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I kissed my son's forehead and stroked his hair as he slept. I said goodbye to Nebel and walked into all the rooms and said goodbye to all my children. It was the best I could do in the early morning. I loved on them. I let them go.
Weiss followed me as I did with folded arms. She sighed as I left Nebel's room. I quietly shut the door behind me. Weiss looked up at me. I looked down at her. I reached over my head and squeezed the handle of my sword. Weiss reached out and put her hands through my hair. I couldn't keep looking at her and looked away. My weakness.
"Come home to us. No excuses."
"No excuses," I agreed. "Goodbye darling. How about a kiss for good luck?"
She kissed my cheek ever so gently. I grinned because we take those. I descended the stairs to find Ruby. She shuffled and rubbed her right arm with her left arm. I walked over to her and kissed her on the forehead.
"This is it," I told her. "This is the moment we've been getting ready for."
She threw her arms around my neck and choked on a sob. I held her by the waist and stroked her back. When she stopped crying I stepped away from her. I walked out the front door with a wave goodbye and waves received in return. Then I took off from the ground fast enough to leave a gust of wind behind me.
I could feel my Mother. I just followed that to Ayan. The kingdomless continent. I could always feel her ever since that day so long ago when she knocked something loose inside my brain which rattled around and around in my skull. I could trace that line to the source and I could feel her just waiting. Waiting for my arrival. Would she know I was coming? Did it matter? I followed the compass in my brain straight to the source. I flew over islands and land and sea. I flew over mountains and rivers. My eyes were narrowed and I was focused on my prize. This was it. It was the day of destiny. No going back and, more importantly, no escaping fate. Whatever was in store for me I'd face and handle it. I didn't have any choice. There were people back on the ground counting on me. And I wanted to hold my children in my arms again. I wanted more from life to end here. So I simply wouldn't. I'd survive this one way or another. My Mother would have tricks. She'd be at the zenith of her power. I was walking into an ambush. But I had no choice. I had to spring the trap.
I landed with a rush outside of a castle. It was dark and tall. A massive cathedral built of black stone and tall red and pink windows of crystal. I stepped up the walkway ever vigilant. I pushed the great double doors aside and they opened into a long atrium. She was waiting for me there. Ghostly white skin with black veins. Red eyes looked from her pale hair. She looked like my Mother in my memories. Only Grimm. Same facial structure. Same nose and cheekbones. Same curtain of hair. And she wore a flowing black dress which contrasted starkly with the white of my memories. She leaned on a stairwell and looked down at me.
"Son," she whispered.
"Mother," I murmured back. I could feel my danger senses screaming out at me. I only stared at her across the atrium. I didn't draw my sword or make any sudden movements. She stared back at me. Just waiting. I could feel her in my mind but I had my defenses. She couldn't get past the bouncer.
"Mother I have come," I pronounced across the room.
"So you have. Tea? Or coffee?" She asked.
"Coffee," I answered. I stepped further inside and glanced around as I stepped towards her.
"Follow me," she turned and made her way into the bowels of the castle. I pursued her a comfortable distant back as she glid over the ground. Her footsteps echoed but were quiet compared to my bootfalls. They cavernously carried throughout the castle. The kitchen was a small affair. I thought I might recognize it. Same island. Same position of the stove. From my memories of the time before I had been it was the same.
"If I had known you were coming I'd have made cookies," she sighed.
I almost found myself apologizing. Almost. "Did you expect me to write a letter?"
"No. No, of course not. This is the way it is. The way it has to be."
She offered me a mug of coffee. I took it one hand. She stirred her own glass of tea idly and telekinetically. A font of magic from one hand spinning the liquid in a soft light. Crystals above us shed light down on the room.
"This kitchen… it's the same as the one you implanted me with," I noticed.
"It is. Some details hardly mattered. The best lies with a grain of truth. You understand."
I nodded like I got it because I did.
"Of course this castle isn't much like the house you wanted me to believe I grew up in. That place was white and bright. This place is dark. It's cold. There are Grimm outside."
