A/N: Hello there my ever adoring and adorable fans! It is I once again bringing you a cake of textual delight that I can only hope you'll enjoy! This story is, as some of you might recognize, one of the four options on the poll that is still active on my profile.
I'd like to go ahead and state that I AM working on Other World and Konoha's Silver Shinobi but this semester is going to be very hard for me, and I can't guarantee anything before summer, as pathetic as that sounds. But stay tuned! You never know when I get random spurts of motivation! It's fair to say that I started this story back... I want to say mid-to-late '12. Yeah it's been a while.
That being said, I hope you all enjoy the pilot chapter!
Like a Fairy Tail, Chapter 1
The Sleeping Forest
The year is X791. It's only been a little while since we returned from Tenrou Island, reuniting with our friends and family of Fairy Tail. Though it's been a bit hectic, what with the many guild members scrambling for the few missions available on the request board, it's a welcome return to normalcy. At least, I think it is; it honestly doesn't feel like we've been gone for seven years. All I remember is Acnologia's attack, and then waking up to our rescuers. Since then, the guild has been a joyful, happy place. They're all drinking, laughing and smiling. I can't help but join in, honestly. It's just so fun here! I also found out my dad died during these seven years… To be honest, it was difficult for me to even properly show any emotion for it at first, but after I read his final letter to me, the tears just wouldn't stop. I was happy! Not that he was gone, but that he'd truly loved me with all of his being. If I'd ever felt like he needed to earn back my love for him, he would have gotten it right then.
As a gift along with the letter, my seven years of rent that had backed up while I was gone was paid for. It's a load off my back really; it would have taken me a long time to repay the deficit. Even so, I don't have much money right now, so I need to go out on a few jobs. The only problem is until we get more requests, we'll need to share missions and payment with each other. Erza and Natsu asked if they could come with me, and I said it was alright. It'll be nice to have a bit of company on this job. It's a request to negotiate with a local group of villagers who are blocking access to a potentially valuable archeological dig site. History has never been my thing, but it could be fun to discover what's hidden below the earth. How long has it been there? What secrets to the past does it hold? Just thinking about makes me excited!
Still though, I'm glad Erza-chan is coming along. Natsu would probably beat the villagers up, but Erza will keep him in check, provided she doesn't do the same thing… Hooo… Sometimes I think I'm the only sensible one in the guild… But I guess that's what makes Fairy Tail Fairy Tail after all!
I'll be back later to write about how the mission went. 'Till then!
Of course, Natsu had a horrible time.
"Blrgh! Mmph! Huuu… I hate traveling… How much longer will we're there?"
Lucy shook her head at her fire-eating friend. "Honestly, why don't you just walk? You knew we were going to grab a ride!"
"But then I'd be tired by the time we got there, and I wouldn't be able to fight anymore…"
"We're not supposed to fight, dummy!"
The red head beside her smiled at them. "Well, a little intimidation never hurt anybody."
"Aye! It's not like they'd get so scared and have nightmares, and then die from a lack of sleep!" came the overly light hearted cat beside Natsu.
"Who'd die from that?!" Lucy screamed at the cat, not at all understanding his logic. She sighed without waiting for an answer. "We shouldn't have to fight anyway. As long as we can convince the villagers that the artifacts and knowledge will be kept safe or put to good use."
"I'm more concerned that they may be guarding some sort of powerful magic or device," Erza noted, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. "It's not an impossible scenario after all."
Lucy looked at her comrade curiously. "But if they had something like that, wouldn't they just use it to get rid of the archeologists?"
"If they wanted to yes, but it's also possible it may be a self-imposed duty to defend whatever they're hiding, and don't want it to end up in the wrong hands."
"Then wouldn't it be fine if we could reassure them? I mean if it's that powerful, then the Magic Council would take custody of it for safe keeping."
"They probably don't trust anyone!" Happy commented, nom-noming on a small fish in his paws.
"I suppose we'll find out eventually. We can only speculate so far."
"Hnn… MGPH!... ugh… Happy, do you think you can fly us home later?" Natsu moaned as he shakily put distance between himself and the moving torture machine behind him.
"Sorry Natsu, we wouldn't make it back before I run out of energy."
"Then I'll carry you the rest of the way," the pinkette pleaded, eager to find any way other than the horrors of modern transportation.
"Come on Natsu, the camp is this way," Lucy encouraged, lending him a hand as he did his best to lose his dizziness.
Erza waited until they were close before turning and continuing on. As they walked, the trees around them grew denser and older, their bright brown bark taking on a dark mossy green color, their branches and roots entangling with each other both above and below the ground. After nearly thirty minutes of walking the trees opened up to a leaf-covered clearing full of tents and a small fire in the center with food roasting over it. Around the camp were numerous archeologists, the faces of whom instantly brightened at the site of the newcomers. One man stepped forward, and older fellow with a graying beard.
"Good afternoon to you! You are the mages we sent for correct?"
Erza nodded. "That's correct. I'm-"
"-Erza Scarlet," the man interrupted. "Your reputation precedes you, even though it's been seven years. To be honest, I'd almost given the job to Sabertooth, but that would have cost a lot. Thankfully one of my coworkers mentioned that Fairy Tail had recently had a resurgence, so…"
"So you gave the job to us hoping to lower the cost," Lucy deduced.
The man smiled and rubbed his neck sheepishly. "Well… I guess you could say that. Though to be fair, I've done quite a bit of work with Fairy Tail before. Speaking of which, how's Levy-chan?"
Lucy blinked in surprise. "Levy-chan? You know her?"
The man smiled brightly. "Haha! Levy-chan was always accepting jobs from me. Quite the archeologist herself she was. She loved reading and translating old languages."
Natsu laughed loudly, planting his hands on his hips proudly. "Hahaha! That's our Levy-chan for you!"
The man nodded. "She was such a bright girl… After this, would you tell her I wish her well?"
The red head nodded. "I'll make sure to. Now about the job…"
"Of course, of course. First off, I suppose I'll introduce myself. My name's Bruno, head archeologist for this particular expedition. As you can see, we're far from any towns save for a single village that sits at the base of the mountain."
"Mountain? There's no mountains around here," Natsu observed with crossed arms, his opinion echoed with an "Aye!" by Happy.
"Well, it's not a mountain per-say, it's more of a large hill covered by the forest. However, there's a cave that leads beneath it, which is guarded by the local village."
Erza nodded understanding the situation. "And you hired us to help you gain access to this cave, correct?"
"Yes. In the beginning, we didn't realize there was village nearby, nor did we know that they guarded it. During our initial exploration, we found evidence for an ancient civilization buried deep within. However, we didn't get too far before the villagers forced us out. Since then we've been trying to negotiate with them to let us explore it, but they keep refusing to budge even an inch."
"I see. How long have you been here?"
"We've been at this for nearly a week now," he said, looking away towards the west. "I'm glad you're here. Now we'll be able to better negotiate. If a guild like Fairy Tail supports our claims, then things might go over smoother."
"Hmm… but wouldn't just look like you've hired some extra muscle to get your way?" Natsu questioned, his arms crossed and head cocked in curiosity.
"T-that's not our intention! We're here strictly for historical posterity!" Bruno exclaimed, clearly agitated. "We keep telling them this, but they won't listen! We have no intention of desecrating anything!"
"Desecrating? What exactly do they think they're protecting?"
Bruno sighed and shook his head. "Oh they think they're guarding a sacred place. They never got into it, except to say that it's forbidden for outsiders to enter, and even their own villagers steer clear."
"If you ask us, it's just a bunch of superstitious folks letting their imaginations get the best of them," said another archeologist as he leaned over from his seat in front of the fire where he was roasting a hot dog wiener.
"It's quite possible, but it's just as possible to theorize that they're guarding a powerful magic or device of some sort," Erzo pointed out, referring to their earlier discussion on the train.
Bruno nodded reluctantly. "I suppose that's possible. Small primitive villages like theirs often make legends based on real events that happened long ago. But like I said they never even alluded to what they protecting."
"Why not just ask them?" Happy asked, ever so helpful.
"Grrr… Now I want to know what they're hiding," Natsu commented. "Whatever it is, it's probably something super-secret or something."
"They just said it was a secret!"
"Anyway, now that we understand the situation, it's beneficial to both parties that we get this job finished as soon as possible." Though Erza said it with a serious voice, the gleam in her eyes clearly showed she was clearly drooling at the prospect of a super weapon (though whether for her own use or the glory of Fairy Tail, Lucy couldn't tell).
Bruno nodded, turning away to lead them. "Sure, I'll take you there. The village is at the base of the mountain; that way."
As soon as he said it, the many historical explorers in the camp quickly got to work grabbing bags and equipment, putting out the fire and grabbing food for the road.
"Wow, very efficient," Erza praised, looking around at the controlled chaos.
Bruno simply smiled. "Of course. We're archeologists after all, we have to be organized."
Within no time at all, they were on their way, Bruno leading them through the dense forest trees as if walking a familiar path. It took nearly an hour before the forest ended, revealing the small village that sat nestled in the crux of the mountain's base. It couldn't be any bigger than a hundred-person village, which was good. If push came to shove, it wouldn't be too hard to quell any violence… from either side.
"So that's the village, huh?" Natsu asked as they approached the flimsy wooden gate.
"Mmmmm, I wonder if they have fish there," drooled Happy.
"It doesn't look like much… Did they really give you that much trouble?"
Bruno shrugged at the blonde girl's question. "Well, they aren't that strong, but we're simple historical uncover-ers. We don't want to hurt anyone, but we're also not willing to give up on a find."
Lucy sighed. "I guess it's like Happy and a fish."
They approached the gate, which remained steadfastly shut. Bruno cleared his throat and bellowed, "Oi! It's me Bruno Welswater! Open up, I want to talk!"
There was a bit of commotion before the gate opened a smidge and out hobbled a short old man, who easily could have been some sort of village elder. He wore a faded plum shirt with ornate illegible runes. He supported himself with a staff that was nearly a foot taller than he was. He wore a similarly styled wizard's hat, though none could detect any serious magical power from him.
"Bruno! There's nothing left to discuss! We will not let anyone step foot inside the cave for as long as we live!"
"Excuse me," Erza interjected before their guide could retort. "I'm Erza Scarlet of Fairy Tail. Me and my companions were hired by Bruno-san to help reach a mutual agreement regarding the exploration of this cave. May I know your name?"
The old man regarded her for a moment before answering, a small smile hidden beneath his long course beard. "My my, such a well-mannered young girl. I'm known as Yose. I'm the elder here in the Forest Village."
"It's a pleasure to meet you. If you don't mind, I'll cut to the chase. It's our job to help your village and Bruno-san's team to come to an agreement of some kind that allows them to explore and study your cave. So, simply asked, is there no way this can be allowed?"
The squinted eyes of the elder narrowed. "I'm afraid not. I've heard of your guild Fairy Tail. Some good, most bad."
"Aye! Lucy has a bad temper!"
"DON'T PUT THE BLAME ON ME!"
The old man smiled though, leaning on his staff with both hands. "No need to worry. I met your guild master, Makarov-san many years ago, and I know he's a good man. So I'll share a bit of information on why we can't allow anyone into the cave. To start, our village was founded many, many years ago by our ancestors, who called that cave home. However, during an earthquake, the back of the cave opened up, and we discovered ancient passageways that lead deep into the mountain. We don't know what they found, but we know they swore to protect it with their lives until 'the Fated Time.'"
"So… When is this 'Fated Time?'"
"We're not certain. I don't think even they themselves knew."
'So it is the protection scenario.' Erza realized. "Can you tell us, even if vaguely, what it is you and your ancestors are protecting? There's been some speculation that it's a devices or powerful magic of some sort."
Yose fell silent, shifting his eyes to the ground, as if debating whether he should or shouldn't reveal what he knew. "I'm sorry, even I don't know."
Natsu's response was quite predictable. "Ehhh? You're guarding something you don't even know until a time you don't know either? What's the point!"
"It's true we don't know those things, but we do know that whatever it is, it was either something very precious, or very scary to our ancestors," Yose explained. "Ah, but where are my manners? Please come in. Any child of Makarov's is a child of mine."
Erza smiled, and bowed, followed by Lucy and Happy. "Thank you very much."
