My results from the eye doctor are in. I have had an allergic reaction under both my eyelids and this has caused irritation to the eye, which (likely combined with rubbing and scratching) has caused a corneal abrasion in one eye, which looks like it was "thinking about getting infected" according to the doctor. Now comes the fun time of cutting things off one by one to find out what is causing the allergy.


Cover Art: Mystery White Flame

Chapter 84


"My Queen."

Hazel waited patiently, subserviently, but Salem didn't respond. Canned laughter came from the screen as an actor posed with his arms held out. Salem chuckled and sipped from a dark green bottle.

"My Queen…"

"Everyone says you have great potential when you're a kid, but you know what? Stay away from it! Stay away from your potential. You'll only mess it up, it's potential, leave it. Anyway, it's a lot like your bank balance. You have a lot less than you think."

Salem chuckled along with the audience, slapping her knee as the angry man strutted across a stage.

"My Queen." Hazel tried again. "The invasion-"

"But look at the people who use their potential, who do actually give it everything, you know? The Pyrrha Nikos' and the Jacques Schnee's of the world, the competitors and the athletes. People working their asses off, sweating for their craft and working every hour of their lives running up and down fields swearing at one another. Are they happy? No! They're destroying themselves. Who's happy? You! The fat fucks watching them."

"True…" Salem said, laughing under her breath. "So true. You invest your life into something, your very being, and all you're left with is that sense of longing for a simpler life. This man understands, Hazel. Potential is no gift. It's a measuring stick used to beat someone with. You either fail to live up to it and exist with regret, or you spend your whole life reaching for it and never have a chance to relax. Or you realise your potential was a lie from the start, at which point your confidence is crushed."

Salem turned away from the screen, pointing her bottle at the comedian on it and wobbling on her cushions. "Find this man, Hazel. Find him and tell him he is right."

"My Queen. Are you drunk?"

"Drunk?" Salem looked at the bottle in her hand and hiccupped. "I do not know." A light entered her eyes. "But I know how to make sure!" The bottle tipped back, wine draining in an instant. Salem gasped pleasantly and threw the bottle back. It hit the grass and didn't shatter, but it did clink against a second.

"My Queen…"

"Are you going to stand there and keep saying that?" she slurred. "My Queen. My Queen. My Queen. You're a broken record. Oh, Hazel, you had such potential too. You all did."

"All of us?"

"All three of you, Hazel. All three of… no wait, now there are four of you. Tricky. You had a clone Semblance all along?"

Hazel sighed. "No. I do not."

"T-Then we have an imposter!" Salem stabbed a hand to the left of Hazel. "That one is sus. Kill him."

And now she has discovered memes as well, Hazel thought. Wonderful. He stooped and picked up both bottles, placing them out the way so she wouldn't step on them. Immortal or not, some things were best not experienced. Hazel knew the alcohol would have no lasting effect on her – it would cause no internal harm and as such was of no concern to Salem.

"My Queen, I believe your enemies are trying to distract you…"

Successfully, he didn't add. Very successfully.

"What does it matter?" Salem slurred, reaching for a third bottle that he pulled out her reach. Her eyes narrowed and she flashed her teeth, intimidating him into handing it over. He couldn't truly stop her. "The Grimm are still attacking, aren't they? They don't need me. For all I've spent eternity waiting for this moment, it's boring, Hazel. Boring!"

She pointed out the tent and toward the walls of Vale, which were still under siege by an endless horde of darkness.

"I don't fight. I don't lead. I don't even strategize. Even when I win, will it really be my victory – or just the God of Darkness'? It's his Grimm after all. All I'm doing is throwing them at a single point and hoping it sticks." The cork shot out the bottle and she took a long swig. "Potential, Hazel. How much did I ever really have? Enough, I think. Enough to live a good life, love, raise a family and die. The potential to be remembered fondly. Instead, I'm stuck like this." Her pale hand came up, turning in the light of the screen. "I'm trapped in this hideous body surrounded by monsters."

"I'm here," Hazel said weakly.

"I know. I said that."

