A/N: Okay, what the heck, site?! How did this story glitch out?! Blasted glitches!
EDIT: Please excuse any errors here, that's the site's doing not mine.
DOUBLE EDIT: Reviews aren't appearing on site, but they ARE arriving in my inbox. Meaning I can still see them and respond. Looking forward to seeing what you think of this little number~! It means the world to me!
This was POSTED with Magic Unbound some days ago, but for some reason it got corrupted into a text file? I know I'm not the only one dealing with glitches as of late; we all know the site went bonkers a few days ago, and other authors have been dealing with the same problem. Admins have been doing their best to fix it, but they're only human.
So here we are; with me reposting this. Hope you enjoy it little tidbit while I work on Untraveled Road. The next chapter is well on its way.
To clarify, this tale takes place some time after the Brother Gods nuked Remnant and shattered the moon, but before Ozma was returned to life by the God of Light. Salem's already taken her dip in the Grimm pool in an attempt to off herself, but humanity hasn't returned quite yet.
Hope you like this novel new take on things.
"You are, the both of you, cursed.
One of you simply has yet to realize it."
Kiss of Death
Time unending, life eternal.
An infinite void devoid of hope.
Some might jump at the chance to live forever, to reign forever as a god among men. Salem knew her Father would pounced upon such an opportunity. After all, when one is immortal, they cannot be harmed, no? They cannot be injured. They cannot die. To be immortal is to be invincible; far removed from the fear of death and all the terror it entails. You can live life as you please. Do what you want, without fear of consequence. You can do whatever you want. Take whatever they want. Be whomever or whatever they wish.
But what if you want to die?
Just the thought of it made her grit her teeth as she wandered the wasteland.
Salem wanted to die. She wanted to go to the afterlife. She wanted to be with Ozma again. She wanted her torment to end. Instead she was left to languish in a ruined world. Alone. Each faltering step carried her across the sundered earth, her destination unknown. No one is meant to live a life alone. Immortality is not the blessing mankind thinks it to be. 'Tis is a curse. After all.
"You cannot die."
Even after all these years, those words mocked her.
And so she walked. All the while, the Grimm continued to follow her. They were drawn to her now, like a Beacon.
Throwing herself in that pool of darkness had been a mistake; she'd thought it would end her suffering, but it only made everything worse. So much worse. She knew that were she to look at herself in a mirror, she would see the changes again. Her skin looked like ash, hair gone white as snow. And her eyes! Her own reflection horrified her now, just as much as those blood red orbs.
Death eluded her as it always did, but now she was changed for it. Not merely physically, but within as well.
Every day she grappled with herself anew, fought against a burning desire to destroy what little remained of this once beautiful mind. It spat and seethed in the back of her mind like a wild animal. An endless urge rip and tear, plunge her hands in blood and bask in the joy of destruction. But there was nothing to destroy.
Mankind was gone.
This world was but a Remnant of its former self, populated by stray wildlife and Grimm. Those were hers to command, mindless slavering beasts who obeyed her commands without fail. They were incapable of speech and scarcely able to think for themselves. They only destruction. She took no pleasure in her power. Perhaps humanity would one day return, evolve again as they once had. But that day was far in coming. And so she cursed the gods. She cursed the universe. She cursed everyone and everything...except herself.
Was it so wrong to want her beloved back? No! In her mind, she believed she'd done nothing wrong. Perhaps, given time, she might've understood.
Instead she wandered aimlessly, uncaring where her feet carried her, so long as she didn't stop moving. She forded dying rivers, climbed crumbling mountains, crossed barren plains. Blisters formed on her bare feet and healed before she could even noticed them. She grew weary, yet she kept walking. It was the only thing she could think to do. She searched and searched and searched, hoping to find something. Anything. Anyone. But she never did. There wasn't a single survivor to be found, ever more of the same devastation.
What she would not give for the sweet kiss of death. She would've gladly sold her soul for a chance at oblivion.
Food gradually lost its appeal for her. Water did little to slake her thirst.
Her wounds healed faster than she could hope inflict them.
