"And why exactly should I permit this?" The voice reminded Sanguin of a serpent. Low, coiled, and dangerous. For a single moment, he felt an involuntary urge to grab for the hilt of his sword rising up over his shoulder. Which was absurd. Professor Ozpin was on the other side of the planet, it wasn't as if he could reach through the com screen and attack. But even so, Sanguin's instincts were screaming that he needed to prepare, to arm himself, to do something to keep Ozpin from messily ending his life.
All things considered, that's pretty impressive. He mused, trying to keep the corners of his mouth from curling. What was even more impressive was that Sanguin was standing on the other side of the screen, Ozpin didn't even know he was present. No, all his ire was directed at the headmistress. His indirect anger was enough to make Sanguin quake in his boots, and Sanguin was no pushover. It seemed Ozpin's reputation for being the world's premier Hunting expert was entirely deserved.
"It doesn't really matter if you do or not." The headmistress said with the slightest hint of mirth in her voice. Abigail Woden, headmistress of Umbra Academy, had frequently clashed with Ozpin over proper Hunting tactics and training methods. Sanguin suspected she was enjoying the current situation a bit more than she should. She steepled her fingers on her desk. "James Ironwood has already consented, and he is in charge of Vale's security until the Vtyal Festival is finished. And even if he weren't, I could simply bring the matter before Vale's Council. We both know what they would decide."
Sanguin idly wondered if Ozpin would call her bluff and how she would respond, but it seemed the lie passed through. "Then why exactly did you feel the need to have this conversation?"
Headmistress Woden had gray eyes so dark you would think they were black if her hair wasn't black itself to provide the contrast. "You deserve to know the situation and your assistance would be helpful for my men. Unless you intend to allow a trio of highly dangerous criminals to run free throughout your city?"
"Of course not. But my agents can handle this threat just fine."
"As you handled last week's threat?"
Sanguin winced. That was a low hit. The Grimm incursion into Vale had been a relatively small one, all things considered, but since Grimm simply didn't enter kingdoms, plenty of people were looking for something or someone to blame. Ozpin, being the head of Vale's Hunters, was the obvious target for criticism.
There was a long pause. Whether Ozpin couldn't think of a rebuttal or was too angry to speak, Sanguin couldn't say. Finally, Headmistress Woden broke the silence.
"Ozpin, it is my intention to crush these rogues as promptly as possible, to keep the residents of Vale safe." She said, her tone almost conciliatory. "That is why I am dispatching my finest Huntsmen to you, to eliminate them before they can cause any damage."
"Your men." Ozpin said slowly. "It is your insistence that it be your men who confront these "phantoms" of yours that makes me suspect an ulterior motive."
"I'm going to ignore your insulting implication." Woden said, her words icily cold. "The simple truth is that I trust my men to get the job done." The unspoken words, And I don't trust yours, hung in the air. "Of course, if you could bring yourself to lend some assistance, it would be appreciated."
There was another long pause, this one tense. "Very well." Ozpin finally said, the words tinged with surrender. "Your squad will have a place at Beacon to operate out of. When do you intend to arrive?"
"Tomorrow. The sooner this is done, the better."
"Fine. I'll make the necessary arrangements on my end."
"Thank you, Ozpin." Headmistress Woden said, sounding surprisingly grateful. She might have even meant it. She ended the call and looked over the screen at Sanguin.
"Well, that's settled. To be honest, I'd thought Ozpin would dig his heels in rather than relent so quickly."
Sanguin didn't say anything. Woden and Ozpin's ongoing dispute was rather onesided on her part most of the time. He knew that she would rather walk on coals than submit to this kind of bald-faced compulsion, but the little he knew about Ozpin made him doubt the reverse was true. She continued. "Ozpin shouldn't be too much trouble, but if he starts to obstruct you speak with General Ironwood. He was impressed with Shadow's performance on your mission in Atlas and has more clout with the council, if you need doors opened."
"If that's the case ma'am," Sanguin began, striving for a diplomatic tone. "why have we not informed him about this mission?"
"One of the few things Ozpin and I agree on is that James' preference to settle for a blunt solution makes him poor at handling delicate operations like this one." Headmistress Woden stood, and wandered over to the window, staring out at the setting sun with her hands clasped behind her back. "Sanguin, is Shadow Squad ready to deploy?"