Hazel winced. "My Queen," he tried for diplomacy. "I can't help but feel you're falling into Jaune Arc's trap. By coming to rely on these trappings of humanity, he's creating reason in your head for humanity to be allowed to exist. He can't beat you in open battle so he's trying to beat you in your head."

"My, Hazel, you certainly are on form today. Did you study?" Salem looked skyward and shook her head. "I'm not an idiot. I know what he's doing. That doesn't change the fact he's right. What will be left for me after I completely annihilate humanity? What? Animals, clouds, birds and plants – and Grimm. I'll be surrounded by all that for the rest of eternity. Does it sound idyllic? Maybe for a while. Not for the rest of my immortal life!"

"What will I do?" she went on, ranting between angry swigs of wine. "Learn to hunt? How many years will that entertain me? Become a farmer? That might work for a while. I'll paint, write and sing – and there'll be no one bug wildlife to see and hear it. Sooner or later I'll crack and start killing them off, too. Yes, an end to all rabbit life on Remnant, then all birds. All plants. Then I'll be stuck on a barren wasteland slowly going insane."

"My Queen…"

"And worse!" she screeched. "I might be going insane with Ozma stuck in my head! Ozma! Can you imagine how bad that would be? I can – and it might just get worse, because he could take over my body and leave me trapped inside my body, unable to move, for all eternity!"

He didn't want to – but like someone mentioning a needle in your eye, he imagined it the second she brought it up. Shuddering, Hazel gripped himself. Considering Ozma was responsible for the death of his sister, he couldn't imagine a fate worse than being forced to exist with him. It must have been even more confusing for Salem.

"You swore to me you'd kill Ozpin."

"Ozpin is technically dead."

Hazel's hands clenched into fists. "He yet lives!"

"In the head of a child, Hazel. What will you do – kill him, the next and every other child he's slotted into? Take a baby by its feet and smash its head against a wall until it's ruined and bloody pulp of flesh?"

The image was so intentionally revolting that he stepped back.

"Exactly. Your vengeance was forever an impossible thing. Even if I did eradicate every spec of life on this planet, Ozma would still technically exist. Worse, if the Brother Gods made other worlds after deeming ours a failure then he'll be spirited off to live there. Wouldn't that be hilariously ironic? I damn the world to punish him and he gets a one-way taxi ride to some distant utopia. That'd be just my luck."

"Then what?" he spat. "We stop? Retreat? Give up?"

"I don't know!" Salem's roar startled him. "I don't know, Hazel!" she shouted again, rounding on him with dark red eyes and bared teeth. "Why don't you – for once in your life – try and find your own answers instead of relying on someone else to make the decisions for you! I'm not your mother. I'm not your nanny. I'm certainly not your blasted sister!" Hazel flinched again, and Salem continued unabated. "I'm as much stuck here as you and I have no idea what to do. Destroy humanity and doom myself to the empty void? Let them live and doom myself to isolation? Gather the Relics and let those stupid Gods decide my fate? I. Do. Not. Know. Now go," she spat, waving her hand. "Get out and let me enjoy what brief distraction I can."

"M-My Que-"

"GO! Or I will order the Grimm to throw you at the walls and you can take your vengeance personally!"

Hazel scurried away, the tent flap fluttering shut behind him. Salem sighed, pinched her nose and looked at the wine. Jaune Arc was fool if he thought she didn't know what alcohol did. It wasn't like their Kingdom hadn't produced it as well. Still, right now she needed the happy distraction it could provide. Swinging it back, she upped the volume on the portable television she had been gifted and leant back into her cushions as the incredibly angry man stomped across the stage looking almost as drunk as her.

"Adulthood feels like walking around in the desert with a bag over your head, being bumped into by people who rob you as they bore you. You're not really an adult at all. At best, we're all tall children holding beers and having conversations we don't understand."

That was certainly how she felt sometimes.

/-/

Jaune was surprised when he was lowered down at midday the next day, down off the walls and onto the churned up field outside Vale where Grimm had died in the tens of thousands, and instead of sitting at the table they always had before, Salem demanded he meet with her in her tent.