He swung the gate open and allowed them all through, though his eyes lingered suspiciously on Bruno and his lot. As the gate closed, they found themselves in the presence of many of the villagers, both men, women and children. The children were all hiding behind their mothers' legs, until they spotted the Fairy Tail trio, at which point excited smiles lit their faces and they rushed forward in front of Erza.
"Look mama! Red hair!"
"Aha! Red hair! Red hair!"
"Ne ne! Nee-san! Can we touch your hair?"
"Pwease? Pwetty pwease?"
"With sugar and sprinkles on top?"
Erza blinked in surprise, never having experienced such strong and excited reactions to her hair before. Yoze simply laughed. "Haha! You'll have to excuse the children. Red hair is considered a special trait in this village."
Erza smiled at the explanation and kneeled down, addressing the children. "Hmhm, here."
They practically swarmed her, their tiny hands instantly finding her red strands. The mothers instantly were at her side, watchfully monitoring their children and apologizing for their behavior.
One of the boys blinked and pointed at Natsu. "Ne ne, do you have red hair too?"
Natsu blinked in surprise. "Eh, red? Ermmm, I've always thought it was more of a pink color… I suppose you could call it red, but I think that'd be stretching things a little."
"It's red enough by our village's standards," Yose commented with a smile. "You're both clearly destined for great things."
Natus laughed haughtily. "Haha! Is that so?! We'll we are pretty awesome, right Erza?"
She simply smirked in response.
"Right Lucy?" Happy added, to which the blonde irritably responded with a tick mark on her forehead, "Don't rub it in, you shitty little cat…"
"So where did you get the belief that red hair is special? I know it's an uncommon color, but…"
Yose frowned at that, falling silent for a bit again. "Telling you that would reveal information about the cave…"
Bruno groaned. "Ugh, honestly, if it's seriously something dangerous, or special we can always report it to the Magic Council, and they can take appropriate measures. If it's special, they can send guards here to help protect it for you, and it'll be under their jurisdiction, meaning that anyone who tries to steal it or destroy it will answer to them. On the other hand, if it's dangerous, they can take it and lock it away so no one can use it."
Yose growled at the considerably bigger man, waving his cane at him. "Absolutely not! The Magic Council would simply abuse it if it was dangerous! And if it ends up being special, it's our job to defend it, since it's ours! You all are no different! How do we know you have good intentions? We have no reason to trust you!"
Erza blinked, turning to look at the elderly man, mindful of the children's hands running through her smooth hair. "What if we were to overlook their explorations?"
Both Yose and Bruno both turned to her with questioning glances as she stood, the children noticeably disappointed they couldn't finger her hair any more.
She continued. "You said that you trust our master, so you should also be able to trust us, yes?"
Yose eyes her carefully before asking, "What exactly are you saying?"
"Simple; Bruno-san and his group can explore the cave under our watch. This way, you should have no fear of being taken advantage of."
Lucy smiled at her friends idea. "Of course! With Natsu and Erza to enforce your village's will, Bruno-san won't be able to get away with anything."
"That's not nice Lucy; being so suspicious of Bruno-san," Happy said, nibbling on a fish he seemed to have gotten from a villager.
Yose considered that for some time, his face visibly shifting between different thoughts. Everyone watched with bated breath, wondering what he would decide. The very fact that he was considering it meant a lot to the villagers, and it was a great source of anxiety for the archeology team.
At last he spoke up. "Well, I do owe Makarov a favor… And I'd hate to keep you from completing your job. Very well, I'll accept this, on the condition that we can also accompany you all."
Immediately Bruno's face lit up. "Yes! Yes that's perfectly fine! I promise we'll be very careful with your cave."
"You'd better! It's our cave after all!"
"Hey Lucy, do you think there'll be fish in the cave?"
"IS THAT ALL YOU THINK ABOUT?!"
The entrance to the cave was nearly pitch black, so they had to use lights almost right away. They all filed in, Bruno and his team, Lucy, Erza and Natsu (with Happy), and Yose with a few select villagers.
"This part of the cave has nothing special in it, since the weather has eroded anything of importance over time. What you probably want to look at is further on. Please follow me."
The tip of his staff lit up with a white glow as he stepped to the head of the column, guiding them further in. As they continued, the weather-worn walls gave way to mossy stone, followed by dry stone. After nearly two hours of traveling (and Natsu's bored grumbling) they finally encountered some history. It was so subtle that they'd nearly missed it; small etched carvings in the walls.
"Hm? What're these?" Natsu asked, looking at them as if they were weird meal.
"They're characters of our ancestors' language. It's all but forgotten now though, sadly. We can't read it. However, there is one message that we can." The elder continued on until they saw an etching on the wall, written in plain English, though the style seemed very old.
"This pattern is repeated as you get deeper into the cave. Apparently our ancestors translated it for posterity's sake during the transition from their original language to basic."
Lucy brought her light up to illuminate the passage and Bruno stepped up beside her, eyeing the wall with surprise. "This is a very old font. Circa X100 or less actually!"
"How old is your village old man?" the pinkette asked.
"I told you, we've been here for a long time, though there's no exact record."
"It's sort of freaky…" Lucy looked at the words, puzzled by them.
The trees entangle their arms and stretch upward into the sky.
The budding leaves devour the light, adding depth to the forest's darkness.
The hunter does not notice the glare nor the claws of the beast biding in the shadows.
Tonight is the night when the hunter will be hunted.
Fear to wake the sleeping forest.
"What does it mean?" Erza asked Yose.
"We've wondered that very question for many generations. We've never come to a complete answer. The closest answer we've guessed is that the forest around our village is magical, and that it's actually alive, protecting us from harm. Though I can't imagine that was what it was like long ago. There's no way there can be any magic left in the forest by now. Magic deteriorates over time after all."
Bruno nodded. "It's possible then that your ancestors wrote this when the magic was still there, as a warning to outsiders."
They continued walking, and noticed carvings in the walls; stranger characters and figures, shapes and objects. "Yose-san, what are all of these?"
The old man eyed the walls around them. "These symbols probably had some significance to our ancestors, though in what way, we no longer know."
There were many of them, and most of them involved circles of some kind, though there where some that were so different that they easily stood out. Presently they came to a stop in front of a carving on the ground. This one was different, as it wasn't only etched, but also held the faint traced of color. It was a strange figure that could probably have been part of the ancient alphabet.
"This is as far as we can go. There's nothing up ahead but a dead in."
Bruno gaped in surprise. "That's all?! If it's a dead end then you knew there was nothing here!"
"Not necessarily," Yose chided. "Though I say 'dead end' it's actually just blocked off by rubble. Apparently the cave collapsed many years ago, and we can't dig it out. In fact, from here on, the cave is extremely unstable."
Erza narrowed her eyes and looked around her. "How unstable exactly?"
Yose made to answer, but was cut off by a rumbling around them. "What?!"
"Shit! Is it going to cave in on us?!"
Lucy shielded her eyes from the dust that fell from the ceiling, only to spot the probable cause of the rumbling. "Erza! Below you!"
Everyone looked down at her cry, only to be met by a crimson glow seeping from the chiseled symbol below the Titania's feet. Without warning a spike of scarlet light shot up, twisting around her raised arms and piercing the her right forearm.
Before anyone could move, the needle-like apparition retreated back into the ground, dragging its stolen blood with it. As soon as it sank into the stone, the rumbling stopped. Even though the vibrations had ceased, they kept tense, bracing for an eventual aftershock. None came.
"The hell! This whole place is freaking weird!" Natsu growled in annoyance as he walked up to where Erza was standing. "And how did that light come out of there? Will it do it for me?" He pushed her aside and stepped on the strange symbol, stomping on it a few times when nothing happened.
"Natsu, you should be careful, it's likely that the cave isn't entirely-"
And with a resounding crash, the floor beneath them fell away, dropping them several dozen feet into darkness. They landed hard on the stone floor, dust and dirt flying up around them from the impact. Above them, those who didn't fall were calling down to them. "H-hey! Are you alright?!"
Bruno groaned and rubbed his head, having landed on it in his fall. "Ow ow ow…! Ugh, what the hell was that all about?"
Yose had been fortunate enough to land on Natsu, making his landing considerably softer. Erza, Lucy and Happy all sat up from where they fell, grabbing their dropped glow-stones and re-lighting them.
"What is this place?" Lucy asked, finding this particular tunnel to actually be carved out with deliberate intention. Instead of random symbols on the walls, there instead were what appeared to be carvings reminiscent of people etched or painted across them.
"We're alright! What happened up there?!" Bruno yelled in response to the rest's questioning calls.
"It looks like the floor was made to fall away like that! And the tunnel up ahead has cleared away! We can continue on now!"
Bruno growled. "Tch, figures. We fall down and they can continue on. You might as well head on down it, but be careful! If it gets too dangerous, just stay put!"
He received an acknowledgement and he turned back to those with him. It was then he noticed the walls. "Incredible… hieroglyphics!"
Natsu blanked. "Hiero-wah?"
"Hieroglyphics. Basically, it a language. Imagine a picture book but with no words. Only these…" He grabbed a light-stone and held it up to the walls. "They seem to be specific to your ancestors, Yose-san. I can't make out what's going on."
It was a mess of intermingled pictograms and painted murals that seemed to tell some sort of story about a cataclysm, and a great war. Though, in each of them, on one side was a man in a mask, leading an army of white soldiers, while on the other side was a more diverse, human looking army that branched out in five directions. In the center of the conflict were six characters, each one bearing a symbol of some sort on their torsos.
"What could have happened in the past…?" Bruno could only wonder. "There is no history of such a conflict existing."
"It looks like an all-out brawl… I wonder who won," Natsu pondered.
"Over here," Erza prompted from a ways beyond them, having moved on while they were talking. They stepped up to her and looked at the art in front of them. The armies had vanished, to be replaced by a great circle, and the masked man from before standing atop it, surrounded by concentric whirling rings. Below it were numerous figures, each one with unique qualities that set them apart from each other. Beyond that, the mural seemed to fade, as if it had been eroded by either wind or water.
"Damn, the rest has been erased. Not that it would probably help us if it wasn't. I don't understand any of these. This is where Levy-chan would shine…"
Erza turned and looked down the long dark of the hall in front of them. "We should continue. I have a feeling we'll find out further on."
Lucy was about to nod and follow when he noticed her friend's bleeding appendage. "Erza, your arm…"
The Titania glanced at her limb before flexing her hand. "It's fine, there's no loss of movement."
"T-that's not the point! What if it's poisoned?!"
"I highly doubt that," came Yose's wizened old voice. "I'm certain if it was a poison, you'd have felt the effects by now. Rather I think that it was some sort of blood lock."
Lucy blinked in surprise. "A blood lock?"
"Yes. It's a special magic that requires blood as proof of identity for passage. The question is, why did it accept Miss Scarlet's blood?"
Bruno gave a skeptical look. "Are you sure that's case? I mean the floor practically gave out on us. It could just be pure coincidence."
The elder seemed to consider it for a moment before shaking his head. "I don't think so. You heard them, right? Even your own men said it was like it was meant to collapse."
"Well that's true…"
"Regardless," he continued. "I agree with the young lady; we should continue on."
And so they did, following the passage as it gradually led them deeper and deeper into the bowels of the mountain. With no sun to tell them, they had no way of telling how much time had passed. There were no more murals, no markings, no signs of civilization anywhere, but the deliberately carved cave proved that it eventually led somewhere. After quite some time, and several breaks, the cave ended abruptly, opening into what was likely a massive cavern. In fact, it was so big, they couldn't see its limits; not walls nor ceiling.
"Whooaa… This place is HUGE!" Natsu exclaimed, slightly put off by the lack of echo.
Bruno however, noticed that discrepancy, and for some reason it worried him. "Stop here," he commanded.
"What's wrong?" Lucy asked, wondering if she should be concerned.
"Leave some light stones here and tie this string to that rock there. Since we're entering a large cavern, I don't want to get lost and forget the way out."
"Ohhh! That's really smart of you!" Natsu praised with an admiring smile. Bruno simply smiled back.
"It may surprise you, but I did a bit of spelunking back in the day. Cave exploration can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing."
Doing as he'd ordered, they continued on into the darkness. After several hundred feet, they came to a strange sight. A tree. A dead one, but a tree nonetheless. Bruno reached forward to touch it, announcing that it was indeed a tree. "A petrified one though. It must have turned to stone years ago."
