"Brethren," Maddie Fenton's voice rang clear and unwavering in the confines of the Brotherhood's underground headquarters. "Thank you for your haste. I am sure you are all aware as to why you are here."
Standing at the front of the crowd that had gathered, Sam crossed her arms, her eyes trained on her leader and mentor as she braced herself for what she would say next. She was not the only one. All two hundred odd of the Brotherhood's members had assembled in alacrity at Maddie's orders, all waiting in dreaded anticipation of what was to come.
In spite of her petite size, the Brotherhood's leader commanded the utter attention of all those present, her authoritative presence emanating fiery resolution that affected even those standing in the furthest corner of the underground conference room. Despite being flanked by her husband who towered over her, or the other members of the council who had assembled behind her, their faces woven into similar expressions of gravity, there was no doubt as to who was in total command.
"Forgive me for putting you in danger by asking us all to gather here, under one roof. I would have relayed instructions via our communicators, but I thought these are words best heard from my own lips," Maddie paused for a breath, and you could hear a pin drop in the silence as they strained to catch their leaders next words.
"Firstly," her mentor continued, "I thank you all for dedication to our cause. I know the past seven hours haven't been easy on any of us. I suppose we should be thankful that the ordinary civilians didn't find cause enough to riot."
Maddie's statement was met with similar murmurs of shared tired relief.
"It's been seven hours since the Former Lord General Phantom was cast out of Pariah's elite and replaced by our old friend the Fright Knight," her lips pursed into a thin line. "As of yet, we've not managed to establish what caused the conflict of interest, although it's pretty evident that the Empire is desperate for Phantom to be subdued. The best we can hope for is that Phantom manages to destroy several Midians of high standing before the Empire eventually slays him."
Despite herself, Sam could not stop her insides from knotting with worry at the offhanded manner in which her mentor had relayed Phantom's imminent demise. While it was true that the white haired ghost had handed them a lifeline, Sam was still heartbreakingly aware that her new ally was no friend of the Brotherhood.
"To be honest, the previous Ghost General's defection couldn't have come at a better time," the Brotherhood leader's lips curved into a smirk. "The Empire is hardly going to bother with a handful of rebels when they have a rogue warlord on the loose."
Raucous jeering followed the red haired woman's words, leaving Sam with a dull feeling of claustrophobia. You can't claim credit for any of this, she found herself thinking bitterly. All of you owe Phantom your lives. Her palm was pressed to her chest before she could stop herself, drawing comfort from the Ring of Rage nestled in between her cleavage in an effort to quell beginnings of a persistent niggling in the back of her head telling her that she no longer belonged.
The ghost hunter had been far from the last to assemble in their underground conference room that in itself wasn't much more than a concrete box nearly a mile beneath the Fenton residence. Yet, Sam was well aware that the dangerous nature of the information she possessed was perhaps too sensitive for the ears of typical members of her brethren, which had thus far prevented her from relaying information regarding Phantom's true aims to their leader, for risk of being overheard.
It was best if as few people knew about the Ring of Rage as possible, Sam had decided, and Maddie's apprentice had no doubt that her mentor would agree with her judgment call once it was brought to her attention. Doubtlessly the Empire would be desperate to reclaim the artifact, and even copiously trained members of the Brotherhood might well crack when subjected to interrogation and torture by the Night Police. As much hope as her possession of the Ghost King's Ring might bring to her brethren, it was information best shared with the masses at a later date.
Despite herself, the choice that Sam had made left her biting her lip in agitation. The ghost hunter could not help but feel oddly guilty for allowing her mentor to address their brethren and relay goals decided on by the Council based chiefly on false assumptions that were within her power to dispel. Depending on what their leader had decided on with the advice of the Council, Sam was well aware that her possession of the Ring of Rage could well make or break their leader's current plans.
It was too late to dwell on that now, the lavender eyed girl told herself firmly. Maddie had already begun to address their brethren. Telling her mentor about Phantom's true intentions and the Ring of Rage would just have to wait until immediately after this meeting. She was not about to dishonor her mentor by interrupting her mid-speech.