Was that safe? He'd always been within eyesight of the walls before, but what safety did that offer? If the Grimm were to attack, he'd be dead long before anyone could jump down and help him. After a brief call back to Glynda to inform her of his intentions, he agreed.

Salem looked worse for wear as she led him to the Grimm encampment. Not hungover, funnily enough. He wasn't sure of the biology of it all, but if a hangover was the body's natural recovery period to the poison that alcohol technically was, then maybe her regenerative factor let her ignore it. If so, that was lucky for her and probably for him. He hadn't considered until well after the fact what the gift of booze might make her do if she turned out to be a violent drunk.

Hazel and Tyrian glared bloody murder at him from their positions outside the tent. Hazel in particular looked like he wanted nothing more than to reach out, take hold of him and twist his body until it snapped. Tyrian just looked like he was childishly curious as to what a spike through Jaune's eye might look like. Weirdly enough, the leer felt less personal.

"Leave us." Salem commanded. Tyrian could not have been more eager or happy to obey but Hazel hesitated a moment before stomping off. "Come," she told him, walking into her tent. He followed.

The interior was comfortable and well lit, if a little messy. There were four empty bottles of wine arranged by the opened crate in the corner, several boxsets open on the floor and a blanket flung over the television. There wasn't a cot or bed, but a large bundle of cushions and blankets that must have served as one. If or when she chose to sleep. Salem sat on that, then laid back, leaving Jaune standing awkwardly by the entrance wondering if he should come back later.

"Um…"

"Is this not how it's done?"

"I-It might be. If I know what it is you want done. Or what I'm supposed to be doing…" Neo would kill him if it was that. There would be nowhere on Remnant he could hide that Neo would not find him. "C-Can you be a little more specific?"

Like telling him if he should take his trousers off.

Salem gritted her teeth. "Therapy. I want… I require therapy…"

Good lord. Was this happening-?

"You-?"

"This is confidential, isn't it?" she demanded, hissing through her teeth. "You will tell no one of what transpires here. No one! I swear to you now, if the contents of what I say here are revealed then I shall ensure the destruction of Vale to every man, woman and child. Swear yourself to secrecy."

"I'm always confidential-"

"Swear it!"

"I swear I won't tell anyone what happens here," he promised quickly.

"Especially not Ozma…"

"I swore I'd tell no one. Ozma is included in the list." Nervously, he took a single cushion and crossed his legs, sitting down. "I'll happily listen if you want to talk. What is it you wanted to cover? Your past? Your breakup?"

"No. I… I want to know why Ozma has been able to live a more fulfilling life."

Jaune blinked. "Eh?"

"We've both been doing the same thing. We're both cursed, we both have to suffer eternity and we both hate the Gods. We're also both waging war against each other. He's not plagued like I am, though. He gets to live in comfort and continue steadfastly on while I have whole periods where I can't find the energy to move. It's not personality alone," she insisted. "I was always iron willed before. I lived a whole portion of my life trapped in a tower and I never once surrendered. Why is it he can remain focused now while I suffer?"

Good question. His first instinct was just that Ozpin chose the good side, so he got the benefits of company, amenities and technology. That felt like it'd just piss her off, though. It also wasn't a great reason because Salem did surround herself with people and those people could – and probably had – brought her back things from human culture. It wasn't like she'd spent the last few thousand years sealed in some crypt like a vampire.

"I'm thinking," he said so she wouldn't assume his silence a problem. "I want to give you a proper answer, something meaningful. Is it okay if I ask a few questions?"

"If it will help and if you will not tell anyone, yes."

"I won't tell. You can trust me on this. So, first question. Have you ever tried to be on friendly terms with your underlings?"

"Yes. My first acolytes were likeminded people who I brought to power and won over. I was still acting more human then, and I was used to recruiting people by appealing to them. They were not ambitious or vindictive like Cinder or Tyrian, just unhappy with the way Ozpin ran things. We were close. Close enough that I mourned their passing."

"Why did you change your way to what you have now?"