"What would a tree being doing growing in this kind of environment?" Lucy wondered. "I mean, there's no light or water nearby."
Bruno narrowed his eyes. "An even better question is, 'how did it grow this big?' You're right; there's not light or water to sustain plant-life here, so how could this tree have thrived before turning to stone?"
"Hey guys look, there's more of them!"
They turned at Natsu's announcement, seeing him illuminating the way in front of them. Light stones allowed a certain amount of light by nature, though with magic, their light could be amplified. Natsu, with his rather copious amounts of magic, was capable of lighting a lot of the area around them. What they saw made them stop and stare.
It wasn't a single tree. It was an entire forest. A wall of trees walled them off from the front, and as they turned around, they found the cave entrance they'd come out of eclipsed by the incredible height of the cave walls around them. Even with Natsu's extra light, they couldn't see the ceiling.
Bruno gaped wide eyed. "What is this place…?"
Erza was about to ask the same thing when her arm twinged in pain. She grimaced and shot a look down to it, only to see the blood on her arm drip to the floor. Naturally, that was the way of gravity after all, but what caught her eye was the way the blood that had already fallen crawled toward the forest.
"Everyone…" she began, her eyes never once leaving the trail of blood. "Let's head into the forest."
Lucy moaned worriedly, not wanting to go any further into the dark, creepy cave. She snapped out of it when she realized they were missing one of their company. "Oh, where's Happy?"
Natsu turned at her question, noting his companion was MIA. "Huh? Where'd he go? Happy! Where are you?!"
There was a faint response from high above them. A quick look up revealed the flying cat coming towards them with a light stone in hand. Natsu smiled at his friend's return. "Oh there you are! What were you doing up there?"
Happy landed on the pinkette's shoulder and explained. "I tried to see how high the ceiling was, but I couldn't see it. Then I tried to find out how wide the cave was, but I couldn't find it."
"How about the ground?" Natsu asked seriously.
"I couldn't find it."
Lucy dead-panned in classical fashion at her friend's stupidity. 'Couldn't find the ground? What's he standing on then?' she wondered sarcastically. Then she noticed that Happy was sporting a very large lump on his head.
"Oh, Happy, did you bump into something?"
The blue cat touched his head as if he'd forgotten about it. "Oh, that's right! I hit a wall over there!"
"YOU JUST SAID YOU DIDN'T FIND ANYTHING!"
Happy hopped off of his master's shoulder and onto the ground. "But it wasn't the cave wall, it was a crystal wall!"
Lucy started at that. "…Crystal?"
"Aye! I couldn't see much since it reflected the light, but it was a big crystal!"
Yose perked up. "A crystal you say? Where was it?"
The cat pointed towards the trees. "Over there in the forest."
They all looked the same direction, only to see Erza's form slipping into the tree line. "WAAAHH! ERZA DON'T LEAVE SO SUDDENLY!"
They quickly ran to catch up to her. Within to forest, their lights cast shadows everywhere, spooking Bruno and Lucy (mostly Lucy) several times in the process. Finally Happy called out, pointing forward.
"There it is!"
They all picked their way forward, finding themselves standing in front of a massive wall of blue crystal. Bruno stepped forward and touched it, blinking in surprise. "This isn't crystal… it's a lacrima!"
"Lacrima?!" Lucy repeated in surprise. "This whole thing is a lacrima?!"
Bruno closed his eyes and was silent for several seconds. "No, it's like a lacrima… I can feel energy from it; faint, but it's not like any lacrima I've ever seen before."
Natsu hrrmm-ed and pressed his face up to the glass-like material. "A~h, I wonder what's it's for…"
Erza wondered the same thing. What was a lacrima doing buried under a mountain for (allegedly) hundreds of years?
"You don't happen to know anything about this, do you?" Lucy asked the village elder. He shook his head negative.
"I'm sorry, but I don't. I know no more than you do. However," he cast a wary glance about them. "…that warning comes to mind…"
Lucy blinked as she remembered the quote from the beginning of the cave. "That's right… 'The trees entangle their arms and stretch upward into the sky. The budding leaves devour the light, adding depth to the forest's darkness. The hunter does not notice the glare nor the claws of the beast biding in the shadows. Tonight is the night when the hunter will be hunted. Fear to wake the sleeping forest.'"
"Wow you memorized that perfectly Lucy!" Natsu said with all-too-big a smile.
"Only because it was so scary!"
"I mentioned that it could have been the forest above that had long run out of magical energy," Yose began, "but with this recent revelation, it's quite possible that this is the forest the warning was referring to, and what sleeps inside it…"
Erza however, was more intent on staring at the lacrima. Glancing down at her arm, she raised it wrist first, her palm facing the ceiling. The wound on her arm had already clotted up, save for one lone, final drop of blood that slid down her arm. As she watched though, the drop moved as if pulled by a different source of gravity. Instead of sliding down her arm, it pulled straight ahead… towards the massive lacrima. Whatever it was that was inside, it was calling to her blood.
She firmly marched up next to it and stared into its shadowed darkness. Tentatively, she placed her same hand up to the azure material. Honestly she didn't know what she'd been expecting, but what happened next wasn't it. With a pulse of energy, the lacrima rippled from her hand, making her draw back in a start.
"What the hell was that?!" Natsu asked, looking around for any possible enemies that the Titania might have unleashed… or something.
But no one had a chance to respond before the lacrima began dissolving… right from the point where her hand had touched the glass. If that was all, she wouldn't have been so awestruck, but it wasn't. A massive rumbling from all around them, filled the cavern, the vibrations so strong as to almost knock them all off of their feet. But what really shocked them was the single, bright ray of light that pierced through the darkened cavern, splitting the blackened void and shining through the lacrima. Like a prism, the light bent and began reflecting all across the subterranean cave illuminating what had until then been hidden. The cavern extended several hundred meters up, and the distant walls could possibly have been miles away. The source of that light was a hole that had suddenly opened up in the center of the cavern's ceiling, and seemed to be growing bigger by the second, as everything around them grew brighter.
The petrified trees around them, as if in response, began groaning as their stone exteriors shattered and fell away, revealing fresh bark and budding leaves. The hard earth below their feet sprouted grass and turned to soft, damp soil.
"I-impossible…! So much life energy… all at once…!" Bruno stuttered out, his eyes unable to avert from the new world around him.
The elder too was in a wondrous stupor, though his was a bit more melancholy. 'Could it be… that this was the forest we shouldn't have woken…?'
"Mina! Look!" Happy cried, pointing back towards the lacrima. They all turned and saw the crystalline material dissolve away, like melting ice. What it revealed was a long dirt path that led further into the forest, only that in the distance were a pair of massive gates, clearly barred and shut.
With an incredible suddenness, the rumbling mountain ceased its shaking, and the last of the stones and dust from the ceiling high above fell to the ground. And all was silent.
"W-what did you do Erza?" Lucy asked, not sure if Erza even had an answer. She didn't.
"I don't know," the red head said shakily. "I only touched the lacrima, and then that happened…" She eyed her hand skeptically. Had it really been her blood that broke it?
"I say we keep going!" Natsu cried eagerly. "Who knows what's inside?!"
Bruno held his arm out to the Dragon Slayer, halting his advance. "Actually, at this point, it's really up to Yose-san whether we continue or not. This is your people's history after all."
The elder mewled over the idea for several seconds before nodding. "I'll permit it; I want to know what's been hidden for so long. But be wary of threats! I can't imagine my ancestors would go to all this trouble for nothing."
When they reached the massive gates, it hadn't taken much to open them, which was a surprise in and of itself. But what they found inside those walls was enough to stupefy them. Instead of the crumbling ghost town they'd expected, they were instead met with the immobile forms of people. As if frozen in time, they all stood, sat, or lay where they were, unmoving, and as far as they could tell, not even breathing. What's more, the town they'd expected instead gave way to a sprawling city, stretching for many miles in every direction. In the distance a massive red-painted tower with another one of those strange characters on its front.
"W-what the hell is this…?!" Natsu asked to no one in particular, looking about himself in bewilderment.
"I'm not sure myself," Bruno began hesitantly. "But if I had to wager a guess, I'd say the lacrima covering has been protecting these people for these many years."
"But why are they frozen like this in the first place?" Lucy asked, flinching away as she almost accidentally walked into a man frozen in mid step. She looked to the old man in their group, but she received no answer.
They continued on, picking their way through the crowds of people lining the streets. It was eerie, how they could stand there in front of them and not be noticed. Presently though, Erza spoke up. "They're facing the center." It was a simple observation, but as soon as she mentioned it, it was easily noticeable.
"Hey, you're right," said Lucy as she looked at the eyes and faces of two parents next to her, their child sitting on her father's shoulders. "Everyone's looking toward the tower up ahead."
Natsu narrowed his eyes. "And the sky."
Once again, such a simple, overlooked fact. Bruno likewise narrowed his eyes. "Then our first clue would be that tower, and what's above it," he said as he continued walking. "I'm not surprised though that I can't read any of these markings," he stated regretfully as he glanced at the many signs and banners along the streets.
After several minutes of walking, Natsu looked askance at the elderly man with a half-suspicious expression. "Oi, Yose-san, how come you're not celebrating or something. After all, these are probably your ancestors you were talking about; your lost history!"
Yose nodded to the young Dragon Slayer's valid question. "Under normal circumstances I might be, but considering that our ancestors (and their entire town) were sealed away, and then hidden beneath a mountain, worries me. I mean, who would go to such extraordinary lengths to hide them?"
Bruno shook his head. "Let's not get carried away just yet. After all we can't be sure they didn't simply carve this place into the mountain. However, we also can't be sure they didn't seal themselves away."
Lucy looked at him shocked. "Seal themselves? Why would anyone do that?"
Bruno gave a knowing smirk to her as he explained. "There have been several times in history where someone tries to seal themselves away in order to advance through time without delving into the lost and prohibitively risky Time Magic. By placing themselves in a sort of stasis, they are able to last through the ages until they choose to awaken. However…" he trailed off as he looked around himself in awe.
"However…?" Erza prodded, suddenly interested in what he was saying.
Hesitantly, the archeologist continued. "However, most mages do it wrong and end up turning to dust as soon as they awaken, the flow of time returning to their bodies which rush to catch up to their appropriate age/state. Besides that, I've never seen its use in such a widespread area before. Sealing an individual is one thing, but a whole city? This is just too ridiculous!"
Erza's eyes suddenly caught the glint of steel and her attention immediately went to it, even while Lucy continued on with her questioning. "So, you're saying that all of these people will turn to ashes as soon as the spell's lifted? That's horrible!"
Bruno nodded. "It is, but it's possible that if it was done right, they'll simply wake up."
"But we've broken the spell, and the lacrima dome around the town is melting." Natsu observed, looking to the sky (which was really the reflection of light against the melting blue ceiling) "Shouldn't that have released it by now?"
Buno's eyes narrowed, but he remained silent, piquing the interest of the three mages. When he spoke again, it was in a darker, more careful tone. "…It's quite possible it already has."
Lucy immediately backed away from the man's face she was about to touch, eek-ing out in fear. "W-w-what?!"
"Then why aren't they waking up? If you say the spell has already broken…" Yose asked, leaning on his staff and looking around him for movement not of their group.
"In all the successful cases of mages freezing themselves through time, it can take a while for them to awaken. It's a lot like how someone can come out of a coma, but not wake up for some time."
Erza stopped before a small child, clutching tightly to her mother's pant leg, looking at, as everyone else seemed to be, above the tower ahead. "So young…" she realized. Her mind went back to when she was also this girl's age, in slavery at the Tower of Heaven. "I wonder if they were prepared for this?" she mused aloud, looking up at the tower that seemed to rise in the distance.
"Everyone looks so surprised," Natsu observed, hands on his hips as he gave glances to either side of him. "Could this have been some kind of attack?"
Bruno looked at the pink haired Dragon Slayer in surprise. An attack? He placed a hand to his chin. "Forcibly freezing one's enemies… to keep them out of the way? It's possible, but…" He looked about him, all the buildings and individuals that filled his view. "…to freeze a whole city? The amount of magical energy necessary must have been enormous! Whether by their own hand or not, I can't imagine the effort it took to do this!"
Whatever response the other four might have given was immediately cut off by the thick pressure that descended on them, bathing the entire place in a heavy blanket of power. Immediately, everyone was on their knees, or struggling to stay standing, the strength of their bodies suddenly drained.
