Mira breathed in and out slowly, hoping that somehow she could draw in peace to quell the unease building in her chest. She wanted to reach Laxus like she had before but every time she tried, the connection felt severed. Was he not resting? Was their link closed? Was he injured or gods forbid something worse? Her anxiety plagued her with reason after reason, each one more dismal than the last.
She realized with a sigh that trying to reach Laxus was futile and she opened her eyes with a frown. Would this be her existence after the goddesses were defeated? An eternity of darkness and loneliness? Could she end it if there was no body to draw a last breath? No heart to beat one last beat? She wanted to accept her fate and her punishment with grace but as the hope drained from her soul it was replaced with fear. She wasn't sure she could do this, she didn't want to be here.
In the distance she detected a figure slowly trodding through the nothingness. She stood slowly, squinting her eyes to try and see more clearly. If Seilah had returned it would be in Mira's best interest to keep her distance. The goddess' last visit was anything but friendly; a shiver wracked Mira when she remembered the way Seilah attempted to drag information from her.
This figure seemed too large, too despondent. Her eyes widened when she finally recognized the shuffle. Her hands caught the cry that attempted to escape from her lips. She took off in a sprint. Elfman shouldn't be here, Elfman should be safe, Elfman should be their family's last stand! He caught her movement out of the corner of his eye and froze, his face written with disbelief. Then instead of running her way he dropped to his knees and swayed as if sorrow had taken the strength from his legs.
"Elfman!" Mira cried out. His mouth stretched wide with grief and shook with panting sobs and unbidden she mirrored his emotion. She dropped in front of him and wrapped her arms tightly around his middle. His remained limp at his sides.
"You didn't make it, you aren't coming back?" Elfman hiccuped.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," Mira cried into his chest.
"We've doomed everyone . . ."
Mira pulled away and slowly peered up at her brother's face. "Laxus and the others! They will come, they'll save everyone, they'll save us!" she cheered even though she wasn't sure that she believed it herself.
Her brother's mouth became a tight line and Mira knew he wasn't buying it. Mira slowly lowered her head to look at his chest and, lost on how else to assure him, she held him closer. Elfman's voice rumbled, "Mira . . .I don't think . . ." then abruptly stop.
She risked a glance up at his face again and his mouth was shut tight, his eyes sorrowful. "You don't think what?" Mira asked, though she wasn't sure she wanted to hear his answer.
Elfman released a long tired breath from his nose and smiled sadly. "Nevermind. I don't like that you're here but it's so good to see you Mirajane."
Mira smiled back, "It's good to see you too." If only it was anywhere else.
Natsu ran on, completely entranced by Lisanna's scent. He didn't hear the birds in the woods, he didn't feel the leaves and branches that scraped his face and his feet, he didn't sense the stings and bites of the bugs. He had long forgotten his friends back at the inn, and he wasn't thinking of gods or the powers of the dragon. All he could think of was deep blue eyes and silver hair, the sound of her giggle, and the way she said "I love you."
He was so absorbed in her image and her trail that he almost ran head first into a block of ice twenty feet tall and at least twice as wide. He stopped and stared at it. Lisanna's smell began to commingle with Elfman's and Gray's and something putrid. Natsu wrinkled his nose and snarled at the ice blocking his progress. It was almost laughable, Gray had yet again managed to be a spoilsport and Natsu hadn't even seen the stripper yet. He was always getting in the way of what Natsu wanted to accomplish. That isn't safe, that isn't legal, that's completely crazy! Gray's voice echoed in Natsu's head as he circled the ice, looking for some clue as to why it was there and in his way. He reached out to touch it and pulled his hand back sharply. The ice burned. When he looked down at his fingertips they were red and swollen. They began to lose sensation in the tips so he pushed fire through the pores of his hand to shake off Gray's frostbite. Natsu looked back up at the ice and scowled. Why would Gray just leave something like this where it could harm anyone? It seemed out of character for the ice mage to be so sloppy.
