Disclaimer: All rights to Naruto belong to Masashi Kishimoto and its respective publishing house. The same goes for Hiro Mashima for his utterly delightful series, Fairy Tail.
Author's Note: NIL
Revised at 3rd September 2015 to the best of my ability.
Chapter Fourteen – Those Who Fight
In her haste, Lucy had tripped over an exposed root, causing her to bump into Gray's back. The two toppled to the ground, caught in a mess of tangled limbs. Lucy could have sworn that they had just gotten out of a similar situation after crash landing from Gray's ice slide stunt.
It was just their luck too.
"Lucy, stop messing around!"
The sound of battle just ahead of them, and together with Hibiki's latest information which he had relayed just recently, had put a damper on the festivities after their daring escape from the airship.
"I'm not!" she defended herself weakly, and took to a running stumble after the Ice-Make mage. Honestly, she was just as worried for the others as he was. More so, when she reached to the conclusion that a battle with Oración Seis was imminent.
She gulped nervously.
As they burst through the clearing, Lucy caught a glimpse of the only other person she could have hoped to see after a certain redhead: Natsu. A small wave of relief came over her at seeing him unhurt, though she wished it was under different circumstances as the Fire Dragon Slayer charged at a stylishly-dressed individual with a rasping scream:
"Karyuu no Tekken!"
Wild crackling flames engulfed his fists as he sped up the remaining distance to his opponent, but his wild melee of haphazardly-thrown punches didn't meet his target like Lucy would expect him to. His opponent proved to be more than adept at dodging Natsu's sluggish attacks as if dancing around him.
Something was definitely wrong here.
"You got the guts to call yourself a Dragon Slayer and this is that the best you can do?" his adversary goaded with a laugh. "You old-schoolers piss me off!"
The name and face clicked together in Lucy's mind. This was the Dragon Slayer the Trimens had mentioned during their briefing—Cobra. Her knees wobbled a bit at the thought. Their battle against one of the pillars of the Balam Alliance had now begun in earnest, and all she could do was watch, transfixed by the battle playing out in front of her.
Like a man possessed, Natsu ignored him as he pressed on with his berserker-induced barrage, adding fiery kicks to switch up his approach. Despite the ferocity behind his attacks, none of them connected.
"I told you it's useless." Cobra lifted the sleeves to his coat, revealing his bare forearms. "I don't even need to use my Dragon Slayer magic for someone like you."
Natsu leapt back to create some distance between them, his chest heaving as he sucked in a huge breath, before promptly letting loose a potent stream of fire—as tall and as wide as the trees that surrounded them—at the artificial Dragon Slayer. Cobra could no longer be seen as he was seemingly swallowed up in the mass of flames. When Natsu finally relented, sucking in huge breaths to ease his gasping state, a massive snake slammed its tail into his side.
"Heh, you gotta watch out for Cuberos too. I'm not the only one in this fight," Cobra said. He stood about a metre to the left at where Natsu had aimed his Fire Dragon's Roar, calmly trying to put out the small wisps of ember that had caught onto his sleeve.
Next to her, Gray scowled. "Shit, he's right."
Much like her, Gray had been a spectator for the short duration of the on-going fight. A look of understanding passed between them. It was obvious, even to her, that Natsu was not at a hundred percent, and with the battle firmly in the favour of the enemy, his defeat was inevitable.
Gray acted before she could even nod her consent.
"Ice Make: Lance!"
Beams of pure white light burst forth from his whirling magic seal. It flew at an arc as it skewing off wide at its intended target, but quickly curved back in to form a single spearhead to impale the enemy Dragon Slayer.
Cobra dodged the attack once again, and even his reptilian familiar quickly wrapped itself around his torso for the sake of self-preservation.
"You fucking bastard!" He pointed at his black-haired attacker next to her. "Don't think I can't hear you too!"
Lucy prepared herself, fingers inching towards the keyring on her utility belt. To her left, Gray was ready to launch another salvo of his Ice-Make magic, but before they could act, a rough voice called out from behind them, stopping them cold:
"Stop trying to interfere. It's a Dragon Slayer showdown." The voice belonged to a rooster-haired individual. Rooster-head folded his arms into himself and sighed dramatically. "Goddamn entourage... The fight was just starting to get interesting too. I had money on him losing to the pink one."