As soon as it came, it went, the veil of pressure lifting and vanishing like a sudden breeze. In fact, it was so sudden, Erza wondered if she hadn't just imagined the whole thing. Unfortunately the fact that she was leaning against a wall, half-way slumped to the ground showed that it really did happen. But by stroke of luck, she could sense the origin of the unexpected weight of energy. "That… that came from the tower… That magic…!"
"Yes…" Bruno acknowledged, leaning on one knee and also staring straight ahead at the tower. "I sensed it as well. The spell is definitely lifting." As if to confirm his statement, the shadow of the edge of the melting dome passed overhead, the unimpeded light from the hole in the ceiling bathing them in its warmth.
"If we want to find the source of that magic before they wake up, we'll need to move quickly. Hurry!" Without waiting for a response, the archeologist dashed through the frozen crowd, making for the distant building.
"H-hold on, Bruno-san!" Lucy cried as she got up to follow, her legs still a bit shaky. 'Is it' just me, or did Bruno-san look worried just then?' she wondered to herself as she followed behind her fellows.
Makarov's eyes were wide as he sat on the bar, looking at the visitor who'd just arrived a few moments before, along with the rest of the guild. It wasn't uncommon that Fairy Tail got visitors, especially from new recruits or news boys. But this time they were surprised by the presence of an officer of the Magic Council. Now, even while it wasn't uncommon for them to send emissaries to convey messages where letter wouldn't suffice, it was very rare for one to be guarded by a small platoon of soldiers. Not only that, but it was even more rare for them to be carrying a sealed order marked by the Magic Council itself. The whole Magic Council.
Makarov had had many a dealing with the Magic Council, and thus it was a very difficult achievement to shock him. However, even while a rare occurrence, it, by itself wouldn't have been enough to shock the wizened old man. No, it was what the ambassador has said that had made the Dreyar's blood freeze in his veins. "…What…?!"
"I'll repeat," the messenger said, clearing his throat. "The mission to 'Negotiate Archeological Digs' is hereby terminated by direct order of the Magic Council. Any attempts to carry it out will be dealt with accordingly."
Makarov grimaced as he knew that it was already too late. "Why couldn't you have gotten hear early…?" he grumbled, rubbing his forehead. "There's nothing I can do though. The job has already been accepted and there's no way for me to contact the team."
The messenger's eyes narrowed, knowing that that sort of answer wouldn't satisfy his superiors. "You're saying you have absolutely no way of communicating with your own guild members…" the man said almost disbelievingly.
"Weeell… I do tell the guild to always take a communication lacryma, but in their excitement, they usually forget about it."
The messenger sighed heavily, palming his face. "There's no alternative then… I'm under orders to inform you that in the instance where the mission cannot be aborted, the immediate elimination of all participants has been authorized."
Immediately, every guild members' mouth dropped in disbelief. "H-H-H-old up a sec! What do you mean 'elimination?!'"
Makarov's eyes narrowed dangerously. "You wouldn't dare…"
The messenger barely looked regretful. "The Magic Council will assume full responsibility," he said, before adding with a low, mysterious tone, "There are some secrets that must not be uncovered…"
Erza examined her surroundings carefully. After entering the massive structure, they'd ascended the numerous flights of stairs all the way to the top, though that was as far as they got before finding themselves too startled to move. All across the floor of the open rooftop was a tangled mass of runes and figures. They ran around each other in strange foreign patterns and all led to the center of the roof where stood four individuals. They were apart from each other, each facing towards the center of the circling web of chaining runes.
Erza looked down, noticing the runes started at her feet. Tentatively taking a step forward, he placed her foot down, a part of her mind wondering if the clearly constructed rune-web would be disturbed by her presence.
When no explosions or glowing magic lights appeared, she assumed it was safe to walk on them. Bruno was one step ahead of her.
"Great God… this spell formation…"
"What's wrong, Bruno-san?" Lucy asked as she hesitantly followed them onto the roof.
Bruno was silent for several seconds before finally responding. "…Whatever this magic was, it clearly was intentional; though I can't make out the characters, whoever made this must have been incredibly talented… a genius even!"
Yose hobbled up in front of Natsu and poked the ground with his cane curiously. "Could you explain it in simpler terms Bruno-san? Not everyone here is familiar with magic like you are."
Bruno almost laughed as he nodded. "Ah, of course. You see, magic seals like these are notoriously difficult to create. Even small ones, if done wrong, can be catastrophic! So one this big… Well, I'm sure you get the picture."
"But Freed can create runes like these too, and it doesn't look that hard for him," Lucy offered, not entirely grasping the situation.
"Yes, Freed can do that," Erza interjected, having a deeper understanding of what Bruno was trying to say. "But these runes are diferent… more complex. Even I can see that. Unlike Freed's, these runes all link together, flowing into the next character."
Bruno nodded. "Exactly."
The scarlet haired mage walked to the center of the circle, her eyes finally taking note of each of the four individuals surrounding the circle. The first one she saw was a bright-haired young man nearly her own age, his hands clapped together and eyes closed, as if in prayer. He wore an open, red cloak around him with black flames licking its hem.
"Such a young boy…" Erza breathed out as she approached for a better look. She was savvy enough to guess that these four were the ones who had activated the spell that locked this massive city away in a timeless state. Feats such as that was something she would have expected from wizened, wrinkly old mages, not young men who hadn't even reached their prime.
Yose walked over to the one Bruno was studying. Unlike his fellow, this man was clearly older, probably mid-twenties. His long black hair reached his lower back, and his relaxed, cross-armed position revealed a calm air of confidence. He wore a set of strange red armor.
Lucy, seeing as the other two were being examined by her friends, went over and examined who was left. The first individual was fully hooded and cloaked, crouched down on the ground, fingering the floor below him, because of his down cast position, she couldn't see much of his face, but what she did see made her shiver. "Eugh! He gives me the creeps!" she quickly skirted away as Natsu eyed him, not at all understanding why Lucy was so finicky.
But as Lucy came to a stop and her gaze left the hooded figure, she found herself staring at the shadowed form of the final person. The sun was shining brightly behind him, masking his form in darkness. Even so, there was something… odd about him. She narrowed her eyes, wondering what it was about him that felt so… off. Shielding her eyes from the bright rays of the sun behind him, she peered closer, trying to get a good look.
His stance mirrored that of the first, blonde boy, his hands pressed together and his eyes closed. He was, like two of his fellows, cloaked, but not fully. Instead of a hood, his cloak had a high collar, and it only went down to his mid-shins. The monotony of its black color was broken only by the periodic silver-lined red shape, which very nearly resembled a cloud. In fact, as she looked now, she noticed he was very similar looking to the blonde that Erza was examining. Instead of blonde hair though, this man had a very rich orange color. But the strangest part about him was his eyes, which even in the shadows cast from the sun behind him, seemed to stand out as if there was no darkness at all. They were a strange purple color, and were concentrically ringed, like some sort of hypnotizing tool. They-
'Wait a minute…' Lucy thought, blinking in surprise. 'Weren't his eyes closed before?'
She blinked again finding his small black pupils staring directly into her own. His regally colored orbs narrowed.
For a third time, Lucy blinked; this time too stunned to realize what had just occurred. "…Eh?"
The man's cry of pain was echoed by that of his fellows as they fell to the ground, over tables and into walls. He tried to get up, but found himself crushed by the massive foot of the Fairy Tail master. "Gugh…! Y-you bastards…! You'd even go against the Council…?!"
Makarov's eyes were red with rage. "Nobody harms our comrades; nobody! Council be damned!" He turned to the other guild members who were mopping up the rest of the ambassador's guard. "Alright! Who knows where their team went?!" he bellowed to the guild hall.
Nobody answered at first, but he was quickly answered by Levy's raised hand as she stood on a table, one of the few not to be overturned in the ensuing fist fight. "I do! I'd been looking at the mission before they picked it!"
"Perfect, restrain these fools and gather the rest of the guild! We're heading there immediately!"
"HAI!" came the resounding cry from the many mages, their fists raised high in the air.
Makarov's attention was stolen by the man beneath his heel, who coughed incredulously. "Y-you know the council… will not take this lightly… You're… endangering your entire guild…"
"No," the Titan said flatly. "The Council is endangering our guild. This is just… preemptive retaliation."
Erza turned at Lucy's cry of fear just in time to see her fall onto the ground as she stumbled back. "What's wrong Lucy?!" Natsu demanded as she rushed to her side, only to follow her gaze to the silhouetted man she'd been looking at. At first he, and indeed Erza herself, saw nothing that would cause such an alarm in the Celestial Spirit mage… that is until the figure moved.
Bruno swore as he backed away a few steps. "Damn! They've already woken?"
However, instead of speaking or advancing, the man seemed… confused; as if he were suddenly forgetful of something. He turned, facing the sun and the rapidly melting blue crystal dome.
Now facing the light, Erza noticed that his face was heavily pierced with black spikes and rods, and his fearsome visage looked somewhat at odds with his current expression. After a few moments he looked down, silently thinking to himself before turning back towards them. Erza carefully made sure not to make any movements that might be considered threatening.
"…I don't know you."
She blinked. His voice was deep… authoritative… almost like that of a calm, experienced commander. Realizing he'd intended the statement as more of a demand, she stepped forward carefully.
"We're sorry to disturb you, but… As you can see, the spell keeping you and this city in stasis is lifting."
He was silent several seconds before looking back to the sky and nodding. "So it is." He returned his gaze to her, his eyes narrowed. "I still don't know you."
It was only now that Erza noticed his eyes. They were a faded purple, though they seemed to glow in the darkness. What's more, they had a repetitive ringed pattern, like that a stone might make if dropped in a pond. Instantly the recognized the appearance of eye magic and took a cautious step back. She knew very well how dangerous Bickslow's Figure Eyes could be combined with his magic; she couldn't even guess what this man's abilities were, if indeed he was as old as Bruno and Yose seemed to guess.
"Do I frighten you?"
Erza blinked in surprise. "What?"
"Do I frighten you?" he repeated.
Erza narrowed her eyes but stood her ground. "No, but I should be cautious, no? After all, as you stated, we don't know each other."
Any response he was about to make was shot down by the sudden interjection of the pink-haired, fire-wielding Dragon Slayer. "Hell no you don't! C'mon damnit! I'll take you on you pierced freak!"
"Natsu! I don't think he wants to fight!" Lucy cried worriedly, concerned Natsu would get them into another battle… again.
"I know, I'm just trying to scare him. After all, a little intimidation goes all the way, right?" He said not-to-secretly as he turned to his blonde partner, a ridiculous fanged smile on his face.
"Who the hell said that?!" she yelled, once again at a loss for where Natsu got his quotes from.
"Ahem!" The man's voice brought their gazes back to him "…If I may…" He gestured to Erza, though he was looking at Natsu and Lucy, as if asking whether they would let him carry on his conversation in peace. The Spirit mage was all too quick to grab Natsu a pull him down while smiling as best she could at the scary looking man.
"O-Oh! Of course; don't mind us, we'll be over here, being really quiet! Hehe…heh…"
The man's gaze lingered on them for a moment before turning away from them dismissively. "You're correct to be cautious, red-hair. However, I do as well. After all, I have no idea who you are, or why you're here…" He noticed the distant walls of the inside of the mountain and raised an eyebrow, looking upward. "…or why we're in a cave…"
Erza seemed to relax a little. "You don't know? Didn't you seal yourselves away here?"
He turned his gaze back to her. "You know we sealed ourselves?" he asked carefully.
She shrugged. "It was a guess. Yose-dono and Bruno-san came up with the hypothesis," she admitted, gesturing to the two older men.
Taking the opportunity, Bruno walked up and briskly extended his hand eagerly. "I-I'm so pleased to meet you! My name's Bruno Welswater, I'm the lead archeologist on this expedition. Oh, the questions I'm dying to ask you!"
The cloaked man looked down but did not accept the man's hand. "You're here alone." It was less a question than a statement.
Bruno retracted his hand sadly. "Y-yes… My men were separated further back in the cave tunnels. I'm hoping they'll still find a way down here though. I have so much to ask you!"
"First," the man interrupted, "a question of my own."
Bruno blinked in surprise but quickly nodded. "Of course, ask away! I'm sure you must be curious."