Natsu's feet were on the altar before he realized it was there. When he stumbled upon it the medallion on his neck became so hot it burned his chest. His heart beat loudly in his throat then for a moment stopped. He looked back wild-eyed at the pillars behind him and when he looked forward he was transported back in time and Lisanna was there just like before, pleading for him to stop. The skin on her cheeks, neck, and chest melted away to charred, screaming muscle, her eyes wide and confused, her lips dry and cracked, and her hair burned to mere wisps. He let go with a cry and slammed his palms into his eyes, retreating away until his back met cold stone. He slid down until his butt hit the ground and then dared to look at her again.
She was gone but the memory hung over him like a dark cloud. His confusion and repulsion. The way she crumbled like a rag doll and gasped for air. He could still feel her dying in her arms. He could still hear her rasp, "It's okay, it wasn't you, I love you" until she couldn't make any more sounds. When she was gone, he couldn't accept it. The moment she closed her eyes, he gathered her in his arms and ran away from the voice ordering him to leave her there, the whole time cursing the voice's empty promises. Hell on the deal he made, screw going home. He didn't want it like that, it was not the promised fair trade.
When he got to Mira's she had been just as unaccepting as him. She spent hours trying to revive Lisanna, only giving up when exhaustion made her unable to attempt any more healing. Natsu was a coward that day, he never said what happened. Then he fled, as if being on the other side of the ocean would allow him to escape his guilt and shame. He should have accepted his new life, his new home. He never should have believed a voice that haunted him in the night. He never should have brought Lisanna there with him. He should have been man enough to apologize to the family Lisanna left behind. He should have been man enough to stay for the burial.
Natsu fell to his side, barely registering when his head hit the stone. He rolled onto his belly with a gasping sob and crawled back towards where he had last seen her. Where he had let the power of the dragon consume him whole and take him. Where he had burned off his beautiful love's sweet smile. "Sorry, I'm so sorry," he hiccuped between wails. Then he slammed a burning fist into the unyielding stone and shouted, "Give her back!"
The journey from the hotel to the Fernandez compound was agony. Bixlow was not doing well, his body had turned a pale green and from minute to minute he alternated between sweating and shivering. After the first glance back, Laxus could no longer look at him but he felt every convulsion through the front of the stretcher. The sounds Freed made in an effort to soothe their unconscious companion set Laxus on edge, he had to bite his tongue to keep from telling the man to shut up.
Laxus was glad that Macao remained in the rear of the group with Lucy. Every shake of the stretcher tightened his grip and the static crackled around him They were protecting a monster in an innocent girl's clothing. They should have left her in the ruins with the dead man.
The moment they were a few feet from the entrance, the large gates swung open. It felt surreal, people swarmed them asking how to help and before Laxus knew what was happening, he was being relieved of the stretcher and a large man took Lucy from Macao's arms. The tiny blue-haired girl he had seen weeks ago in the hotel burst through the crowd and her hand caught hold of Laxus' sleeve.
"Where's Mira? We need her right a . . ." she stopped her query when she finally noticed the two men carrying Bixlow past. When her face turned back to Laxus it was confusion and despair. "Is Mira with you?" she croaked out.
Freed came next to Laxus and answered simply, "No."
"Is she back on the mainland?" Levy whimpered as if she already knew the answer.
Freed shook his head.
Levy covered her mouth and whispered, "Oh gods."
"Where is Elfman? We should let him know . . ." Evergreen began, stopping when Levy slowly shook her head.
"He wandered into the jungle, something was wrong, we tried to find him . . ." Levy rambled.
"What?" Evergreen gasped. Laxus knew he should stay, he should comfort her, but he just couldn't. Instead he slipped out of Levy's weak grasp and followed the men carrying Bixlow. He would make sure his friend was cared for and then he would find Natsu. They needed to finish this today. He needed this all to be over today.
"For having such long legs you are extremely slow," Zera observed.
Cana stopped her progression through the tunnel to glare at the small fairy. "You didn't have to come with me you know," she snarled. When they had made the journey the first time the tunnel had been cool and damp but for some reason now it felt near boiling. Cana's hair stuck to her face and her clothes were completely soaked through with sweat. Of course she was slow, Cana couldn't breathe in this kind of humidity! She wasn't built for this kind of hard labor, she was made for soft pillows and fawning admirers.
Zera only smirked and raised a brow, "Would you have prefered that I let you journey through here in the dark?"
