leaned back. “Either that, or they’re worried about thieves. Edward Caspian is obviously loaded, though money doesn’t do you too much good out in the desert.” She pressed her lips together.

“Vacuans have a reputation for being dishonest,” Fox explained telepathically. “It’s misplaced, particularly since it’s the other kingdoms who stole from us.”

“The downside of keeping to yourself is that other people are free to tell your story,” Yatsuhashi replied to the group.

Fox tipped his head in acknowledgment.

“Where can we find them?” Coco asked.

“They’re staying in a sand shed on the north end of Feldspar. Like I said, they keep to themselves.”

“Thanks, Slate,” Coco said.

Slate spread her hands. “See? I didn’t do anything. I just listened, shared a little information, and you figured it out for yourself. This job isn’t so bad.” She waved them off. “Next!”

They left Slate to her supplicants and huddled together in the night market. The moon was high in the western sky, a sprinkle of debris just visible on its edge. This should be one of the busiest times at the market. The fruit stand behind them could have been closed because fruit was scarce, especially with all the extra people to feed. But most of the flimsy wooden stalls were shuttered and empty … clearly business wasn’t booming.

Yatsuhashi gazed at the boarded-up stalls. He suddenly really wanted to bite into a juicy breadfruit.

“What do you guys think?” Coco asked in a low voice.

“Either Bertilak and Carmine aren’t te