"Anything to make you more comfortable should you have come here. That's all. I did what I could for you but nothing can ever be so bitter as the truth. I shielded it from you but eventually you had to see it. To know it. I'm not the woman I projected into your psyche. My looks alone are different."
"Would you really have made cookies?" I asked.
"Of course," she murmured. "It's hardly my first batch. I've made some for your sisters before. In these very halls where they were raised."
"Everyone but me…"
"Do you regret it? Do you wish you had been raised with your sisters in reality rather than in dreams?"
"Of course. But I'm fond of my dreams and where I ended up in life. I'm a father now. I have two beautiful wives. I love them dearly. It would be impossible had I been raised like my sisters."
"Tell me about my grandchildren."
"There's Nebel. He's eight. The oldest. He's strong. I'm very proud of him. Garnet is the next oldest and she's a sweetheart. So much like her mother. In not just looks but also actions. And her mother is a total sweet thing. Pearle comes next and she is also like her mother but mostly in appearances. She's a shy girl. I worry about her all the time. Next is the twins. Citrine and Cherry. Cherry is like Ruby and Citrine takes more after me. And last is Carnal who you can see some of both Ruby and I in. She has a mix of our hair. She's young though. Too young to get a good read on her personality."
"Sounds wonderful. And you gave it all up to come face me."
"I had to come."
"So you did," she sipped on her tea. "We shall see how things pan out for you in these halls."
"It's inevitable. But… just because we are enemies doesn't make us not family. It doesn't mean we can't be civil to one another. At least before we get down to brass tacks."
"Quite. I shan't make it easy on you. You ought to know."
"I actually figured as much," I agreed. I followed her to a room with a long table and towering windows looking out over the Grimm wasteland. "It's beautiful. In a twisted way. I doubt others would recognize that."
"It is. May as well be scenic. If it's nothing else. The view does get tiresome after a while. It becomes droll. The monsters come and go. I consider joining them. Wouldn't that be a treat to the world? To finally come face to face with me."
"You prefer to act through intermediaries and other weapons. Like my sisters."
"But what if I didn't? What if I descended upon the world with all that I am? Would it survive? That's never been the intent. Global destruction. I could have gone for it dozens of times but I never once wanted to destroy the world and the people in it. They are just… sometimes in my way."
"I'm in your way."
"And how regrettable that is. Tell me, what would you be doing if you didn't have to do this? What if you didn't have to dance with me?"
"I'd wake up with my wives every morning. I'd kiss my children's faces. I'd raise them as best as I was able. Even without you the Grimm still outnumber humanity. There would be enemies for me to fight. And even if there weren't Grimm there's be people for me to face. To make the world safer. It's my job. It's my responsibility."
"The entire world… isn't it a bit much?"
"It can be, at times it is. But I wouldn't want an easier life. I like challenges. I like pushing myself. I like straining against the world and the anonymity within it. I say 'I am here' and I draw a line in the sand. I like it."
"I always wanted you to be happy," she murmured. I laughed. "Oh? Do we finally disagree?" She wondered.
"You made me kill my friends. You tried to make me kill one of my wives. The only reason you're being civil with me is because I have the power to make you. I can force you to try and be polite because you've exhausted all your other options."
"My family matters to me. I never once tried to make you kill yourself though I could have. Can you really blame me for being apathetic towards these others."
"Ruby is technically a part of your family. I married her. You tried to make me kill her all the same. You tortured my sisters in these halls. Didn't you. Don't talk to me about family and wanting me to be happy. You must not know what those things are if you believe that."
"Perhaps I don't. It's been so long for me. Millennia upon millennia."
"You're too alien. You're too monstrous for me to share this Remnant with. My children deserve a better world and I'm going to give it to them."
"You truly believe you can destroy me," she breathed. "Many have tried. I tried. I tried to drown myself in the waters of destruction. All I became was this. What you see before you."
"The others lacked my resolve. I have come to butcher you, Mother. To put you to sleep."
