Slightly longer chapter than normal cause I got excited writing this one. There's a bit of head-canon in this chapter on certain pieces of RWBY lore (and will be more coming next chapter) filling in for stuff that hasn't yet been covered in Canon, so I hope you all end up liking that.
Without further ado, and whatnot...
Start Chapter 31
Jaune hadn't expected to ever be in the position of actively seeking out Salem, Queen of the Grimm, for just about anything, and yet, there he is, traveling down the winding halls of Evernight towards Salem's throne room – Nora calls it the 'room-of-many-windows' – and knocking on the door.
"Enter." Salem's voice commands, and he follows suit without delay, pushing open the doors that are always a bit heavier than he expects they'll be.
"Ah," Salem perks up somewhat upon seeing him. "If it isn't my descendant. Have you come to speak with me?"
"I have." He decides there's no point in being dishonest. Especially when he's begun to suspect that Salem can't actually be lied to, or at least, not conventionally. Not by him. "I had a… I guess you could say that I had some odd experiences with my magic while we were in Menagerie. I'm sort of wondering if you might be able to help me figure out exactly what that was?"
Salem nods her head, and he notes that she does not seem at all surprised by him telling her this. It's as he'd suspected, then. Salem had either known or suspected this might be the case.
Or she'd somehow felt when his magic had activated.
"Well, take a seat, my descendant," She gestures towards the chair directly to her left. "I anticipate this being a rather lengthy discussion. If you have any other plans for the day, you may wish to cancel them now."
He laughs a tad awkwardly. "Nope. I've got nothing on the docket."
"Good." Salem answers him as he takes his seat, and she uses magic of some sort to push his chair in so that he is sat up straight. He'd never really noticed how bad his posture normally is until that moment. "Now, what shall we start with first?"
"Well, I uh… I'm not really sure. I guess I utilized quite a bit of what I think was magic while I was in Menagerie."
"Mm, I see. So tell me, what magic do you believe you conjured?"
"That's the thing. I don't think I had anything to do with it. It was like some… I hesitate to say instinct, but that was kind of how it felt."
"Was it similar to when you first utilized your semblance?"
Now that he'd thought about it…
"Actually, yeah I guess." Jaune nods. "I've fought people in training classes back at Beacon before, and had some sort of aura flash across my body. And then suddenly my wounds would heal. It was odd, to be honest, but I guess it was a little like that when the magic activated in Menagerie."
Salem nods her head, before beginning to stroke at her chin, as if massaging an invisible beard.
"It had been quite a long time. Since I'd felt magic to that degree."
Jaune's eyes widen. "You felt it?"
"I did." Salem confirms. "I believe you are utilizing magics that you know not how to control, nor to access. Your instincts, however, have some idea as to their application, or… perhaps in this case, it would be easier to say that your blood has some idea. You are my descendant, after all."
"Really? Even after all this time?" Jaune can't help but be slightly skeptical. "I'd have figured that any connection would be rather diluted at this point."
"That it is. And yet you have more aura than most people, do you not?"
Jaune finds himself nodding along to that as well, and honestly, this entire meeting has been rather revelatory so far. "I guess I do, yeah."
"Is that a trait unique to you among your family?"
"My dad had a lot as well." Jaune answers, seemingly confirming Salem's suspicions. "He's a pretty successful huntsman, too."
"Mm. Then it seems things have not changed so much since when I was a young girl myself. In my time, magic was passed from generation to generation. Many families would refuse to allow their children to marry others who did not possess similar – or larger – magical prowess to their own."
"Huh." Jaune finds himself thinking on that. "That sounds awfully controlling."
"Oh, believe me, it was absolutely ridiculous." Salem groans out, as if the memories of such things are still somehow fresh to her. "A part of the reason my father sealed me away in the tower he locked me within was that my magical prowess far exceeded that of the average person. I was to be offered to a prince or king looking to have powerful descendants. Whether or not I offered my consent."
Jaune's heart lurches. "That's terrible. Your own father did that to you?"
"Indeed, he did."
"I'm sorry. That must've been awful."
Salem actually smiles. "I thank you for saying so. Yes, I was not exactly a fan. My Ozma, however, rescued me from that fate. We escaped, journeyed together for some time, and eventually fell in love. The rest is history."
This is a topic of conversation that Jaune's not entirely sure how to approach. It's not that he's not curious – in fact, it's exactly the opposite, he's practically dying to know more about it – but he feels it might be a dangerous thing to bring up. And yet, his curiosity wins out in the end, and he's asking in the next moment, "Aren't you two… yknow, enemies now?"