"What year is it?"
Erza started in surprise. She hadn't considered that this man and these people, and the entire city might not know anything about who she and her companions were.
"You've been asleep for a long time," Yose said, speaking for the first time since the man's awakening. He hobbled over, standing utterly dwarfed by the tall, imposing creature before him. "The year is X791."
What the man did next surprised them. For Erza, she'd been expecting his eyes to widen and his expression to turn to shock. Maybe he'd take a step backward in disbelief.
But none of that happened. Instead, he wore a blank look, as if he hadn't heard him at all. After a few silent moments, he spoke again.
"…That dating method is foreign to me."
Lucy blinked in surprise. "Foreign? But we've been using it for the past near 800 years."
Bruno nodded his face darkening a bit. "Indeed. I'd guessed that the writing in the cave predated X100, but… I can't fathom how much older you are than that! A millennia? Maybe two? Ugh, if only Molly were here! She can use Dating Magic to accurately date anything she touches."
The man's gaze seemed to take on a more puzzled look. "…'Magic?'" he asked, as if the word was foreign to him.
Bruno's eyes seemed to widen. "Don't tell me… You don't know what magic is?"
"Party tricks and sleight illusions, as far as I'm concerned."
Though the full weight of those words were lost on most everyone else, Bruno's eyes were wide with realization, and his brow began to sweat as he glanced back at the elder. "Damn Yose… just what were your ancestors hiding?"
The pierced man's expression again became curious, his voice not giving the old man time to answer. "I suppose you are Yose…" he guessed, to which the short man nodded. "That's correct; Yose Osumark."
The man nodded, bowing his head slightly in respect. "I am Pain." His name hung in the air for a second before he continued. "What's this about your ancestors hiding something?"
Yose leaned on his cane as he explained, his voice somewhat shaky with excitement and concern. "It seems as though my ancestors went to great trouble to hide this truth from the world. Throughout the centuries my small village has been tasked with hiding and guarding the cave that lead to this cavern. Why and what they were hiding has been lost to time though." He chuckled slightly. "It seems I have more questions than you."
Pain mulled that over, and looked at the man intently. Suddenly, he walked up to the short man and placed a hand on his head.
After a few awkward seconds of silence, he spoke again. "You had red hair once," he stated.
Yose's eyes widened. "You can tell? My hair's long since lost its color!"
Pain nodded. "My eyes can see many things that others cannot."
Yose shook off his shock (and the man's hand) and smiled warmly, accepting that nugget of knowledge. "I was very proud of it back in the day. Those with red hair are very special in our village."
Pains eyes seemed to narrow at that, and they flitted to the stern female of the group. "And you?"
Erza shook her head. "I'm not part of his village. I'm Erza Scarlet, mage of the guild Fairy Tail."
"Erza Scarlet…" Pain repeated, as if familiarizing it with how it ran off his tongue. "Would I be correct in assuming that you introduce yourselves with your given name first?" he asked curiously.
Erza nodded. "That's correct. Is that not your custom?"
Pain responded in the negative shaking his head. "Family name first, given name last." He turned back Yose, only to suddenly look at the floor, prompting their gazes to follow.
"The jutsu is almost finished deactivating," he murmured, looking up to his four fellow beings. "Their awakening is imminent. Please give them some room."
Erza immediately turned 'round to look at the blonde boy behind her, though she saw no movement.
"Come this way," Pain beckoned, herding them off to the side a bit.
"Until they fully awaken, I believe it's only right that I tell you what I assume to be the truth."
The mages all started in surprise.
"The truth? What do you mean?" Natsu asked.
Pain hesitated before speaking. "It seems as though you are descendants of my clan, now no doubt ancient by your standards. Though the blood has thinned, and your name faded, you are in all likelihood Uzumaki."
Yose's eyes widened. "Uzumaki…?" he repeated, unsure of how the word felt coming from his mouth.
"At the very least I know one of you is," the stoic man continued, turning his eyes to the armored woman. For a moment his eyes drifted downward, as if appraising her. When he spoke again his voice was almost harsh. "You, Scarlet. Who were your parents?"
Erza blinked in surprise, her heart almost stopping for a moment. 'What a question…' she thought. It had been many… many years since anyone had asked that question. Indeed, she didn't even think she knew the answer, or if she did, she didn't remember it. In fact, she didn't remember anything predating her arrival at the Tower of Heaven.
She hesitated before answering, looking down a bit solemnly. "I… I don't know. I…" she bit her lip a bit nervously. "…I can't remember that far back… I've been alone since I was young."
Pain's eyes, to Lucy's surprise, seemed to soften and he fell silent. He continued to stare at her, but as she watched his face morphed from cold and expressionless to warm and understanding, and, to her shock, he grinned knowingly.
"W-what's so funny?" she asked, not sure if she wanted to know the answer.
Pain simply chuckled, drawing Erza's gaze up from the ground and back to him.
"It seems… 'alone' runs in the family."
Erza stared back with that, suddenly dumbfounded. "What do you mean by that."
She was answered with a point of his finger.
"Your arm is proof enough. This fūinjutsu was created to be permanent, never to be released save for one lone exception." He pointed again to her, and she realized he was gesturing to her once-bleeding arm.
"The blood of the Uzumaki."
Erza's eyes weren't the only pair that were wide with shock; Natsu's, Lucy's, and even Happy's were more akin to saucers than actual eyes.
"What… what are you saying…?" Erza stammered out, not believing what she was hearing.
"Erza was your name, yes? Then your name… your true name is Uzumaki Erza!" His voice rose, its powerful tones sounding as if he were commanding what he said to be truth.
Erza looked down at her healing arm. "So… my blood… My blood freed you…?"
Pain nodded, his smile returning. "Correct. Only the blood of the Uzumaki could shatter the jutsu locking us away. After all…" He glanced to his left. "…we designed it."
The red haired girl blinked and followed his gaze, only to find herself, staring at the blonde boy from before. "You mean… He's also one of your clan?"
"Our clan. And yes, we are both of the Uzumaki lineage, though, to be fair, he was the one to make it famous."
Erza narrowed her eyes at Pain, her posture reflecting her skepticism. "Excuse me if I'm a bit cynical, but I find it hard to believe the word of a complete stranger. I may not know my past, but that doesn't mean I'll just believe any little story."
Pain's eyes returned her gaze. "Believe what you want, but only an Uzumaki's blood could do this. Unless I'm wrong, it was your blood that was used, correct?"
"Well… that may be so… but what if I'm only a small part of them?"
Pain gave a small sigh and stepped forward, reaching out and lightly fingering her hair. "Your red hair gives it away. The Uzumaki were known for three things; first, their longevity. Second, their absolute mastery over fūinjutsu. And thirdly, their red hair, which identified them as a clan."
"But people can get red hair naturally right? That doesn't necessarily prove a thing," Lucy argued, finding it hard to believe that Erza was, or even wanted to be associated with a clan, or whatever Pain had called them.
"That is true, however, the fact that it was her blood that woke us, there's no questioning it." He smiled at her and did something… very unlike him. His hand shifted up and landed on her head, where he gently ruffled her hair. "Family is a very important thing to us. Even though I suppose I'm technically your great ancestor, I hope there won't be any awkwardness between us."
Erza gently knocked his hand away, shaking he head to un-mess her hair. "I never said I have any intention of joining your family. I appreciate the offer, but the guild is my family. Even if we aren't related by blood, they are still my brothers and sisters."
She'd half expected Pain's smile to vanish, but instead it only grew wider. "That's good. It's important that you have precious individuals who care for and are cared for by you. However, I wasn't exactly asking. Once Naruto knows you're an Uzumaki, he won't let you say no."
Erza's eyes narrowed, not sure whether to take that as a threat or not. "And who's this 'Naruto?'"
With a gesture, Pain indicated the blonde she'd been looking at before. Her eyes turned to his immobile form and huffed. "If it's a fight he'll want then it's a fight he'll get."
Pain laughed, but his tone was pure amusement. "No no, he won't fight you; he'll convince you."
Erza crossed her arms and looked at the man skeptically. "And what makes you think that'll do any good. I've stated my intentions."
Pain's face darkened slightly, though he remained silent. Quietly stepping over to the railing on the side of the roof, he looked out over the waking populace of the city. "Whether by cruel twist of fate or sadistic irony of God, I can't say, but the life of us Uzumaki seemed to be filled with pain and hardship," he began, piquing the Titania's interest. "Our miserable lives have shaped us into what we are, for better or for worse."
He glanced back at Erza's confused face with a grimace. "You're fortunate."
"In what way?"
"In that you didn't know your parents," Pain explained, continuing on before Erza could protest his claim. "I knew mine, even if only for a short few years. They were killed in a war with this very village; mistaken for enemy soldiers as they tried to defend me."
Erza's face fell, her heart falling with it. "…I'm sorry…"
"Knowing the love of my parents, and knowing they would never return was the greatest pain I'd ever felt. Then, after being alone for many months, I found friends, only to lose one of my dearest in an ambush disguised as a peace meeting. My village, my family, my friends… All of them have been taken from me."
Erza felt her throat tighten as she imagined the pain the man must have gone through. "…So… your name…?"
Though his tone still melancholy, his mouth broke a faint smile. "I took it as an alias; a symbolic name to the world I hated."
He turned and eyed his fellow man. "Naruto though," he started, causing Erza to look at the blonde man he was talking about. "…his life was almost worse…"
"I'm afraid to ask… but how could it be worse?" Lucy questioned, already dreading the answer.
Now Pain's smile turned soft, and sad. "Naruto… his parents died protecting him during a cataclysmic assassination attempt; one that threatened this whole village. He was just a baby… not even an hour old."
Lucy felt her hand instinctively come up to her mouth. 'He… was a newborn? What kind of world did they live in? That's horrible…'
Pain walked over and placed his hand on the blonde's head comfortingly, though the intent was lost on the boy in stasis. "A beast of destruction, the very one used to kill his parents, was sealed inside him, though for most of his early childhood, he didn't know it. Spurned by the adults who knew, and the children who were advised by their parents to stay away from him, he was alone; not a friend in the world…"
Erza shed a tear as she realized this man wasn't exaggerating. 'And I thought no life could be worse than mine… My past pales in comparison.'
"But, there is a happy ending to these stories,"Ppain said, his tone growing lighter. "Naruto found friends, and love… and then I took it away."
Everyone gasped at his words, Natsu daring to ask what he meant. "W-what are you saying?"
"Exactly what I said," he answered. "I, as the commander of a terrorist organization, hunted him down for the beast inside him. In the process I killed his friends, destroyed this village, and murdered the only person who ever truly cared for him, right after she professed her love to him."
Natsu's shock was short-lived as anger sparked flames over his arms. "…You bastard…!"
Pain held out a finger. "Ah ah, I said there was a happy ending; even though I'd done all of this, he couldn't bring himself to kill me. He hated me, but he would not kill me. He reached out to me with his heart and changed me… and so I resurrected the hundreds of thousands of civilians and soldiers; every woman, child, and man."
Bruno's eyes were widened. "You… You can't be serious…"
Pain chuckled. "It came at a price though. A great one… Our battle had drained me of energy; I was dying. And yet he, again reached out and saved me, sparing me death."
He turned and eyed Erza with a small smile. "Even you, it seems, were able to find some happiness after pain."
Erza glanced away but nodded nonetheless. "Hai…"
"Pain is the tie that binds us all together; makes us family… More of one anyway," he said. "That's why Naruto won't let you deny your family. He, who never had one, can't let it go once he finds it."
Erza gave the blonde a glance, now understanding where his intentions were coming from. "I understand… I'll consider it…"
Bruno, taking advantage of the resulting lull, stepped forward and addressed Pain. "That really is a fascinating story, but if you don't mind, I'd like to ask a few more scientific questions."
"W-well," he began, "you said that you destroyed the whole… 'village' you called it? It seems the damage was repaired."
Pain nodded. "We rebuilt," he said simply. "But I'm guessing you're more interested in why we ended up sealing ourselves away, no?"
Bruno laughed nervously. "Eheheh, am I really that transparent?"
Pain waved off his concern with a smile. "It'd be the first thing I'd want to know as well. The answer though is… complicated."
"By 'complicated,' he means, we wanted to avoid the cataclysm," came a new, smooth voice, making them all nearly jump in surprise.
