Once, there was a Maiden (RWBY/Exalted)


Writes Things
The woman walked up the meandering dirt road as it rolled along the scenic countryside, passing under banks of tall trees green with fresh leaves, clinging to the bank of a cool brook. It was familiar to her in the way that all dirt roads through the countryside were familiar. Mistrali, Atlesian, Vacuan, Valean, all of their idyllic rural areas were basically the same. The kinds of people who took advantage of the seemingly idyllic rural life were essentially similar too.

They were the kinds of people who didn’t mind having to fight Grimm occasionally: warriors, fighters, soldiers with awakened Essence and the training to use it. The Travelling Huntress respected that. She didn’t know the man she was going to meet, but she felt that she knew the man he once was. Hopefully he hadn’t changed too much.

The house at the end of the road sat on one of the wide, low hills that decorated the island of Patch, only lightly wooded and covered in grass so thick and green that it was almost unnatural. The Travelling Huntress paused at that thought, and tilted her head to listen to something only she could hear, causing her dark hair to fall across her face and into her slightly open mouth.

She brushed it back in place, furtively looked around to see if anyone had seen her, and only relaxed when she remembered that she was in the middle of the Grimm-infested borderlands of civilization -though it wasn’t truly Grimm-infested at all. The magic she sensed draped across the treetops, laced with patterns abhorrent to all demons, was still strong. It would last for years before it would need renewing.

A man exited the house ahead of her, and The Travelling Huntress lingered in the shade of an oak tree to look at him. He was tall, blonde, and dressed for gardening. It was so easy to look at him and see a phantom overlay, so similar was the memory in her head. The curl of his blonde hair, his strong chin, even the stupid half jacket that only came down to the end of his rib cage stirred her heart with a bittersweet sting.

He looked up as The Travelling Huntress approached. “Well, hello stranger.”

“Hello yourself.” The woman drawled.

“I’m not normally so up front, but… do I know you?” The man asked.

“Not exactly. Not yet. But I have a message for Taiyang Xiao Long.”

“So you’re a mailman. Neat. I’ve got a box at Signal though, so you didn’t need to come out here. I guess I can fetch you a drink for your troubles.” Taiyang turned and walked into his house, heedless of the dirt crumbling off of his knees from his abortive gardening session.

The inside of the log cabin was open and airy, with an open floor plan that left few places hidden from view. Stairs led up as well as down into a root cellar.

“Want a beer?”

“I’d prefer tea, if you have it.” The Travelling Huntress said as she looked around. There are pictures on the walls that showed a happy family. The brunette in the pictures beside the husband changed, and then neither of them returned once their two daughters start to grow up.

The messenger’s arm snapped up and caught a chill-slicked can as it slapped into her outstretched hand, thrown at her head from across the room without warning.

Taiyang Xiao Long, retired Huntsman and teacher at Signal Academy for the Enlightened, popped the tab on his beer and peered over it with narrowed eyes. “Somehow, I don’t think you’re a normal mailman.”

The woman smiled. “No. I suppose you wouldn’t.”

“So speak your piece, before I toss you out of my home.” He said. “I’ve got enough to worry about without mysterious women showing up in my life. Again.”

She tried not to let her smile slip into a knowing smirk as she opened her own can. Best to just get the most important news out of the way, first. “Yang and Ruby are alive and well.”

The silence in the home was total. Taiyang didn’t do anything other than breathe for almost a minute. He couldn’t. “Where are they?” At last he whispered.

“Not anywhere close at hand.”

“I didn’t ask how far away they were. I asked where my children are. Tell me.” Taiyang snapped. His voice was stern and backed with the steel of a leader used to being obeyed. It was a teacher’s voice.

The Travelling Huntress hadn’t been a student in a long time. “In this case, the story is more important than the ending. How things happened is far more important for you to understand than what happened.”

“Beacon is gone.” He said, and frustration built up over time burst loose all at once. “Gone! Yang and Ruby were both there when the Grimm attacked, and you want me to wait?”

“I want you to understand what happened.” The woman said plainly. “Anything other than the full story will only give you the wrong impression, and worry you even more.”

“...Is it that much of a mess?”

“No. It’s worse.”

He grimaced, and went back to the kitchen to get the rest of the beer in the six pack. When he returned, he pulled one loose and opened it with a sharp pop. “Go ahead. Tell me.”