"…We can be in a matter of hours." Sanguin answered carefully. The headmistress heard the pause.
"Something is troubling you." She said without turning to face him. "Out with it."
Sanguin took a moment to compose his thoughts. "The members of Phantom Squad may be traitors and deserters, but they were still our comrades once. The idea of hunting them down like Grimm is… unwelcome." For the others, maybe. Not for you. a treacherous voice whispered inside his head. A pair of golden eyes surfaced unbidden from his memories. His hands clenched at his sides.
"I had thought that would make this easier. Surely their betrayal has erased any affection you might have once had for them?" Woden turned from the window and raised an eyebrow at him. Sanguin consciously unclenched his fists and shook away the memory.
"It's not that easy." He said, meeting her eyes. "And I don't think it should be."
"I suppose that's a good mentality to have." Woden settled back into her desk. "Do you think these lingering sentiments will hamper your ability to complete this mission?"
"No. Shadow Squad will do the job assigned to it, regardless of personal feelings." Sanguin said the words with conviction, praying they were true. Will would, certainly, Argos and Dom were a bit more questionable.
"Good." Woden nodded, her attention already drifting to some papers on her desk. When he didn't leave, she looked up again. "Is there something else?"
"I was considering the hypothetical you posed earlier."
"What about it?"
"If that worst case scenario were to come to pass, our options will be severely limited."
Woden's mouth came just shy of a smirk. "I would hardly call it a worst case scenario. Phantom Squad were Hunters contracted into duty by the Noxian government. A breach in that contract, as they have done, ensures that they can and will be punished according to Noxian law. We may not be a kingdom, but Nox is still large enough to have significant weight in politics. If a Vale citizen, or especially a government employee like Ozpin were sheltering Noxian criminals, we could easily demand them extradited. And if Ozpin were fool enough to try, the backlash against him would be immense. After his recent failure, this kind of scandal would likely result in him being booted from Beacon on the spot."
And wouldn't you love that. Sanguin thought to himself as she continued. "The simple truth is, they just aren't worth it for him to take that kind of risk."
Sanguin wasn't too sure of that. "Ozpin has a long history of doing what he wishes and dealing with the consequences after. Suppose he decides they are worth the risk and stands in our way."
Woden smiled dangerously, completely devoid of mirth. "Well in that case, you can just kill him."
"Just kill him?" Sanguin repeated flatly. "One of the most skilled warriors of our era."
"If you take him by surprise or your squad acts together, there shouldn't be any problems with that." Woden picked up some paperwork, her way of declaring the matter settled. "I have other business I need to attend to. I suggest you go brief your squad and prepare your gear. We leave at 0600 tomorrow. Oh, and tell them to pack something to read. It is a long flight to Vale."
"Yes ma'am." Sanguin turned and left. He walked through the hushed hallways of the Tower and down a flight of stairs to the suspended bridge between the Tower and the barracks. Halfway across, he paused and took a deep breath of the crisp mountain air. Looking north, he could see the mountains rising up to pierce the sky and the passes that ran like rivers through them.
The sun was setting in the mountains, large, deep shadows being cast as it started to drop below the mountainous skyline. The Gnomon Mountains were a harsh place to live, chilly eight months of the year and cold the rest, with movement more often than not being a matter of travelling vertically rather than horizontally and Grimm packs constantly trying to slip through the passes from the Night Lands to the north. On the plus side, the sunsets were absolutely gorgeous. From here, he could just make out the top of Westguard Tower, silhouetted by the setting sun. Once, he had chaffed at being forced to stay in the towers, always on the defensive and never taking the fight to the enemy.
That's what I'm doing now, so why does it taste so bitter? He sighed deeply. Fighting Grim was easier. Kill all the monsters and you win. When it came to fighting people, things weren't so cut and dry.
A faint call drifted down from the mountains on the wind. Though he could barely hear it, Sanguin recognized the sound immediately. He had heard it hundreds of times before and it was burned into his brain. Even if he hadn't, the Tower behind him repeated it seconds later, a droning call long and low. Grim attacking Long Tower, send reinforcements. Already a pack of black clad shapes were streaming out of the mess hall, racing up the path to Long Pass. Sanguin gripped the rail, tempted to jump off the bridge and join them. A fight might help to get his head on straight.