Pain turned (as did everyone else) to the maker of the voice. "So you're awake now? I wouldn't have thought it would take this long."
The voice's owner was the fully cloaked man who'd been kneeling on the ground, though he was now standing straight enough for them to see under his hood. He had wavy silver hair and pale, almost scaly-looking skin. His eyes were yellow and slitted, like a snake's, though the sheen from the sunlight reflecting off his glasses made it hard to tell. "I've been awake this whole time. I simply didn't want to interrupt."
Pain was silent for a moment before glanced a bit to his right. "I'd assume that goes for him as well then."
The man smirked. "Correct; though, to be honest, I didn't even need to tell him to be quiet."
Their eyes shifted to the armor-clad man, who suddenly turned his head away and huffed.
Lucy, thoroughly creeped out, pointed to the two men and asked, more to Pain than to the two themselves, "S-so these are friends of yours… right?"
Pain's expression didn't change. "I wouldn't call them friends; I could barely call them allies."
"The cold shoulder as always…" the cloaked man commented in amusement, seemingly not at all offended by the statement.
"I know you too well Kabuto; you're difficult to trust."
The other, now identified as "Kabuto" simply shrugged with a smile. "Ma, I can't say you don't have reason to believe that."
"…I'm pretty sure this mountain wasn't here when we used the Shōton Jikūkan…" the long black haired soldier said, his arms crossed and his eyes half-lidded in slight disinterest.
Kabuto raised his head and looked around, noticing the lack of clear blue sky. "Well, this won't help the trees at all," he said, even though it was clear he couldn't care less about it
The black haired man shrugged, and eyed the distant village gates for a moment before grimacing. "So… who else noticed them?"
Pain and Kabuto both blinked in surprise and followed his gaze, seeing numerous figures quickly moving in the distance.
"That's my team!" Bruno said smiling, knowing the tan uniforms they wore anywhere. "They must have found a way down the tunnels."
"And my villagers," Yose added. "But they look… frantic."
Bruno frowned at the elder's words, and looked again, this time more carefully. True enough, the way they rushed through the crowded streets of waking citizens without minding even a little to examine or inspect the buildings or people they were passing showed just how rushed they were. He was probably the only one who'd notice, but for archeologists like them, people he'd worked with for years who all had a love for learning and discovering, to pass up opportunities in such a hurried manner… it wasn't like them.
"You're right… I wonder what's wrong."
He didn't have to wait long before they rushed towards the towering structure. Yose and Bruno both stepped to the railing and looked down, calling to their comrades. "Oi! Anything wrong down there?!" Bruno asked, placing his hands to the sides of his mouth.
"It's horrible Bruno-san!" said an archeologist as he slid to a stop.
"Hm? What is?"
The man's eyes were wide and frantic. "It's the Magic Council! They've brought an army!"
Bruno's eyes shot open in shock. "What'd you say?!"
"There must be nearly a thousand of them! They look like they're about to attack!"
Erza's eyes widened. "What?! The Magic Council?!"
Natsu snarled. "Those bastards…!"
"An army you say?" Kabuto asked to no one in particular. He smirked as he turned away, walking towards the stairs that led down the building. "Ma, it seems we've woken up at a bad time."
Pain eyed the hooded young man suspiciously. "Where are you going?"
Kabuto's smile widened. "I've done my part, as promised. Now that I'm awake, I have no obligation to do anything except what I want."
Pain turned, the air suddenly becoming heavier. Lucy's eyes widened as she felt the sheer power radiate off of the pierced man. "I can't allow you to do as you please, Kabuto. You're too powerful for that."
Kabuto sighed, tugging on his hood a bit. Even so, his smile never faltered. "This is why we introverts keep to ourselves…"
Lucy looked between the two men nervously, clearly able to sense the distrust and hostility between the two individuals. The tension was palpable as the two ancient warriors stood there, never moving; neither backing down nor advancing. It was clear that they knew each other well, as Pain had clearly pointed out characteristics of Kabuto that the pale man didn't deny. But even so, this was kind of ridiculous.
"W-wait a minute! If the Magic Council is going to attack, then this isn't the time to be fighting each other!"
"Silence, naïve child."
Lucy froze as Pain's eyes flitted to her in an instant, his purple orbs hardened. She shrank back behind Natsu, not wanting to be caught by this man's fury. He was clearly not someone to be trifled with. 'Even so, he didn't need to answer like that…'
"You shouldn't be so harsh," said the third, yet unnamed man as he stepped forward, placing a hand on his hip. "The weak can't comprehend the strong. That's just the way of the world."
Pain's eyes drifted to him, his expression unchanging. "You're the reason I can't trust him, Madara. You're too strong a piece to be left in his arsenal."
The man, now identified as Madara huffed in annoyance. "Don't treat me like a servant. Even if I'm under his control, I still have a large amount of autonomy." He turned to Kabuto before Pain could respond. "Now if you don't need me, go ahead and put me away."
Pain's eyed widened a bit in surprise. "You don't want to fight those soldiers?"
Madara rolled his eyes. "A thousand soldiers aren't enough to waste my time on. I'll leave weak garbage like them to you."
Pain's eyes narrowed. "I'll throw your own words back at you; don't treat me like a servant."
To Pain's surprise, Madara laughed, smiling at him, his eyes alight with humor. "Nagato… you really have managed to grow... I look forward to seeing what the future is like, but for now, I see no purpose to linger here."
Kabuto sighed amusedly. "Well, if you feel so strongly about it…" he brought his hands together and weaved them in specific movements, ending with his hands clapped together.
Out of nowhere, a large casket-like casing rose from the ground, surrounding Madara like a coffin, complete with a lid that sealed itself shut over him. That done, it disappeared with a blast of smoke.
Erza's eyes widened. "…What was that? Are your some sort of Stellar Spirit mage?"
Kabuto cocked his head at her. "I'm not familiar with either 'stellar spirit' or 'mage,' but if you think that's what I am, then that's fine, I don't care either way."
Bruno stepped forward, placing a hand on Erza's shoulder. "I don't think that's an appropriate classification, Erza-san," he said seriously. "If what we learned earlier is true, then it's highly likely they're a thousand years old, if not more. What we call magic probably means nothing to them."
Lucy stood stunned. "B-b-but… if they don't use magic, then what was that?!" he said, gesturing to where Madara had been standing.
"It's a forbidden technique; Edo Tensei," Pain explained. "With it, the user may bring back anyone they desire from the grave."
Lucy's heart froze, as did her blood. "…Bring anyone back…" she mumbled to herself, her mind clearly unable to wrap around the words she'd just heard.
She was snapped out of her visions of bringing her father back when Natsu's hand landed on her shoulder. "It can't be without risks though. Like the weirdo said, it's forbidden," he said, looking to Pain for confirmation. "Right?"
However, his answer came from Kabuto. "Don't bother asking him; I'm the only one who can use this technique now."
Yose's couldn't believe his ears. "So… that man was…?"
"Dead, yes. Worse yet, that man was Uchiha Madara, one of the strongest men to ever live. The worst part is that whoever is summoned with the Edo Tensei comes back under the user's control. That's why I can't trust you, Kabuto." He now faced Kabuto again. "With Madara under your thumb, I can't in good conscience let you wander unsupervised."
Kabuto smirked. "That's unfortunate… I don't really feel like becoming a prisoner."
"Wait wait… Why are you two enemies?" Natsu asked, not understanding why they were so opposed to each other.
Pain's eyes narrowed. "Because, Kabuto-"
"-Isn't our enemy!"
To see Pain's impassive face warp in shock would have been laughable if it wasn't also the case for everyone else. They all whirled to face the speaker, finding themselves face to face with the final being to awaken from his slumber.
Pain's face returned to its previous stoicism. "Naruto… you…"
The man, or rather, boy smiled and stepped forward, stretching his arms experimentally. "It's ok, we can trust Kabuto! I mean come on, even if he did fight us in the war, it wasn't anything personal. That's not his style, right?" He turned to the scaly man with a smile.
Kabuto's smile disappeared, his head lowering as he looked at the blonde skeptically. "…What are you up to?"
Naruto shrugged, his smile widening brightly. "I'm not smart enough to be up to anything," he said with what sounded like a bit too much honesty. "I just don't like assuming people are evil."
Kabuto's smile returned, this time a bit darker. A slithering white snake emerged from his robe and coiled itself around him. "You think I'm not evil? Did you forget I have the blood of thousands of men and women on my hands? My Edo Tensei wreaked havoc in the war. If I'm not evil, then what am I?"
Naruto's smile dimmed into seriousness, his light demeanor vanishing. "…You're confused."
Though Kabuto didn't react, the snake on his shoulder recoiled, as if it felt the same kind of surprise. "…What?"
"Just what I said," Naruto explained. "You're not good, but you're not evil either. You want to prove yourself worthy of Orochimaru's power… and the power of all those you've brought back. I told you before didn't I? The desire to prove yourself is what makes you strong, not the power itself."
Kabuto's eyes closed as he smiled, the words seemingly passing over his head. "If that's what you think, you're entitled to it." He turned and began descending the stairs just as the many men and women from the archeology team and the village reached the top.
"Bruno-san! Yose-dono! What are we going to do? The Magic Council is threatening us if we don't leave!"
Bruno palmed his face. "Gah! I got so distracted listening! Did they tell you why or what they want?"
"They said we're ordered to cease exploring the caves… specifically! Bruno-san, I think they know what's here!"
"And by 'what's here' you mean 'us.'" Pain inquired, drawing their attention.
"Err… yeah, I guess so. I suppose I'd be more surprised to see a city under a mountain with all these people if I weren't so scared right now."
Yose groaned under his breath and held his staff a little tighter. "This is why I didn't trust the council. Our ancestors did the right thing for centuries by guarding this place themselves! Even so, we can't stand up to a thousand armed soldiers…!"
"Excuse me," came the voice of the young blonde boy. "I don't understand much, but you said your ancestors guarded this place?"
Yose blinked and nodded. "Y-yes. Though we only guarded the cave entrance. We had no idea that there was a city frozen in crystal under the mountain."
"This man's village is distantly related to the Uzumaki as well." Pain supplied. "And this girl's Uzumaki blood is surprisingly thick."
The boy smiled. "Oh I know that," he said grinning. "I learned everything I needed to know from it."
Erza stared in surprise. "You… learned from my blood?" she asked, looked down at her arm.
The boy, Naruto, nodded. "Knowledge is just another form of information, and some information can stored in DNA. This seal was designed to absorb the blood of any Uzumaki regardless of how distantly related they might be and to transfer some of that information into me." He gave Pain an apologetic looked, rubbing the back of his head nervously. "Sorry I couldn't make it do the same for you. I was rushed on time when we set it up, so I couldn't add anything more than what we needed."
"Fair enough," Pain conceded. "I'll expect you to fill me in later though."
Naruto nodded before turning to the red headed girl. "I only know a little, but I know you're part of my family. And family takes care of family," he said turning towards the elder. "We'll take care of that army for ya!"
Yose's eyed nearly bugged out of his head. "You… you would?!"
Naruto nodded. "Who knows they might not even be hostile."
"Don't get your hopes up," came Happy's reply.
Pain blinked with passive surprise. "…The cat's talking."
"Of course he is! He's a cat!" Natsu defended, causing Lucy to sweat-drop.
Naruto smiled and turned to leave. "Come on everyone, let's get this whole mess straightened out." He walked past them all and towards the stairs, Pain following at his side.
They stopped, turning towards the red-head who spoke.
"If we're family as you claim, than tell me your name."
Naruto smiled at the armored girl with a fox-like grin, his eyes closing with the sheer size of his beaming grin. "Naruto. Uzumaki Naruto."
"Erza Scarlet," she replied. "Erza is my given name."
Naruto hmm-ed for a moment and pondered some unknown thought in his head. After a second he snapped back to his happy self. "Ah, then its Erza Scarlet Uzumaki now!"
Erza blinked in surprise. Not so much at his adding the name onto her name, but at how quickly and freely this boy seemed to regard her as family. Nobody she knew save for Master and the people at the guild were like that.
"Come on everybody! Let's go!" he said as he pumped his fist in air excitedly before marching down the steps confidently, leaving the Earthland mages standing stupidly behind him.
"Is… is he really a thousand years old…?" Lucy asked nonsensically.
