Ironwood was dead, to begin with. As dead as a doornail. The only person who mourned his passing and succeeded him in his work was his business partner, Ebenezer Ozpin. He and Ironwood had been friends though, in the shallowest of terms, on the basest of levels. Ozpin not being disturbed at Ironwood’s passing was proof of this. He honored him because no one else would. But once the funeral was over, Ozpin went back to his life and forgot Ironwood for he was dead.
Despite his callous response to Ironwood’s death, Ozpin didn’t bother to paint over the sign that stood over the establishment known as Ironwood & Ozpin. He knew that with time, the weather would take it off. That option was cheap, and Ozpin was a patient man except when it came to those who were late paying their commissions. Upon them he exacted no mercy and didn’t care if the Grimm would eventually eat up settlers who couldn’t afford to pay for the huntsmen that Ozpin sourced.
When it came to business, Ozpin was a squeezing, wrenching, clutching, apathetic, old miser. He was hard, and sharp as flint. And not much more could be said for his personal life other than he was secret, self-contained, and as solitary as an oyster. His critics said he could’ve made a summer home of Mantle for his personality was chillier than the tundra and didn’t warm a degree at any time of the year, not even for that jolliest of feasts, Christmas.
Ozpin entered his office, the one thing he kept colder than himself and saw his clerk, Taiyang Cratchit, trying to keep his ink liquid by cupping his hands around his inkwell lest it should freeze. Taiyang was a strapping man of middle age, married with two daughters. He was better suited to work as a huntsman, but for the sake of his family, he had chosen to become Ozpin’s clerk which paid barely better than that as one of the sourced huntsmen, but for the sake of his family, Tai would do anything.
Ozpin didn’t bother to greet Tai or give an explanation of his whereabouts. What Ozpin did when he was away on business was his business, and Tai’s business was to work on the ledgers. Ozpin merely pulled off his great coat and hung it up before going to his desk and beginning his work.
While it was easy to assume Ozpin had no light or warmth in his life, that assumption would be false because there was one source in the form of his nephew Qrow who bounded through the door at that very minute. “Merry Christmas, uncle!” he said in a whisky voice. “Gods save you!”
Ozpin looked up over the rim of his glasses. “Bah! Humbug!”
“Christmas a humbug?” said Qrow. “Surely you don’t mean that, uncle.”
“I’m sure I do. What right do I have to be merry at Christmas? What right do you have? There’s nothing so repulsive in this world as being poor, and yet people fritter their money away on goods they can’t afford every year at this time. And then they complain when they can’t afford to pay the huntsmen I hire out. So, I ask you, nephew, what reason do you have to be merry at Christmas? You’re poor enough.”
“By that logic, uncle, what reason do you have to be miserable? You’re rich enough. Right be damned!”
“Oh, don’t be cross, uncle. I came to share the spirits of good cheer of the season with you.”
“Good cheer? Humbug! Everyone is in a good cheer at this time of year only to find themselves a year older and not an hour richer. If I could work my will, every idiot that went around with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips would be boiled with his pudding and fed to the Grimm!”
“Uncle!” said Qrow, taking a step back.
“You keep Christmas in your way, Qrow, and I’ll keep it in mine.”
“But you don’t keep it.”
“Then let me leave it alone all the same.”
“While it is true that Christmas has never put any spare lien in my pocket, I believe it has done me good, will do me good, and I say, Gods bless it!”
“You’re one to speak, Cratchit,” said Ozpin. “With as little as you make, it’s a wonder you’re able to celebrate anything.”
Tai returned to his work.
“You shouldn’t abuse Tai like that, uncle. Please don’t be cross with him for agreeing with me. I know! Why don’t you come and have Christmas dinner with me and Winter tomorrow?”
“Why ever did you get married?”
“Why? Because I fell in love.”
Ozpin cackled. “That’s the only thing sillier than a ‘Merry Christmas.’ Good afternoon.”
Qrow’s face fell. “I am sorry, with all my heart, to find you so resolute. We have never had any quarrel, to which I have been a party. But I have made the trial in homage to Christmas, and I will keep making the trial for the sake of my Christmas humor. So a Merry Christmas, uncle! And a Happy New Year!”
“Merry Christmas,” said Tai.
“Merry Christmas,” replied Qrow. “And give my best to your wife and daughters,” he said, exiting.