"Very well.” The Travelling Huntress stretched out, shifted left and right to find the most comfortable way to lean against the wall, and closed her eyes. When she opened them she looked back, into the past. “Once, there was a maiden. Well, there were actually four of them at first and not all of them were really maidens, but you have to start your stories that way. That’s just how it works."

A cloud rolled across the Sun outside, darkening the windows and chilling the air as the woman who was more than The Travelling Huntress intoned.

“Once… there was a maiden.”

“Tonight we shall summon and then dispel a demon of the first circle. Demon summoning is one of the simplest and most dangerous forms of thaumaturgy. As a sorcery it is far safer, but sorcerery is a level beyond that most of you will ever achieve, and even those with the potential often find its requirements too onerous.”

Glynda Goodwitch stood before a wide ritual circle, a plain band of brass set into the floor of her auditorium with five smaller brass rings set in a pentagon around it. She wore formal clothes, though her corset shone with the oily black sheen of fabric treated with concoctions to give it properties as armor.

Yang Xiao Long already knew how to summon a demon. Her father taught at Signal Academy over in Patch, and while he was more of a hand to hand fighter he’d been a teacher for long enough to pick up a few things, which he’d then dutifully passed down to his two daughters. Yang took notes diligently anyway as Professor Goodwitch explained the role they’d play her the procedure -purely a supportive one, providing Essence for her ritual. She’d inherited more than her father’s fashion sense, hair, and fighting style. Taking notes was only good sense.

Her sister, on the other hand…

Ruby Rose, who took her mother’s last name to remember her, was not taking notes. The younger girl stared down at Glynda, silver eyes staring into the middle distance, and Yang had to remind herself not to poke her out of her stupor. If Ruby wanted to skip two years of material and come to Beacon early, but still slack off... Well. She’d made her call to be treated as an adult instead of Yang’s kid sister. Adults were allowed to make mistakes. They just had to accept the consequences of doing so.

Fortunately, Ruby had actual friends now, and one of them was more than willing to force her into forming better habits.

Weiss Schnee jabbed Ruby in the side and hissed. “Pay attention. I will not allow you to join in the practical if you don’t know this material.”

“You can’t do that. I’m the team leader.” Ruby said back, equally quietly, but it was only a token protest. She reluctantly started taking notes on the ritual significance of the number five.

Yang caught Weiss’ eye and mouthed a quick thanks. Weiss smirked, sniffed, and turned her attention back to the Professor.

Blake, on Yang’s other side, closed her book and slid it back into her bag as Professor Goodwitch levitated four ribbons and hung them from the ceiling over the smaller bronze circles to show where they’d need to go in order to contribute.

She panned her vivid yellow eyes across the room, lingering on team JNPR, the members of which stood as the only students in the position directly opposite the Professor. She would use her skill to compensate for the potency of the Exalts’ Essence. That she could so casually do so was a testament to the maxim that skill and genius defeated raw power every time.

Ruby flitted across the room to her team’s assigned position and Yang moving close behind. Weiss followed, with Blake sliding through the crowd of moving students behind her.

“If I may, Professor Goodwitch?” Weiss asked, raising her hand once everyone was in place. “I don’t recognize this summoning diagram. There don’t seem to be any of the ritual components.”

“That is correct.” Goodwitch said.

“I have a spare set in my dorm for most of the primary first circle demons. I could fetch them! It would only take a minute.”

“That is not necessary, Miss Schnee. Ritual components, in contrast with ritual motions and incantations, are not a necessary prerequisite for thaumaturgy. Anyone who can manipulate it can substitute Essence for such mundanities, which is what we shall be doing today.”

Satisfied by the answer, Weiss lowered her hand and gave a polite nod. “Of course, Professor. The greater number of participants supplying Essence does mean that there’s enough to skip the normal safety precautions.”

“That will not be necessary, Miss Schnee.” Goodwitch’s glance in return was heavy, and the white-haired woman took a step back. “I am well aware of your family specialty, however this ritual uses variants of rituals not often taught with the Atlesian methods. Do pay attention.”