But he had a mission and a squad to prepare for it. Reluctantly, he let go of the railing and crossed the remainder of the bridge into the barracks.
Dom looked up from his workbench as Sanguin walked through the door. Standing six feet tall with shoulders nearly as broad, Dom was the kind of man people envisioned when they pictured Huntsmen. An open, honest face with a dashing scar over one eye only helped that image.
"We have a mission?" He asked, setting down whatever it was he was tinkering on now.
"Either that, or the headmistress called San to her office for a tea party." Argos quipped, not looking up from his book. Argos was fond of quips, and his piercing blue eyes missed little he could mock. On the bunk above him, Will sat up. Sanguin could faintly hear the music from the headphones in his human ears, but knew that his Faunus pair was picking up every word.
"Yes." Sanguin answered Dom. "We have a hunt."
Argos' book shut with a thump. "I'm just guessing here, but is our prey the human kind? Perhaps a certain, specific group of humans?" He grinned. Argos often treated the world like a joke, Sanguin should have known he would treat this cavalierly.
Dom didn't share the feeling. "And what is the goal of this hunt?"
"Their deaths." The words lingered in the air between them. Dom closed his eyes for a moment.
"Of course it would be." He said bitterly.
Will, pragmatic as ever, was more concerned with the mission's specifics. "What time do we deploy?"
"0600 tomorrow. That means we need to gear up tonight." Sanguin turned to Dom. "I'll want the full kit for this, all your tricks and toys."
"You'll have it. I may not get much sleep tonight, but I can pull everything together." Dom was already reaching into a drawer for his tools.
"You can sleep on the flight." Sanguin would have to keep an eye on him. He was pretty sure Dom would do what was necessary, but he had always been the better man of the four of them. And apparently, that's a flaw now. The thought made Sanguin frown and he tried to distract himself with packing his gear.
Cinder Fall quietly strode through Vale's industrial district. When the Schnee Dust Company had shifted its main refinery and production centers to Atlas some ten years ago, Vale's manufacturing industry had largely collapsed. Now, the district was full of abandoned warehouses and factories, meaning it had plenty of places to hide. Consequently, it had attracted the sort of people who preferred living in the shadows. A casual observer would probably think that such a pretty young girl had no business wandering around the dens of thieves and gangs by herself, especially not late at night.
Appearances can be deceiving. Cinder had already had a little fun tonight when some thugs had thought they had found some particularly easy prey. As entertaining as that had been, she had somewhere to be and would rather avoid any more unnecessary delays. So she kept to the shadows when possible, though any skilled observer would find her largely visible.
"Why exactly do you need both of us here?" Mercury complained through her earpiece. He and Emerald were hiding much more proficiently, as a bit of insurance in case things went wrong. "We got class early tomorrow, I need my beauty sleep."
Cinder didn't respond to that, just in case anyone was watching, but Emerald stepped in. "Quit complaining. If this guy can do half of what he claims, we really should have brought more backup."
"That's a big if. Our would be partner has made some pretty big promises. He's probably just some punk hopped up on how great he thinks he is."
"That doesn't mean we should…" Cinder tuned out their bickering. The two of them would happily argue for hours if they weren't interrupted. Cinder thought it was rather cute, at times. Now, however, she found herself silently wishing they were a bit more professional.
Mercury wasn't wrong; the man she was meeting was in all likelihood some talentless grifter who thought he'd found a ticket to the big time. There was also the off chance this was a trap, although who could have arranged it she couldn't say. She had used enough catspaws to avoid making enemies in the underworld and this was hardly Ironwood's style. But, if if their mystery contact really could deliver… Their plans would become a good deal simpler, to say the least.
She looked up at faded sign mounted on the wall of a derelict warehouse. 'Azoth Industries-Creating the Future!' it read in peeling paint. This was the place. Cinder pushed open the door and entered.
The interior of the warehouse was almost pitch black, the only illumination coming from moonlight sneaking through the few windows and a small lamp at the other end of the building. There, sitting at a dusty desk in the cone of light, was her contact. He looked up at the sound of the door and gestured for her to come closer. Cinder took a few steps forward, only for shadows to rain down on her.