“Humbug,” muttered Ozpin under his breath at his nephew’s departure.
With Qrow and the stench of his whisky gone, Ozpin settled into his bookkeeping as his office door once more opened. In stepped two Faunus; one was a gigantic male, at least twice as tall and wide as the normal man, and the other was a woman much shorter and smaller than he. Both were cats as indicated by his claws and her cat ears.
“Mr. Ironwood, I presume,” said the male Faunus in a deep gruff voice.
“Ironwood is dead,” corrected Ozpin. “He’s been dead these seven Christmas Eves ago.”
“Oh. We’re terribly sad to hear that,” said the woman.
“Why? Are you relatives?”
The two Faunus looked at each other. “No,” said the man.
“Then what’s your business with me?”
“Let me introduce myself. I am Ghira Belladonna. This is my wife Kali. At this festive time of year, it is more than usually desirable that we make some provision for the poor and underprivileged who suffer greatly during this time of year. Many are in want of common necessities.”
“Some of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the poor some meat and drink, and some means of warmth,” explained Kali.
“We choose this time of year because it is often a time when want is keenly felt and abundance rejoices.”
“I’m sure Mr. Ironwood’s liberality and charity is well represented in his surviving partner,” prodded Kali with a smile. “What shall we put you down for?”
Ozpin sneered. “Are there no prisons?”
Kali and Ghira exchanged looks. “Plenty of prisons, sir,” replied Ghira.
“And the workhouses? Are they still in operation?”
“They are indeed,” explained Kali grieved. “I wish I could say they were not.”
“Oh, good,” said Ozpin. “I was afraid from what you said something had happened to them to stop them in their useful purpose.”
“If you please, sir,” begged Kali. “They are not fit to furnish cheer of mind or body to the multitude. So, what may we put you down for?”
Ghira and Kali’s eyes shifted until Ghira had a thought. “Ah, you wish to remain anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone! I don’t make myself merry at Christmas and I cannot afford to make idle people merry. I support the establishments I have mentioned through my taxes. Those who are badly off must go there.”
“But many can’t go there,” said Ghira.
“Many would rather die!” said Kali.
“If they would rather die, then they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population! Good afternoon!”
Ghira and Kali recoiled; Ghira was in shock, but Kali was wholly offended. “You sir are the most odious person I have ever had the displeasure of meeting! Why, if my own daughter had to live out in this, I would do everything in my power to shield her from it!”
“Thus is your business,” replied Ozpin. “Not mine.”
Seeing that the cause was lost, Ghira and Kali withdrew though Kali’s curses could be heard from outside the office.
Ozpin believed himself rid of all the foolishness of the day for his patience had been worn to its fullest extent. He thought he could finally get some work down when two voices singing a chorus of “Good, Wise King of Vale” reached his ears. “What the devil…?”
Ozpin crossed to his front door and ripped it open. There he found two street urchins. Both were Faunus, a young male with a monkey tail and a young female with cat ears. “What do you want?!” he growled to the two.
“Please, sir,” said the cat Faunus, “Christmas blessings upon you and your business.”
“And all the more blessings for offering us a few lien!” said the monkey-tailed one, holding up his hands.
“Begone!” Ozpin roared, drawing his cane. He swung it with all his might, but the two Faunus managed to dodge it, one leaving behind a shadow copy of herself.
“Whoa!” said the lad. “What a dusty, old miser!”
“We’re just looking for some goodwill!” said the lass.
“Yeah! A pox on you!”
Ozpin growled, “A pox on Christmas!” before closing the door. Ozpin sighed and returned to his desk where for several hours he was able to get some real work done.
Eventually, the hour to close for the night arrived. Ozpin left his chair and opened his safe to move all the lien he had been counting into it. “Cratchit!” he called. “It’s closing time. Come here and get your week’s wages.”
Tai bounded out of his desk, snuffing his candle with his finger and putting his hat on before presenting himself to Ozpin.
As Ozpin counted out his lien, he said with a growl, “I suppose you’ll want all day off tomorrow.”
“If it’s convenient, sir.”
“No, it is not convenient, sir. And it’s not fair, but if I was to stop fifteen hundred lien for it, you’d think yourself abused, wouldn’t you? And yet, you don’t think me abused for paying a day’s wages for no work.”
“It’s only once a day, sir.”