Yang took the opportunity to look over at Team JNPR. They were all Exalts, and so far the only ones in their year at Beacon. Jaune’d even just Exalted during initiation, just last week! As Exalts, their Essence was more vital, their use of it more instinctive, even their lifespans longer than someone with normal Awakened Essence. Yang wasn’t jealous. She was awesome the way she was born.

Lie Ren was… Yang thought he was a Water Aspect, but he might have been Earth. He faded into the background whenever possible, kind of like how Blake didn’t like to be the center of attention, but it seemed less personal with him. Nora Valkyrie could only be mistaken for something other than Wood Aspect if you saw her in a photograph, instead of in moving color. She took to all parts of her life with a verve and enjoyment that Yang thought was fun, but would probably turn from cute to grating on her nerves inside a month.

Jaune was probably the most unlikely-looking Earth Aspect that Yang had ever seen. He was lanky, skittish, and preferred to go with the flow instead of making his own way. Pyrrha Nikos, who stood close by him comfortingly, was a much more typical Fire Aspect. Her hair was red, and her movements betrayed tightly-leashed energy only revealed for a few short minutes during their initiation. She was lithely-muscled like Yang, but built on a more slender frame.

Yang wondered who would win if they fought. Probably Pyrrha would take her down, she admitted, but she thought that outcome wasn’t certain. It drove her crazy that they hadn’t yet fought in combat class.

“Um, Professor, I’m just wondering… why are we summoning a demon? That seems bad, like, something that shouldn’t happen. Aren’t we supposed to be fighting Grimm, instead of bringing them into Beacon?” Jaune spoke up, as if Yang’s lingering gaze had prodded him into action.

“That is an excellent question.” the Professor said. “It is inevitable that every team of young Huntsmen and Huntresses will attempt to summon a demon, Grimm or otherwise. You may think that you won’t, but I assure you that you will. Through all my time at this school, and even all of Headmaster Ozpin’s time, not one team has graduated without first attempting to summon a demon. This is the reason why the first piece of practical thaumaturgy I shall teach you will be the proper way to do such a thing, and subsequently how to banish them.”

She paused, for a moment, as though just remembering something. “Do remember that you cannot use thaumaturgy to banish a demon that you did not take part in the summoning of. We nearly lost someone last year who made that mistake. It should be simple to remember, but in the heat of the moment it might be forgotten, so I shall teach you a more efficient means of banishing that which you summon at the end of tonight’s lesson.”

After checking the time on her scroll and sliding it back up her sleeve, Beacon’s thaumaturgy professor continued her lecture. “There is still some time before sundown, when we can begin. To continue my broad overview of thaumaturgy, you must also understand the degree to which our civilization exists because of it.

“Some people align themselves with various beings for access to powerful rites and rituals. This is not an ideal scenario for the thaumaturge, who often finds themselves bound to a spirit that has values and objectives that are tangent to their new servant’s, [/i]at best[/i]. Theoretically there is nothing wrong with bargaining with a spirit, but we are Huntresses. The difference between a spirit inimical to humanity and a demon, even the Grimm variety, is small. Remember that. Do not ever do a spirit the disrespect of assuming that they have the same values and objectives as you.

“There also exist various philosophical groups with an emphasis on the teaching and use of thaumaturgy as a prerequisite to spiritual health or self-mastery. This path is one walked by any number of people. Many charities and missions are established by thaumaturgy-using monks across Remnant. Alternately, some learn thaumaturgy in much the same way as higher mathematics, or poetry. The strings of the world allow their wielders to gain a more profound understanding of the levers which they move, and those who consider it in the abstract do not view the arts as something especially dangerous. After all, words and symbols do not need thaumaturgical might to cause more damage than some kinds of demons, left unrestrained.”

Goodwitch glances at Weiss and Blake, who pointedly don’t react or look at each other.

“But by far, the most common use of thaumaturgy is as a business, particularly the subset that is alchemy. Dust, to give an omni-present example, requires the use of alchemical solutions to be formed into its more stable and more commonly used crystal forms. It is this motivation for studying the arts that is most common among family lines, such as Miss Schnee’s.”

She paused, and gave Weiss the opportunity to regain the face she’d lost from her earlier attempt to show off her knowledge. “I am a master thaumaturge of the Atlesian school, as achieving that rank is required for all members of the Schnee family before we leave home.”

