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"Better to fight for something than life for nothing" – George S. Patton
Chapter 42: Operation Steel Arrow (2)
It proved to be a bit tough to keep Sienna in the dark about what was going on in Mantle.
As I had predicted, she quickly noticed that something was off when we were given a guarding squad in the form of four huntresses. Despite my interest in explaining to her what warranted this development, I decided to delay the explanation until after we were back to our hotel. And… she was modestly upset. Not because I didn't tell her at once, as she understood that it was best to not bring these matters to the others and create unwanted chaos, but because the entire situation could have easily put a strain on the relations between Atlas and Menagerie. The ones we had worked so hard to rebuild after we managed to dethrone Jacques from his seat of power and restore a more humane control of the SDC. The woman was more than happy to take a moment or two of her time to write down a strong letter to disown this group as leader of the White Fang and labeling them as an anti-Faunus group. The Tiger Faunus went even beyond just that, adding that the responsibility of handling this 'Enemy to the Faunus' was up to Atlas due to the location where it was acting on. The letter made James happy since it gave him the ground within the council to make strong decisions in that regard and plan out an operation he had most control in. I knew that meant he had more than enough influence to put Ruby as the head of the operation, but I generally hoped he wasn't pushed away from this decision, as I knew that was going to be the best way to sort that mess out.
With that out of the way, the only thing that remained was trying to keep the fragile mask of 'everything is fine' up for the whole duration of the event, which already started to be complicated due to how intrigued Blake was in this very circumstance. She pointed out that the only reason why Atlas would assign guards to them was because something bad happened, or could happen while they were there, but Sienna seemed to find a good way to dissuade the girl from pressing any further by mentioning how it was just a precautionary element that was pushed through by the council itself. The story was that, while I had used a few favors to prevent that from happening, James had been overruled by other military officers and he had been forced to give us a squad of guards. The only thing that pressed her from pushing further actually proved to be the fact the squad of huntresses wasn't entirely tied to the military. Those weren't soldiers and, even though Atlas Academy was funded by the military budget, they still operated independently from it in most circumstances. Plus, there was a Faunus among them and one that I soon discovered was a fangirl of mine. Not too obsessed about it, but definitely a defining trait of the first impression and the ensuing ones.
I had a good read on all members of the team, with Robyn being more than happy to debrief me about the qualities and flaws of the overall squad and what would be best to plan out a safe schedule during the next few days. After a proper night of sleep, things were set for a simple day as it was going to be the one where the first fights of the tournament really started. We arrived at a large arena early in the morning, just so that we wouldn't end up being mobbed by the people that were going to watch the matches that would begin the main event of these important weeks. We were granted a rather protected area, with the rest of our friends arriving at the area in the next minutes. I was actually surprised when Raven finally decided to make her appearance. I didn't expect her to say much about her delayed arrival in Atlas, but I was pleasantly surprised when she actually said something about it.
"Sorry. I had to deal with something in Mistral."
A quick apology, one that was worded with a tone of voice that just blatantly admitted how she was telling this without expecting a response. Still, my eyes widened at that apology as it was quite unusual considering the possible reasoning behind this little delay, with my brain actually supporting the chance that she actually skipped the visit until that point out of boredom than… well, the other reason.
[It could have been both.]
We are talking about Ms. Branwen after all. I wouldn't be surprised if she decided to use the more 'logical' reason to drive out the one reason she had been worrying about for a while now.
True, but… yeah, I could see her fighting around people just to lose her thoughts about that very topic.
[To be fair, I have to admit she is unpredictable as a person. So I could see why you would be confused by her this much. Even after knowing her for so long.]