"Fuck you, Racer!" Cobra shouted, not looking too bother about his fight with Natsu. He gestured rudely with a finger. "I'm gonna bury this clown six feet under!"
Racer shrugged, ignoring his comrade's outburst. "I can't believe you'd think you can overwhelm us with numbers," he told them. "God, it's beyond pathetic. I mean, look... you guys are losing. Then again, I can't really—"
Gray turned on his heel to deliver a punishing elbow to his face, but the man moved at speeds beyond which their eyes could follow.
"—blame you for trying," he continued casually. "Oi, where are you idiots looking at? I'm over here."
Racer reappeared in front of them, allowing Lucy to get a proper look at their assailant.
He was dressed in a long-sleeved overall. Numerous flashy logos were adorned prominently across the front and back of his jacket. As the man adjusted his gloves, he smirked, the amusement in his eyes hidden behind a pair of black-tinted goggles. In the end, it was his blond Mohawk that stood out the most, drawing comparisons to that of a rooster.
Keyring in hand, Lucy unconsciously picked out Taurus from the rest, whereas Gray was already in the motion of stamping a fist in his palm.
"Open the Gate of—"
Racer made short work of Gray by disabling the Ice-Make mage first with a number of well-placed hits, sending him flying back into the forest with a sickening crunch. Lucy was too stunned to react when Racer once again vanished into thin air before reappearing behind her, tightening a hold around her neck as he pulled her wrist away, easily stopping her from summoning Taurus.
"Sheesh! A Celestial Spirit mage?" Racer scoffed, twisting her wrist from side to side as he examined the gleaming golden key in her hand. "You must be the weakest in your group, huh?"
Lucy struggled uselessly against his hold, helpless as she was forced to watch the one-sided battle before her. Cobra continued to batter Natsu around the clearing; it was as if he was simply toying around with his prey. It was a heart-wrenching sight, and to be caught powerless so easily caused Racer's scornful words to echo in her mind.
A small bubble of hope swelled in her chest when she noticed Lyon and Sherry enter the fray.
Closer to where the rest of the Oración Seis stood, a tall would-be priest had broken off from the group to engage them. Their fight was a furious and fast-paced spectacle as the duo from Lamia Scale worked in tandem with frightening synchronicity. Fury and desperation fuelled their attacks as they sought to make their way towards their gravely-injured team leader, but the lone mage was more than capable of holding them off, even winning in fact, with his fearsome Earth magic.
Lucy's knees trembled as the sudden bombshell hit her. Were it not for the fact that Racer was holding her up, she would have sunk to her knees.
This wasn't even half of what Oración Seis was capable of. The other three mages didn't even deign to join the fight; one even had the audacity to doze off atop a magic carpet. That was when she finally noticed the unconscious form of Wendy lying prone before them, prompting her to grit out:
"W-What... What are you going to do to Wendy?"
Her whole body was trembling now, and for once it wasn't in fear.
Lucy had come to like the younger Dragon Slayer despite their relatively short friendship. The poor girl didn't deserve this fate. Wendy was probably forced to come along just because she was on the same team as Naruto.
"Oh, you mean that Dragon Slayer girl? What's wrong? Worried that you might not see your little friend again?"
"Leave her alone!" Lucy clenched her eyes shut as she shouted, somehow finding courage swell up in her chest. "O-Or else, I... I'll—"
Racer grumbled in exasperation, but a derisive shout from Cobra drew his attention.
"Don't think just because you're a woman, I'm going to take it easy on you!" Cobra had turned away from Natsu, who was struggling to stand after a short-lived battle against the artificial Dragon Slayer. Casually tucking his hands back in his coat pockets, Cobra strode, with the predatory grace of a hunter, towards his next opponent—a woman whose murderous gaze was as fiery as her red hair.
"Cheh! I don't have time to deal with small fries like you." Racer struck a hard blow to the back of Lucy's head, causing her to crumple to the ground. "Angel!" he bellowed. "Come take care of this one!" In the blink of an eye, he stood next to Cobra to deal with the latest unwanted intrusion to the fight.
Lucy fought to stay conscious.
From her position on the ground, the sharp pain at the back of her head throbbed like mad, but Lucy could still make out Erza's vague form. The redhead took the fight to her opponents, luring the battle away from Natsu.