Professor Goodwitch resumed after another quick glance at her watch. “Dusk is approaching. Demons cannot be summoned during daylight, at least by human hands at any rate. The primary caster cannot leave until the summoning is complete, but as you are only supporting me tonight, one person may be absent from each of your subsidiary circles at a time, if you need to take a break or use the facilities. Is everyone ready?”

The class nodded its assent as one. Pyrrha pressed her hand reassuringly against Jaune’s back to stop his tremors, but he was only the most nervous present. The only students close to Professor Goodwitch’s own steady calm were Weiss, who had admitted to being skilled at that particular art already, and Blake Belladonna. Summonings always made Yang giddy.

Blake knelt expectantly beside Yang, who sat down with her legs splayed casually wide, while Ruby rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet. “Sit down. We’re going to be here for a while.” The black-haired woman said to her team leader.

Ruby sighed and plopped down beside her sister, as Weiss knelt in the precise center of the circle. “This is going to take forever.” She grumbled.

It didn’t. It took exactly six hours, exactly as Blake and Professor Goodwitch before her said, but it ended with a flash like a green bolt of lightning bereft of its crackle of thunder. Everyone came to their feet, eyes fixed on the center circle.

A Beofwolf stood in the middle of it, seven feet tall from its feet to its hunched back, white-masked and bedecked with equally bony spines that ran down a back as jagged and pointed as its maw full of needle teeth. Its eyes were bright red coals stuck into the sockets of its eyes, and as it fell to all fours and circled, looking for a gap in the Huntresses gathered on all sides of it, those eyes flashed and rolled with manic intensity.

“Congratulations. You have now all summoned a Beowolf, the most numerous of the most common kind of first circle demons in Vale’s environs. Doing this anywhere in Beacon other than in this classroom is prohibited, and there are measures in place to prevent it. Do not tamper with anything that may be in place to prevent summoning. The punishment for doing so is having your free time appropriated for learning how to replace what you broke, and then replacing it and all copies of it, across the entire grounds.”

Silence, apart from the Beowolf’s claws clacking on the stone floor as it turned this way and that, focussing on each of the students in turn and looking for a weakness in their lines.

The Professor nodded, and drew from her sleeve a thin black wand. “I see that you understand. Now, who believes they can demonstrate the proper way to dispel a demon, summoned or incurring into Remnant of its own will?”

Blake stepped forward and drew her boxy black weapon from her belt. The gunsword’s sheath slid loosely off with her left hand, leaving the long blade bare. The Beowolf seemed to ignore her as she approached, but then suddenly rounded and lunged, jaws gaping open wide enough to fit her whole head between its dagger-teeth! Blake stepped into the attack, held out her sword, and cleaved the Grimm’s skull in two with a single smooth strike.


The man sheathed his sword as the Grimm behind him dissolved into mist. The setting Sun illuminated him, casting him as a black shape lit on all sides by red, for a moment longer before it hid itself beneath the horizon. The sunset only made him brighter by contrast, because the light lingered in the new darkness. It changed, no longer bloody but now white and flecked with the same gold that shone from his mask, where two circles sat. One was hollow, the circle within it was solid, but the mark of his Exaltation hung for all to see.

The masked figures of the White Fang -members of his White Fang- watched him with the avid gaze of fanatics in the presence of a prophet as he turned his gaze from them to the city of Vale, spread out in the valley below them, and beyond that -Beacon.

And beneath his Grimm-bone mask, Adam Taurus smiled with anticipation.


Writes Things
Roman Torchwick stripped off his sodden white coat and held it up to examine the red velvet lining. It was ruined, of course, but not completely. The lining might have been salvageable, but the smooth white of the expertly-fitted garment was crisped and cracked by heat, despite the preemptive dousing. The pants didn’t deserve a second glance as he stripped their remnants off, wadded the tattered things into a ball, and tossed it into the trash with the other rubbish, next to a row of progressively older mugshots. They were all of him, usually alongside a younger woman whose hair and eye color changed with each picture.

A black underlayer clung to the lanky man’s frame -woven from some foreign material, it was worth every lien he paid for the protective garment. He jammed his hat back on his head, glared at the soiled mess that had once been clothes worth more than the average man earned in a month, and brushed his orange hair back into place. His lithe body was on display, shrouded from view but not from the imagination, not that anyone in the room cared. He stood just as much at ease as he had mere weeks previously, before he’d had the unfortunate luck to run headfirst into a teenage maniac with a gunscythe while robbing a Dust shop.