"Necessity," she replied. "There have been those I have had to control with force, those more likely to betray me or drawn by power and authority. That is what the current iteration are. Cinder, Watts, Hazel and Tyrian, none of those would have been impressed with a kinder relationship. They would have seen it as weakness."

"I think I see your point. It wasn't a betrayal or a bad experience that made you do this permanently?"

"No. There have been betrayals of course, just as there have been for Ozma. I do not let the flaws of the few make me change my ways. I can be authoritative to some and generous to others. Were Cinder and the rest different, I would have acted so."

Hm. Well there went that idea. Interesting to know Salem wasn't always vindictive, though maybe he should have guessed that. Aside from wanting to destroy humanity, she never came off overly cruel or evil. Just… aligned differently.

"Do you have any hobbies?"

Salem looked confused and ready to question the point of such a query. It was testament to how much she wanted this that she answered. "I have had some. Few last the test of time."

"What have you been doing for fun recently? Or to keep you busy?"

"Plotting the fall of the Kingdoms. It has been entertaining," she admitted brazenly. "I don't always do that, but I have been close this time and I focused on it because with Watts and Cinder gone, I can't exactly rely on anyone for the planning. Perhaps it's not healthy but it keeps me motivated."

"Interesting." He jotted the word `motivation` down. "Would you say your goal is to destroy Remnant?"

"More destroy humanity. I live on Remnant and the planet has not scorned me. Humanity has."

"And the fact Ozma sided with them can't have helped."

"Not in the slightest. Honestly, if Ozma had died and not come back then I think I wouldn't be so focused on killing humans anymore. Grief burns hot but fades, while the sting of betrayal can be felt forever." Salem laughed suddenly. "I dare say if Ozma ever decided to turn on the Kingdoms, you would find me your greatest ally."

"Hmmm. Interesting. And is there anything else you're working on?"

Salem paused. "Like what?"

"Anything at all. Any activities you're focusing on."

"Well… I'm thinking about recruitment again. With Cinder and Watts gone I'll need more allies soon, and neither Hazel nor Tyrian are getting any younger. Or any better at their jobs," she added in a quiet whisper.

"I see…"

"Do you?" Salem asked angrily. "Or are you just making noise?"

"No, I think I really do see," Jaune said, jotting the last part down and circling it. "And I think I have the reason as to why Ozma is able to keep himself going and focused when you can't. It comes down to one thing." He turned his notepad around, a single word circled. "Goals."

Predictably, Salem became defensive. "My goals are fine!"

"Your goal may be fine, but you only have the one. Kill Ozma and what he has worked for. I won't comment on my thoughts of it since I'm obviously biased, but as a goal, it does its job. You say you're at your most focused, your most satisfied, when you're working toward it. Correct?"

"Yes…" Salem admitted slowly. "That's not unusual, though."

"It's not. In fact, it's perfectly normal and a good thing you feel that way."

"Yes." Salem relaxed a little, laying back. "Yes, it is. Then what's the problem?"

"It's that it's all you have whereas Ozma has other goals. His main goal is to stop you, obviously. That's the counter to your goal. He also has the goal of fulfilling the Gods mandate and bringing an end to both your lives. He's also running – or was running – a school for Huntsmen, so he had a goal to make and lead a successful academy. He probably had goals based around that as well, namely winning the Vytal Festival and showing Ironwood up."

Jaune smiled at what felt like such a distant memory. Easier times.

"Running an academy also came with lots of little things to distract him. Taxes, homework, exams and hiring for positions. He didn't always do those very diligently, but they were still goals. Reluctant ones, but they still serve the same purpose of being something you have to either do or find a way out of doing."

Usually the latter with Ozpin.

"Then he had all the other academies to keep alive and peaceful, which threw more goals at him, then he had his little group like Qrow and Team STRQ, and probably a couple of goals relating to them as well. And so on and so on," Jaune said. "The point is: Ozpin has a lot of goals. Some bigger than others, some more important, but all distracting him and – and this is important – giving him things to do."

