In My Name You Will Create
The human mind is largely incapable of understanding the scale of something larger than that which they can see. The closest even the most well-learned are capable of doing is understanding that something is so unimaginably titanic, but not what that truly means, what it truly is in comparison to them. Even by way of comparison, all that is done in the end is boiling something massive and inconceivable into something smaller and relatable. One couldn't truly understand an estimated population of tens of billions of Grimm, or the danger that posed, but they could understand the pictures of the post-fall Beacon and the many breaches in Vale's perimeter walls. One couldn't truly understand the strength of a weapon of mass destruction, but they could understand before and after pictures of even one of the weakest ever developed.
One couldn't truly understand the raw power of Nebo Aldric, but they could understand the things he'd done, and extrapolate from there.
Ruby Rose was one of those people - she was one of the first people to see Aldric's Record, to understand what he had done and what he was capable of. Besides those he worked with, she was the person on Remnant who had the longest to ruminate on it, and as such she thought she was the one person who understood the most what he would do, now that the fire had been reignited within him, and he'd been given a new target.
She thought it would be like when he'd come back for Adam Taurus: A bee-line to his new enemy, a fight, and whatever plan he had to kill an immortal man.
She had been so, so very wrong.
When Pyrrha didn't meet them at the docks, she told Yang and her uncle to wait while she went to check on her. She, perhaps naively, checked her hotel room first, but it looked as though it hadn't been packed yet. She tried calling her, but she wouldn't pick up, so, worried, Ruby, with her semblance, sped back to the courtroom.
When she learned what Aldric was truly capable of, when she witnessed first hand the lengths to which he was willing to go to accomplish his goals, she almost lost herself in grief.
She was the first person on Remnant to find Pyrrha Nikos' body.
She tried to deny it, she tried everything she could to rationalize what she was seeing, but this image in front of her, the reality of Aldric, it was incompatible with what she tried so hard to believe about him. She tried to argue when Atlesians heard her crying and came and found her holding Pyrrha's lifeless body, she tried to argue their theory, that Pyrrha must have stood in front of Aldric and tried to use their old friendship to force his hand: If he was going to go on his crusade, he'd have to kill her.
It's not true, she kept repeating to herself, even as Yang and Qrow arrived to see what had happened, and pulled her away from the tragedy.
But she couldn't think of any way to reconcile what she knew to be true, and the reality she was being presented with. Some small part of her had always maintained thought Aldric had some core of light inside the shell of darkness he'd ensconced himself in. She'd known it to be true! How hard he'd worked so often to avoid killing he people he'd cared about! But this body she was watching be loaded into a casket and sent to her family in Mistral, it was arguing so hard that this wasn't the case.
Standing there at the docks, the wind howling in her hair, her hood and cape billowing behind her, the airship in front of her slowly listing forward as it separated from the landing bays, she felt a horrible look of despondency settle onto her face as she tried so damn hard to cling to that one idea, that one belief that he had to be who she thought he was.
She felt a hand on her shoulder, blinked, and realized the airship was already at the horizon. She turned around and saw Qrow there, his expression one of resignation, of surrender. He looked like he'd aged years in just the past few hours.
"Kid." He sounded it too - like all of the youth he'd been holding on to during his working with Ozpin, and had desperately clung to during the aftermath, had just vanished in an afternoon, washed away in the blood of one of the strongest Huntresses on Remnant, killed without even so much as a struggle, immediately after Remnant's most dangerous man had broken free. "This is too big for us." She was ready to swear up and down she thought she heard him holding back tears.
She stepped back, shrugging his hand off of her shoulder, shaking her head.
He still tried: "Oz has always been playing a much bigger game than any one person. He and Salem... They were gods, kiddo - and this guy, just..." He shook his head, breath catching in his throat. "Two years, and he was on their level. He's had ten since then to prepare for this very outcome. I wanted to believe we could do something, but this -" He nodded to the horizon, and Ruby just took another step back, closing her eyes to the tears. "- this is a message from him. He's back, for worse. He won't let anyone stop him until he kills Ozma."
"We can't fight him."
"Him, Ozma, they're too big for us Ruby."
"We have to just let this happen. The only way this ends is him winning."
"No, no, no, no." She tried, wiping the tears from her eyes, smearing her face with makeup.
Qrow took a step forward, but she kept her distance.
"And..." He sighed, "and whatever he's prepared for his last fall into the abyss he calls home."
"No!" Ruby vanished in a cloud of petals.
Qrow watched one settle upon the ground, his back bent, his shoulders slouched, a single tear finally falling from his eye.
"She's so much like you." He said to it, mind going to a time that seemed much longer ago than thirty years. Gods, he was fifty, so was her father. Yang was almost thirty, even Ruby - the one he still so vividly remembered rocking to sleep to give her mother a break - she was twenty five! Where had the time gone?
The petal was picked up by the wind and flew away, and he sighed.