“Well that was a mess. I’ve never been manhandled by a brat of a girl before. I think that was the single most humiliating thing to ever happen to me. I’d feel worse, but for all I know she’s old enough to be my mother. Exalts are tricky like that.” He said as he plucked a cigar from a box on the table and held it out.

The woman resting against the table was the brightest thing in the room. Her eyes smoldered red-gold, like candle flames. Red lingered on her cheeks and neck, wherever blood rose close to the surface, and faint lights showed in the depths of her flowing mane of black hair like embers deep inside a collapsed fire.

She touched the tip of Roman’s cigar with one elegant finger, and it glowed red from the heat still lingering in her touch.

“I’m sorry for your ego, but Ruby Rose is no more Exalted than you are.” She said.

Roman swore. “If you knew that, then why didn’t you step in and pull my ass out of the fire?”

“I assumed you didn’t need my help. She’s only fifteen.”

“...Fifteen. Green hell, they make them younger every year.” The thief sucked on his cigar for several seconds as he thought furiously. “I think we’re good. I didn’t see anyone following us after you barbecued the guards on my cell, and one more mugshot won’t do anything to me the others haven’t. Nobody should know where we are or who you are. ”

Three things happened in quick succession, as soon as the last word left his lips.

First, Cinder’s head snapped toward the door and she held up a hand for silence. There was nothing to prompt her sudden awareness, but that was no obstacle. She had better senses than any human or faunus.

She knew there was a presence behind the door, in the shadowed alley that led to the safehouse they were in.

Second, the doorknob rattled. It was locked, and the door didn’t open. Roman glanced at the door. Cinder swayed off the table.

Finally the rattling stopped, and a slender bronzed blade pierced the door’s lockplate through with a sound like tinfoil being torn by a knife, ruining its mechanism, but still the door didn’t open. There were other locks, and the walls of the warehouse were built to contain Dust explosions. Roman sighed in relief.

“They’re still out there.” Cinder said.

“Well, they can stay out there.” Roman said. “I’ll call a friend, and she’ll kick whatever trash is on our stoop off of it.”

The doorknob rattled a few times, more forcefully, and then fell silent.

“No.” Cinder said, narrowing her eyes. “They’re coming in.”

The door bent inward like a crumpled tissue, picked up at the center, and tumbled against the concrete floor in an almighty clatter.

A man filled the vacant doorway. He wore a white mask that covered his eyes and bent down over his nose like a bird’s beak, a knee-length black coat that hung partially open, and a long, straight sword sheathed at his waist.

Cinder saw the Caste mark on his brow and reflexively stepped behind the man she’d just rescued, willing to sacrifice him for more information in the event of a fight, but her attention caught on almost a dozen more presences lurking outside, and she forced herself to calm and to scrutinize the man further.

It only took a second to identify him, though he rendered the effort useless almost immediately afterwards.

“I was told that this was Roman Torchwick’s bolt hole.” His mask faced the man directly, and striated white and gold light spilled out around him like a corona as he asked. “Are you him?”

Roman glanced aside, only to realize that Cinder was now on the other side of the room, watching from a distance. “I happen to be that man, yes, unless the police are asking. In that case, I am Mister Torchwick.”

“Good.” The swordsman grunted. “My name is Adam Taurus. I need a local expert, and everyone I’ve met says that you’re the best in Vale.”

“I’m flattered, but you could have made an appointment. I don’t normally meet clients in this state of undress, and I’m not interested in… men.”

Adam huffed a single breathy chuckle, and his aura flickered, rose higher and brighter around him. “I know what kind of man you are, Roman Torchwick. I can see it when I look into your eyes. You’re a thief, a con man, a murderer. You’re scum with no higher goal in life than bleeding honest men dry for your own amusement and lifestyle -scum clogging up the works of your own free will, to enjoy the ambiance.”

Roman blanched. His already pale skin went bloodless as the Exalt’s words slipped into his mind and seeped deep inside. “Well. Yes, I suppose I… am. It doesn’t sound very nice when you put it that way, though.”