Cana sagged, if it weren't for Zera's light she would have turned back by now. "No," she admitted sullenly. She tried to ignore the fairy's laughter as she forced her legs to return to plodding along the damp cave.
"As if I would leave you on your own anyway. You hold within you the most important being in all of Earthland and you are an idiot. Leaving you on your own would be irresponsible," the fairy twittered.
"Well a little attitude adjustment would go a long way," Cana grumbled.
"Yes I agree, you should work on that. Ah, here we are," Zera put her hands to the side of the cave and where she touched appeared to swirl in an oval shape that grew larger and larger until it was big enough for Cana to walk through.
The area now looked like water, the reflection of Zera's light shimmered and rippled. Cana drew her brows together and down. "Where exactly are we right now?"
Zera pursed her lips then with a click of a tongue. "Somewhere I hope you will never sully again."
Cana cut her eyes to the fairy then back to the gateway. She looked down at her newly marked arm and then with a deep sigh, she stepped through.
"So you are sure that this girl is Chronos' vessel?" Levy asked Freed as she took a seat next to the bed. To Levy the girl looked so young, too innocent to house such a thing, but then again one could say the same for Mira.
Freed stepped out from where he had been frowning in the corner. "Yes, Chronos made her appearance on the ship. She disrupted Seilah's attack and nearly killed Bixlow then disappeared."
"Fascinating," Levy breathed out. She removed the bag of Jade stone jewelry from her pocket and set it on the bed. "We'll just have to prevent that from happening again," she said as she pulled out a pendant.
Freed made a relieved sigh as he took another step closer. "Laxus will be pleased that we can do such a thing. She was making him very . . .wary."
Levy retrieved a bracelet from the bag as well but didn't move to put it on Lucy as she was distracted by the blue exceed delivering a book to the girl's bedside table. Happy smiled nervously at Levy. "It's her journal, she would want it close by. She was never without it during the trip."
Levy smiled at the thick volume. The fact that the girl journaled made Levy feel closer to her already. "Can I see that?"
Happy handed the book over with a nod and Levy was surprised from the heft that it had. She turned it over in her hand and then undid the tie. "Ooooh, I don't know if you should do that. Lucy didn't like to share. . ." Happy warned.
Levy chuckled as she flipped through the pages. She knew reading the journal when it's author was unconscious would be inappropriate but part of her wished there were no witnesses around so that she could at least get a tiny peep. "I promise I won't actually read anything until I get her permission. I just wanted to know why it was so heavy." She came to the back page and made a happy gasp.
"What is it?" Freed asked. He had made his way over to right behind her where he peered over her shoulder.
"I've only ever seen one other journal like this before! They have a secret compartment in the back. Though, what she could have in here that is so heavy . . ." Unable to help herself, she slid the pages from the cover and ran her finger along the seam to the find the magical latch. When she pressed it, nothing happened. Levy frowned. "Maybe she has to touch it."
She picked up the pages to return them to the cover and Freed exclaimed, "Good gods woman are you saying you aren't going to try?"
Levy looked up at him with a raised brow, "Are you serious? You want me to use her hand?"
"Yes!" shouted Happy. He flew over and landed on Levy's head. "Let's find out what's in the book Levy! She'll never know. Maybe it's medicine for when she passes out like this!"
Levy grimaced and grumbled, "It's like having two devils on my shoulders." Still she could barely contain her own curiosity. She started to reach out for Lucy's hand then hesitated, "We really shouldn't."
Happy made a sound of exasperation. He flew over and lifted Lucy's hand pulling it towards the book. "I'll do it." When Levy didn't make a move to help he whined, "Come on! This hand is so heavy!"
Levy pushed the book closer and Happy dropped Lucy's hand unceremoniously on top of it. Then he scurried over and used Lucy's finger to press the latch Levy attempted to use earlier. The binding fell away from the thick back cover, revealing a secret compartment. Levy grumbled, "Well, we've come this far," then she turned the opening towards the bed and shook. A thin jade box slid to the bed and Levy's eyes went wide. She recognized the box from her studies and she was pretty sure that Cana had seen a similar one in the inn's basement.
"Are we going to open it?" Freed whispered in her ear. He was so excited that he didn't realize he had entered her personal space.