"I know." He said, watching it take off for the horizon and the rising sun. "I know."
Things were too big, that was true.
But that was for him. He was a fifty year old Huntsman whose semblance was literally bad luck - that didn't lend itself to aging as gracefully as Taiyang had. If he could have ever stepped into this and stood against Aldric - or, if as he truly suspected, Ozma too - he certainly couldn't now.
That kid just didn't give up.
All he could do was hope she was right, against all the odds.
With so many people running as far and as wide as they could, trying to cast a net to catch the escaped Master, or to escape him themselves, nobody noticed the one person that wasn't running. Nobody noticed the one lone tiger that had been sleeping throughout the entire ordeal - from the second the Master had touched down on Remnant to right now, all he'd done was bide his time, build his connections, and wait for that one, single, golden opportunity to take the pot. Perhaps the epitome of irony was that he was one of the people the Master was most wary of - not scared of, certainly, but wary, yes. Even more than Adam Taurus, 'Solidus Cinder', the deceased Witch herself, and even more than Ozma - Roman Torchwick was the one that Nebo Aldric had worried about.
As his former Gardener had professed, the only person on Remnant that was almost exactly like the Master, was the kingpin of crime, and Aldric knew this. For every plan Aldric came up with, Torchwick had one of his own, for second of practice Aldric had in quick thinking and improvisation, Torchwick had a year, and for every goal Aldric had, Torchwick had one as well. He didn't know who Hans Landa, Wilson Fisk, or Whitey Bulger were, but knowing the man who had cited them, they were likely just as much a complement as they were an insult - and with how he described them, equal parts awe, respect, and fear, Torchwick just found it endlessly entertaining that of the list of three people that would get Aldric to fight again, he wasn't one of them.
Perhaps it was simply because Torchwick's goals ended exactly where Aldric expected them to - the cementation not of a criminal empire, no, for that implied the existence of other, rival empires, but rather a criminal imperium, with him as its king. Torchwick didn't have sights on world domination, or human subjugation, he didn't intend to antagonize gods or go plundering for ancient magical relics, he 'simply' wanted to be at the absolute top of the food chain. Legitimate or illegitimate, legal or otherwise, good or bad, Torchwick's word would reach and influence them, that was what he wanted, and that was, in all likelihood, why Aldric chose not to consider him a threat.
It would be his loss - for this particular sleeping tiger, had finally awoken. He had finally smelled blood, had finally seen weakness - he had finally, after oh so long and after so good a hot streak, seen his golden opportunity to get everything he wanted and more.
It started by being the one who wasn't running away.
Where everyone else ran away - soldiers scattering throughout Atlas, searching its streets and homes, civilians fleeing for safe shelter or airships - Torchwick, instead, walked. He walked to what, under any other circumstance, would have been one of the most secure locations on Remnant, but because of Ironwood's desperation to find the Master causing him to recruit every living and mechanical resource he had in the search, it was now wide open for infiltration:
James Ironwood's personal office.
He just waltzed inside Atlas Academy's halls, brazenly allowing himself to be seen by the cameras, and through the academy until he reached the General's office. He thought for a moment of taking the General's chair, but he had a sense of decorum - and his particular flair for the dramatic, while similar, wasn't the same as Aldric's, who no-doubt would have taken the seat and faced away from the door. Torchwick, instead, politely took one of the seats in front of Ironwood's desk, sat in it, and pulled out his scroll, sending a text message to someone else he'd be meeting very soon, reading news, enjoying how social media exploded at Aldric's escape, sending a few more texts to fan those flames in order to help his case with Ironwood, watching as that bore fruit in mere minutes, and otherwise just enjoying himself as he killed time.
He ended up waiting a long time, the sun had come back up by the time Ironwood finally returned, looking haggard and enraged. It was only when he actually collapsed in his seat, that he realized Torchwick was there, causing him to immediately get back up and level his hand cannon on the kingpin's face.
Torchwick didn't even budge, his leg resting on his knee and his hands coming to a rest on his cane, as he smiled at the General.
"Put that down."
"You have a lot of power, Torchwick - but not over me." Ironwood grunted, "what -"
"Well, not yet, but when I leave, that will change."
Ironwood's glare turned murderous, "what are you doing here?!"
"Well first, I'm going to admonish you for your absolute stupidity, in letting yourself be manipulated by Ozma."
Ironwood pulled back the hammer on his pistol.
"Oh please - I've faced down an irate Cinder Fall and worse still, that little gun isn't as intimidating as you want it to be." He said, before responding to Ironwood's unspoken rebuttal. "And yes, you were. Ozma may not play the game like Aldric or I do, but one thing that is common among the three of us is that the best evidence of his involvement with something is the lack of that evidence. If there is any question of 'if,' the answer is immediately yes. You think you set this up - and don't waste our time asking how I know this -" He added, at the outraged look on Ironwood's face. " - but, yes - you think you set this up. You think it was all your glorious idea, wonderful, victory, blah blah blah - you think that Ozma stood against you on it, refusing to support you on moral grounds, you think all of these things... But there are two major problems with them.