“You’re not nice.” Adam snapped back, and pressed his case as the glow about him intensified. His Essence spilled into his words and the air, reverberating with imperatives of truth and revelation. “Covering a worthless person in fine clothes and sticking expensive cigars in his mouth doesn’t give their lives any value. You’re a leech dangling off civilization's bloated corpse, sucking diseased blood and too self-involved to change.”

“Do you have a point?” Roman asked, secure in the knowledge that even if the most dangerous person in Vale wasn’t standing at his side, that at least he was irreplaceable in her plans.

“...You understand what kind of filth you are, and you accept it?”

“If I didn’t, then I’d be making bank some other way.” Because to Roman Torchwick, there was no other way to live. Seeking redemption? Trying to change his ways? Those ideas were inconceivable.

Adam’s mouth pressed into a thin line and his jaw, the only part of his face truly visible, clenched in genuine personal distaste before he smoothed it away. “If you won’t join me to redeem yourself in service to the righteous, then you’ll work for money.”

“And that’s where you’re wrong, sorry as I am to say so.” Vale’s most notorious criminal clicked his tongue and gave an obviously fake smile. “I’d say that I’d love to help you, except I actually don’t want to help you at all. I’ve already got an exclusive arrangement with the lovely Miss Fall, and breaking my word whenever a new gang comes to town is a bad long-term business strategy.”

The White Fang leader stepped back and looked around the room, his aura still pulsing about him and casting the whole warehouse in golden-white light. He saw Cinder immediately, and turned to face her.

“What business do you have with him?” He demanded an answer.

“Robberies of certain locations, threats in others, gathering resources that I can’t afford to have traced to me.” Cinder didn’t see the point in hiding everything. The newspapers could tell him that much.

“Release him to me. You can have him back after I’m done.”

“I’d rather not.”

He stared at her with eyes that held infinite certainty, and in that moment she knew one thing. Here was a man who knew the meaning of restraint, but had tossed it aside long ago. Adam Taurus was filled with the kind of conviction that could break nations, and had the implacable willpower of a true fanatic.

The change was instant, and almost imperceptible.

Without even a word of warning, or a twitch to signal his intentions, his hand flew to the hilt of his sword and he leapt straight at her!

The golden blade was long and straight, but it seemed to curve into a solid arc of gleaming bronze as he swung it, such was the speed he was moving. Cinder reacted almost as quickly, but such was the surprise and speed of Adam’s lunge that she only got one arm up in time. Her ivory skin split, but instead of cutting her through the raw force of his attack caught her and threw her back. A spray of blood followed her, quickly stopping as her Essence-filled body clamped down on the bleeding.

By the time she landed, Adam had sheathed his blade and was standing at ease.

Cinder didn’t let his posture fool her again. It was the eyes that spoke the truth, and the man before her would fight to the death if she stood in his way, and dismiss her if she didn’t. It was that simple.

...And as a Solar Exalt he might just be able to do it. That stung. It dug at her like a golden glowing knife worming its way through a suit of armor, but she quietened that old wound with the ease of long practice, and suffered the indignity in exchange for her life. It wasn’t the first time. It got harder to swallow every time she did it. Eventually she would snap, but not today. Not here. Not before her work was done.

“Roman, work with Taurus.” She said.

“...Okay, be that way. Some backup you are.” The man grumbled.

Adam’s aura spiked again, and he rested his hand on the pommel of his sword meaningfully. “From now on, you work for me.”

“Of course.” Roman swept his arms out in obsequious welcome. “But how can the great Roman Torchwick work for you? Need something smuggled into Vale? Smuggling things out of Vale? I’ve got contacts who can get anything in Vale, for the right price. You’re White Fang, faunus rights activists with a penchant for bombs when words won’t do the trick? Well I just so happen to have come into a large supply of Dust recently that I think you will be very interested in.”

“I need locations to hold rallies, somewhere to train the new recruits, dust, local weapons, and I need transport for several items. I don’t have them yet, but I’ll acquire them soon.”

“How large?”

“Ten feet tall, and half that wide and deep.”

“That’ll mean either cargo trucks or bullheads.”

“Bullheads, then.”

“You’ll need to be careful with those. One wrong move can get Beacon interested, and then we’ll all be swarmed by Huntsmen.”