"If I'm being honest and cynical, I don't think life is as great as it's cracked up to be." Jaune continued. "That's not being miserable or morbid, I just mean that we have this finite period of life and most of it, a good eighty to ninety per cent, is spent just doing random crap. We spend a third of it sleeping for crying out loud. In our waking hours, we work, earn money and go through the usual motions. All that is boring and we hate it, but we do it for one of two reasons; either because we have to, or because it's building up to something."

"Goals…" Salem said.

"Yes. And people have loads of goals. One might be to get married and have kids, but there'll be to go on holiday to Mistral, publish a book, own a house, get a nice car, fulfil that childhood ambition, the list goes on. Most people won't accomplish half those things, but I think that's the point. Goals are only exciting so long as we don't achieve them."

That sounded so wrong and backward, but it also explained why the rich and famous, those with the wealth and power to have anything they wanted, so often grew bored and were so rarely happy. It was chasing dreams that kept people excited. No matter how boring those dreams were. Professional athletes fought to reach the top, but what happened to those who did? They all too often stayed there terrified of losing their spot, trying to figure out if they should retire early, undefeated, or keep going. Either way, they were no longer as driven or excited as they used to be. He'd seen that in Pyrrha.

"Your problem is twofold," he said. "The first is that you only really have one goal, so whenever you're not actively working on that, you feel unmotivated and tired." He paused to let that sink in. "Does that feel accurate?"

"It… no, I… maybe…" Salem closed her eyes. "I think it does. I feel satisfaction when a scheme goes to plan. I feel fulfilled when I have a win over him. I'm excited whenever I'm working on it. Is that so bad…?"

"No. That's a sign of a good goal."

Salem nodded, relieved.

"The problem is that you can't do it all the time. There are obviously periods where you're waiting for something to happen, or a plan is in process and you can't add to it. Right?" He waited for her to nod. "Whenever that happens, I bet you feel impatient and grouchy, either desperate to see the plan work or even just frustrated that there's nothing to do."

"Yes. Yes, I do. But surely Ozma has those periods as well!"

"Yes and no. He has them, but he's so busy that whenever he's done working on one goal, another takes its spot. That's what makes human life feel so busy. You work to earn money for a holiday and go on it, but before you even have time to feel bored about having achieved that, a bill arrives and you need money. Then once that's paid, it's someone's birthday, then there's a big event coming on like the Vytal Festival, then you meet a girl and fall in love, then you're dating, then you're thinking of moving in together and buying a house. It continues like that. There's always something to do."

"Ozma doesn't experience what you do because he's kept busy. He fends you off, then suddenly has the Vytal Festival to plan. He doesn't get a chance to feel empty like you do because there's always something that needs doing. Maybe it's not healthy," he admitted. It probably wasn't. "But every single time he does something, he gets that little rush of excitement you mentioned. And because he has more things to do than you, it keeps him sustained."

"So what, I need to build an academy for evil huntsmen?"

"You could," he said. "It sounds stupid and I'm not sure it's your best bet, but as a random idea it's better than doing nothing. Isn't it? It'd give you things to do. Evil teachers to hire. Evil exams to plan. It's a stupid example and you know it, but even you have to admit it'd give you more to do."

Salem sighed but didn't argue. There was an old saying he'd heard once, though he couldn't remember where he'd heard it. May all your dreams but one come true.

He'd thought it sounded mean and asked his mom, and she'd explained that it wasn't cruel because it was saying they wished that everything you wanted and dreamed of what would happen, but that you'd still have one dream to cling to, one thing to keep you happy and pushing on. To be fair, he hadn't fully understood it. He got the theory, but it was hard to apply for a kid with more dreams than sense. Even for most humans.

For Salem and Ozma, though, who would live forever?

Dreams had to be important.

"You said I had two problems." Salem said.

"Yeah. Your second problem is that you're close to accomplishing your one dream. And you're rightfully asking yourself what you're going to do after. What comes next? If you're only happy when you're working toward Ozma's downfall, what will you have left if you actually achieve it?"

"What will I have left?" she asked.

"I don't know. That's something only you can answer."

"What about you? What are your dreams, Jaune of Arc? How many do you have?"

