A Flame Amidst Darkness

Doubts


The time of the meeting Leonardo Lionheart had so dreaded finally arrived at the end of the next week.

The minute it took to go from his office to the secret room hidden behind a bookshelf was, as always, a trial unto itself. The flickering candles illuminating his path gave the walk the allure of a funeral procession, his own shadow dancing eerily on the stone walls of the corridor. Not for the first time, the more morbid part of his brain wondered how long it would take for Haven's staff to find his body here if this day was to be his last. He knew students liked to claim ghosts were haunting the west wing of the Academy, their bodies buried between the walls; the headmaster had dismissed those rumours long ago, but nowadays he wondered if he might become part of those legends himself.

Arriving at his destination did little to calm his frayed nerves. In the middle of the small circular room, a single Grimm creature was floating above the ground, the jellyfish-like monster seemingly unconcerned with the faunus. Not for the first time, he wondered what kind of power could compel such a creature to remain calm, when Grimm were known to attack on sight any living being they could find. Yet another reminder of the frightful powers the one he was about to talk to possessed, he supposed. Going against every instinct in his body, he took one last step to stand in front of the dark and white monster, doing his best to ignore its spiked tentacles lazily undulating in the air, all too ready to wrap themselves around his throat. That he knew first-hand.

"Your- your Grace. I am here."

The bulb-like part of the creature started emitting a faint red glow, tainted by volutes of black smoke. And slowly, the reflection of his mistress appeared, her voice slightly distorted by whatever witchcraft allowed them to communicate over such distances.

"Leonardo. I believe we have urgent matters to talk about."

Her deceptively neutral tone never failed to to chill him to the bone, and today was no exception. Leonardo Lionheart was, or at least had been a huntsman, and had fought his fair share of Grimm, bandits and murderers in his years of defending Mistral. But Salem – Salem was something else.

No-one could have mistaken her for a mere woman. Her unnaturally pale skin, crossed by pulsing dark purple veins, made her look like one of those undead monsters from children's books rather than a living person. Her white hair were styled in an elaborate hairdo reminiscent of what the nobles of old would wear, complete with dark and crimson ornaments hanging from her hairbuns. This combined with her long black robe and the diamond-shaped black tattoo – Gods, he hoped it was a tattoo – gave her an almost regal appearance. But her most striking features were her eyes, crimson red irises on entirely black pupils and sclerae.

And now this monster's sole attention was focused on him.

Leonardo immediately felt the need to defend himself. "It- it wasn't my fault! I sent the two huntsmen exactly where you told me too, Tyrian's the one that-"

Salem simply raised a hand, and he immediately quieted down. "Tyrian's mistakes have already been... discussed between us." A low, plaintive whine echoed through the connection, and Leonardo realized the insane scorpion faunus was probably in the room with his mistress, listening to the entire conversation. "I do not blame you for his failure. But he did mention something interesting."

Haven's headmaster held his breath in anticipation. "Tell me about the child, Leonardo."

The lion faunus nervously wrung his hands. "I'm not sure what I can tell you, really. As far as I know, he's a happy ten year-old boy. The reports suggest he might possess a slightly unusual semblance, but I have yet to-"

This time, a raised eyebrow was all it took to stop him. "An unusual semblance? If Tyrian's reports are accurate, this child might be capable of using magic." Salem's gaze narrowed. "You wouldn't try to hide anything from me, would you?"

The headmaster immediately protested his sincerity. "Of course not! But- but we both know that's absurd! As we are both aware, there's only one sort of person able to wield magic, and this – this boy can't be one! It's impossible!"

"As far as you know," his mistress corrected him in a neutral tone. She didn't bother to explain herself though, instead looking deep in thoughts. Leonardo knew better than to interrupt her.

Apparently, Tyrian didn't. "My Queen, I can go back," he said with the desperate tone of someone eager to redeem himself. "With Lionheart's help, I can enter Haven and take the boy to you. Please, let this be my gift to your radiance."