Salem seems to think on that for an awfully long time, just sort of humming to herself. Jaune wonders if maybe he's pushed her too far, but eventually, she just lets out a little breath that sounds simultaneously filled with mirth and deprecation.
"It is a complicated relationship the two of us share, I suppose I would say." Salem finally says. "There are times I wish I could flay the flesh from his bones, yes, and yet there are times I wake after feeling the call of sleep and long for him beside me."
Jaune can't say that he doesn't kind of know what that would be like. When he'd first discovered that Cinder had been his soulmate, there'd been a brief period where he'd been inundated by his love for her, and yet affected by his knowledge of what she'd done, the people – some of whom he'd known quite well – that she'd hurt.
That's something that's coming to his mind as well, and he voices it to Salem in the next moment.
"Were you two soulmates?"
Salem hums something out in the next moment, seeming amused.
"Do you want to know something humorous?"
"I do not know."
His brow draws in. "What do you mean?"
"I mean I do not know. Soulmates were not…" Salem pauses a moment, a rare thing from her. "I suppose I would say that such things were not as important back then. I would say that the world only had so much magic. In that age, the gods granted all mankind dominion over magic, regardless of their allegiances or other factors. In the end, when we rebelled against them, or perhaps I should say 'I', in this case, they ripped magic from the world entirely, and abandoned us here on this godless remnant of what was."
"And yet," Salem continues. "Magic is not entirely gone. I'm sure you've seen that for yourself. Soulmates are one kind of magic, yes, and perhaps the most obvious, but there are other things. Myself and Ozma, for instance, are still able to wield the magics that once flowed through us, for as we were gifted with such things in life, they were not taken from us when we died, seeing as how we are both still here. Whether or not that was an oversight on the Gods' part… well, I admit to not being entirely sure myself on that matter. They claimed omniscience, but I once fooled the gods myself, so I know that not to be so. They made mistakes like anyone else. Imperfect as any human."
Jaune finds himself unsurprised to hear the sheer vitriol in Salem's tone, the hate with which she addresses the brother gods who had cursed her so, and abandoned her.
"Regardless, as I was saying, magic still remained in myself and Ozma. It also remained within four scattered items, referred to by the gods as Relics. These relics were powerful artifacts, capable of incredible things. Ozma himself has known and wielded all of them in his time. I myself have only ever managed to get ahold of creation and knowledge, although I never did figure out how to utilize the latter. But what I am trying to say in this regard is that, over the course of however many thousands of years that Ozma and I have warred against each other, our magics have grown far more… pedestrian."
Jaune finds himself shivering at Salem's choice of words. Because to hear her describe her abilities with magic as pedestrian is simply…
He has seen that which she is capable of. He has seen her manipulate the winds, the skies above, the air around her, to her will. He has seen her levitate, never touching the ground; has felt Cinder's fear for her across their link. If someone as strong as his soulmate would fear Salem, then he's not entirely sure he wants to know just how powerful she'd once been.
"So I ask you, my descendant, where do you believe that power has gone?"
Jaune frowns. "I… don't understand."
"Ah, I suppose you may not," Salem shakes her head. "What I am saying is that over the course of the eons, our power has been eaten away at. It is a gradual, ineffectual thing, and yet, much like a river will gradually erode solid stone until a canyon is created, eventually, myself and Ozma found our powers significantly reduced by the passage of time. But I do not believe that our magic has simply disappeared; I believe it has been reallocated. This world, after all, once had ample magic, magic that existed all around us, in every nook and cranny. It infested this world like a plague, and without it, our world has begun to die. I believe that this has resulted in a few things."
"For one," Salem raises a finger. "It resulted in the creation of Dust. The first veins were only found after the gods had left remnant. I believe their scattered magics coalesced, and were given form without their masters to guide them. This form became Dust, what is, essentially, a solid form of magic itself."
Jaune finds his eyes widening. "You think Dust is the result of… magic runoff, then?"
"I do not believe you have any real experience with this," Salem says, nodding her head, "But you have not seen what magic wielders were once capable of. The battle between myself and Ozma in our glory days was enough to level mountains, to fill valleys, to part the very heavens in twain. Dust, while a facsimile of magic, is only that. It cannot hope to match it. A single crystal of fire dust might cause a small explosion, but a single spark of flame magic in my time could melt stone and steel alike. The two are simply incomparable."