Levy shook her head. "No, we mustn't." She shoved the jade bracelet on the wrist of the hand that Happy had used to open the book. "We must put the jewels on immediately and the jade box stays closed until we need it."
She hurried to put the jade pendant around Lucy's next. She hoped the gems would be enough to keep the goddess in. "I don't understand. What is in the box?" Freed asked. He stood tall now, staring down at the bed with a deep frown.
Levy lifted the box and held it to her chest. She needed to separate it from Lucy, the sooner the better. She lifted herself off the bed and grimaced up at Freed. "I believe this is the medallion of Chronos."
Freed worried his brow. "And that means?"
"Opening this box would basically be like setting Chronos free," Levy said.
Freed frowned, "Well we can't have that."
Levy couldn't help but smiled at his understatement. She stood to return to the library. "No, we really can't."
Natsu woke to a sharp kick in the gut. "Get up!" He rolled to the side with a wretch and a cough then lifted his eyes to Laxus's nasty scowl.
Natsu groaned and pulled his gaze away. "Fuck off," he rasped.
Rage engorged the veins in Laxus' forehead. "Fuck off?! Are you fucking kidding me!? Get up!" he shouted and he went to kick Natsu again.
Natsu sloppily blocked and pain shot through his forearm. He coughed out a laugh, "Keep kicking me like that and I won't be able to get up."
"I can't believe this shit! We've got one fucking day left before the world goes to hell and you're out here taking a nap in the most dangerous part of the island like the fucking kid from the jungle book."
Natsu rolled to his stomach and pushed himself up on his hands and knees. He chuckled, "I always wanted to be that kid. 'Cept for the the part where he returned to the village. Why would he leave the jungle?" Natsu coughed again and spat on the ground. The pain in his arm was good, it proved he still felt something. It would be gone fast, his body always recovered too fast. It was making him careless.
"You're going to leave the jungle too or the next thing I kick is your head," Laxus snarled.
Natsu slowly lifted his head to Laxus and grinned. "Bullshit."
Laxus' face was bright red now, Natsu was sure that any second now the veins in his head would burst. He didn't know what in him made him want to push the man to the edge but he was feeling self-destructive. He wanted to punch something, he wanted to be punched. He wanted to bleed. He was angry. He wanted to drag himself down to hell and he wanted to take everyone and everything with him for forcing him to return here and relive his misery. His eyes fell back to Laxus' boots. A good kick would do him good, even better if it killed him or caused memory loss. He cut his eyes back to Laxus, "Ya gonna do it or not?"
Laxus' lip curled up in disgust. "What the fuck is wrong with you?"
"Fight me Laxus!" Natsu shouted.
Laxus crossed his arms. "No."
Natsu pushed himself backwards and stumbled onto his knees. "Fight me you fucking coward!" he shouted.
Laxus didn't move, his face had already returned to a normal color and he now looked more impatient than enraged. "Quit dicking around, we've got shit to do. Get the fuck up up already."
Natsu raised himself to crouch on his toes. "No! I'm not going anywhere! Fight me!"
Laxus sighed. He went to grab Natsu by the collar but Natsu jumped away onto his feet, flaming fists in the air. Instead of engaging him, Laxus turned away from Natsu to the mess of ice that still defied to warm sun. "Do you know what the hell that's from?"
Natsu dropped his fists to his sides and closed his eyes. Laxus was a disappointment. "It's Gray's."
Laxus' mouth dropped and his brows drew together. "That pouty emo kid is capable of something like this?"
Natsu cracked a small smile, "You've been here for a month and you're still judging books by their covers?" Laxus didn't respond so Natsu asked, "So did you get my message?"
Laxus turned back to Natsu, revulsion written all over his face. "You're disgusting. Wendy was helping me search for you ya know."
"Everybody pees Laxus. It's a natural thing," Natsu almost chuckled.
Laxus scowled. "Not the way you did it."
Natsu shrugged. "Hey it's not easy to write using urine, I think I did a pretty good job."
"Whatever, come on let's go." Laxus waved for Natsu to follow him and turned in the direction of the Fernandez estate.
All lightheartedness disappeared. "I'm not doing this."
Laxus turned back, "What?"
"I'm not taking on the full power of the fire dragon, he's an asshole."
Laxus sighed. "I don't think you have a choice," he said through a tightly clenched jaw.