Raven spoke a bit with the others, mostly Willow as the woman was eager to talk to her after so long, but she seemed to sit by Yang's side so she could discuss with her about something that I didn't manage to listen to due to how far these two were. Deciding against eavesdropping, we ultimately all waited for the tournament to fully start. As I remembered, the first set of fights were teams against teams, with all various teams from the four different kingdoms set against each other to advance to the next round. Four matches in and the performance wasn't exactly the same I was more familiar with, highlighting how the one that happened in OTL Vale was a bit more intense than it should have been. I had studied a bit of matches from last year's tournament, but I actually saw some more action than what I was seeing there. I noticed Winter huffing after a while, knowing that she really wanted to be there while Nora and Yang were outright beaming at the spectacle. Even Damian was staring at the battles with eagerness, the little boy just loving the complex but 'pretty' fights he was staring at.
It was still far from the best possible, with the 'switch' on the pace happening just as Harriet's team were finally called to fight their first opponents. I didn't know much about their respective teams, but from the grin on the short-haired girl, I knew that it was going to be fun. The enemy team looked to be rather focused on two smaller squads, so the best way to counter that would have been to disorganize them and then pick them up one at the time. That sounded the most sensible thing to do but Harriet's team-leader didn't seem to notice this weakness and actually decided to match fire with fire as him and his partner went against one of the duos, while Harriet and her teammate went against the other. It was quite intense from the very first steps. With Harriet's team swiftly being put in a disadvantage when team leader and companion got their butts kicked while rushing for the attack, something that didn't seem to happen when it came to Harriet herself. Since her quality was speed, she was the one that overwhelmed the two partners together before her partner came in to slam their heads together and distract them just enough for Harriet to deliver two strong punches on the two enemies' mugs. The double hit pushed them back to her friend, which slammed them back together once more.
Their combo was rewarded when they managed to effortlessly disarm and beat the two foes they were assigned to… only to then be assaulted by those two foes remaining. Twins from the looks of it, and their semblances, a mixture of wind and water manipulation, looked to be quite devastating as a powerful defense. In fact, Harriet's partner tried and failed to get close enough to them, the 'counter' that emerged from that simple-looking circle of floating water striking back at her and sending her away in a quick flight. It was just Harriet against the two and I could tell the girl wasn't really that happy about her current circumstances. The girl gritted her teeth, but not in frustration. Her Semblance was straining her a bit as she forced it to give enough speed to outpace her two opponents.
The combined Semblances didn't seem to be reactive enough to repel fast opponents, forcing the duo to actively try and at least slow down their last enemy. The victory of the match seemed quite close to them and… yet the truth was far different and far more complicated on their side of things. Just as they expected to have brought the number of foes to a single one, there was a hint of surprise when Harriet's companion emerged from the crater caused by her impact, the young woman was grinning eye to eye, barely showing any signs of damage… just like the Aura panel detailing her current energy was pointing out. Minimal damage, and yet that should have dealt some incredible pain.
Her Semblance is now active.
Ozma was right. A thin layer of green appeared over her body, making her body sturdier and more resilient to damage. The water tried to strike back once more at the short-haired girl's partner, but differently than before, the taller woman didn't budge. The water struck, but it was soon pushed back, forcing the entire circle to break and for the duo to end the fight at once. The twins looked terrified at this development, and their stance faltered just enough for their entire stand to falter altogether. Harriet took care of one of the siblings, while her partner took care of the other. There was no hesitation, this was their win. And soon the announcer of the fight confirmed this as the aura level of both remaining opponents had dropped below the minimal level.
The crowd of spectators exploded within the stands of the arena, echoing with great eagerness the success of that glorious battle. After letting out an excited yell for winning the match, Harriet kept her fists up in the air and looked around until she stopped to stare at a specific spot. I was clapping my hands, joining the applause aimed at the victors of the match and nodding back at her as she gazed at me. Her smile widened and she skipped her way back out of the field with a bright smile. I stared at her retreat for a while before leaning back on my seat and noticing a curious look on Sienna's face. It was aimed at me.
"A lot. She is definitely making herself proud with the hardships she had to go through," I added with an amused smile.
The Tiger Faunus nodded, and soon we were looking at the rest of the fights for the day with as much calm as before. All of those remaining ones proved to be quite intense, but none as much as it had been to the one with Harriet's team. I watched all of them, noting how clever these students were and how they were applying their strengths well enough to cover for any flaw they had yet to work to fix. Quite entertaining, but I couldn't help but feel a bit… upset after a while. Something felt wrong for a while and… I couldn't help but look at Nora and the other kids.