Jaune nods along, finding himself mentally taking notes here. "And… the second thing that resulted from your magic whittling away?"
"I believe it has allowed for things like Soulmates to become stronger."
Jaune's brow must've furrowed in quite the obvious way, because immediately, Salem sets about explaining herself.
"In essence, when it was utilized by humankind in my age, the magic of soulmates was weak by comparison to how it is today. I do not know of many then who knew who their soulmates were, or even many that believed there was such a thing as one's soulmate at all. It was as much a myth as the tale of the Maidens, now. And yet, in the world today, it is an inarguable fact that Soulmates exist. To such a degree that soulmates even share one another's pain. In some stronger cases, in which I suspect more magic lies, they can share positive feelings, too. You and Cinder share this gift. It is rare, but not excessively so, perhaps 1 in 10, or 1 in 15 cases are like yours."
Jaune nods along.
"I believe that as magic evacuated mine and Ozma's bodies, if it was not given purpose or form, it simply… spread. Not in a noticeable, tangible way, but it melded with the world. It gave rise to certain things, to certain happenstances. In the time after the Gods first fled this world, it was impossible to unlock one's aura without another's assistance. In our current age, occasionally, someone will unlock their own through being in a traumatic situation, perhaps being attacked by a Grimm, for instance. In my time, soulmates were thought of as myth…"
"And now they're undeniable." Jaune says, and Salem nods with a smile.
"Times have changed, as has magic itself. Much like matter, it cannot be destroyed. I believe that when the gods took magic away from the world, they did not remove it from existence, but merely transported it to wherever it is they went. This world still knows magic, but it does not know what to do with it. Thusly, it funnels it into one of the only places it can…"
"The magic of soulmates. The only thing that everyone on Remnant shares." Jaune says, a bit in awe. "That's… wow. I don't think I would have ever thought of that."
"Hah, do not worry yourself on that account. I have had an awfully long time to formulate such hypotheses." Salem's lips pull upwards. "Now that I have expounded at length about my own theories, I will return to your initial question. I do not know if Ozma was my soulmate. If you are wondering if I see a link in my own heart where a Soul-link would be, I do not. I imagine it may've once linked to Ozma himself, but whatever form he currently resides within is not quite him. Regardless, I suppose I would like to think that he was my soulmate, but if he were not, then I do not believe it would make a difference. We found happiness regardless."
Jaune finds himself smiling somehow. "One of my friends said the same thing. That soulmates are less important than finding someone you love, regardless."
"Hm. Which friend was this?"
"My friend Ruby."
Salem's expression becomes unreadable in that moment. "Rose, correct?"
"Uh, yeah." He can't help feeling the smallest bubble of hesitation cross through him. "Why?"
"Hm." Salem hums, leaning back in her seat ever so slightly, as if thinking rather hard on something or another. "There is something I have been pondering for quite a while now. Something I have been debating showing you."
"It is, in some regards, related to Ms. Rose, I suppose. I will warn you now that it is not for the faint of heart. Do you wish to see it, regardless."
"Do I… get any idea of what I'm seeing before I see it."
"I am not sure I would be able to describe it."
Coming from Salem, those words do nothing good for his already nervous and anxious mind.
His curiosity always wins him over in the end.
He's not sure if that's a fatal flaw or not.
Jaune and Salem venture far lower into the bowels of Evernight than Jaune himself has ever felt any necessity to see. It is past where Tyrian occasionally howls and rages as he slaughters Grimm in the hundreds during training. It is past a room that Watts has informed them all in no uncertain terms that they are never to approach, at risk of death. It is past, even, where Salem had once informed him that her personal room had been located, although he'd pretty much put that particular thought out of mind the moment he'd obtained it.
And yet, down further they went.
He isn't entirely sure how long they travel. It is one of those journeys that feels like forever, but could be anywhere from ten to thirty minutes, really. Eventually, after what feels like an age has passed, they arrive in front of a door that seems somehow more ancient, more decrepit, and wrong than the rest of this place. It shouldn't be possible; after all, if anything, Jaune thinks it looks newer than anything else around, as if it had been installed far more recently, what with the modern-seeming aesthetic of the metal bars wrapped through whatever material it is the door itself is built of. But the aura itself of this place just feels… off. As if some unspeakable, eldritch truth lies beyond it.
"What's in here?" He asks, for fear of finding out.
"Something I am not entirely sure of myself." Salem admits in a voice he has not heard from her when she's discussing anything that isn't Ozma himself. "An experiment, perhaps I would call it."