Hugging herself, the ghost hunter kept her eyes trained on her mentor, pointedly ignoring the looks of concern that her team mates shot in her direction at her subdued behavior as she stifled fresh pangs of regret. This was the first time that she had ever kept anything from Tucker and Valerie. Even when she had sought out Phantom against Maddie's orders, the two of them had been right there with her to watch her back, even if they found no reason to believe in her cause.
She would tell them about the Ring of Rage, Sam decided abruptly. They had been through too much together for her not to. Besides, she trusted the pair of them as explicitly as she trusted her mentor. There was no way she'd ever be able to live with herself if she wasn't completely honest with them.
Sam was well aware that her first blunder was her failure to inform Maddie that Phantom had sought her out to share information and deliver the Ring of Rage into her hands the instance after the white haired ghost had fled her home. But instead, she had collapsed mutely on the floor of the balcony outside her room, too stunned by the recent turn of events to even think about her foresworn duty to the Brotherhood, let alone notice the midnight chills wracking her sparsely clad form.
Her mentor's voice had roughly broken her out of her reverie by way of an urgent message personally delivered via the small communicator grafted onto the inside of her ear, requesting her and Valerie's immediate services in ensuring that unrest was kept off the streets of Amity Park. Sam knew that she should have told her mentor then- she ought to have blurted out the news to Maddie the moment their leader made contact with her. Yet, for some reason unknown to the ghost hunter, she had chosen to keep what had occurred between Phantom and herself just between them, if only for the time being.
To be honest, fear of incrimination from her association with Phantom had never crossed Sam's mind. It wasn't as though the ghost hunter would ever be selfish enough to allow her own weak fear of disciplinary action doom the Brotherhood. As far as she was concerned, whatever penances the Council would device for her, she would duly accept. Punishment for her ridiculous actions was long overdue, spanning back to when she had first laid eyes on Phantom nearly a year ago.
The dark haired girl exhaled shakily. Attempting to barter with the white haired ghost to ally himself with the Brotherhood despite her mentor's express prohibition had been the first of her unforgiveable mistakes.
When she had first attempted to negotiate with Phantom almost a year ago, the mere thought of defying a direct order from her mentor terrified her, more so than any impending repercussions should she be discovered. Of course, she had feared greatly for Tucker and Valerie, in the event that it was revealed that they had aided her for some of it. But at the end of the day, it had been her willingness to disobey a command from their leader, no matter her good intentions or how immensely difficult she had found it, that afflicted the ghost hunter to no end.
Now, with that initial mistake buried six feet under beneath layers upon layers of untruths, Sam found that temporarily withholding mortal information that could potentially doomed the Brotherhood in its entirety hurt a great deal less than it should, let alone admitting to herself that she had nearly allowed a member of the enemy to proposition her. In fact, at that very moment, Sam couldn't feel anything other than an icy numbness that threatened to overtake her. No, reluctantly, the ghost hunter corrected herself. There had been no 'nearly' about the situation. If she hadn't spooked Phantom with her thoughtlessness, there was no way to sugar coat the fact that they would have ended up having sex.
Maddie's apprentice blinked owlishly at her own bluntness, as she struggled to bring about a response of disgust from her own form that refused to come. The very revolting notion of the words ghost and sex being used in the same sentence ought to repulse her to the point of nausea, yet all Sam could envision was his lips crushing hungrily against hers, her legs straddling and squeezing his waist, his fingers caressing and trailing across her skin with chilling, terrifying intensity that left her hopelessly wanting more.
Stop it, her mind whimpered. Not here, never here. Will you defile every last principle that you stand for? Shaking her head to clear it, the ghost hunter abruptly realised that she had blanked out and totally lost track of her mentor's thread of speech. You're disgusting, she told herself, repulsed by her own actions.