"The first, is simple: We know for a fact that Ozma is capable of infiltrating minds - the suspicion of which is why I limited my sharing a room with him as much as possible, and the confirmation of which is why my next meeting with him will require a deft touch and some prep work. Regardless: We know this. We also know from Aldric's Record as well as the data I know you have of previous Ozma incarnations, that he thinks of 'magic' as a mirror to reality - he replicates what he sees, pertinent to this admonishment: Semblances. They are rare, but psychics do exist, and living as long as he has, I'd wager quite a bit he's met quite a few, thus he's had how many thousand years to refine his abilities of mind reading, and mind control. Add on a masterful skill in politicking and what you have is a man who can appear, for all intents and purposes, as the most moral of them all - while influencing those around him into doing his less moral bidding.
"Evidence of this? Qrow Branwen, for one - and Solidus Cinder's future, for two."
"The denial of that future's existence and Aldric's ability to travel through time was a political stunt, and nothing more." Torchwick cut him off, for the first time dropping the jovial, arrogant smile, and instead looking annoyed. "You know as well as I do that with all of the fantastical machines and weapons Aldric has built, up to and including a sword that smites Grimm and a gauntlet that made him into a God, a time machine is child's play by comparison. He's literally magic, he literally wills things into existence - science be damned, it works because he says it does, it does what he says it does. You denied its existence only to attempt to gaslight him, and discredit him in the eyes of the viewing public - which I admittedly respect, it was a good idea, and even a good execution! To anyone else, it would have worked - but against Aldric, it was doomed to fail. Now sit down, because we're not even halfway finished." He said, frowning.
Ironwood stood there for several long seconds, gun pointed at Torchwick, before finally his curiosity - and the doubt Torchwick had been fueling with his words - finally won out, and he relented.
Once he sat back down, Torchwick continued. "So, the first problem: Of Ozma's many talents is his ability to manipulate minds, through magic and through spoken word. The second problem is the one I know you've had in the back of your mind ever since he refused to assist you:
"He could have easily forced the matter, prevented you from attacking Aldric, or gone to assist him, even after he was captured, but he did none of these things." Ironwood's silent, stern glare, was all Torchwick needed to know: He'd just won.
"The truth to all of this is exactly as Aldric said: Ozma was the man behind the man - behind you, specifically. When he learned the truth to Aldric's ending of the War of the White Witch, when he learned that Aldric was, indeed, still watching, and when he learned that Aldric thusly had to know he'd done absolutely nothing to prevent the second Faunus Rebellion, he grew scared that Aldric would make good on his threat and return to kill him. This fear, led him to begin working his machinations - which ended with you, consumed by your own paranoia and unwittingly being puppeteered, attacking Aldric. His hope was that Aldric would fight back, and die - but when he just surrendered? He knew Aldric had a plan - and he has thus far remained as far away from Aldric as possible, hasn't he?"
Torchwick leaned in close, "I know you never got a testimony from him." He declared, his voice quiet but his words still crashing between the two like a clap of thunder. "Just as I know he hasn't so much as left his tower since Aldric was captured. He's been desperately staying away until he could get the slightest inkling of what Aldric has up his sleeve, before he would finally begin moving again - and it would not surprise me at all if his plan ends up defaulting to throwing teams RWBY and JNPR at him in an attempt at playing his emotions.
"But we know that won't work. If he killed Pyrrha Nikos - and oh yes, General, I know about that too!" The General's face was one of shock, and not for no reason - that particular factoid had been locked up so tight that there were only a handful of people who could have known about it. It would be wonderful seeing him run around, paranoid, accusing his inner circle of being traitor to Torchwick, while in reality Torchwick had cracked Ironwood's computers years ago, and one of the reports forwarded to the General today had been of Nikos' body.
Oh the favors and people he would acquire when they were fired or reassigned by the General. Disillusioned, angry people, were all the more willing to make his particular trades.
"If he killed Pyrrha Nikos, the woman whose death he personally and directly worked to prevent, there is no one he will not go through to kill Ozma. Ozma knows this, so he is preparing, right now, as we speak, to fight Aldric - and we both know how many people will inevitably die when they clash."
"Why are you telling me this?" Ironwood demanded, gruffly, though - as Torchwick noted with immense glee - with a hint of resignation, to his ever-so-slightly sagging shoulders. "What are you here for?"