And then, with little ceremony, Salem holds out her hand, and the door just…
To say it opens would draw a laugh from Jaune, because it does not open; it simply… doesn't. And then, as they cross into the room beyond it, it does again, back in place as if nothing had occurred at all.
Jaune swallows, even as the faint sound of growling, of scratching and heavy breathing begins to filter into the space. He finds his eyes going forward, to what lies in front of them, and–
They widen as he takes in the space around them.
It is, if he had to describe the space in a few words, some kind of dungeon. And yet that description does not feel entirely accurate. It is somewhat of a prison, but it has a certain edge to it, a certain… he hesitates to say vibe, because that sounds super lame, but vibe is kind of what he's settling on.
It just feels wrong.
There are vials and vats and little electronic devices scattered all throughout the room, and Jaune finds himself wondering if this place isn't some kind of laboratory as well. If Salem herself had had others in here, perhaps Watts, or another scientist before him.
It is hard, sometimes, to remember just how ancient Salem is. To remember what Cinder has told him about her; that she has had so very many enforcers in her time. So many who swore themselves to her. The idea of Cinder failing her and losing at Beacon had barely made a difference to Salem. She had allowed Cinder to act on her own because, at worst, she had to wait, what, another twenty, thirty years?
To someone who had lived eons, ages, is that truly anything at all?
It's difficult to fathom for Jaune, given he's barely lived eighteen years at this point. But regardless, thinking on that's not going to get him anywhere, at least right now. So he keys back into where they're walking, further in, closer to that horrible scratching noise, as if the very walls around them are attempting to rail against their roles and escape.
He winces, feeling the scraping sound in the innards of his teeth like nails running down a chalkboard. Like a fork scraping across a porcelain plate. Salem turns to him with some small interest, seemingly studying him.
"Gird yourself." She says simply. "This will not be easy to see, I imagine, for one such as yourself."
"One… such as myself?"
"Someone kind. Someone good." Salem iterates, before taking another few steps. Jaune follows a second or so after, and then, finally, there they are, stood in front of what seems to be a cell. "Now… do not be alarmed. It is a Grimm in some ways. It will feed off of fear like any other."
Jaune feels a small kernel of the spoken-of emotion in that moment, but forces himself to bite down on it, to swallow it and burn it away in his stomach. He nods his head, and Salem pushes open the door to that particular cell.
And at the back of it is–
Jaune isn't able to make it out at first, so dark and huddled into one corner. It is blacker, somehow, than the night sky. At least that has the stars, and the clouds, and the shattered moon to mark it. But the thick black fur that coats this beastly thing seems to almost absorb the light around it, dimming everything in its vicinity.
It senses them some few seconds after their entry, and its form begins to shift, its body looking up towards them, and Jaune finds himself paling somewhat as it begins to rise, growing bigger as if seemingly from nowhere.
He'd thought it one smaller, denser package, but that is not it at all. It is skin and bones; practically a waif. It resembles some of the pictures that Jaune would see in his textbook when he'd been younger, those taken of prisoners of war from the Color Revolution, those who'd been mistreated grievously, only barely survived through starvation and dehydration, through brutal torture or inhumane experiments. Instantly, despite its Grimm nature, he feels a profound sadness for the beast fill his heart.
It stands to its full height, at least four or five meters tall. A mat of skin and fur stretches out from its back, almost as if someone had attempted to create a heroic cape, and only ended up with a mockery of one. Its jaw seems to run up half the length of its body, as if the great beast could split entirely in twain to devour prey twice its size, like some of the snakes Jaune had once read about that would eat the eggs of larger birds.
And then he sees its eyes.
They are somehow… wrong. Like they've been gouged out and replaced with something worser, baser, less intelligent. It is as if someone had grafted the eyes of a spider onto a human, and then had tried to pretend like nothing had been wrong with that at all.
And it scares him.
At any other time, Jaune would find himself stiff, unable to so much as move out of fright. And yet, Salem's words echo in his head. He knows that there is perhaps no one safer in this entire complex than himself, with Salem at his side, presumably there to protect him.
At least, that's what he hopes she's doing, anyhow.
The beast takes a step towards them, and then, betraying its overwhelmingly frail demeanor, stumbles to the floor, barely able to support its weight on its fragile arms.
And then Jaune's would-be courage is blown away like a spring breeze, because…
It is enough to root him entirely in place. Enough for his eyes to widen and for his body to seize up. He has skipped the fight or flight stage of panic entirely, and gone straight to one of the lesser-known stages; freeze. He'd be going right to flop if he hadn't had the wall right beside him to hold himself up upon.