"Absolutely not!" the headmaster's protested, his blood running cold at the idea of the assassin walking among his students. "After your failed attack, I had to raise security among the campus, me letting in a stranger at this moment would only raise more questions! If Ozpin realizes I-"

"Silence. Both of you."

The two men instantly obeyed, waiting for the queen's orders with bated breath.

"Our plans for Beacon Academy won't come into fruition for several months. That has priority over anything else," Salem eventually declared. "Leonardo's right. We should refrain from making any unnecessary moves that might tip off our enemies." Her gaze focused on the headmaster. "Do not get me wrong, however. I expect you to closely observe that child, and report anything unusual to me." As if answering her will, one tentacle of the jellyfish-like Grimm raised itself, brushing the older man's cheek with deceptive softness. "We both know you may have stumbled in the past, Leonardo. I do hope you won't repeat ancient mistakes."

"Your Grace," he managed to croak out "I am your humble servant."

The smile she gave him looked almost genuine. "I am trusting you in this matter. If you need help, I'll have Hazel stay in Mistral for a while, you know how to contact him."

Leonardo nodded. "My lady, if I may ask. What about our plans for Mistral's huntsmen? After what happened, I can no longer claim an unlucky streak of Grimm encounters."

"We will simply slow down the assassinations," Salem casually answered. "The elimination of Mistral's defenders would be convenient in the future, but is hardly vital to our current plans. You might even tell Ozpin you suspect my involvement here, if you wish it. That should at least keep one of his pawns busy for a while." The lion faunus simply bowed, eager for the conversation to end. "Very well. I'll await your next report with interest."

Salem's image faded away, and Leonardo Lionheart wasted no time leaving the room and its monster behind. Only then did he allow himself to take a gaping breath while wiping his forehead drenched with sweat. For the next minute, he simply remained seated at his desk, trying to calm his beating heart.

After a while, Haven's headmaster had regained some semblance of control over his fear. Still, even the confined atmosphere of his office was hard to bear in his heightened state of stress. He figured an evening walk around the Academy's outer path would soothe his nerves; he had always liked this time of the day, the setting sun serving as a reminder that he had managed to survive another day, yet another small victory.

Small victories were all he could hope for anyway.

The view was as stunning as ever. Haven Academy was built at the top of the two mountains overlooking the city of Mistral, giving the students and teaching staff an impressive view over the Kingdom's capital and its surroundings. Under the dimming sun, the town was bathed in red and orange hues, and the surrounding mountains gave the place an almost timeless quality. Leonardo's hopes for a solitary walk were quickly dashed, however. As he followed the small footway circling around the campus, he found the figure of young Laphicet sitting on the low wall securing the path, his feet dangling in the air as he took in the view with a smile on his face.

"You shouldn't sit like that," the headmaster gently admonished. "You might fall."

"Oh! Sorry!" The young boy slid away from the mountain's slope and stood up. "Good evening professor Lionheart!"

Since he made a full recovery a week ago, Laphicet had taken to Haven Academy instantly. Most of his time had been spent in the library, where he seemed to devour one book after another, but he could also often be seen exploring every nook and cranny of the place, driven by a seemingly insatiable thirst for discovery. It was like everything was new to him. Well, Lionheart supposed it was just so; he hadn't really thought back on that 'other world' tale, but it was clear the boy was utterly unfamiliar with Mistral.

"Good evening, young man. You seem to be enjoying the scenery."

The blonde boy enthusiastically nodded. "Yes. I've never seen a city built around a mountain like that. And even the buildings are strange! It's like something out of Rokurou's stories."

"One of those friends of your, I take it?" So at least one of them might be a Mistral citizen. But so far, there had be no sign of Laphicet's acquaintances.

"Yeah! He can be scary sometimes, but he's super cool. He can be a bit childish though. Like that time he got in a fight with Eizen over my rhinostagros."

The older man raised an eyebrow. "Rhinostagros?"

"Right, it's my beetle. I had to leave him behind though, I hope he's okay..."