"Initially, to admonish you. But I'm finished with that now, and we can get to business." Torchwick sat straight again, a wicked smile stretching across his face. "Now, as you're looking at it right now, we only have one option. To let team RWBY think they escaped your closed borders, acquire what remains of team JNPR, and make all haste for Beacon, whereupon they will either beat Aldric there and prepare to battle him, or they will fail, and bear witness to a battle for the ages. In the former outcome, Aldric may be slowed down, but he won't be stopped - as he'll execute any number of plans and contingencies to incapacitate or outright kill his former pawns, and only suffer the most minor of setbacks when Ruby Rose uses her esoteric powers to nullify his own, possibly ending with him killing her, then he'll turn right around and do battle with Ozma. Gods will clash, the very shape of Remnant will shift and change, Vale will be unrecognizable in the outcome, he'll have killed Ozma permanently, and then you have to pray he'll return to his exile or be killed in response by Solidus Cinder, because the alternative is finally just embracing the abyss he so frequently submerges himself in and all of a sudden we have a new, arguably even more powerful Salem on our hands, who will achieve utopia through the worst means imaginable.
"That, dear General, I am certain, is the scenario that you have been desperately searching for a way out of from the absolute second he broke free of his bindings." Torchwick smiled, and crossed a leg over his knee, idly resting his hand on his cane. "But I am here to provide you with a second option. One that will end all of this - all of it - in one, single, day." He leaned forward, tilting his head, smile widening at the sight of Ironwood's barely contained interest and desperation. "Shall I go on?"
Ironwood just glared at him, furious beyond measure that he was being played by a 'common thug.'
It just made Torchwick smile even wider.
"I know something." He began, "something that, with proper application, will get Aldric and Ozma to confront each other far before they're ready and prepared, and in a location we can control, and evacuate, to minimize damage and casualties. Information that, provided we use it correctly, can bring an absolute end to the age of - to turn a phrase - people of mass destruction. Using this information, we can force Aldric and Ozma to fight each other - in so doing, inevitably dragging out 'Solidus Cinder,' who will invariably battle the winner, and because they will be exhausted and she will not, she will come out on top - yes, that does include triumphing over even Ozma, I'm certain that she has acquired something from Aldric that can kill him permanently, and if not, she has prepared something herself. But even if she fails, and the winner of the initial battle stands tall, no matter what happens, who stands at the end will be so exhausted, so wounded, so depleted, that they would under no circumstances, be able to withstand the firepower of the Atlesian Navy. Of course, the issue does exist of whether or not the Maidens' souls that reside within her will still reincarnate, but I know Aldric, dear General - I'm willing to stake quite a bit on the possibility that, in merging this woman out of time with our timeline, he eliminated that possibility. To wit: When Aldric, Ozma, and Solidus Cinder die, the age of magic will be over, and I can assure it, because I know how to force them all into confrontation ahead of their schedule. With what I know, I am the wild card they do not even know has been drawn from the deck.
"This information I have can, in one, day, teach the entire world that Atlas never lost control. That even creatures that powerful, can be felled - and will be felled, both by Humanity at large, and Atlas specifically." Torchwick explained, before ending it with, "but only if I use it correctly, and you know what my price is.
"So what will it be, General?"
Ruby wasn't helpless - not. At. All.
Even alone, as it now seemed she was, she had a few good tricks up her sleeve. She'd been operating as a Huntress since she was fifteen, she had some tricks and she knew some people even outside of her direct social circle.
One of those people was, currently, moonlighting as a model, right here in Atlas. Ruby was the one and only person that kept any kind of contact with her - Blake and Weiss thought she did it for political reasons, that she kept touch with her because she had skills Ruby didn't and could do and acquire things she couldn't, but they were wrong. Yang and Qrow thought she was mad for keeping in touch with this person, that the person in question was, too, mad, but they were wrong.
What she used to do for a living couldn't be denied, Ruby didn't even try - but much like Aldric, she saw something in this one. It was buried under a poor upbringing and a lifetime of even poorer ethics, but she saw something in this one that reminded her of Aldric. In her darker days, she sometimes wondered if that wasn't why she kept in touch with her - because that was the closest she could remain to him, since this person was the one he'd called his only true ally.
Neopolitan had been fired by Torchwick after the Record had been published and the kingpin had learned how thoroughly the mute assassin had been actively betraying him, though the word sounded harsher than the reality. To hear Neo tell the story, Torchwick had had a good laugh about the whole thing, called it 'well played,' but had decided that if he couldn't trust her to act against Aldric, then that meant they had to part ways. After that, Neo left for Atlas - she wanted to flaunt how she'd been pardoned right alongside Torchwick, and use her now global reputation to have a little fun, and in her own words:
Would any agency dare say no to this, especially knowing what I did for a living?
Ruby had to admit, for all she disagreed about Neo, for all she was ready to fully admit about what she used to do, and why, she did find that funny.
Not long after that, Ruby had seen her on the cover of a Scarletina's Secret catalogue that she'd been sent, autographed by the self-titled 'New envy of the world.'