Years passed. Life began to return to the world.
And still her torment did not end.
Eventually, she tried spelling herself to sleep in the vain hope that she might flee into her dreams. She found only nightmares waiting for her there. Terrible visions, the sight of Ozma turning to dust in her arms, time and again. No. It was too much. It was all too much. Sleep was out of the question, even as her body cried for it. She kept walking, unable to do anything else. Something had to give.
And one night, it did.
Finally, when she reached the border of some distant forest whose name she couldn't remember, Salem tripped.
Unable to see properly in the dark, she stubbed her toe on an upturned root and stumbled. Bereft of balance and lost within her own thoughts, she wasn't able to catch herself in time and so fell forward onto her hands and knees. Pain flared in her palm as she scraped it against a particularly sharp stone. She tried to push herself up but her arms buckled and she slapped her head into the dirt.
"Damnitall." she hissed against the ground. "Now my own body betrays me."
It just wasn't fair...!
Bitter tears stung at her eyes and she choked them down in a furious snarl. No! Never! She wouldn't give the Gods -damn them both!- the satisfaction of hearing her cry. She bit her lip until she tasted black blood on her tongue. A gust of magic burst from her palms and pushed her weary body upright, but her injuries were gone by the time she climbed back to her feet. Not even a hint of blood remained.
It was a sight she'd seen thousands of times. Yet for some reason, this time infuriating her more than any other.
Dark fingernails bit into her hands, drawing yet more blood. She raised her hands to inspect them. As ever the wounds vanished before her very eyes thanks to the curse; pale flesh knitting itself shut as the damage was undone once more. She cursed. Sensing her distress, the Grimm congregated around her, shuffling and sniffing anxiously. Salem tried to ignore them, but they just kept pushing at her...
"Fat load of good you are!" she snarled. "Well?! What do you want?! Say something!"
They couldn't speak of course, and so they simply stared at her.
Red eyes narrowed to vicious vermilion slits.
"Enough. Enough, enough, ENOUGH!"
Something was screaming.
It took Salem several seconds to realize it was her. She wasn't crying or weeping; she'd flown well past the breaking point into fiery incandescent rage.
She flung out her arms and a mighty explosion burst from her body to incinerate the Grimm around her. None were spared. Ground and sky alike were scorched for miles in every given direction. Clouds evaporated. Dirt baked into glass beneath her feet. All around her the forest crackled into flames, but Salem cared not. Her blood boiled in her veins as her fevered fleshed began to burn, but she cared not. She made no attempt to flee, even as this once mighty woodland came down to crush her.
She. Didn't. Care.
Salem kept screaming. She screamed until she lost her voice and her magic finally failed her, until her throat cracked and the fires took her. Until her world turned grey from all the smoke. She let the blaze claim her and toppled back into the black, praying for an end. For a fleeting moment, she thought she saw a light, and within it, Ozma's face. She reached for him...!
Something dragged her back.
Time unwound and Salem felt herself hauled away from the brink yet again. She tried to fight it, tried to resist, but she had no power over her own body. Within moments she stood restored in the ashes of the forest, hale and healthy as she'd always been. Of her temper tantrum, nothing remained. Not a single tree stood. There was only ash. Just as before.
He was ash in her arms, she could feel him crumbling away...
Here at last, Salem's tears betrayed her and she hunched over with an anguished sob to clutch at her sides. She felt her vocal chords mend almost instantly. Damn the gods. They wouldn't even grant her this much. And they called themselves merciful!
"Cease this torment!" She shrieked, throwing her head back to howl into the now cleared sky. "Have I not suffered enough?! Let it end! Please!" her voice broke. "I beg of you!"
The heavens did not answer her. She wasn't sure why she'd expected them to, but her fury mounted all the same, throttling any hope of sanity.
"Why won't you answer me?!" her fury persisted as she snarled at the sundered moon. "Give me a sign, damnit! Anything!"