Through prior conversations, it had been clear the boy held his travelling companions in high regards, though from the bits Leonardo was able to piece together, they seemed like an eccentric bunch, to say the least. Not to mention Laphicet claimed to have been on the road for several months now, which hardly seemed like the ideal lifestyle for a child. As an educator, Leonardo Lionheart couldn't say he approved, despite how hypocritical that sentiment was coming from him.

He cleared his throat. "Well, I'm glad you're enjoying it here," he said, changing the subject. "If you're interested in the town, I might be able to have you escorted for a tour in a few days."

"That would be great! Thank you." Once again the boy gave him that earnest smile of his, coupled with green eyes shining with excitement. It did nothing to appease Leonardo's own guilty conscience. Do not trust me so easily, he wanted to say. You don't know what I might be after, what I could end up doing to you if She orders it. But Laphicet kept smiling, oblivious to the effect he had on his elder.

"Anyway," he continued. "I was hoping you could show me a bit of your semblance. I admit, after what I heard, I am a little curious."

"Um. Like this?" Laphicet drew one of those paper talismans he carried with him, and with a hand gesture, made it hover above his open palm. Another hand sign, and the item was encased in a star-shaped frozen block. A second later, the ice melted to form a water sphere. One last gesture, and the water evaporated, being replaced by a small beating flame that the young boy extinguished by closing his palm. Surprisingly, the paper remained undamaged.

The lion faunus scratched his beard, trying to make sense of what he just saw. Those various elemental displays would be consistent with dust-powered weaponry. But infusing several types of dust, a substance known for its high value, on an item as fragile as a piece of paper would be a peculiar choice. And there was no trigger mechanism – unless that was the boy's semblance? The ability to directly interact with dust? A rare skill if true, but not unheard of, and it would certainly explain-

"But, you know, I don't think that's a semblance."

That threw him off for a loop. "Pardon?"

"Semblance," Laphicet recited, clearly quoting one of the library's textbook. "The manifestation of one's personal power as an ability unique to each individual. Said to be a reflection of their souls. But what I did just now... it's not unique to me. Any malakhim could probably do the same, if they have the right elemental affinities."

"Well," Leonardo tried to argue. "While it's true semblances are somewhat unique, it is not impossible to inherit them as well from your parents." That was what that malakhim deal was, wasn't it? Some sort of family?

"Well, yeah, but I'm not related to Eizen at all, and he taught me all kinds of things. Magilou too, though in her case, I guess it came from Bienfu. But when I read about semblances, I was thinking, it sounds a lot more like a malak's blessing."

"Could you demonstrate, then?" To be honest, the headmaster was rather sceptical, but it couldn't hurt to humour the boy.

Phi seemed doubtful. "I'm not sure. Up until now, I hadn't found what my blessing was, but I think- I think that's what I used in the forest. At the end."

Leonardo's heart skipped a beat. 'And then he summoned a silver fire that burned the Grimm away while leaving us all untouched'. That part couldn't have been true, right? Before he could say anything, Laphicet was already focusing.

It was small, tiny even. But between the child's two open palms, there was a silver spark shimmering in the ambient light. Even doing that much seemed to take a great deal of effort from the boy, but he looked delighted nonetheless." I did it!"

"Enough!" The faunus hadn't meant to shout, but his booming voice startled Laphicet nonetheless, who immediately dropped his hands, the silver light instantly vanishing.

"I'm sorry..."

The guilty expression was too much to take. The boy had done nothing wrong, except- except doing something he shouldn't have been able to do. If it was what Leonardo thought it was, then Salem would- he forcefully shut down that train of thought. He couldn't think about this right now. He couldn't.

"No, I am sorry, my boy. You- you just surprised me, that's all." He tried his best to smile, but all he could manage was a grimace. Almost on impulse, he grabbed the blond child by the shoulders, forcing him to meet his gaze. "What you just did- you must promise me. Do not use it around strangers. It could be extremely dangerous, you hear me?"