"What…" He breathes out in an utter panic. "What is that!?"
It is perhaps the confrontational way that Jaune asks such a thing that makes Salem frown, that makes her lips trend downwards, and her posture shift to one less confident for perhaps the first time that Jaune has ever seen.
"It is an… experiment. The idea itself is something I came up with a century or so ago. I put it into practice a few decades ago. It is… I would call it a method of dealing with a particularly troublesome mutation amongst humanity."
He turns to her with narrowed eyes, almost doubting her words. What could this thing possibly have to do with– No. That doesn't matter. Right now, more than anything, Jaune just wants to get the hell out of here.
"As for its name, as you may perhaps have been asking about that instead, I have come up with several potential ideas. One I considered early on was 'Hound', but that felt somehow lesser for a creature of this type. Then I considered 'Beast', but that felt vague, 'Behemoth', but that felt too weighty. Eventually… eventually, I settled on something that I felt fit rather well."
And Jaune turns back towards the creature as it, too, supports itself with the wall just beside them, dragging itself to its feet and letting loose an angry sort of snarl. It… it sounds like the engine of a particularly faulty truck, one that has been mistreated and broken over years and years of misuse, on its last legs. And yet, it is not defeat Jaune sees in this thing, but a refusal to be defeated. It is raw, potent anger; fury, wrath.
And suddenly, the beast is upon them.
Jaune does not understand how it has covered the distance – what had to have been at least two or three meters – in less than a second, and yet, he realizes far too late to do anything about it that it has covered said distance, and that his life is, apparently, going to end far sooner than he'd expected. In hindsight, some part of him adds rather unhelpfully, perhaps accompanying Salem into the bowels of Evernight hadn't been the best plan.
And then, before any further panic can flow through him, the beast is embedded in the wall opposite them, cracks flowing up the violet stone and shaking the very foundations of Evernight, such is the force applied. Jaune almost falls to his feet as the entire structure surrounding them seems to rattle. But he stays standing, if barely.
Salem's hand is extended outwards, and without him really meaning to, Jaune's magical sight activates. He sees the residual magic that Salem had used to send the beast flying still evaporating off of her hand like steam from water being poured upon burning coals. And yet, despite what had been strength enough to nearly sunder Evernight entirely, the beast across from them pulls itself out of the wall.
It is not yet willing to die. Not yet willing to give up.
Jaune finds himself almost entranced with it, despite it all.
"I call it the 'Big Bad Wolf'." Salem says, even as she takes a step towards the beast, and holds out another hand. "Still yourself. I am not here to attempt to destroy you. Nor to do anything else to you. Merely to show someone that you are here."
The beast can understand? Jaune finds himself thinking, and his hypothesis is proven correct when, in the next moment, the Big Bad Wolf, as Salem had called it, hisses under its breath, but otherwise relents in its assault.
It does not sit, for Jaune feels the would somehow be beneath it, but it does lower its frame somewhat, losing a foot or two of height as it reclines to more easily fit inside of the cramped cell.
"And… you said that it had something to do with a particularly… troublesome facet of humanity? Or something?"
"Yes. It did." Salem speaks, and her voice is somehow weaker than it had been as she steps back towards Jaune. Notably, however, she does not take her eyes off of the Wolf.
"And… is it… is it just a Grimm?"
"Why do you ask that?"
"Because its…" Jaune doesn't quite know how to say it, but he'll try. "It's magics look… wrong, somehow. It isn't… it's not quite a Grimm, who has nothing. And yet it's not quite a human being, who possesses a soul. It is… I don't know. Somewhere in-between."
"Hm. Yes. I do believe that is how I would describe it as well." Salem speaks, closing her eyes and breathing heavily. "But if you are asking what it is that this once was?"
Jaune nods, despite the fact that some part of him desperately, desperately wants to leave, and pretend like he had never seen this at all.
"This is Little Ruby's mother." Salem says, and Jaune's being practically turns to stone.
"The woman once called Summer Rose."
End Chapter 31
Well, well. Mother dearest.
Summer has uhm... had a rough go of it.
Ruby herself insinuates that Summer has been turned into a Hound by Salem in Volume 7, and I took that a step further to make it so that Summer was turned into the Hound; The Big Bad Wolf itself.
Anyways, some particulars on the magics of Soulmates this chapter, and some more on the particulars of Summer Rose's current condition next chapter. See you all then!