It was to Neo that Ruby ran after Qrow had tried to break her of her quest. She wanted to go to Yang, but she knew that Yang would have just tried even harder than Qrow to stop her - and she just didn't know if she had the strength to fight her sister too. With Ruby's mastery of her semblance, she made the run through the entire city of Atlas in one single sprint, one moment being in front of Qrow at the docks, the next, in front of the penthouse apartment she'd been given an open invitation to.
She wasn't that surprised that when she knocked, Neo opened immediately. For a woman in her mid-thirties, Neo still managed to look younger than Ruby, and whether it was her semblance or her naturally, it was still impressive. Neo, in contrast to Ruby, did seem surprised, as she blinked and tilted her head at the sight of Ruby - makeup smeared, eyes red, clothes and hair looking like she'd just ran for hours without stopping.
She made a sign, "Come in." and backed away from the door.
Ruby entered, finding Neo's apartment pristine, colored not like how she'd expected - the entire place looked bleach white, not at all like Neo's customary brown, silver, and pink.
She heard Neo's Scroll. "I must admit: I was expecting him." A beat later, "I may be wearing lingerie under all this."
Ruby couldn't help but snort, and that one airy laugh helped a bit to let some of the weight slide off of her shoulders.
That seemed to be the intent, because when she turned, she saw Neo wearing a friendly, satisfied smile. She signed, "It's been a while, Ruby. How have you been?"
"Fine... Until." She looked around, and saw Neo's television was on, and nodded to it. "Pyrrha's dead."
Neo twitched her jaw, before signing, "I hope you're not surprised at that." Ruby's silence was her answer, so Neo continued, "I'm sorry for your loss Ruby, but Ozma declared war on him." She'd used the signs for 'teacher' and 'asshole' for Ozma, and while that brought the ghost of a smile to her face, the thought of Pyrrha kept it from showing. "And I would think you would know anyone that stands in his way -"
"But I can't believe he'd just kill her!" Ruby shot back, interrupting the former assassin. "I can't! I just -" She lost her steam, "I can't. There had to be something else." She fell back onto the arm of Neo's couch.
Neo snapped her fingers to get Ruby's attention, and when Ruby looked up, the mute said, "I hope you're not here to get me to help, Ruby. I'm just as clueless as you are to where he went, or what plan he has to kill an immortal. If it weren't for his book, I wouldn't have known how he'd done it the last time. I was his ally, yes, but he only ever told me what I needed to know."
Ruby nodded, "I know." She said, "but... That's not why I'm here. Well -" She nodded to the side, "not that specifically."
There was a twinkle in Neo's eye, a curve to her brow, and a purse to her upwardly curving lips as she signed, "oh?"
Ruby had spent enough time with Neo on the Terran ship to recognize that look, and she knew enough to know that it was the same look she had always given Aldric when he'd surprised her, and caught her interest.
She gulped, "I need help." She began, "I need to get into the Garden, I need someone with coins so I can get information." She kept going, fearing that if she lost any momentum she'd never be able to find it again. "I need to know where Atlas found Aldric. I want to look around there - that's the only place I can think of where I might be able to find a lead to his bunker, the Lonely Mountain. If I can find out where that is, I might be able to find him, and then -" She stopped when Neo held up a hand.
"I'm not saying no." Neo told her, "but what do you think you'll do?" She asked, with a harder chop of her hand at the final word. "He's locked on target, Ruby. You trying to stop him from this is like you trying to stop him from killing Salem ten years ago. It won't happen."
"But I have to try!" Ruby argued, shooting up from the couch's arm. "We don't know if Ozma is guilty or not! I -" She gritted her teeth, "if he's guilty, maybe I'll let Aldric go, but I can't let him fall that far if we don't know for sure! I have to save him - because with Pyrrha gone, no one else is even going to try! He did all of that for us - he's going to kill Ozma for us, and all anyone has ever done for him is hate him, and lock him up in chains, and testify against him, and - and -"
"You can say it, Ruby, I know what I did." Neo signed, without an ounce of regret.
Ruby just petered off, and shook her head. She gathered herself back up and then, "he's just done so much for everyone, and Pyrrha just gave her life to try and stop him. I don't know why he killed her but I just know he wouldn't have if he could have avoided it - and she wasn't hurt at all, so they didn't fight! She wasn't even armed, so that theory the soldiers had, that she stood in front of him, it just doesn't make sense - Aldric would have walked around her, or broken the walls, or -"
"Ruby." Neo croaked, the sound of her hoarse, whispery voice snapping Ruby out of it. "I don't know why he killed Nikos, but I will at least agree that he had to have a reason beyond she was just there. One thing he always emphasized when he had me act for him is to avoid killing people if I didn't absolutely have to. So if Nikos is dead, it had to happen - but you need to make peace with the fact that you'll probably never learn why." When Ruby took in a breath, Neo adopted a stern look, and held up a finger.
"And, I don't think hunting down his secret hideout will do you any favors. Maybe it will lead you to that whatever of his, but by the time you find it, he'll likely have already gotten what he needed from it, and left. So if you want to catch him, if you want to stop him, I can only think of one way you might be able to do it." She then indicated her eyes with two of her fingers, and then pointed at Ruby.