"– whatever Phantom's intentions concerning the Empire, it is doubtful that he will be successful, no matter how large a following he manages to gather in order to challenge Pariah," their leader continued, and Sam trained her ears to catch the end of Maddie's next sentence, silently berating herself for her lapse of concentration.
"Are you okay?" Valerie mouthed in concern, noticing how pale and shaken her friend appeared.
"I'm fine," Sam bit out as she attempted a smile. "I'm just tired."
"Loathe as I am to admit it," their leader continued, her voice gaining conviction despite the desolate nature of the news she was about to deliver, "Pariah might consider us a much easier threat to deal with and finish us off for his own peace of mind before turning his complete attention to seeking Phantom. Of course, all that we have discussed here this morning is all nothing more than speculation until our intelligence affirms why exactly the Empire is so desperate to have Phantom in their custody."
I should have told her sooner, Sam lamented helplessly, the guilt threatening to smother her as she clenched her fists, shaking with silent self hatred. All this pointless speculation isn't helping anyone.
Mistaking Sam's trembles of self revulsion for those of fear and despair, Paulina silently approached the other ghost hunter, gathering her into a tight hug. "Be brave, Sam," the pretty Latina cooed consolingly. "I know it's hard, but we have to be."
"Oh, babe," Star whispered, brushing dark hair off Sam's face in comfort. "It's all going to be okay. The Council will figure it out."
"Stiff upper lip, Manson," Dash added with a wry half grin, as Valerie slipped her hand onto hers. "You're good at that, aren't you?"
"I don't deserve your sympathy," the lavender eyed girl murmured quietly, shooting a pleading glance at Tucker and Val. The rest of the apprentices in training wouldn't understand, but at the very least her partners understood some of her crimes against their brethren and would leave her to mope in peace, even if the pair of them were not aware of her actions the previous night; her thoughtless, indulgent actions that were sufficiently repellant for her to be branded a blood traitor.
"What do you mean," Kwan's brows furrowed in puzzlement. "What have you done, Sam?"
"Nothing," to her surprise, Tucker's eyes glinted with comfort and warmth as he placed a hand on her shoulder. "Sam's done nothing wrong."
"We'll get through this," Valerie affirmed, her features glowing with the same determined aggression that Sam saw every night on her partner's face as they patrolled their section of Amity together. "All of us, together."
Their ignorant platitudes left Sam wanting to weep.
"Letting the power hungry Midians destroy each other puts us at no disadvantage. Henceforth, our priority remains to ascertain if Pariah Dark still intends to swarm Amity Park with Night Police in an attempt to flush us out," Maddie's expression hardened, the tension amongst their brethren stiffening until it could have been sliced with a butter knife.
Catching her apprentice's eye, Maddie subjected Sam to a look of puzzlement at her uncharacteristic lack of stoicism, before she turned her attention back on the crowd gathered before her. "Until the enemy makes the first move, it is imperative that we continue defending this town as our brethren before us have done. But change has come to Amity, and similarly, change must come within our ranks."
Their leader paused briefly to allow her recent words to sink in, and it wasn't long before murmurs of curious conjecture followed. Sam took a deep breath, unable to shake the latent feeling of foreboding that something was about to go horribly wrong.
"This brings me to my final objective for this morning." Maddie cut through her subordinates' murmurs without waiting for them to die down. "In order to defend Amity Park in these dark times, it is inadequate for the Brotherhood to remain merely on the defensive."
Beside Sam, Valerie nodded in vehement agreement, as the atmosphere in the conference room was swept up in a tense flurry of silent anticipation.
"To protect those we care about, and each other, we have no choice but for the covert nature of our syndicate to be compromised, in favour of more aggressive strategies to break their hold over us. We will no longer merely patrol the streets of Amity," their leader's voice acquired a glacial, ruthless edge. "Hence, the Council has decided that our dozens of discreet patrol teams are to be reorganised into larger, more efficient attack squads with immediate effect. From this moment forward, any member of the enemy's kin is to be attacked on sight."