"And I don't think you understand. He's a monster. He's gonna kill everyone on this island!" His voice went quiet when he added, "The bloodlust . . .it's intoxicating . . .if I have any more power I don't know. . ."
Laxus stared at him for a few seconds and then said, "Then control it."
Natsu glowered at Laxus, his nostrils flaring as he breathed deep to contain his rage. He couldn't talk this over with Laxus, he would never understand. He was a neanderthal and a murderer, he probably liked the idea of a power that would inspire him to destroy. Laxus just wanted him to go back and play puppet for the prophecy. The idea that the fire dragon could help save the world was nonsensical. He would be the one to bring the darkness to Earthland, ravage the land, slaughter the people. Natsu didn't have time for this, he had to get back to finding Lisanna. He turned quickly and sprinted away from a surprised Laxus into the jungle behind him.
It took a few seconds for Laxus to process the fact that Natsu had just run away like a sullen child. He muttered a curse under his breath and shoved off after him but unfortunately had now given Natsu a head start. Natsu was faster and his smaller stature made it easier for him to make his way through the dense underbrush. Laxus was not so lucky, branches kept whapping him in the face and catching on his shirt and hair. Multiple times he had to tear his way through tight openings in the trees where Natsu had slipped through. Laxus started to worry that he wouldn't be able to catch the pipsqueak.
His only relief was that Natsu did nothing to cover his tracks. Whatever pulled Natsu on made him careless. Whenever he disappeared out of sight, Laxus could still hear him tearing through the leaves and he could easily follow the mess of torn up vines and broken branches.
Sweat made Laxus' skin slick and his shirt damp. He was tired from the long boat trip and he wasn't sure how long he could maintain this pace. Natsu was an animal. When the ground seemed impassable he swung up over it, while Laxus was left spitting and cursing as he struggled to climb after him. Natsu tore through the tight spaces and easily crawled under large fallen trees. Laxus found himself lagging farther and farther behind.
Natsu disappeared into a particularly dense thicket. When Laxus got to it he had to stop, there seemed to be no way through and no way around. He became hot and angry. Why was Natsu dragging him around on this game of tag? Laxus was done, he drew on his magic and sliced through row after row of trees, vines, and small plants. Natsu couldn't hide if Laxus removed the hiding spot. Laxus concentrated so hard on opening a path that he stumbled into the clearing that suddenly appeared. When he righted himself, he found Natsu staring upwards at the tight jungle canopy, his face red and taut with anger.
Laxus opened his mouth to scold him but froze at the sound of something crashing down through the leaves overhead. He lifted his head upwards just in time to receive a smack in the face from a dismembered hand. He slapped the thing to the ground and leapt backwards. The hand was mostly intact but something had been gnawing on the forearm and wrist, the bone attached to it had been practically licked clean. Laxus remembered the man in Juvia's home and his stomach did a backflip. He really didn't think he wanted to know what dropped its snack. With a deep swallow, he took another step away.
"Natsu!" he hissed in an effort to get the madman's attention. They had more important things to do than fight some monster in the jungle. They couldn't afford to waste time here.
Natsu did not get the message. Instead he waved a flaming fist skyward and screamed, "Why the fuck do you smell like that?! You're not allowed to smell like that you fucking asshole!"
There was a deep rumble that echoed through the trees, it made Laxus' stomach flip again. The deep bass purr began to gain speed to a growl but instead of backing down Natsu became more riled up. "You come down here you hellspawn! I'll burn that stink right off your thieving face!"
Laxus slowly lifted his head to the canopy above just in time to catch a mouth large enough to swallow a man whole bare its teeth and release a roar like a gunshot. "Natsu . . ." Laxus started, struggling to find a way to bring the man back to rational thought. This was clearly not a creature they wanted to make mad. He took a few steps closer but Natsu was almost completely engulfed in flame now, the heat radiating from his body was oppressive.
"Is that all you got you big pussy? Are you gonna sit up there and scream at me? Get down here and fight me!" Natsu roared back.
Laxus sagged slightly, this idiot was really putting him in a bad way. He adjusted his footing, called on his magic, and prepared to protect himself. Using the sparks felt right, it soothed his worries and gave him courage. Fuck Natsu, fuck that giant cat. Laxus was going to knock them both out if he had to.