None came. A peal of bitter laughter escaped her. Even when she begged them for mercy, they still denied her. So be it. She hardened her heart and raised her chin, defiant once more. No one had seen her moment of weakness, and no one ever would. She swore she would never ask anyone for help again. She was strong. She was mighty. She was alone.
She would always be alone.
"What in blazes happened here?!"
Salem's head whipped around with an audible crack.
She spied a young man clad in orange-and-black rags climbing over the next rise, leaning heavily on a gnarled black staff. He balked at her from afar and then quickly bolted in her direction, little more than a brightly colored speck in the distance, one that swiftly grew larger as he descended the hill. She glimpsed wide blue eyes blinking back at her, framed by a whiskered face and tawny blond hair. As he drew nearer she saw a deer carcass slung over his shoulders, a large buck judging by the antlers. Its neck lolled loosely to one side, clearly broken.
Had he done that with his bare hands...?
"That was quite the display just now!" He called out to her, drawing her attention away from his prize. "Are you alright down there?"
Salem skittered backwards, calling a pulse of flame leaping to her right palm, and a jagged spike of ice into the other. She brandished them halfheartedly. Hope made her weak, however, and she dare not attack.
"No." the world tumbled from her lips as she shrank back. "Impossible."
This was a trick. An illusion, some final deceit left to torment her. The Gods had scoured all human life from this planet. None had been spared. She knew this to be true. She'd spent decades searching. For someone to simply wander her way like this...it beggared belief. This had to be a trick. To even consider otherwise threatened to shatter her for good. He was a ghost. Some forgotten spirit wandering the wastes. Surely, he must be.
And yet this "ghost" walked right up to her and shook Salem's hand, leaving her magic to gutter out harmlessly.
"Finally, another person!" he laughed, ignoring her flinch when their palms touched. "You have no idea how happy I am to see you." a hoarse chuckle pushed its way between the two of them as he continued to shake her limp limb with all his might, "I've been wandering around for months now; really, I was starting to think this world was filled with nothing but monsters." a pause. "Erm, not that you're a monster, of course!" he continued to babble happily. "Sorry, I'm running my mouth, aren't I? I'm just so happy to see you!"
With a final sputter, Salem's brain choked and died. "Bwuh?"
Look again! Her mind instructed her eyes.
We are! they cried! He's real!
Hope sparked to life and Pulling her hand away from the overeager blond, Salem marshaled her thoughts. Perhaps the God of Darkness had missed someone after all, unlikely as it seemed. He wasn't omnipotent. If he was, she'd never have been able to trick him so long ago. But then who was this?!
"Who...are you?" she asked him as much.
"Hmm? Me? I'm not quite sure." the stranger scratched the back of his head with that strange selfsame smile of his. "No, really, I mean it!" he was quick to flail his arms when her eyes narrowed anew. "I don't know my name or where I am; only that this isn't my home. I'm not from around here. I don't belong here." he cocked his head to one side, and the motion made her think of an eager puppy. "Weird, isn't it? I can't even remember the world I came from, but I know this ain't it. Everything's kinda fuzzy."
Another world?" Salem's mind was spinning like a ship in a storm-tossed sea and she struggled to right it. She blinked quickly. "You have amnesia?"
"Maybe? Definitely got a headache." all she received was a shrug. "Maybe I went and got myself cursed by an angry goddess or something. Maybe I tripped and cracked my head. Who knows?"
An awkward silence stretched between the two of them and her gaze strayed back to the carcass slung over his shoulders.
"Oh, this?" he jerked a thumb towards his catch. "I caught this bugger a few miles back." whiskered cheeks dimpled in a grin. "Was getting ready to skin him when you started flinging those fireworks around. Pretty fancy jutsu, that."
"Jutsu...?" Salem parroted the word back him, baffled. She'd never heard the word before.
"You mean it wasn't?" the young man shrugged anew when she didn't answer. "Suppose it doesn't matter. Speakin' of which," Blue eyes flitted past her, searching for something. When he failed to find it, those keen azure orbs locked on her once more. "Is there anyone else with you?"