Why did I feel like something bad was going to happen to them?
Cinder Fall had seen many strange things during her tenure as leader of the Vale Branch for the White Fang.
Maybe not enough to consider herself a survivor of most craziness compared to other branch leaders, but she was definitely rising up to catch that achievement too as she finished checking on quite the confusing circumstance. Another long day trying to deal with the main illegal ring that used Faunus as slave-fighters, and this time they sure managed to hit a serious blow together with the Police Department of Vale. More Faunus were getting freed from this insane situation tied to the underworld and they could do so much each day when it came to putting a closure to this matter. The police wasn't as funded as Huntsmen were, and it was difficult that the Council saw a genuine need to dispatch any squad to take care of this 'criminal affair', with the police being the first attack force when it came to this kind of predicament.
Not a surprise, at least not having spent enough time to grow accustomed to this disappointing system. Cinder couldn't help but remember her father's serious concern about this very disgusting element, telling her how it was best to not shake the boat out of gaining more foes and negative attention to worsen things up. She didn't have to like it, but she couldn't exactly put any pressure without getting some stronger and more dangerous one on herself and the whole branch. Despite this limitation, the process of cleaning up this affair was going through smoothly. People were listening to the rallies, and some criminals were getting reported as soon as they were spotted doing anything illegal. It was a slow and small job, but it was one that worked fine for them. Plus, the Faunus were being treated even better than before compared to a few years ago in Vale, all thanks to her intense efforts.
Still, while she couldn't deny that her hard work was paying off immensely, there were some elements that she wasn't exactly… proud of. Mostly because she decided to rely on some advice from her father that might, or might not have burned up the moral high ground that the branch had, at least in the theoretical scale of things. Back in her office, alone as Emerald was sent to check on the squad that had returned with her after this last mission, Cinder greeted the one that had sent her the information to hunt down these scumbags, a silent smile appearing from the shadows while the illusion around her broke to reveal her true self.
Petite, short- one could easily mistake Neopolitan as a young girl around Nora or Yang's age. But that would be an easy mistake due to how crafty and experienced the pink-black ice cream addict really was. The young woman was incredibly resourceful and dangerous, but she never acted beyond her boss' reach and decisions, with Roman Torchwick, one of the most renown members of the Criminal Underworld in Vale, being the mind behind all these operations 'in the name of good'. Trying to outright purge the underworld wasn't viable as of yet, so Cinder decided to take a more 'slower route'. By installing Roman as the big boss in a system that didn't outright discriminate against Faunus or promoted deviant culture within the criminals, then it would have been less vile to deal with his empire once the worst was removed from existence. It was a gamble, and not one that the young woman was sure she was going to win in the long-term due to how risky of a game this was all. Both for her and the Fang's reputation in Vale, and what deadly occurrence could happen if she didn't cover her bases once their deal was off.
And that was while ignoring the heat she was going to get from her parents if they ever discovered the troubled play she was setting herself as the main part of.
She held back a chill as she forwarded the payment for this operation. Neo's grin widened as she stared at the tiny cup of ice cream placed just above the suitcase filled with the money. She fished both away from the table, waving quietly at Cinder before leaving. No words were exchanged as they both were aware of the rules, and the woman didn't feel the need to start talking to a mute of all possible conversationalists. Leaning on her chair, she took a moment to rest and think what to do next. Recruitment was going wild with the recruits flocking at their ranks, but the heavily-regulated limitations prevented some individuals from even going through the first test to prepare them for active duty. Cinder had seen extremists at work and… she didn't like them. They were too 'devoted' and too 'eager to go beyond for the cause'. Too fierce and quick to create more messes than not. It didn't help that some also attempted to take over some bits of the branch a few years ago, hence why the rules had been there before she took over. A sigh left her lips as she prepared to enjoy just a long break before the big day tomorrow. She was going to check on how the holidays for the family were going in Atlas and then-
Her trail of thought died as soon as she heard a loud explosion rupture the silent. Tensing and then jumping off her chair, the woman rushed out of her office and down to the entrance. Cinder's eyes widened in shock as Emerald pulled away one of the wounded guards to cover while being helped by a familiar individual.