The beginnings of their brethren's wholehearted cheering sputtered and died as Maddie held up her hand, requesting silence. "In addition, as leader of the Brotherhood, it is on my authority that these newly reorganized teams are to report directly to my apprentice and heir, Samantha Manson."
Sam felt as though she had just been shot out of the sky as two hundred heads swiveled from all directions to regard her, their gazes holding a mixture of disbelief, admiration and newfound respect. The ghost hunter's own sightline was trained on her leader and mentor, as Maddie smiled slightly in support at her. Maddie's apprentice's lips parted as she struggled to form words, desperately searching her mentor's abruptly hard, unreadable eyes for some semblance of answers.
Trembling as she took greedy breaths, she silently willed them to avert their stares she recalled the horrifying night when she had confronted Phantom, shortly after he had debuted himself as the new Ghost General, and how he had so simply, yet unspeakably violently, thrust her into the air with nothing more than a flick of his finger, leaving her hurtling at breakneck speed towards her death with no means of escape from the clutches of gravity.
Yet, the feeling of helplessness that had threatened to eat her alive then paled in comparison to the utter desolation Sam was experiencing whilst being pinned under the watchful, expectant eyes of her brethren. Before she could stop herself, she had torn her gaze from that of her mentor's, taking a half step backwards in utter incredulity at the recent path that events had taken. No, she breathed. This is all wrong!
"Sam?" Tucker voiced in concern, as the ghost hunter turned faintly to regard him, still too numb with shock to register the various congratulatory responses from her fellow apprentices, sinking woodenly into the group hug initiated by Paulina and Star.
Behind him stood Valerie, her features hardening in mistaken comprehension as her partner stared Sam down with stony silence. Sam winced; Valerie had to be thinking that her previous uneasiness had been due to her nervousness in knowledge of the new position that she was about to be appointed.
"For now, this is all that I have to share," satisfaction permeated the Brotherhood leader's tone. "You are all dismissed to claim some well earned rest. You've earned it, brethren."
"Maddie," Sam began in protest, starting forward the moment her mentor's dismissal left her lips.
Dash made a move to pull her aside to congratulate her, but he was deterred by a discouraging glance from Tucker. At the back of her mind, the ghost hunter heard her tech operative suggest that the rest of her peers took their leaves and left her be for the time being, but she had far more pressing matters to try and set straight to even care if Tucker had even been the least bit diplomatic in requesting that they left her alone.
"Well done, Sam," Lancer congratulated, patting her on the back on his way out of the conference room. "You've certainly earned the honour."
The rest of the Council passed her without a word, but strangely enough, Sam sensed no hostility whatsoever emanating from their gazes. Their acceptance at her appointment into a position that nearly equaled their own was made most evident by Jack, who favoured her with a hearty wink of encouragement. Even Tetslaff seemed content to let Maddie's statement slide unchallenged, save for a quick glance at the Brotherhood's leader prior to scrutinising Sam, before her gaze once against settled on Maddie's features, as the two Council members shared a nod of tacit understanding.
Amidst the buzz of fresh rumours flying amongst her brethren as they departed the room, Sam couldn't help but wonder. The Council's acceptance of her appointment prompted the question- had her appointment been a unanimous decision, or had Maddie acted alone? Most likely, her mentor hadn't told anyone about the machination that she had just pulled in order to ascertain that Sam received the Council's full attention in the coming battles that lay ahead. Either way, Sam was disturbed to realise that her superiors hadn't exactly gone up in arms to try and circumvent Maddie's decision to appoint her. Not that she deserved any of it, after the crimes that she had committed against her brethren.
"Maddie," she tried again as she neared her mentor, only to be silenced with a look as the Brotherhood's leader raised a hand to stop her from approaching.
It was then that Sam realised that Vlad Masters had beaten her to a confrontation with Maddie, his blue eyes frosty as he regarded her in poorly veiled contempt.
"That was a low blow, Maddie," Vlad's lips were pursed into a grim line. "Even for me. I never would have expected it of you."
"I have no idea what you're talking about," despite the lightness of her mentor's tone, it was evident from the red haired woman's eyes that she was on guard against any accusations she expected to follow.