"Sleep…" she echoed. Her voice full of craving. "I do want to sleep. Let the eternities pass me by. Flirt with consciousness and ebb and flow."
"But you won't make it easy for me."
"No. I will claw and cling. I shan't make it easy for you. But I won't fight back earnestly."
"You're my son. Look at how you've grown. You've become a man. Big and strong. You are unafraid. Or at least you stow your fear. I'm proud of you and I love you."
"I don't think you and I are considering the same sort of love. Again, you're too alien. Too old. We can't both be talking about the same thing."
"I will always be your mother, Jaune. Don't ever forget that."
"It's Cloud. My name is Cloud."
"Whatever your preference. You're still my son and I love you in my own time and in my own way."
"You're a monster. A monster of time and space. You haunted me. You shook up my sanity. You made me doubt what was real."
"And yet still I love you and am proud of you. You're all grown up. You don't need me. And you've come to the furthest reaches of the globe and taken a chance all to stop the greatest threat to lasting peace on the planet."
"But that's you, though."
"It is I," she smiled. "It must take a great deal of courage for you to face me. That can't be easy. We are family. The things I did to you in the past should have had you too frightened to do much of anything about me. Yet here you are. I couldn't be more proud of the man you've become. Truly you are a hero."
"Because I'm facing you though," I reminded her.
"Do you think I'm unaware of what I've become? I was once a maiden. I was once whole hearted. I was once beautiful and kind and pure. One upon a time I fell in love with a great hero. That was my greatest crime. I loved him too much. I loved him enough to face the gods. Just as you now love your children enough to face me."
I swallowed coffee.
"You've come to slay the dragon. It is quite impossible. But nonetheless you came. You entered the labyrinth. You scaled the mountain. You came to slay the dragon and I couldn't be more proud of you."
"I don't want your pride. I don't want your love. It is a sickly thing."
"It's beautiful in a twisted way," Salem denied. "Just like this castle. Just like the wastelands around us. Just like me."
"Your ego… you're horrific."
"As are all the creatures of Grimm. As are you, my wayward son."
"Not like you," I returned.
"Just like me," she smiled sweetly. "Even if you do succeed here today I will have a lasting legacy through yourself and your sisters. My dynasty will last forever. And it's all thanks to you."
"I didn't do it with you in mind. You will be forgotten. Millennia will go by and you will be forgotten. No dynasties for you."
"Not as you would see it. But perhaps I am too alien."
"You shouldn't be flattered by my calling you that," I pointed out. "In fact you're supposed to be rather insulted."
"I just don't see it. And you're hardly wrong. I'm a twisted soul. I've felt it. Eon after eon. Century upon century. I've twisted. I've become something else. Something almost but not quite human. I have felt it. Do you know what it means? To feel yourself change but be helpless to stop it."
"Maybe but the opposite. My wives make me a better person. Despite your attempts at unwinding me they make me a person."
"Do they now?" She wondered.
"They do. They keep me grounded. They hold me tightly to this Remnant."
"I didn't have that," she sighed. "Ozma abandoned me. He took our daughters and ran."
"The original maidens. You didn't know?"
"I had no idea. So Ozma made the maidens? To preserve them?"
"I suppose. I naturally wasn't there for it. For whatever he did," she returned.
"I see. Would you do the same with my sisters? To carry them forward."
"I don't think so. Death is a part of life."
"For everybody but you."
"For everybody but me. Yes."
"We'll see. You and I are going to find out."
"I suppose we will," she drank some tea.
I took a sip of my coffee. I set it on the long table.
"My wives kept me sane. I would have lost it without them."
"Your sisters did that for one another. I couldn't be a part of that. I've slipped further since they were born. I slip further every day," she said.
"You could fight it. You set the terms. You could change them."
"No. Not this. I lose track of what it means to be Cetra."
"You lack the free will?"
"It's slight. I lose a little ground here and there. I forget what a person would do. I do something else. It's different. It's subtle. What would you do after so long? What should I do?"
"You could try and be kind. Do you remember what kindness is?"
"It's been so long."
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