"Looks like even a thousand years ago there were people like that," Bruno said with a slight smile. With a start he ran towards the stairs, beckoning them all to follow. "Come on! We have to make sure they don't get into trouble!"
Lucy sweat-dropped. 'Isn't it us who need to not get into trouble?' Nevertheless she followed, Natsu leading the way.
"This is exciting! I can't wait to see how strong they are! Maybe I can fight them later!" he all but screamed and drooled at the same time.
Erza, snapping back to her normal self, simply shook her head and grabbed Natsu by the scruff of the neck, picking him up of the ground. "Don't even think about it."
When they exited the tower, they were unexpectedly swarmed not just by Bruno and Yose's men, but also by the many hundreds of nearby villagers, even though they were given a respectful amount of space. However, to the mages' surprise, the men and women were less interested in them than they were with the two ancient beings beside them.
"Hokage-sama! Hokage-sama!" they shouted repeatedly at them, though Erza couldn't decipher what it meant.
Presently, as they were walking with the two men, they came to a stop and Naruto sighed heavily before raising his hands placating, calming the crowd almost instantly. He took a deep breath and spoke loudly to the crowd before him.
"Everyone, please calm down! I know you're all confused and curious, and I'll do my best to answer your questions later. Right now I have to go deal with something that's even more pressing."
"Hokage-sama, wait! Can you at least tell us how long it's been? How much time has passed since the attack?"
Naruto hrm-ed for a moment before shrugging apathetically. "Let's assume a thousand years for now. We're not entirely sure ourselves. Now if you'll all excuse me, I have an army waiting outside that I need to take care of."
Even as he pushed through the crowd, the terrified looks of the villagers made Erza feel a great deal of sympathy for them.
"You could have worded that a bit smoother, don't you think?" Bruno asked.
Naruto shook his head as he continued on. "They're all thinking of a different army; the one we were fighting before we sealed ourselves away. Though the man leading them has probably died many centuries ago, remember that it's only been a few moments for us; it's more like no time has passed at all."
Erza blinked as she thought back to the murals on the cave walls. "So then, that white army was your enemy?"
Naruto's face suddenly shifted and became, not only curious, but also suspicious. "How do you know that?"
"There were murals on the walls of the caves here. They showed a massive conflict, and an unknown resolution."
Naruto's first instinct was to grimace, but he smiled smugly in response. "Hehe, guess someone must have wanted to keep the truth alive, even after thousands of years." He eyed the curious archeologist with a knowing smile. "Don't worry too much about it, we'll explain everything later."
Bruno gave an accepting nod, though he had full intentions to pursue the truth as soon as everything settled. "I'll hold you to that."
Naruto smirked at the man and turned back to the long road leading out of the mountain. "Now then, let's see how much the world has changed…"
Even to colonel Wylser Brogon, who thought that any day in service of the Magic Council was a good day, today was an especially good day; at least, in his opinion. Fortunately for him, the Council has briefed him on the situation before hand. He was thankful for it, since he loved these kinds of missions.
Apparently some Fairy Tail mages had accepted a job to work out a dispute between a village and a team of dirt-diggers. Up until that point, the villagers has protect the single entryway into the nearby mountain, meaning that what had been long forgotten inside was at least decently protected. That was fine in the Council's eyes, who simply wanted the whole knowledge of it disappear from the world. Who cared what crazy legend the stupid villagers were protecting?
The truth was… nobody really. And it'd remained that way for several centuries, the dark secret of the cave being passed down by word of mouth only from chairman to chairman. Now though, it seemed that that deep, dark secret would be in danger of being uncovered.
They couldn't have that. Thus his orders.
He turned to regard one of his soldiers rushing up to him. "The village has been secured and the villagers are being held in custody, sir!"
"And? What else?"
The soldier hesitated slightly before continuing. "Well… sir, it seems that some of the villagers, along with the mage and archeologist team have already left some time ago to explore the cave. They haven't been heard from since."
Wysler grinned at his subordinate. "Perfect. Do we know where the cave entrance is?"
"No sir, the villagers are being tightlipped about the whole thing."
The officer sighed and waved the man off as if he were a fly. "Use whatever methods necessary. Remember, this is of the utmost importance to the Magic Council; they won't accept failure."
"Does that include… more unsavory methods sir?" the aid asked hesitantly.
Wylser looked at him as if he'd grown a second head. "I said 'whatever methods' didn't I?"
Gulping the aid nodded, saluting, "Y-yes sir!" and left to perform his duties.
The colonel looked into the clear blue sky and spotted a wall of imposing clouds on the horizon. Just as soon, a strong breeze picked up; crisp and cool in the warm evening sun. 'Hmm… rain clouds? There wasn't anything in the weather about rain, not with the drought we've been in.' Not that he was one to complain of course. His family had once been farmers before he carried them out of that life, so he knew how much water was necessary to agriculture and food production.
'Ahh, those were the easy days…' He closed his eyes and allowed his mind to wander, back many years to when he was just a boy living on a farm with his parents and sister. Sadly, she'd died at a tragically young age to an unruly mage, an event which probably kick-started his thirst for justice and praise of the Magic Council.
He was abruptly brought out of his musing as a tumult arose out of the village, but it wasn't just the inhabitants that were making a fuss, but it also sounded like his soldiers too. "Ugh…" he grimaced. "What's this all about…?"
He'd observed the village from the inside before, but he'd stationed his place outside the front gate, a move he'd hoped had instilled a sense of distance from the villagers and himself. He didn't want them thinking he was their ally, since, strictly speaking, he wasn't. If things went south, he didn't want to have their pitiful, betrayed eyes looking at him in their final moments.
Motioning some of his men to follow him, he walked through the broken gateway. Many might criticize that a thousand men was taking overkill to a new extreme, but if they only knew the truth, they'd understand the necessity of it. 'Absolute silence.' Those were his orders. Maintain the silence of the cave's existence to the world. The Council had been savvy enough to keep from him what was hidden inside, but he didn't really care. Whatever it was, it was clearly something of importance. That was all he needed to know.
"What's all the commotion about?" he asked as he stepped into the village, only to see many villagers spread about, and separated by his soldiers. Some of the men and women were hurt, most likely from the initial attempts to extract information from them. He didn't even bother trying to question the children; it wouldn't take much abuse of their parent for them to scream out the truth the adults didn't want them to tell. That'd been his experience anyway.
But now his soldiers that should have been doing their jobs were crowded around the other side of the village. Orders and shouts were being thrown left and right in the distance.
One of the soldiers heard he question and ran back and saluted. "Sir! The missing individuals have been spotted coming from the mountain sir!"
Wylser smiled. "Ah, excellent. Apprehend them and lock them up. I'll want to speak with them later."
"That's just it sir, they're refusing to talk to anyone but the highest in command; that's you sir. As per protocol if a query wishes to speak with the commanding officer we're-"
"I know protocol you simpleton! Why didn't you just pretend to be me and spare me the hassle?"
The man hesitated, started by the colonel's response. "B…But sir I…"
Wylser sighed deeply. "Never mind. I'll go meet them myself." Brushing past his subordinate, he stalked up to the mass of soldiers and ordered them to part, which they did with startling efficiency. A way now cleared, he took it all the way to the front of the line. When he arrived, he spotted the villagers, archeologists, and Fairy Tail mages all standing apart from his men. And why should they not? Fairy Tail and the Magic Council had never been on the best of terms. 'Not like this will do anything to help, but that's not my problem.'
"Ah, and so the prodigal children return… I've been expecting you."
The red headed young woman who had once been universally known around Fiore as "Titania" stepped forward, standing accusatory against him. "Are you the field commander here?"
Wylser nodded with a bow. "Indeed. I'm colonel Wylser Brogon of the Magic Council. I'm under orders to suspend your mission and bring you all in for questioning."
Her eyes didn't change a bit. "Under what pretenses?"
Wylser waved off her concern. "Oh it's nothing you knew about. It's just that the mission should never have been permitted to be sent to you in the first place. In any case, this place is now under the jurisdiction of the Magic Council, and you all will be brought in for questioning. Now if you can all kindly remain calm during this process, I'm sure we can all get through this with as few complications as possible."
That wasn't the answer he wanted.
"Excuse me? You don't have room to argue with me. I have a company of soldiers here ready to obey my commands, and if that command is subdue, they will subdue." Of course, he lied a bit. As far as the mages could tell, they'd only be able to see a company's worth of soldiers, when in reality he had a battalion. Not that he'd let them know that until the last moment.
Erza looked about her, as if she were going to count them to see if he was telling the truth. However she stood firm. "What kind of questions do you have for us? If you want to ask them, then do so here."
Wylser's eye narrowed at the shrewd girl, cursing her mistrust and intelligence. "Then my first question, and this is an important one, is to ask what you've found so far."
Erza's hardened expression didn't change. "Nothing special. The cave leading into the mountain collapsed before we could get far."
Wylser smiled. It wasn't often he indulged in a bit of fun. "You shouldn't lie you know… Despite what you may think, I know what's really hidden in that mountain…"
His announcement made her gaze harden even more, and her allies similarly tensed, only proving that they had indeed seen what lay hidden deep within.
He smirked. "…and I know you do too."
In a flash, a sword appeared in Erza's hand, licking flames in Natsu's, and golden keys in Lucy's. The soldiers lowered themselves lightly, prepared to either defend or attack on command. The civilians with Bruno and Yose both flinched back in slight fear.
Wylser simply laughed, raising his arms out to his sides. "Hahahaha! Do you really think you can stand up to a force this large? Even if you're each worth ten of my men, there are still many more where they came from!"
Erza's jaw clenched in anger. "So… this is the will of the Council?"
"They can't let anyone know about this. A nation of ancient beings, trapped away within an inconspicuous mountain, guarded by a weak, primitive village… do you know how many countries would rush to take advantage of them? Nothing short of an invasion would satisfy the other national powers, and the careful balance that has been constructed by the Council must be maintained!"
"Then why not wake them yourselves?!" Natsu roared as his flames grew more brilliant. "Do a man a favor and he'll become your friend right? So why not just free them?!"
The white clad commander chuckled. "Free them? No no no, you have it all wrong; we'd be happy if we could destroy them!"
His callous remark made the guild members start back in shock.
"That's right… we tried many years ago, or so I'm told… many hundreds of years ago. But we failed, so we just had to settle for letting them pass into obscurity, and finally fade away in the sands of time. And we'd done so successfully, until he came along…"
"…He…?" Lucy parroted, nervously.
Wylser looked at her amusedly. "Oh, that's right, you don't know. That's alright, I didn't either until just recently… know that is…" his grin threatened to split his face. "…that three hundred years ago, the Black Mage Zeref himself tried to raise that dead nation!"
Everyone's eyes widened at his revelation.
"You mean… the Zeref tried to free them?!" Bruno asked, eyes almost popping from his head.
If what the colonel said was true, then it was no doubt one of the darkest secrets the Magic Council would never willingly reveal. Erza supposed the only reason Wylser was telling them this was because he figured they'd be dead soon.
True enough, she knew there was more than a company's worth of troops here, and in all honesty, she wondered if she and her friends would survive the encounter. However, despite her growing concern and anxiety, evidenced by a small bead of sweat trickling down her cheek, she grinned, and managed to add a rather smug look to it.
"Heh, that's quite the secret you've been keeping there," she said, though she immediately after realized how much she should have been surprised by it, and yet wasn't. However, after what she'd just been through, learning that Zeref wanted those people's power for himself didn't really shock her.
Clearly her response hadn't been what Wylser had been expecting… or wanting. He almost growled as he leveled his gaze dangerously. "I hope you don't think you're going to live through this… You won't."
Erza fought back a shudder as his magic soared, a deep purple glow forming around his body in the process, along with the leveling of the soldiers' weapons, all aimed at her. The following silence was pregnant, as neither side moved, each gathering more and more magical power, as if it were a show of strength. However, when the silence was broken, it was not with a battle cry, nor with a submissive yield.
It was a calm, cold voice.
"A fine choice of words…" the deep, menacing voice spoke, accompanied by a pair of firm footsteps. "…though, also ironic."
Wylser blinked as a new figure emerged from the shadows behind the civilians. The most distinguishing features he noticed was the vibrant orange hair and face full of piercings.
"It's the very same thing I would have told you had I the chance to say it first."