He laughed. "Too many. I wanted to become a huntsmen, meet a pretty girl, fall in love and have a family. Make my family proud, prove I could be strong, become famous and get the glory. Then when I came here I wanted to keep my secret and not be found out, ease Glynda's workload, pay her back for helping me. Then I wanted to save Roman and Neo, stop Cinder, protect the students. I succeeded with some and failed on others. Then I wanted to keep Beacon in one piece, make Ozpin proud and look after the kids. I still want to. Beyond that, I do still want to do the whole raising a family thing, but I kinda also want to have a proper Vytal Festival and beat Atlas. Then I can rub it in Ironwood's face and be a smug bastard." He cackled at the thought. "But those are just my dreams. There are loads of interim goals like surviving exam periods, getting good reports, rebuilding the damaged sections of the school and hiring a doctor who doesn't take pleasure in causing pain."

"You have a lot on your plate," Salem said, eyes closed. "It must keep you busy."

"Never a boring day."

"In a way, I've added to that. Does that mean I'm helping enrich your life?"

"I… Maybe." He wasn't sure. "Obviously not if you win and I die, but you've definitely added a lot of fresh goals. Spiced my life up." He grinned. "And if we do come out of this alive, I guess I'll really feel like I can look my dad in the eye and feel he's proud of me."

"Idiot child," she whispered. "A true parent will always be proud. I had never been prouder than when my children first spoke, crawled, walked or told me they had made a friend." Her voice cracked. "Your father is already proud of you. Of that I'm sure."

Jaune sat there, silent. It felt like he should say or do more, but what was he supposed to offer someone a hundred times older than he? What could he possibly understand of the problems a person cursed to eternal life might experience?

"You have given me much to think on." Salem said. "Leave now. Speak of this to no one."

Jaune eyed the bottles. "Do you want us to deliver more wine?"

"Should a therapist be suggesting alcohol as the solution to one's problems?"

"I never said I was a good therapist. Also, I don't think it's a solution and you know it's not. But if it helps you cope until you can come up with the answer yourself, I don't think it's an issue. Someone with a broken leg uses a crutch to help them walk until it heals. That doesn't make them weak."

Salem considered that for a long and tired moment. "Yes. More wine would be appreciated…"

/-/

"C-Can't you fly?"

"Silence, peasant." Cinder leaned back on a chair stolen from Salem's castle, which was being carried by four girls trudging their way across the Grimm wasteland. "A Queen does not walk where her loyal subjects may carry her. Consider yourself fortunate. Though, if you wish to try my original idea…"

"That won't be necessary, your majesty," Blake said. "We will carry you until we reach a signal strong enough to contact Vale, then Raven Branwen can open a portal to Yang."

"Are you sure? The last time she opened one was when Xiao-Long was in mortal peril. Though it is beneath me, I will be magnanimous enough to torture her unto such a state of near-death agony that her mother will feel it across the entire planet if you wish it."

"No," Ruby said quickly. "That's okay! We, uh, we like carrying you! Don't we, Yang?"

"Yeah. Love it…"

"See? Everyone is happy. Why don't you go back to planning your Kingdom out and we, your humble servants, will escort you home."

"Hm. You have a point. My land needs a name. Something inspiring. Something that will make me unforgettable. How does the Fallen Kingdom sound? Too ominous? Too… fallen?"

"Edgy, your majesty," Blake said.

"Are you sure? And I thought you liked edgy. You did date Adam Taurus after all. No? Well, fine. Cindertopia. Cinderstadt. Fallstadt. The Fire Empire. Cinderland. Oh, I like that one. Hurry up now, there's miles and miles yet before we reach any chance of a scroll signal. Cinderland. Hm. Cinderingham. Cinderpool. Cindchester. Cinderopolis…"


So, like, what is Salem's plan for after she beats Ozma in the show? Most evil villains usually have a plan that at least makes some sense. Sauron wanted to rule over the evil Kingdoms and get revenge. Voldemort also wanted to rule over a purer society. Even Hitler had plans for after. Is Salem's plan in the show to just sort of wipe everything out and then exist on her own, trapped on a planet for all eternity?


Next Chapter: 3rd December

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