The boy nodded, clearly scared by the headmaster's sudden intensity, and was left with the feeling of having done something wrong even if he couldn't tell what. For his part, Leonardo took a deep breath, trying to regain control of himself. For a moment, the adult and the child remained standing side by side in silence, neither of them trusting themselves to speak.

Laphicet was the first one to break the ice, his voice still laced with uncertainty. "Can- can I ask you something?"

The headmaster massaged his temple, but gave him a short nod. "Of course."

"In the library," said Laphicet, seemingly walking on eggshells, "I read about the faunus. About how they have been treated by most humans, and how Mistral have been a rather bad place for them. Have you – have you had troubles with that?"

Leonardo sighed. Trust a child to jump head first into difficult questions. "I suppose. I am lucky enough to be able to pass for human as long as I hide my tail, which certainly helped some. It is true that I wouldn't hold my current position if not for a few influential friends, ones that are fortunately not as prejudiced as most." Though in retrospect, his life would have been far easier if Ozpin had passed him over. "You shouldn't worry about it. You're too young to concern yourself with such matters."

Phi shook his head. "No, I think I understand, at least a little. On my world, people like me – we're being treated as tools. Until Velvet saved me and Eizen taught me what it meant to be a malak, I couldn't even think for myself. I guess- I guess I just found it sad to see something like that also existed here." He gave an uncertain glance. "You went through difficult moments as well, right?"

Leonardo wanted to scoff – they boy seemed human enough, what was he talking about – but somehow, every word seemed sincere. This child had been enslaved? If so, no wonder he felt so attached to his missing companions, if they were the ones to rescue him. He was about to ask more when he was interrupted by a beeping sound coming from his pocket. Apparently, he was receiving an incoming call. Grabbing his scroll, he looked at the name on display and his eyes widened.

Ozpin.

Why today of all days? Laphicet seemed to sense his sudden alarm. "Is something wrong?"

"It's nothing," the faunus answered. "I will have to take this call from my office. Don't stay out too late, nights can become quite cold this high up."

"Wait!" the boy called up to him as he began to turn around. "Before you go, I just wanted to say... thank you. For everything, I mean. I don't know anything about faunus, or what you went through, but you've already helped me a lot, even if you didn't know me. So at least, I know you're a good person." Laphicet blushed red at his own words and turned back. "That- that's all I needed to say! I'll go now!"

Leonardo watched him walk away, too stunned to point out he was the one supposed to leave. He didn't know if he should cry or laugh. A good person? Him? This was- this was ridiculous. He hadn't been one for a long time – perhaps he had never been one to begin with. Still, the words refused to leave him, echoing through his head all the way back to his office.

He finally sat down to his desk and pressed the button activating the holographic screen. There was something reassuring using such mundane technology to communicate, in contrast with the occult ways used by Salem. However, the face that appeared created a different sort of anxiety, tainted with more guilt than fear... but also a good deal of resentment.

"Ozpin. I didn't expect a call."

"It's been too long, Leo. How have you been?"

In contrast with Salem's eldritch appearance, the headmaster of Beacon was the picture of normalcy. A tall, somewhat gangly fifty-something year old, with slightly tousled grey-silver hair and perfectly ordinary brown eyes. The small pair of glasses helped to sell the image of the kind and slightly mischievious scholar he liked to present, one with wisdom to share.

And to think that Leonardo had fallen for this facade, a long time ago.

"I am well enough," the faunus managed to answer. "Preparing for the new school year leaves me with little time for myself.. But you know all about that, I suppose."

The other headmaster laughed. "Indeed! Beacon's new year is shaping up to be rather exciting already," his expression grew more serious. "But I've heard you had troubles on your end."

Of course he would. Ozpin's ability to gather intelligence had always been uncanny. "It's still a bit unclear. Mistral lost three huntsmen teams to what we believed to be Grimm attacks, but it appears we might have been wrong about that."

"Leo, this is serious. If She is targetting Mistral, then-"

"I know!" Lionheart protested. "But right now, I don't want to create a panic! I've passed along the word to the huntsmen on the ground, and asked for teams to pair up. Hopefully it'll give us safety in numbers. And as soon as I learn more about the faunus that attacked us, I'll tell you."