Salem's throat went dry. What was she to tell him? That everyone else was dead? That she was an immortal witch doomed to wander for the rest of her days? He seemed like a such a cheery fellow. It made her want to break him-what? No! Bad thoughts! She reeled in her destructive impulses when they reared their ugly had and choked them back down with an effort. She couldn't kill him. She refused. This was her first and last chance to escape from her isolation. She'd not throw it away to satisfy some base need.
...no." In the end, she settled for a half-truth. "I'm alone."
"That so?" he didn't question her further; that winning smile flashed out at her again. "Well in that case, I've got more than enough food to go around. Care to join me?"
Salem's right arm twitched and nearly reached out for him on the spot. She gripped it by the wrist and wrestled it back down, restraining herself. Eons had passed since she'd seen another human being, much less spoken to one. Did she dare? Did she even remember how to hold a conversation with anyone besides herself?
Her stomach growled and Salem glowered bloody red daggers at it incredulously. Traitor! She hadn't felt hunger in ages! Why now?!
"Heh." The young man arched a golden eyebrow as she flushed. "That doesn't sound like a no. Still, if you don't want to...
No! Stay! A tiny voice cried out in her heart, begging to freed from this lonely exile. Don't leave me alone!
Some semblance of that emotion must've shown through her face; because he hesitated, too. An unidentifiable emotion flitted through his bright eyes for a moment. It took her another second to realize that it wasn't just pity but concern. He probably thought she wasn't quite right in the head. And she wasn't. Isolation had left its mark on her body and mind alike. Even now, she still wondered if he was an illusion, some desperate figment of her imagination conjured up by a young woman too weary to go on.
"Look, my camp's just over that rise." he jerked a thumb over his shoulder, where a faint flow of firelight could be seen. "You're more than welcome to join me, miss...?"
He dithered impatiently, waiting for her name, and Salem found herself reminded of Ozma.
A bittersweet smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. She'd not spoken to anyone for years now. Grimm made for poor conversation. She'd cast her manners aside long ago. She had no need for them and wasn't sure she could even remember what they felt like. But a chance to evade this endless cycle of misery, even for a moment-! was too much for her to pass up. He could've been a talking Grimm and she still would've eyed him like a juicy cut of meat solely for the chance to converse with someone. Speaking of meat...
Red eyes flicked back to him, this time assessing her unexpected guest further.
He was certainly handsome enough, in a rough way. His arms had some definition to them, glimpsed through the tattered sleeves he wore. One that suggested a life of constant exercise and movement. Moreover, he was distraction. A face that didn't remind her of misery and pain and lost dreams. She needed that. Something to take her mind off her miserable existence, if only for a night. Her mind flashed back to Ozma once more and a fresh pall of melancholy descended on her like a shroud.
"You may call me Salem, stranger." She tore it off with a snarl and stepped closer to him.
"Salem, huh?" the blond tilted his head. "That's your name, eh? Certainly suits you."
Her brow rose. "This from the man who cannot even remember his own?"
The hunter chuckled ruefully as her brow rose. "You've got me there...
Was this what banter felt like? Salem found she'd rather missed it. Another point in his favor. She offered him her hand, only to be pleasantly surprised when he snatched it out of the air. His grip was strong, his fingers warm against hers. If he noticed just how cold her hand felt he didn't speak of it. And his palm was so very warm. Like holding a living sun in her hands. A strange feeling bloomed in her chest and her throat went dry yet again for a different reason.
"Hope you like venison!"
Slowly, tentatively, Salem gripped his hand and allowed herself to be tugged along. "That...that sounds grand."
It was just for a night, she told herself. A moment of weakness as she forgot the curse of her immortality, as she indulged in the unexpected company of another human being. She'd see where things went and come what may, perhaps she might find some small comfort in the arms of a stranger. Perhaps not. Who could say?
Was it so wrong to want that? To have a memory to hold onto in this hellish eternity.
In a matter of minutes he brought her to his camp. Really, it could be barely be called one; little more saw a small fire-pit with a few scattered logs around it to sit upon. A lone tent lay discarded nearby; he'd likely been in the process of erecting it when he heard the commotion she'd made.