Ruby blinked, "but I'd need to actually find him to try that!" Of course she knew she could just zap him - that had been the plan from even before Pyrrha had died! Hit him with her eyes, nullify his powers, and force him to talk to them.
Neo rolled her eyes, "yes, and would you like to hear how you'll find him? Because I know a way, and the only reason I know this might - MIGHT - work, is because the only other person alive who's outside of Aldric's control, who knows this, I know well enough to know that he'll be using this information as we speak. The good news is I can tell you this, and you'll likely run right against Torchwick's plans and right into the fight I know he's orchestrating between Aldric and Ozma. The bad news is I don't know how fast you'll be able to get there, because Atlas isn't going to let you or anyone related to Aldric out of its borders for a while. Especially if one of their only direct sources of information on him just died." Ruby blanched, that never having occured to her. "So you'll have to go through my channels to get out, and that will increase the time it takes for you to get to Patch drastically. You may very well miss your chance."
Ruby tilted her head, "Patch?
"What's on Patch?"
Torchwick's next stop was obvious: Ozma himself.
Of course it was - his entire career had been made from playing all sides, so of course he would play this one too.
But unlike the General, who was desperate, and out of options - Ozma needed a finer touch, a different approach.
The three hundred unread messages and missed calls Torchwick had received ever since his brief email to the man from Ironwood's office, were evidence of what approach was necessary: He had to let Ozma sweat a little. He had to let the undying man stew in his fear of a man thousands of years his junior, and agonize over the 'thing' that Torchwick had said he had that might be able to turn the tide.
So for five days, Torchwick let Ozma do just that.
It wasn't even hard - he just had to make sure he didn't stay at any of his usual haunts, so none of the Four Gardens, or his preferred hidey holes. How he'd done it though, was something that would always make him smile, looking back, because not only was it entertaining in its own right, it had drawn a leaf from Aldric's book: He'd hidden in a place so blindingly overt, it thus became covert.
He stole the Atlesian High Admiral's personal quarters on the man's - and, by proxy, Atlas' - flagship.
He waited there for four days, before returning to Atlas and chartering a course to home, and by the time five days had passed, he was stepping foot on Beacon's landing pads. The academy's CCT Tower loomed over him in the distance, and he just knew the undying man was in there, looking down on him, watching as he casually approached, took a minute to enjoy the fountain in front of the tower, took another few minutes to talk to some of the students and enjoy how they quivered in front of him - his reputation, even as legally clean as it was, still preceded him. His mere presence here was as political as anything else - a lot of people would talk about how a known criminal was going to visit Beacon's recently reclusive headmaster after public enemy number one had fingered him in a global conspiracy and promptly escaped confinement as though it weren't even an issue.
After a few more minutes, to get across that he was deliberately wasting Ozma's time, he finally relented, and made for the Headmaster's office.
Ozma didn't mince words or fool around - he was standing right in front of the elevator when Torchwick departed.
"What do you know?!" He demanded, with the kind of frantic desperation that could only come from a man who saw one and only one way out of an unwinnable situation, and was being deliberately deprived of it.
"Oh please - no sense for the dramatic! We're making history here, Ozpin - Ozma, Oz... Whatever." Torchwick waved his hand, "did you ever get around to watching the footage of his and Cinder's battle here? I wish I could find the man who'd stitched it together - I heard it was done by someone in their free time, and it looks better than the official archives. His version of it now has more views than the official one, and it's gone viral again ever since the truth to Nebo Aldric and Goud Etiolate came up. Regardless, that was theatrics at work - that little theater performed by -"
"Torchwick, stop wasting my time - you know what's at stake!" Ozma interrupted, as Torchwick walked into the office, boldly examining the entire place, and envisioning the battle that had wrecked it a decade ago.
Torchwick pretended not to hear him, "I'd always wondered if the fight we saw was an act, like his 'fear and dead men,' or if the act was subtext, and he was actively trying to kill her, here." He nodded to the side, "I guess his Record answered that." He said, reaching Ozma's desk, and running a gloved hand across it.
"Torchwick, you said -"
"I know what I said, Ozma, and I also know I'm still here because besides throwing bodies at him - which..." Torchwick slyly looked over his shoulder, "you certainly don't want to do, right?" A grin, then he turned back forward, rubbing his fingers together, as though he'd drawn dust from the desk. "You have no other solution to this except fighting him yourself. You have no means of calming him down and forcing him to speak with you, so you can feed him your truth."
"The truth, Torchwick - I had nothing -"
"Yes, yes, say what you will - we will believe what we choose to believe because the words are coming from a liar." Torchwick turned around and pounded his cane on the floor. "Are you good? Are you evil? Are you righteous or are you immoral? Do you truly serve the greater good and the common man or is it all an act? With how much you lied to that poor boy, and with how often you lie simply to keep the greater complexities of the world a secret, there does not seem to be a definitive answer. All have to choose for themselves how to interpret you, what they are to believe, and Aldric..." He tilted his head, indicating Ozma to finish for him.