"Very well," Ozpin slowly nodded. "I trust your judgment."

Leonardo had to bit his lip to not let out a dejected laugh. Ozpin trusted him? If that had been true, the situation today would be very different. His one-time mentor was an expert at talking about the virtues of trust and cooperation, but often failed to display those qualities for himself. From the very day he recruited Leonardo in his crusade against Salem, Ozpin had lied.

You did not tell me, the faunus bitterly thought, you did not tell me that victory was impossible from the very start.

"Anyway," Beacon's headmaster interrupted, "That's not all I wanted to talk about. Could you tell me about that child you welcomed at Haven? What I heard seemed truly fascinating."

"No," Leonardo growled under his teeth, his resentment dangerously close from coming to the surface.

That expression on Ozpin's face was akin to a parent disappointed with a stubborn child. "Leo-"

"No, Ozpin, I won't tell you about the child!" the lion faunus exploded. "By the Gods, he's a ten-year old boy! I know you're always on the look-out for new talents to throw away in your never-ending war against Her, but leave this kid out of it!" By this point he could no longer stop the words from coming out. "Yes, he has a slightly unusual semblance! But it doesn't matter! If he wishes so, he'll enlist in one of our Academies and then you'll be able to convince him – in seven years! Before that, leave that boy alone!"

Lionheart ended his rant short on breath, barely believing what just happened. He- had raised his voice at Ozpin. What did he do? He had to apologize, fix things while he still could. "O-Ozpin, I'm sorry, I shouldn't have-"

The other man shook his head. "No, my friend, I am sorry. You're right, this was presumptuous of me. Our... difficult situation sometimes makes me lose sight of what should be the most important things," Ozpin let out a self-depreciating chuckle. "I am glad to have people like you to set me straight. But I must confess I'm surprised, Leo. He must really have made an impression on you."

"He is... he is easy to like," the faunus finally admitted. "But I'm sorry, I shouldn't have shouted. It's just – I've been under a great deal of stress lately, and I'm afraid I let it get to me."

"Think nothing of it," Ozpin replied. "You can always talk to me if you want to. I know you have a difficult position, so if I can do anything to make things easier, let me know."

"I will. Thank you Ozpin," Leonardo answered, feeling utterly spent. With one last nod, the two men disconnected the call, making him free to collapse in his chair, grabbing his head with both hands. What was he going to do?

I know you're a good person.

Maybe... maybe he didn't have to do anything, he realized. It was just as he said, the boy had the slightly rare ability to manipulate dust, and that was it. That spark from earlier had only seemed silver under the ambient light, there was nothing special about it. Anyone would agree that thinking otherwise would be absurd. Yes he decided, he really shouldn't bother Salem with insignificant details.

And perhaps, if he repeated it to himself enough times, he might even end up believing it.


Ozpin ended the call with a pensive expression on his face. Well, he supposed he had earned that admonishment. He was well aware he could come across as overly eager when it came to promising youngsters, but Leonardo had been right that ten year old was pushing it. Even admitting a fifteen year-old at Beacon had been a questionable decision – and the Gods knew Glynda had questioned it - and at least miss Rose had demonstrated prior willingness to fight off crime before he even approached her.

Still, it was clear his old friend was going through a rather hard time. Understandable, really, but Ozpin probably shouldn't remain passive about it. Perhaps he could send Qrow to assist him? The man was overworked as it was, but perhaps-

His train of thoughts was interrupted by the sound of his office elevator opening, making way for Glynda Goodwitch in the room, the stern huntress ever the picture of professionalism.

"Professor Ozpin, your guest has arrived."

"Excellent. You can come in," he said to the silhouette still waiting inside the elevator.

The man answered his invitation, taking a few cautious steps inside the office. The newcomer bowed his head before speaking in a solemn voice.

"Headmaster, thank you for receiving me. My name is Artorius Collbrande, and I want to request your help."


End of Part Two: a Flame Amidst Darkness