“That’s a poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December. Fortunately for you, all other business will be closed and I don’t want to waste the money on coal and candles to open for a day where we won’t get anything done. Take the whole day, but be here all the earlier the next morning!”
“Yes, sir. I will.”
“Good.” Ozpin gave Tai his pay and swept on his overcoat before leaving.
Tai almost jumped for joy. He rarely had any days off, so having one meant the world to him especially when it meant he got to share it with his beautiful wife and daughters. He almost skipped home, but for his cargo shorts, he was forced to run to beat the cold from consuming him.
Ozpin stopped at a dank, old tavern for a dank, old dinner before heading home. His house, inherited from Ironwood, was far and tucked away from the vulgar and common streets of Vale. There was nothing particularly special about the street Ozpin lived on except for the unimaginable darkness of it matched the environment of his heart.
Approaching his home, Ozpin went to the door to unlock it and found his attention drawn to the knocker. There was nothing peculiar about it except its size and the fact that it now resembled Ironwood’s face. The face was not angry or sad, but looked exactly as Ozpin remembered Ironwood: a hard, square face with little blue eyes and stress marks along his cheeks and below his eyes. His hair was dark and combed over on top and grey and short on the sides. Ironwood had had a face more akin to an army general than a businessman and that was the face Ozpin saw. It even had Ironwood’s neurotransmitter above his right eyebrow that helped him to control the cybernetic half of his body, a detail Ozpin often forgot. But besides the unpleasant vision of seeing a face of a man long dead, the face possessed a horrible color that seemed to be in spite of its expression and beyond its control rather than a part of it.
As Ozpin stared, the face disappeared with a faint, “Oz…” in Ironwood’s deep voice. Though Ozpin was not a man of superstitions or of legends, the phenomenon did spook him enough to enter his house as quickly as possible, lock the door, and then proceed to search his rooms. Ozpin looked through every room in the pitch black; darkness was cheap and he liked it. His old huntsman senses were also attuned to the darkness and allowed him to ambush any unsuspecting fellow, but as he crept around, cane raised, he found no sign of anybody having been there. All was well.
Satisfied with his search, Ozpin retired to his quarters where he double bolted the door to arm himself against surprise and changed into his dressing gown and slippers. He sat close to his fireplace so it could warm him without using too much fuel on such a bitter night. Ozpin sank into his chair and drank a mug of hot chocolate, one of the few pleasures in his miserable life.
As Ozpin sat, he heard a faint twinkle. His head went up and his eyes fell upon an old bell hanging in his room for some long-forgotten purpose. Once his gaze fell upon it, it stopped ringing. Ozpin’s eyes narrowed, and he went back to his hot chocolate. But then, the bell started ringing again with more vigor. Ozpin turned his head up and was forced to see it ring without provocation. Once it stopped, he proclaimed “Humbug!” in a louder than needed voice.
He returned to his hot chocolate, but found his hand shaking. He had to use his other hand to hold his first still. But as the mug reached his lips, the bell started ringing again with even more fervor. Ozpin’s color changed and his lip trembled. He didn’t know how long the bell rang for, but he would have traded anything to have it ring rather than have it be succeeded by the sound that came next, that of clinking chains.
Ozpin could hear the chains clatter from his ground floor and move up his stairwell accompanied by a heavy foot and the clanging of metallic objects. The sounds reached his door, and Ozpin stood, drawing his cane. “It’s humbug! I won’t believe it!” But Ozpin had great difficulty convincing himself when without pause a grey shape walked through the door in the visage of Ironwood.
The spectre appeared to Ozpin exactly as he remembered Ironwood. He wore an overcoat, undercoat, sweater, necktie, long pants tucked into his boots and one glove on his right hand. But there were two major differences between this Ironwood and the one Ozpin remembered: this one was a solid grey color, and cinched around his waist, wrapped around him like a tail, was a great chain from which hung lockboxes, keys, padlocks, and ledgers.
Though Ozpin was scared, to now see what haunted him, he couldn’t believe it with his own eyes. He lowered his cane. “What do you want?” he said after a pause.
“Much,” replied the shade.
“Who are you?”
“Ask me who I was, Oz.”
“Who were you then?”
“In life, I was your partner, Jacob Ironwood.”
Ozpin gripped his cane tightly. “Can you sit down?”
“Do it, then!” demanded Ozpin, taking his chair.