"We both know why you just pulled that stunt," the silver haired man's words were impeccably calm and measured. "But I would've thought you of all people would have been above sabotaging Valerie's chances."
"I did not do so to undermine Valerie's position in the eyes of the rest of the Council," Sam's mentor maintained. "Our new attack squad needed a leader, and my own apprentice was the best candidate."
"Valerie is every bit as deserving as Sam is- perhaps more, and you know it," bite entered Vlad's tone, before he paused in consideration. "Or maybe you don't," the Council member voiced curiously, as he eyed Sam in speculation.
And somehow, despite the fact that the lilac eyed girl trusted her best friend and partner with her life, Sam could not shake the feeling that Valerie's mentor knew a lot more about her encounters with Phantom than he was letting on. The ghost hunter shook her head to clear it. Carrying the Ring of Rage was making her stupid and paranoid. There was no way that Valerie would ever betray her trust.
"You knew," Valerie accused, lurching Sam back to reality and forcing her to take her attention off Maddie and Vlad's argument. "All along, you planned this with Maddie."
"No," Sam murmured leadenly in reply, her insides still twisting in shock. "I would never do this to you, Val, you have to believe me," she supplicated desperately.
"I don't believe you," her partner's voice was laced with frost. "I thought we were friends."
"We are," Sam replied in hurt, "the best. Val," she whispered. "I had no idea, I swear."
"The two of you need to take a step back," Tucker reasoned as he massaged the bridge of his nose in weariness. "Before either of you say something that you'll regret."
"It doesn't matter," Valerie bit out, as she noticed Vlad storm away from his previous disagreement with Maddie. "I'm done."
"Valerie," Sam called after desperately, as her best friend turned her back on her. "Val," she tried again, more insistently, as her partner ignored her cries and followed her mentor out of the vast, now empty room; despair eating at the ghost hunter as she watched Valerie leave. The only thing keeping Sam from sinking to the cold concrete floor in misery was the fact that she now had a mentor to confront.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Sam couldn't keep the accusatory note out of her voice as she spun on her heels to face her mentor, unsettled to realise that she was on the verge of tears.
"There was no time," Maddie explained, her forehead wrinkling in bemusement at her apprentice's vehement response. "I would've thought your new position would make you happy, Sam."
"What gave you that idea?" her apprentice voiced, her retort coming out harsher than she had initially intended.
"Both Vlad and I have done much worse in the past whilst competing against each other for the honour of leadership," a cold, uncompromising note that left little room for argument entered Maddie's tone. "This is just the beginning, Sam. Vlad isn't going to take this lying down."
"Of course he won't," frustration entered the ghost hunter's voice. "You've just willfully placed Valerie at a huge disadvantage."
"You'll thank me for this, Sam," Maddie's expression softened, the motherly look of concern returning as she tenderly brushed stray locks out of her apprentice's eyes, "when you're older you'll understand."
"I don't deserve any of it," the ghost hunter floundered helplessly, as her mentor squeezed her hand in encouragement.
"Yes, you do," their leader replied firmly, drawing her apprentice in a tight hug. "You deserve all of it. Why wouldn't you?"
Sam opened her mouth to speak, when behind Maddie's back Tucker made a fierce gesture for her to be silent. The ghost hunter shot her team mate a pleading look, begging him to allow her to speak unhindered. You don't understand, she mouthed, as she stared her best friend down desperately. But Tucker shook his head, his face set in somber determination that the ghost hunter knew that she was too drained to combat in her present state. And before Sam could help it, the moment had passed, and Maddie had released her, still shell-shocked, from the hug.
"I'm proud of you, Sam," Maddie smiled. She squeezed her apprentice's shoulders in encouragement, before turning to leave.
I have the Ring of Rage, Sam willed herself to blurt out. But under her mentor's tender gaze, she somehow couldn't bring herself to. You're being a coward, bile rose to the back of the ghost hunter's throat in self-disgust. An even worse one than Phantom ever was.