"COME DOWN HERE NOW!" Natsu slammed a fist into a few of the trees nearby, not registering when they caught flame. His kick connected with a few more and sent them toppling down. The branches above them swayed and sagged, Natsu had that dark monster on the move.
"Will you cut that shit out and start thinking!?" Laxus shouted.
Natsu ignored him, he circled the tree the beast had fled to and didn't look the least bit phased from the way the animal screamed again. He pulled his fist back but before it could connect with the trunk the largest panther Laxus had ever seen in his life tackled Natsu to the ground.
Laxus would be ashamed to admit it later, but for a moment he hesitated. The cat's skin shimmered unnaturally and it seemed so large that Laxus wasn't sure he could do anything without some kind of rocket launcher or grenade. Without training, he was still slow to rely on his magic, he struggled to come up with a plan as he watched Natsu shout and fight beneath the beast. When the fog of fear cleared, his hands sparked to life. If he didn't have the weapon he would have to be the weapon. His fists exploded on the cat's side and sent it flying.
Natsu's shoulder was bleeding and there was a deep gash in his jaw but he leapt up easily, his mind intensely focused on his adversary. The cat was up just as quickly with a snarl and a scream. It began to pace and watch them warily but before it could react Natsu unleashed a massive roar of fire that engulfed the panther and the surrounding jungle.
Laxus had to cover his face to protect his eyes and nose from the sweltering heat that rushed into the space. He hoped the shrieks of pain meant that Natsu was slowing the beast. His instincts blared with panic just as the panther burst through Natsu's flames, and with the force of a linebacker, slammed into Laxus. His eyes went wide and stung from the dryness of the heat just as the ground knocked the wind from his lungs.
There was no time to recover, no time to breathe, for its massive flaming skull was in his face, teeth bared and ready to swallow him whole. With such injuries, it made no sense that the panther could still move with such ease. Laxus fought the nausea that settled in his stomach at the sight of the melting flesh and stark white bone. He shoved his fists into the cat's throat and using all the rage that had been building in his gut, he lit the panther up with all the magic he could muster into his hands. It jerked back, its eyes rolled into its head and its jaw went slack as it shook violently above him. Laxus couldn't escape with the back end of the creature pinned him down so he shook along with it but he barely noticed. The only thing on his mind was making sure the animal never pounced on him again.
In the blink of an eye, Natsu shoved the beast off Laxus. He roared as he punched the thing over and over. Laxus sat up slowly, his face drawn in confused horror when Natsu came back into view. The cat was no longer fighting back, Laxus was pretty sure it was done for, but instead of backing down Natsu was punching harder. Flames covered his entire body, his hair was fire, his fingers and his eyes. Scales climbed his arms and peeked through the tears in his trousers, and his bared teeth seemed larger and sharper. Natsu was starting to look like more of a monster than the one slaughtered between his legs.
"Is the power of the dragon all you dreamed it to be?" teased Seilah's voice in the trees.
Laxus' head jerked upward. He couldn't see anything through the branches and the leaves. Was Seilah actually here? Or just in his mind?
"Just imagine the four of you, hungry, angry, drunk with power. Will you really be able to save anyone? Or will you leave nothing here for me to reclaim."
Laxus looked back at Natsu with a frown. It wasn't going to be like that, Natsu was clearly disturbed by something. Otherwise Laxus wouldn't have found him tear swollen and spread out on the hard stone of that dangerous altar.
"Oh, but it will be like that. Natsu's just helped himself to a little bit more of the power of dragon. Even so he isn't finished. When you come to the altar he will receive more, and the fire dragon will rage more fiercely in his body." Seilah made a happy hum. "I can't wait to watch him burn his beloved's hometown to the ground."
"Shut up you bitter hag," Laxus spat. He stood and walked towards Natsu, doing his best to breathe in the dense heat. "Natsu it's done, the fucking thing is dead!" he shouted.
Natsu looked up from the pile of bone and ash that remained of the panther and his gaze was white hot rage. "You ruined everything," he hissed. Laxus grimaced. Was that even Natsu anymore?
Thanks for reading!
Thanks for the reviews wordslinger and kurahieiritr JIO!