The ghost walked to the fire place, making enough noise to wake the dead with every step. He drew a chair next to him, but rather than sit in, he sat beside it in open air. Ozpin stared, but then cleared his throat.
“You don’t believe in me,” said the ghost.
“Why do you do doubt your senses?”
“Because,” began Ozpin, “a little thing can affect them—make them cheat. I’ve had a slight stomach disorder of late. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. Aye, there’s more of gravy than a grave about you!”
The ghost inhaled sharply and rose into the air. With a great wail it grabbed a part of its chain with each hand and beat the objects together several times.
Ozpin fell upon his knees, holding up his hands, and screaming out of fright.
“Do you believe in me now?!”
“I do, I do. I must, but why do you torment me?!”
“It is required of every man,” explained the shade, “that the spirit within him should walk among his fellowmen, and travel far and wide. And if that spirit doesn’t go forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”
“That terrible chain!” said Ozpin. “Why do you wear it?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” said the ghost. “I made it link by link and yard by yard. I forged it through my choices and it is by my choice that I wore it. You should know of what I speak. You yourself wear a chain so ponderous and mighty that it is as heavy and as long as these seven Christmas Eves ago.”
“Jacob!” said Ozpin, trembling. “Speak comfort to me, Jacob. Speak comfort to me!”
“I have none to give. Comfort comes from others and is conveyed by other ministers to other kinds of men than you. Nor can I tell what I would like. I’m only allowed a little more. All I can say is that I cannot rest in the afterlife as my spirit never walked beyond the narrow limits of our office.
“Oh, captive, bound, and double-ironed not to know that ages of incessant labor that this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible can be developed. Not to know that any spirit working in its little sphere will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Oh, but I was!”
“But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” said Ozpin. “That must account for something.”
“Business?!” cried the spirit, shaking with fury. “Mankind was my business! The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
The spirit looked at its chains, at the lockboxes and keys, with a great regret.
“At this time of year,” began the spectre, “I suffer the most. Why did I walk through the crowds with my eyes turned down and never raise them to see what was right before me?! What mercy or lecture had I missed to now suffer this?!”
Ozpin began to quake with fear at the spirit's lamentations knowing full well his own blindness.
“Hear me!” cried Ironwood. “My time is nearly up. I am here tonight to warn you that you yet have a chance and hope of escaping my fate; a chance and hope of my procuring, Oz.”
“You were always a good friend to me,” said Ozpin.
“You will be haunted by three ghosts!”
Ozpin’s eyebrows rose and the color drained even further from his face. “Is that the chance and hope you mentioned?”
“I-I’d rather not.”
“Without their visits, you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first when the bell tolls one.”
“Couldn’t I take them all at once and be done with it?” begged Ozpin.
“Expect the second when the bell tolls two. The third will arrive in her own time. Look to see me no more, and look that, for your own sake, you remember what has passed between us!”
“There must be another way,” implored Ozpin, raising his arm.
The spirit wrapped its chain around his arm and by some great upheaval, lifted him into the air. The two flew back to the window where it opened itself and allowed them into the chilly night sky as well as some fresh hell. All about Ozpin were phantoms and other shadows wandering hither and thither in useless haste, moaning as they went. All were bound by chains, employed by frightful countenances far worse than any Grimm that walked the face of Remnant. Many of the spectres were known personally to Ozpin. One he saw watched over a wretched woman, sitting in the gutter with a crying infant in her arms. The ghost clung to its safe desperately trying to pry it open but couldn’t.
As Ozpin looked on at the horrible sight, by some strange magic unknown to him, he was able to see across Remnant and see even more shades out in the unsettled territories between kingdoms. These looked more like huntsmen and indeed they were as their weapons were clasped to their bodies, unable to be drawn that the huntsmen may slaughter the Grimm preying on the people.
The misery with them all was that they sought to interfere for goodness’ sake in human matters, but they had lost the power to do so. Their misery ground Ozpin’s mind dull and froze his heart.
Whether these shades faded into mist, or mist enshrouded them, Ozpin could not tell. But they and their spirit voices faded altogether, and the night became as it had been.
Ozpin found himself, standing next to the window. He quickly shut it. Then he dashed to the door he had seen the ghost enter through; it was whole and unscathed. Ozpin tried to say, “Humbug!” but the word would not come. Thinking it better he should retire to bed, he did so and fell asleep instantly.