Helplessly, Sam watched as her mentor departed, before sinking weakly to the floor in a small, near lifeless heap.
"You shouldn't have kept that from us," Tucker grunted, joining Sam on the floor. "Val'll be mad for a while, but let's just hope that she gets over it, eventually."
"I didn't know," Sam replied weakly. "Really, I didn't. Don't you think I would have argued with Maddie in private if I'd known? We both know that I don't deserve this. Especially after how I went against her orders to seek out Phantom."
And you don't know the half of it, Sam added bitterly to herself. After what happened between us last night, I should be branded a blood traitor. I don't even deserve to still be a member of our brethren.
"I'm not going to assume that Val isn't thinking along similar lines," her best friend conceded. "Val may be angry, but she's no traitor. You're not going to have to worry about her selling you out for revenge."
"I never thought she would," the ghost hunter replied, aghast by Tucker's unnecessary reassurances. "She's my partner. But I don't want this," Sam managed out. "I don't deserve any of this. Tucker, what should I do?" For the first time since entire world had been shaken by Phantom's visit to her atop the balcony at her home, Maddie's apprentice didn't fight back the hot tears that seeped from her eyes, squeezing her eyes shut to clear her vision.
"I don't know," Tucker frowned thoughtfully, his expression far away as his eyes brightened with dim hope. "For all we know, your association with Phantom could be a good thing."
"Tucker, I –" Sam managed out shakily, as she struggled to phrase her confession. She had never planned to inform anyone about the Ring of Rage other than her mentor, but having failed that, the ghost hunter found herself overcome by a desperate urge to share the knowledge with her team member before she was once again hopelessly outmaneuvered into withholding the information.
"He cares for you," her tech operative interjected. "We know that much. Why else would he keep trying to protect you from harm? And he's sought you out in the past," her best friend rubbed his chin in consideration. "And nothing has ever indicated that he would hesitate to do it again."
"Where are you going with this?" It was an empty question, for Sam already knew, bitter bile working its way up her throat as she waited for Tucker to state the inevitable.
"We could bait him out into the open, and use him to barter for the safety of Amity Park," Tucker made no move to quell the cautious enthusiasm on his features. "With the attack squads now at your command, you now have the authority to organise an ambush and attempt to capture Phantom. Maddie'll never have to know that you were the bait."
"It'll never work," Sam's voice acquired a frosty edge. "Phantom is too powerful."
"For a single team on patrol, maybe," conviction began to flood Tucker's tone. "But pitch Phantom against all two hundred odd of our brethren, and we'll be left with a fighting chance. I thought you'd be happy," her tech operative subjected her to a strange look. "You despise Phantom."
"I do," Sam lied, choking on her own words.
"And now that he no longer has the Empire behind him we've been granted the opportunity to take him down for good…" her tech operative grinned enthusiastically, searching the ghost hunter's features for a smile. "Isn't this what you've been waiting for, Sam? And if you give Valerie a share of the glory, I'm sure that she'll come around sooner and forgive you."
"I don't know," the ghost hunter mumbled helplessly.
"Don't you want Val's forgiveness, Sam?" puzzlement overtook Tucker's features.
"Of course I do," Sam whispered. "That goes without saying."
"Then what's bothering you?" he questioned, punching her lightly on the shoulder.
Sam couldn't bring herself to snuff out the faint spark of hope that had ignited in her best friend's eyes.
"But what if we fail?" Sam queried in defeat, hunching over as she propped her head onto her knees, burying her face in her crossed arms. "We can't risk the lives of the entire Brotherhood on a single move."
"Simple," her tech operative smirked. "You're just going to have to make him an offer that he can't refuse."
Author's Notes: Sorry the update took so long! You can blame Chaos Dragon for trying to get me hooked on NationStates2!
And I wouldn't want to be Sam right now, poor girl. And thanks go to bloodmoon on DA for her amazing remake of the AA prologue comic!!
Concrit is greatly appreciated, as usual! :D