There were three of them, masked men dressed in back. They had dropped down from the ceiling in a silent semicircle and were holding spears ready to impale her back and sides. Cinder wasn't particularly frightened, there were plenty of ways for her to defend herself should they attack, but she was impressed. She hadn't detected their presence until they had begun to move and the oiled, synchronized way they had deployed was more akin to a group of robots than human beings. She ignored them, turning her attention to the man now walking across the warehouse floor to her.
"You said you would come alone." She admonished.
"As did you." He lightly replied from within the dimness. His silhouette rubbed its chin in an exaggerated display of heavy thinking. "So, if you're complaining about my backup, that must mean the duo that were following you aren't with you?"
"Oh, shit." Mercury whispered in her ear. Judging by the noises, Emerald was already moving to a new hiding place. Cinder had to keep from shaking her head. A sudden burst of motion after a proclamation like that was as good as holding up a sign saying they were listening in.
Her contact paused as he stepped into a ray of moonlight, illuminating him and giving Cinder time to reply. When she didn't, he continued. "Well then, to start out our partnership on the right foot, I'll take care of those rats for you. After all, people in our line of work can't have anyone snooping on us, right?"
He snapped his fingers and another shadow dropped down beside him. "Take them out. And try not to be too conspicuous, we are trying to keep a low profile here." His eyes didn't leave hers as he spoke. He's going to force my hand, is he? Cinder didn't really mind admitting her breach of their terms, but being compelled so openly was a bad precedent to set in their professional relationship.
"Stop." He raised an eyebrow and waited. "I confess, these streets at night can be dangerous for a young woman like me, so I asked some friends of mine to walk me over."
"Ah. Then allow me to apologize for making you come somewhere where you felt unsafe." He snapped his fingers again and all four shadows leapt back into the air. Looking now, Cinder saw there were support beams crisscrossing the air that they perched on. Their master smiled dangerously. "To make amends, allow me to give you an escort home."
And let him know where she was staying. He's been controlling the conversation since I arrived. That had gone on far too long. Time to change the game. "That won't be necessary. Perhaps we could get on with what we came here for?"
"Fair enough." He led her over to the table he had been sitting at earlier. As they walked, she glanced at him. He was a rather average looking man, no real distinguishing features other than his long blond hair, which came down to his shoulders.
"I don't believe I caught your name." She commented.
"You can call me Lance." He replied. A quick glance to the spear leaning against the desk suggested the origin of that moniker. "And you?"
"Ember." Two could play at his game. He stepped behind the rusty chair and picked up the folder he had been perusing earlier. He held it out to her.
"Here, this contains most of what you need to know. Certain details have been omitted of course, to ensure you feel a need to cooperate."
Cinder took the folder but didn't bother to open it. She knew the gist of what it was going to say already, and was more interested in what it didn't. "You mentioned earlier that your information came from a benefactor of yours. Who is that, exactly?"
"I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to say." Lance said, crossing his arms. "He wishes to keep his identity a secret for the moment. In the future, should our partnership prove mutually beneficial, that might change. Regardless, who he is has no bearing on our goals."
Cinder wasn't entirely satisfied with that answer but pressing the issue wasn't worth it at the moment. To stall for a moment she flipped through the folder, skimming through the papers within. Old news stories, an internal corporate report, some hastily sketched and incomplete schematics, there was enough here to get them started. But, she realized something didn't fit.
"According to what's in here, you already either have all the pieces of the puzzle you need or know where to get them. So why do you need us at all? Surely you would prefer to keep this technology to yourself." This could be exactly the edge she needed to enable her own plans. Or it could be a well-crafted trap to draw her and her associates out into the open. Her hand oh-so-casually drifted to the pocket her Dust canister was in. Lance's eyes flickered to follow the motion but he didn't move otherwise.
"It's true; we could assemble everything we need by ourselves. But it would take months. We have little in the way of resources and contacts in Vale ourselves. You do. You can get your hands on what we need so much faster than we ever could. And that speed may prove to be critical. Currently, the situation in Vale is opportune for our plan but that will change quickly."
He uncrossed his arms and stood a little taller. "I need an answer. Are you in, or not?" Cinder mulled it over. There were plenty of risks involved with a plot like this, but the rewards…
Are you in or not?Cinder smiled.