Still, the fire offered some warmth and Salem allowed him to guide her to it as she took a seat.
From there, she watched him take the deer from his shoulders and set to work on it with quick, efficient strokes.
"You know what you're doing, I trust?" she took her chin into her hands and she watched him. "Careful you don't lose your fingers."
It proved a suitable distraction.
"Hey, have a little faith!"
Faith? Just the thought caused her lip to curl. She had no faith; no idea if this was a dream, some figment of her imagination, or something else entirely. This stranger might be real. He might not. She might wake to find him gone come morning. She didn't know which. After the hell she'd been through, she'd take what comfort she could. She mourned Ozma's passing with nearly every fiber of her being, but Ozma was gone. Dead. Deceased. Torn away from her. He'd been gone for decades now. He was never coming back and she was so very tired of being alone...
Even if he were real, she knew this fleeting happiness wouldn't last.
Remnant was a harsh place. Even if he survived it she'd outlive him, surely. He would grow old and wither away. The thought left a sour taste in her mouth as she sat down by the fire. No. She wouldn't think of that. She refused, pushed it from her mind entirely. She wasn't here to think about the future. It had no place here. Tonight she wanted to forget. Just this once. Just...for a night. She smiled softly to herself.
Abruptly her host stilled.
"Is something the matter?" she called over to him.
"Huh." he muttered. "That's funny. I just remembered something."
Red eyes narrowed. "And what might that be?"
"My...my name." He croaked, turning to face her with wide eyes. "Its not much, but that's good right?"
Curiosity piqued, the Queen of the Grimm leaned forward. "And what is your name?"
He told her.
"Naruto." Salem spoke the word slowly, tasting the fullness of it on her tongue." Hmm. Na~ru~to." She watched him stiffen as she ran a hand over her bosom, and felt a tiny shiver of delight at the reaction she provoked in him. "Decent enough, I suppose." she granted him what she hoped was a coy smile. She was admittedly a novice in such things, and terribly rusty, but she gave it her best try. "At least you weren't named "stick" or "kettle" or somesuch." this time she couldn't quite hold back a chuckle. "It could've been much worse."
"Hey!" he wrinkled his nose at her. "What's that supposed to mean?!"
"Not a thing, Naruto." A tiny laugh bubbled past her lips as she spoke his name anew. "Nothing at all...
When was the last time she laughed? Eons ago. Perhaps even longer. Yet in the span of five minutes, she'd laughed twice. There was something strangely disarming about that smile of his; she knew he wouldn't hurt her, that he'd not turn the knife in his hands on her. She wasn't sure what gave her such certainty. Perhaps it was the knowledge that he was incapable of harming her. Even if he somehow managed to kill her, she'd just come back to life.
"You're mocking me, aren't you?"
She giggled. Actually giggled! "Oh, no, no, no...
"Wicked little thing." the blond muttered as turned back to carving up the carcass.
Against her better judgement, Salem decided to get one last jab in. Maybe that was petty of her, but she was in too good a mood to care.
"My dear," she purred, "You have no idea."
His eyes swung back to her, narrowing now as she shifted her hips upon the log and tilted her head towards him just so. The firelight did interesting things to his face at this angle. Almost made those blue eyes look ruby red, somehow. Salem gazed upon him for along moment made her decision. She chose to indulge in her curiosity.
"Why don't you come sit by the fire." she whispered, voice carrying over the crackling flames. "The meat will keep for awhile yet."
It was like flicking a switch; she watched Naruto's back stiffen almost imperceptibly, shoulders going tense. She couldn't say when or how her words affected Naruto, only that they did. He didn't sputter or blush or fling up his hands and start a fuss. He laid his knife down, cleaned his hands, and turned to face her. In that moment, she knew her wasn't as foolish as he let on.
"Thought you were hungry." he said, taking the seat opposite her.