"Amber?" Surprise painted her as she realized the identity of the helpful lady, the girl snapping her attention to her as a hint of embarrassment struck Cinder's face. The pitch had been close to a gasp or a squeak, which was unusual for her but… well, the situation was rather unusual and sudden. Especially when there was someone fighting through the other enforcers set to stop the assault, with most of the 'invasion' force made up by people that bore armors close to theirs, except darker and with a red emblem than their usual one. A cackle caught her off-guard, a wild vine sprouting through the cement of the ground and stabbing through one of the defenders, the origin of that attack coming from a cloaked woman. Her face was masked, but her height suggested she was quite young.
"My, oh my. It would seem the queen was right- my prey is still here~."
A scowl formed on the leader's face, remembering one possible individual that had that title and… this wasn't a courtesy visit from the looks of it. Just as she grasped this notion, Cinder swiftly moved to the side, allowing two more vines to miss her by a moment and allowing her to cut those down with a scimitar she made out of reinforced glass. The material was still burning a tiny bit, part of her semblance process which was incorporated to add a 'fiery' addition to her strikes. With her 'sword' drawn, Cinder scoffed.
"Who are you and why Salem sent you here?"
Possibly Amber, Cinder thought silently. The explanation from her father rang true in her mind as she knew that it was all tied up to the Fall Maiden. It was the only good reason that could tie things up to this attack and why she was here. But as she expected this kind of response, a hint of surprise flashed in her eyes when the head of the attack chuckled.
"Oh, I'm Summer and… the Queen wishes to send her 'regards' to Mr. Bukharin for his healthy son."
...She is after me?
While Cinder had done a lot in her recent years to warrant attention, never she would have imagined that it would have all led to this moment. To be considered a target from the Queen and… the Summer Maiden was working with the Grimm? Was that even possible?
Despite her more hopeful self seeing shock in that circumstance, the cynical element within her mind merely snorted at the stupidity shown into believing this wasn't a possibility. The powers didn't prevent the Queen and the Maidens from joining forces. Especially when the Maiden was usually mistreated by the people around her due to her power. The strength of a cult, to use the weakness of one's mind and turning it into a door into true loyalty from these individuals. She would have held some sympathy but… she wasn't in the mood of chatting while the situation was that intense. There was no further questioning as Cinder was once more forced to dodge more vines, but also some pink-colored blast that seemed to follow her movements. A bit troubling at first, but she learned that her blades easily cut through the ranged attacks. Good news, but she still had to kill her current hunter.
The woman giggled as she sent more attacks her way, some being vines, other being pink-colored orbs. But as Cinder started to grow more confident with the pattern, she slowly realized that by being so passive she had just broken one of the rules her father taught her about when it comes to both fighting and having a debate. One mistake that was manifested only when she felt a sharp pain erupt from her left hip, with three of the vines somehow manifesting by the ground behind her and stabbing through her aura somehow.
"If you take your time to grow comfortable with your opponent, there is a high chance they will do the same with you."
Annoyance flashed at her own bad move, her brain chiding her behavior for a while before she shifted away after pulling the fine out of her. Blood poured out of the wound, with her mind also confusedly trying to grasp how it was possible that the vines were hitting through her aura. Magic? Was this why her father had been so keen to keep her away from this wild kind of fighting? She could see why but… she was definitely not retreating from this one. Not until she got this annoying bitch killed.
"First blood~!" The masked fiend hummed eagerly, with her hands waving at her arrogantly. Cinder was planning to turn that ill trait of hers against her. So she bolted from her position, rushing from the side while throwing numerous glass-made senbon at her opponent. Small and thin projectiles that weren't easy to intercept or move away from. A panicked 'eep' from the enemy seemed to confirm that she was vulnerable through that strategy… but this proved to be a ploy as she saw the thin daggers bounce and fall on the ground while twirling. Numerous vines had wrapped around the girl's upper body, preventing the woman any chance of stabbing through.