Ozma took in a deep breath, his deeply tan face losing some of the red it had gained from the frustration Torchwick had caused. "Aldric believes me to be the same kind of monster he destroyed himself fighting."
Torchwick nodded, "yes indeed, and because of that, as evidenced by him murdering Pyrrha Nikos first among all, he will do whatever he must, but he will never listen to you." Ozma looked away at this, seeming pensive. "Oh? And what do you have to say?"
"He killed Pyrrha to use her soul as fuel for one of his artifacts." Ozma explained, "he used it to read my mind - to break all of my defenses and steal the information he wanted from me: Either proof of my guilt, or innocence."
Oh this will be fun. Torchwick quirked an eyebrow, pretty sure he knew what would come next. "And what did he find?"
"Innocence." Ozma predictably said, "and that broke him. He killed her for nothing, he's in a rage, and will not stop until he is dead, or I am." He pointed at Torchwick, "you may hold the one and only chance I have to calm him down before he leaves a mountain of corpses underneath one or both of ours! Now I'm tired of your games, Torchwick - you must tell me!"
"I must, hm?" Torchwick asked, only mildly concerned that he didn't really feel anything with what he could assume was Ozma trying to be a little more forceful with his influence. "Ozma, I intended to from the beginning." Which he knew to be true - even if he hadn't locked that single sentence behind seven different password protected files on his scroll, it was just his basic nature. "But if you wish to use your powers on me to force the matter, I'm afraid I've some bad news. Everyone has a price, and the Garden employs many psychics ever since Adam Taurus so openly broke its rules. While the amount was high... Fortunately I've coins in vast excess to hire several dozen people to work solely towards shielding my mind."
Ozma scoffed, but the lack of any notifications coming in from Torchwick's scroll told him that the small legion of psychics he had squirreled away either hadn't broken, or hadn't detected any major attempt to compromising his mind.
"Whatever the case, I do have information, and I will give it to you... But you know my price."
Ozma frowned deeply, then turned to Torchwick, just as the latter's scroll vibrated. "Who else have you given this line to?" Ozma asked, as Torchwick brazenly opened his scroll and read exactly what he thought he'd see: A message from the psychics, informing him of Ozma's attempt to probe his mind.
So they can detect, and they can defend, even from him. Torchwick smirked, seeing from them that nothing had been taken - Ozma's line was simply a suspicion, his attempt, to confirm.
Torchwick stowed the scroll, "does it matter?" He asked, "you know me, you know how I play my games. You know I'll tell who I'll tell, and I'll do it because it benefits me. I'm telling you right now for that reason, as well as anyone before or after. Finally, you know what my price is - and every time you try to probe my mind, for whatever reason, that price will go up."
Ozma's face twitched, his frown deepening. "Your price, would require me to survive the encounter." He pointed out.
"Oh I'm confident enough in my ability to profit from this no matter the outcome." Torchwick responded, with a grin.
He then watched as Ozma considered his options. He, for a fact, knew that Torchwick had already told someone else - as was his nature - and no doubt, he was considering ways he might be able to force Torchwick's hand, but he had nothing. He could try to invoke Aldric, but as Torchwick had no machinations of the world stage, he would never trip Aldric's radar. He could try to threaten to tell Aldric, but even if the Master believed the Wizard, all that would accomplish would be to set two masterminds of planning and counter-planning against each other, and the chaos that would unfold would be damn-near apocalyptic.
Ozma realized, after another failed attempt at breaching his mind, what Torchwick knew all along: The only way he could get what he wanted, was to play Torchwick's game, as he wanted.
So, with anger painting the face it never publicly touched, Ozma growled, "fine. What do you have?!"
Torchwick smiled a wide, victorious smile. "His daughter."
There it was.
The one mistake made by the man who could not afford even that.
Credit given where it was due, Nebo Aldric had managed to play his entire game to completion before he'd made such an unforgivable, irrecoverably bad mistake, but the fact remained: He'd finally slipped up.
Whether it would cost him his life?
Well, that would be for him to decide, and for Roman Torchwick to watch with baited breath. Aldric's last act, his final hurrah - live or die, it would all finally end here, and Torchwick would as always, have his hand in it.
And as always, he had to admit the man's genius: He'd hidden this particular mistake very well. As often as he touted the idea that the best way to hide a secret was by openly proclaiming it, no one seemed to really catch on to it. Even Torchwick, who thought he'd had the Master's number, had missed what was almost literally in his backyard. But as always, there was one variable Aldric either didn't account for or couldn't control, and unlike every single time before this, he either couldn't work his way out of it, or - more deliciously interesting - he chose not to.