“You shouldn’t worry about Beacon.” Adam smirked, and raised a clenched fist for emphasis. “I have my own plans for that place. In a few weeks, the people will see that Beacon, Ozpin, the whole squalid mess… can be replaced with something far better.”

“I will never say that you don’t have ambition.” Roman said, with complete candor.

“It’s not a matter of ambition. It’s just that I can change the world, and so I will. That’s it for now…” Adam turned on his heel and strode toward the door. “I’ll leave you to your work. I need to go write a letter. There’s a bad girl who needs to be brought to heel.”

Cinder stared at the far wall, eyes vacant and attention on subtler senses, as she felt for the presences to ensure that they’d actually left. When they had, she gestured that the danger was gone.

Roman whistled. “So. This is a completely hypothetical question, but how do you kill an Exalt?”

“The same way you do anyone else: knowledge of how they fight, bringing lots of help, and setting up someone to take the blame if you fail to kill them with your first attempt. Alternately, you find a more powerful Exalt.”

Roman nodded. “That makes se- hey hey no! Let’s settle this between us, Cinder. I am not a fall guy.”

Cinder sighed, and pursed her lips. “Unfortunately, that’s right. You’re not. Not anymore, at any rate. You already know too much. Fortunately, your assistance is going to be far too vital over the coming months to risk you unnecessarily. I’ll need to arrange for someone to replace you.”

“I know a few people who I’d love to trip in front of a bus. Some of them even have enough of a rap sheet that pinning a few more crimes on their backs won’t be a problem. I mean, if you have your own preferences that’s fine, but I think we should set up a faunus.” The thief reasoned. “I know what you’re going to say, but if the White Fang is moving in, then there’s going to be a lot of people blaming those mutts for everything from their car getting towed to letter bombs. We can use that.”

“We can.” Cinder said. “Actually, I think we just met the faunus in question.”

“You want to pin the blame on an Exalt?” Roman whistled. “That’s ambitious, and risky. Why not just grab some little guy with a grudge? Low-ranking career bureaucrats are great for that kind of thing. Everybody knows they’re little balls of frustrated anger and spite.”

She stared at him. “Taurus dies.”

“Alright. I can’t say I’ll miss the guy. What’s the plan?”

“I’m going to scrounge up some disposable help.”

“How disposable?” Roman scratched his chin. “I think I’ve got a grip on all the cheap thugs Vale has to offer.”

“But not Beacon.” Cinder said.

“Oh. Oh that’d be fantastic!”

“I know.”

“You really are a wonderful boss, you know that?”

“I thought you had a new boss?”

“Heh! You know me, Cinder. You know me. Still, if you want Adam dead then why didn’t you just do him in yourself? Do you think he could take you?”

Cinder hesitated, and then said “There’s more to the situation than a simple question can answer.”

Roman resisted a smile. She didn’t think she could take him.

“I know of him only by his reputation, which means I don’t know all his tricks -a strike not in my favor. I do know that Adam does not act alone. He co-opts local faunus populations, and travels with an elite bodyguard of his most devoted sycophants. They were the ones that waited outside, primed for his signal. That is the second strike against fighting in that circumstance. Given that he was prepared for this encounter, and I was not…”

“He didn’t know about you either.” Roman said. “He came here looking for my services.”

“His own handicap does not alleviate my own. If you blind two men and tell them to fight, they’re still both blind.”

“Fair. I don’t like hearing the big scary Cinder say that, but I can respect your desire to keep your skin intact and your limbs attached. Missing a hand would be be a wrinkle in pretty much all my long term plans, too. Though that golden aura was a mite unusual…”

Cinder didn’t return her fellow conspirator’s sly look. “Fishing for information doesn’t make me think of you as a valuable member of my team, Roman. Be careful, or else you might end up Neo’s assistant instead of the other way around.”

Roman rolled his eyes. “I mentioned wrinkles. Speaking of them, I don’t see any on your face. How old are you, again?”

Cinder picked up one of the cigars spilled across the table, rolling it between two fingers. She smiled beatifically, like a saint serene even as the sacrificial pyre laid around her flared to life. Glittering sparks clung to her body, and she laughed, delighted by her own secret revelation even as the pagans clustered around asked why she did not fear their god. “Roman, don’t you know better than to ask a lady her age?”