"Thirsty, really." Salem immediately cursed herself for the slip when his eyes widened. Noooo! Why had she said that?! It made her want to bury her head in her hands and fly far, far away. Oh gods, she was...she wasn't simply rusty at this, she was...well...bad. Terribly, horribly bad. She wanted to die. She hadn't thought herself capable of blushing after her dip in that pool. She'd been wrong. Her face felt very warm, almost dangerously so, and her resolve wavered. Was it hot out here? Oh, dear.
"I...apologize." she had to choke out the word. "I'm not used to this. Its been some time."
A pall of silence stretched between the two of them. Salem twitched. Finally, she could bear it no more.
"Speak." she barked the word, flailing for safety in these suddenly perilous waters. "Say something. Anything!"
"What about?" Naruto laughed.
"Tell me about yourself." It was not a question.
"Don't remember much." he muttered, face flushing.
Salem frowned. "Tell me what your remember about your world, then."
Naruto leaned back a touch, steadied himself, and began talking. Slowly at first, almost haltingly so, but with growing confidence when she didn't interrupt. That seemed to help him remember a bit. In turn, the Queen of the Grimm found herself leaning in, soon hanging on every word.
He told her a fanciful tale with many gaps between it, due in no small part to the memories he must've lost, but it was a wild story nonetheless. A tale of ninja with incredible abilities, of eccentric characters that boggled the mind, of a world where killing was commonplace and villages sold their services to the highest bidder. He spoke of friends he could barely remember, but something told her he'd cared for them deeply. Whoever he was, wherever he had been, he'd had a life once. Until someone ripped that away from him. Just like her. The thought threatened to burn her anger down to cinders, but
Without even realizing it, Salem found herself holding his hand in her own. She couldn't remember when she'd bridged the gap between the two of them.
She blinked down at their interlocked fingers, frowned, then shrugged. Nothing wrong with a little pre-marital hand holding.
Yes, she told herself she wasn't doing anything wrong. That single moment of weakness would change everything.
A/N: And so Salem meets Naruto. What could possibly go wrong?
Um...only everything? This idea was just too good for me and my team to pass up.
An old friend was the one to request this, and have since asked to remain anonymous. They offered to pay for it, but we refused. Such a good story idea is its own reward, if you ask me. To clarify, yes Naruto has a form of amnesia, and this is shortly after his battle with Kaguya. Both arms, fully powered, all his abilities, just missing a few of his memories at the moment. Brother Gods might be in for a nasty surprise if they ever come back around.
Right then, as ever, Reviews are love, Reviews are Life.
Reviews keep me safe from any and all strife.
So in the immortal words of Atlas...
...review, Would You Kindly?
Every bit helps out!
"What do you want from me?!"
"I just told you. Nothing. The question you need to ask yourself, is this." he flicked her forehead. "What do you want? Are you happy?"
"No!" Harsh, bitter tears stung her eyes. "You won't live forever! You're only human! You'll die, sooner or later!"
Naruto considered her words. His nose wrinkled. Then he stood. "You're right. Gimme a second."
Salem grabbed at him. "DON'T YOU DARE!"
"You are an aberration. You should not be here." The God of Light expected the mortal to bow and thank him for his most generous offer. "I would send you back to your world."
He did not receive it. "Nope."
A pause. "No...?"
"My home IS here now, your godliness. And keep your voice down." the whiskered warrior flicked a hand at him for silence. "You're going to wake Salem. She finally fell asleep, and she's not having a nightmare for once. Do you have any idea how many years that took?!"
Nightmares? The God of Light inclined his head to regard the humble cottage behind the blond. If the girl from the lonely tower was still suffering after all this time, then that implied she felt guilt for her actions. Perhaps he should simply return her to the cycle of life and death. With her gone, this...anomaly would have no reason to dwell in this world any longer. That would be best for all parties, certainly-
"Ah, ah, ah!" A staff slapped his chest, forcing him to halt. "You'll be leaving her alone."
Such impudence. "You would defy your god?"
"Funny thing, that." Naruto's smile was just the wrong shade of vicious. "You're not my god. Never have been, never will be."
NOTE: Even with memory loss, Naruto is still Naruto. Of course he'd tell a god to bugger off~!