But that was for Torchwick's benefit. This nugget of information, Aldric's mistake, it was as always something he kept in his back pocket, where all his best secrets lay hidden, waiting to be used. He'd genuinely wondered if he even would get the chance to use it, after Aldric has so audaciously allowed himself to be captured and paraded about on live television - but that had been a passing thought, because he, much like Ozma as evidenced by his absence, knew that if Aldric had been captured at all, it had been because he'd let himself be - and that meant he had a plan, and oh what a wonderful, and uniquely him plan that had been.
Of course, him doing as he did, meant that Torchwick would be put in the most perfect of positions do do what he did.
No matter what happened, in just one day, Torchwick would be one of - if not the - most powerful men on the planet.
The proof came falling through the sky, landing roughly on the ground in front of him. The seven days that separated their last being in the same room had been much kinder to Aldric than the time he'd spent in Atlas' prison - save the burn scars on the left side of his face, and the faintest of orange glows from inside his cybernetic limb, Aldric pretty much looked like Torchwick remembered him: Clad in otherworldly armor, a belt around his waist with gods-knew-what in its many pockets, and a cybernetic arm attached to his left shoulder.
Torchwick grew a wide grin as Aldric brushed his hair back - it slick from the clouds he'd just flown through.
"Long time, no see, old..." Torchwick tipped his bowler hat, before hesitating for show. "Well, I guess we were never 'friends,' were we?" He hummed.
"Notice Neo's not here."
"Oh she and I had quite a long discussion after the revelations of her true loyalties from your 'manifesto.'..." He snorted at Atlas' needlessly theatrical description of what he liked to call a tome of madness. "And decided to go our separate ways. I'm not sure if she's retired, but I do know she always got a kick out of daydreaming being a Scarletina's Secret model, especially after her involvement in the War and her pardon became public knowledge." He shrugged, "something about scaring the living daylights out of people with the poorly-kept secret of her past, and knowing they couldn't say no because of her pardon, I don't know - I didn't pay attention too much. Truth be told I'm still shopping about for a new Gardener -"
"Yes, yes, you love talking about yourself and will keep going because above all you're a showman. Now cut the act, PT Barnum. I brought it up because she was the one who got a hold of me to talk to you. So what do you want? You know I'm about to be busy." As he said that, Torchwick was ready to swear that dull orange glow hidden away in his arm grew the slightest bit brighter.
"Oh how I missed you, Aldric." Torchwick hummed, removing his hat, twirling it on his finger a bit, and then bringing it to rest atop his other hand, which itself lazily gripped his cane in front of him. Not that the subtle threat meant anything to the man in front of him - they both knew Aldric could kill him in a heartbeat - but old habits died hard. "I don't know why, but Ozma is making some rather grandiose moves, and he's getting Atlas to help him."
"Why tell me? You know that if I even make it to the end of the month I won't be paying back any favors." Aldric said, bluntly.
"Oh I know - but truth be told?" He shrugged, casually. "I'm much like you in that I'm simply sick of people of mass destruction, with power to influence whole worlds, doing nothing with that power. Ozma could have prevented the war, but he didn't. Then almost immediately after you return to pay your debt, he makes a move on you?" He shook his head, "oh Aldric, I have the same fears you do. That he may return to his ancient habits, and well -" He nodded to the side, "That would be bad for business, wouldn't it?"
"There it is." Aldric shook his head, "I was wondering where you profited from this." He looked away, "how far does it stretch?"
"Oh, I've successfully got cells in every kingdom now. Vale is completely mine, as is most of Vacuo and a good percentage of Mistral. Atlas is a little fledgling at the moment, but I figure I'll be able to take advantage of some chaos soon to expand that."
Aldric huffed, then turned to Torchwick. "You're deliberately putting me on his path."
"To end him, for me, and preferably as fast as possible. As good as chaos is, that's only in places I don't control. You and him ripping apart Vale would be less than optimal because then it would shake faith in me, but ripping apart Patch?" He shrugged again, "I can work with that."
As he expected, Aldric froze solid.
"Patch. The island, where -"
"I know where Patch is." Aldric growled, "why are they going there?!" He demanded.
"As best as I can tell, Ozma is intending to put as many familiar faces between you and him as possible, because he's already met with Team RWBY, sent for the remains of Team JNPR, and is searching for your old team. One of them - the black one with the baseball bat? She got crippled a while back and lives on Patch now, and he personally-"
Aldric was gone a second later in an explosion of dirt and a howl of wind.
Torchwick, left alone, could only groan, as he looked down at his expensive pants and jacket, and silently cursed that he should have prepared for this. Aldric - as evidenced by his own gaudy wardrobe choices even as far back as his time at Beacon - had no sense for good clothing, or how difficult it was to keep it good.
Though he couldn't help but smile - Aldric wasn't the only one who could come up with plans, and his were going exactly as he intended them to.
One way or another: Things were going to end, very soon.