He came to a stop in front of Erza, his strange ringed eyes half lidded, but fully aware, as if daring them to try their luck at catching him off guard.
Wylser smiled. "You I don't know. Another mage of Fairy Tail?"
The man's eyes closed, as if in deep thought, only to open again a second later. "Mage… Fairy Tail… Magic Council… these words are foreign to me."
Wylser's smiled dimmed and his eyes narrowed. "Foreign…? Are you…" Suddenly his eyes widened, realization sinking in at an alarming rate. "Don't tell me you're-!"
The orange haired man lifted his arms as if he were about to accept a hug. "I'm Pain. Soldier of the Village Hidden in the Leaves, Konohagakure no Sato, fortress of Hi no Kuni. Personal guard of the Rokudaime Hokage himself…"
His arms lowered, his gaze now as piercing as his face. "…and now, you're enemy."
Wylser took a hesitant step back, his mind whirling. "You… you're one of them…!?"
Pain raised his hands in front of him, palms facing out and away. "A millennia of sleeping… witness our awakening."
Before anyone could utter a sound, the world turned upside down. Rank upon rank of soldiers were blown back, as if they'd been struck by a hurricane force. Wylser didn't know what hit him; one second he was standing in shock, the next he was on the ground, stunned.
Likewise, the mages of Fairy Tail were just as astounded. Erza looked around slowly, as if moving too fast would injure her. "This is…!" In an instant the many dozens of soldiers has been obliterated, knocked out of file and rank by a single man. She gazed at the cloaked man with a new sense of realization; this man was strong. With a single, seemingly effortless blow, he wiped out several platoons of troopers. But what scared her most (and she would never admit she was) was what she felt from him.
No magic power at all. Nor did he use any magical tools, at least as far as she could see. Yet this man had undeniably just batted away the highly-trained warriors of the Council without so much as batting an eye. Apparently his blonde companion must have seen her face as he approached.
"Hehe, that's Nagato for you. Godlike, as always."
Pain turned to his friend. "You have little room to speak. You yourself are much stronger than I."
Naruto smirked, ignorant to Erza's disbelieving expression. "Heh, well, I have the whole of the village's hopes and dreams riding on me. I can't afford to be weak."
Pain's usually expressionless expression shifted, revealing an amused smirk twisting his lips. "So how should be divvy this up?"
Naruto grinned as he stepped up to his comrade's side. "You get the one on the right… I'll take everyone else."
Pain gave Naruto bemused expression that was clearly fake. "Don't you think that will be a bit much for me?"
Naruto burst out laughing and conceded his friend's true point. "Fine fine. How does half-and-half sound?"
Pain smirked and nodded. "That suits me just fine."
Erza's couldn't believe her ears. She knew for a fact that there were more than just a hundred or so soldiers there; she could clearly feel magical power of all of them. "W-wait… you two can't be serious! There must be several hundred soldiers out there!"
"Yeah, at least let us help out!" Natsu agreed as flames burst from his fists.
Naruto smirked back at his newfound family and beamed brightly. "Haha, don't worry! Even a thousand men wouldn't be enough to stop us!"
Erza's mind went blank. Were they really boasting that their combined strength exceeded that of a thousand men? They certainly didn't seem concerned over the prospect of having to fight them.
All of her life, Erza had heard of and seen many powerful mages, all of which were capable and renowned for their power. Even Master was legendary! She'd often wondered how strong the strongest mage in the world was, and it was her dream to one day be that person. However, as she now watched the two men in front of her, she couldn't help but wonder… 'How high has the bar ben raised?'
The ancient fighting force of a thousand years ago… it terrified her.
"Ugh… Now you've done it…" came the bedraggled voice of Wylser as he lifted himself from the earth many meters away. A deep purple aura resonated from him as he glowered savagely at the duo of ancients. "Time's passed you by, 'enemy.' I never understood why the council was so afraid of you… Someone from a thousand years ago stands no chance against us now!"
Black shapes shifted from his body, as if oil were seeping from his body. "Black Rise!"
The opaque shapes took from and surged forward, their shapes taking on that of a hellish dogs with glowing purple eyes.
But as soon as they got within biting range, they exploded, splashing against some unseen shield around them.
Pain's expression didn't change. "Naruto, change of plans. I will fight him."
Naruto looked at his partner with a knowing smirk. "Then I'm left with the small fry."
Pain advanced forward. "Your techniques are more suited to fighting large numbers."
Naruto smirked and nodded. "Fine. I'll be done in five."
Pain's mouth mirrored the blonde's. "And I in three."
Without another word, the blonde haired boy rushed forward and leapt, launching himself high into the air above the village, landing with a crash and a resulting cacophony of terror and fear.
Wylser brought his hands together , more black dogs forming next to him, along with other terrifying beasts. A literal army of blackened creatures surrounded the cloaked man.
Pain's stride did not slow. "Prepare yourself, human."
Wylser snarled. "You're human too!" and the shapes rushed forth.
With a slash, Pain stabbed a black take into the creature's heart, causing it to splash into nothingness. With a shove of a hand, a whole wave of them dispelled, like they'd hit a wall. Turning, he smashed an approaching dog in the cranium, crushing its pseudo-skull with one strike. Spinning again, he caught a more human looking creature in the neck with such force that had it actually been human, its neck would have snapped.
Raising an arm, he blocked the downward stroke of a giant, barely flinching from the attack. Raising his other hand, a complete phalanx of blackened blade shot from the sleeve of his coat, piercing straight through and shredding the incoming forces behind it. Jumping over a snapping jaw, he crushed it on landing, raising both of his hands as the remaining creatures pounced on him.
With another blasting force, the last of the oily creatures vanished, splashing against the ground and nearby trees. Not only that, but the earth seemed to crater around Pain, as if he'd suddenly gained a million pounds. The blasting force did not abate, hitting a surprised Wylser head on and sending him careening through the forest.
But if Pain thought it was over, he clearly didn't show it. Without pausing, he rushed forward to catch up to the flying man.
Without asking for permission, Erza, Natsu and Happy both rushed after him, much to Lucy's dismay. As they chased, they noticed how strange the man's method of running was, and that he was much faster than any of them. However, when they reached the small clearing that had been created by Wylser's impact, Pain was standing there, but Wylser himself was nowhere to be seen.
Pain eyed the mages behind him carefully. "You shouldn't have followed."
Natsu growled at him. "No way am I gonna let you hog all the action! I want a piece of that bastard too!"
Pain regarded him for a moment before shrugging. "If you feel you must. Be vigilant, he couldn't have gone far."
Not far at all. A roaring black beast smashed through the trees beside them, aiming for Pain. With a chomp, it clamped its teeth around the man's arm, biting down hard. To his credit Pain didn't scream or cry out in pain in any way. He simply regarded the creature coldly.
"This won't be sufficient…" he mumbled as an omnidirectional phalanx of black stakes shot out of the massive dog's head… from the inside.
As it splattered onto the ground, Natsu roared with a fire-inflamed fist and tore through a tree, hitting the concealed Wylser in the face, throwing him to the ground. "GAHH!"
Pain watched the man bounce away before eyeing his arm. The metal stakes in it receded back to their normal size and he flexed his fingers carefully. 'Forty percent handling capacity… torn ligaments and muscles… easily repairable,' he concluded with a thought.
Wylser was quick to stand again, cradling his bruised and burned cheek that Natsu had hit. "Tch… You Fairy Tail bastards… always causing trouble for us. Why can you learn to leave well enough alone? The past should remain buried."
Erza growled and stepped forward. "Without knowing the past, we will simply repeat the same mistakes. This… these people are humans too! They have families, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. They have friends and they have bonds. Why would the Council want to destroy them? Isn't it their job to protect people like them?!"
Wylser laughed maniacally. "Take a look around girl! Do you think a whole nationality would simply take the fact that their old country is not their own in stride? Hardly! They'd take it back by force! Conflict and more conflict would arise, giving reign to chaos and death! As a wise man once said, it's better to amputate a cancerous limb."
Erza's jaw clenched. "…is that all these people are to you? A Cancer?!"
Wylser sighed, shaking his head. "A child like you has no understanding of the world. All you know is your guild, and that's it. Family? Bonds? Friends? What does it matter if you have them or not? A threat is a threat regardless of who you may have attachments to!"
Erza felt her expression darken and her fist clench tightly around her claymore. However, she was surprised when she felt a foreign hand on her shoulder. Turning around, she saw it was Pain, his face unsettlingly compassionate.
"You may be right; a threat is a threat. But a family is also a family. Whether she might accept it or not, this young lady is one of my clan, the Uzumaki. And whether I like it or not, I will defend my family from danger."
Erza looked at him in surprise. She hadn't expected such a heart-felt message to come from this stoic man's lips.
"However, you have raised a preemptive hand against not only her and her family, but to my own. The entirety of Konoha is my family!" He stretched his arms out widely, rays of sun filtering through the leaved trees around them.
"And to threaten my family is equivalent to a death wish," he finished darkly. Suddenly his hands slammed together with a resounding clap. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"
With an explosion of smoke, Wylser shielded his eyes as it passed over him. When he again opened his eyes, he saw not four, but nine people standing over him. The five new persons, aside for basic body structure, looked identical to the man called Pain; facial piercings, orange hair, ringed eyes and all. His first impression was that they were all related, but the way they all seemed to glower down at him with that same condescending expression made him realize it must be something deeper than that.
"…Who are you, monster?!" he cried out in confusion.
Pain simply replied thusly; "Pain is a name that denotes all six of us. We are Pain…" One of them stepped forward, a hand reaching down to him, but not in any benevolent gesture. "…we are god."
And before he could use his deadliest, most powerful technique, Black Fall, his life was ended.
Pain's eyes closed, digesting the information he'd just stolen from the Council official. Sifting through it he found that while the man didn't know a whole lot about the Council itself, there were other interesting tidbits of information.
"Black Dog, Albion Baskerville."
At Lucy and Natsu's confused expressions, he explained. "This man, though he went by the alias 'Wylser Brogon,' his real name was Albion Baskerville, a dark mage given the title 'Black Dog.' Apparently after being captured by the Council, they half-way brain-washed him, turning him into their servant."
"H-how do you know that?" Lucy asked, not at all able to guess how he got that information.
"It's an ability of mine. I can read a victim's mind in an instant, but it kills them in the process."
"So then, this guy's…?" Natsu asked, looking at the dead man below him. 'I thought he'd just knocked him out!'
"Yes. He's dead," Pain confirmed stoically before turning and walking back the way he came. "Come. It's possible my partner may need assistance."
Even though he said it, he chose to walk at a rather leisurely pace back to the small village, as if there wasn't any sort of rush at all.
Erza and Natsu awkwardly fell in line behind him, their eyes meeting each other's in an unspoken message. Though no words were spoken as the sounds of distant battle reached their ears, they understood each other perfectly.
"Your fighting style is impressive," Erza complimented, more out of the desire to break the silence than anything, though she did mean it.
Pain's head turned toward her slightly as he nodded a thank you. "Thankfully he was weak. The village might have been affected by any further environmental devastation."
"You mean you're even stronger?" Natsu asked, surprise clearly evident in his voice. "I mean, you beat the shit out of that guy! And you didn't even need to use your fists for half of it!"
"Speaking of which, how's your wound? It should be looked at immediately," Erza advised as she eyed his injured arm.
Pain raised said arm and glanced at it. "There is no immediate danger," he commented almost offhandedly. "And as far as strength goes, I've never lost to an opponent… save one."
Natsu's eyes widened in admiration. "You've never lost?! Wow that's incredible! Who was it who beat you? I wanna fight both of you!"
Pain gave an honest smirk as they returned to the entrance of the village. "Ask him yourself then."
As soon as the trees cleared their vision, both Erza and Natsu's eyes nearly fell out of their sockets. In front of the small gate of the village stood a mountain of bodies, the groaning of many of them indicating near unconsciousness. But even more surprising was the figure who sat atop the pile.
Naruto gave a beaming grin down at the trio as they approached. "So, you guys have fun?"
A/N: And there you go, chapter one of my new story! I hope you all enjoyed it, and whether you did or didn't, be sure to give me a review down below! And feel free to elaborate, exacerbate, extrapolate! Go hog wild! I love long reviews, and I'll be more likely to answer or reply to questions if they're decently size. Not to say I don't love the adorable little reviews too! Cute little things :3
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