"Oh, so close~! Yet so weak!"
Now this is starting to piss me off.
Her anger bubbled at the provocation, now feeling that this battle was getting too personal for her to lose in any sort of way. Just as she resumed her strafing, moving in a more irregular pattern to avoid any sneaky surprises from the infuriating foe, her eyes widened when she saw that the attacks were redirected elsewhere, striking in two general directions apart from each other and… providing her with a clear line of sight over the defenseless target.
"T-There are two of you now?!" The opponent screamed in shock, revealing to Cinder what was going on and why this wasn't a trap. Emerald had to have used her semblance, making the opponent believe there were two Cinders running on the sides while the real one was actually standing in the middle of those illusions' pattern.
Cinder bore a bloody grin as she felt the pain vanishing through the sight of her success manifesting before her. It had worked, and now she was up to claim her spoil. She moved quickly, eager, but nonetheless cautious for any traps laid before her direct path to her defenseless opponent. One hit, that's all she needed to win against her aggravating opponent. The cloaked woman gasped, her reinforced vines faltering and losing the strong color they held while covering her upper chest, blood exploding from the cross-like wound that was created by that dual hit. Cut down by Cinder's reinforced swords, the glass sharpened to a degree where the edges were sharper than pure steel just to get through the magical-enchanted defense between her and her opponent's vital area.
She turned to the downed maiden, advancing to her as she prepared to put an end to her for good. The mask fell and, much to the woman's surprise, it revealed a frightened young girl. She looked as young as Nora, leaving Cinder incredibly upset by this circumstance and seemingly tense at this discovery. How young were the people Salem was willing to recruit for her quest for revenge? Of course, the Summer Maiden saw an opportunity to strike in that reaction- a last ditch effort to kill her target before bowing to death itself. Sadly for her, just as she formed enough concentration to muster one last vine attack, her mind went numb when a thin blade pierced onto her upper back. The soft pain then turned burning, erasing any last concentration left in her body as the hit proved to be the last one needed to kill her.
Her gaze, growing glassy, was now aimed at Cinder, with the young woman frowning at the bizarre smile smugly aimed at her. It was instantaneous, and yet her body soon burned as some form of energy strongly emerged from the dead foe and slammed into her. Her mind ached, but it failed to compare to the horrible sensation which took over her body. She barely held back from screaming, with the intense moments of agony ending with a sharp sensation right by her wounds. They were… healing?
Despite that positive but absurd sign, Cinder's body was still strained, as if drained of all energies as she fell on her knees in an effort to recover from that suffering. Her numbness was brought to an end when people approached her and helped her stand up. She heard Emerald speaking with a panicking Amber and some of the guards. Despite the gibberish her ears were catching onto, one thing was clear as it was the very detail both her and the mint-haired girl had discussed about in case one of the two was hit this badly. If things went that horribly, then it was time to retreat back to… dad.
An awkward look placed on her face at the idea of being forced to leave her post like that but… at this point, it was just right to get someone that knew better about the Maidens to take a look on what was going on with her and what had just happened after that fight. Her eyes started to slowly close as she was put on board of one of the three bullheads registered to their branch, their destination being the airport, and then Atlas through the private airship designed by Menagerie to deliver important White Fang VIPs from one kingdom to another.
And yet, despite her sense of upset a t these circumstances… Cinder couldn't help but feel like something about this development was… good. For her. And for others.
Cindy got struck by… the powers of the Summer Maiden? I guess some things just don't change… or maybe they actually did since now Cindy is the resurgent Summer rather than the sorrowful Fall.
And yes, this attack to the Vale Branch of the White Fang is… not the only attack to the White Fang. More of that by the next chapter!
P.S. Story might end by Main Chapter 55, or even a little more but not beyond Main Chapter 60.