They could do it.
With Erza here, there was a chance that they could stand up to Oración Seis; not to defeat them, but to beat a hasty retreat. They could always regroup with more reinforcements later, or even—
"It's not often you meet a fellow Celestial Spirit mage." A shadow came over her as the sultry feminine voice interrupted her train of thought. "Oh, and you've collected quite a bit too. It is a shame actually. I'd like that collection for myself."
Squinting, Lucy peered up at the voice, but found herself subjected to the end of a large and very distinct-looking sword—the tip was almost in the shape of a screwdriver—which her would-be executioner hauled with both hands. Given its size, the woman looked like she had no trouble handling the large sword as she rested a hand on the spherical hilt.
The deadly intent in the white-haired mage's eyes was obvious, and as much as Lucy wanted to roll out of the way, she found her eyelids growing heavy as Angel hefted the sword in an overhead swing before bringing it down on her neck.
Like a knight sans shining armour, Gray, who somehow found the time to take off his jacket and shirt, knelt beside Lucy. He was gripping the hilt of his conjured ice sword tight to stop the much larger blade from lopping her head off.
Gray rose to his feet as he pushed the blade away from Lucy, causing Angel to stumble back on uneven steps. Her murderous intent was quelled momentarily as the sudden shock came over her, but the woman composed herself. Her regal features then twisted into an ugly sneer as she narrowed her eyes at him.
He remained undaunted, his own sword held ready at his side. "You know, I make it a point not to go easy on anyone who hurts my friends."
Lucy could only give her saviour a weak smile before she passed out.
The sudden two-on-one situation didn't faze Erza for a second.
Of course, the odds would have technically been evened if Eve was around, but the former Rune Knight Cadet had gone off in search for his teammates, knowing that he would only be a hindrance should she have to fight.
Charging in, her attire changed in an instant. The light gave way to the gleaming silver of her Heaven's Wheel Armour. With but a simple command in her mind, beams of pure white energy took shape into that of swords, forming a protective circle around her as Erza dove in with a quick dash. It was her plan to put her opponents on the back foot, hoping that it would draw the fight away from Natsu and give him the opportunity to recover.
Sword in hand, Erza slashed a diagonal strike at the coat-wearing man, the circle of 'swords' around her parting briefly before her command, but it was merely a smokescreen for a follow-up.
She grasped the handle of one of the 'swords' surrounding her with her left hand, before it quickly materialised into actual steel—it was larger than the one on her right, and allowed for a better reach. She turned on her heel to deliver the follow-up, with the added power behind it, and aimed for a decisive finish to his chest.
Her opponent, the one known as Cobra, dodged the first strike almost lazily. He smirked as he shifted his body out of harm's way, and even as he looked prepared to avoid her next strike, horror flashed across his features.
Cobra had misjudged the speed of her approach and she was there to punish him for it. Her blade was just millimetres from tearing into his purple snake familiar.
It would have connected had Racer not stepped in at the last minute.
The gangly man spun a mild kick at his comrade to push him away from the impending danger, before he too sped out of Erza's reach. "What's the point of being able to 'hear everything' when you're not fast enough to do something about it?" he asked, mocking.
"Shut up," Cobra mumbled under his breath as his snake familiar hissed madly. "I just got the timing wrong that time, m'kay?"
Erza didn't afford them the luxury of a breather as she continued her relentless assault. Pressing her advantage, she launched a multitude of weapons at the duo as an added distraction before she moved in for another bout of close-quarter combat.
There were no wasted movements in her actions as she brought both her swords across her body in a quick, flowing onslaught, but her main opponent—the one who had been previously fighting with Natsu—seemed content with merely dodging her attacks. Her blatant misses were always by a fine margin; something which irked her greatly.
"That chance you had won't happen for a second time," he told her, smirking.
She didn't dignify him with a response, but a looming shadow above her made her stop her advance; her positional awareness, fuelled by the adrenaline coursing through her veins, was all but screaming at her to get out of the way.
Erza seamlessly requipped into her Flight Armour, which contrary to the name, increased her speed rather than the obvious. Her protective circle of 'swords' vanished the moment she emerged in her new leopard-printed outfit, which came complete with a matching set of leopard ears and a spotted tail.
With the sudden boost to her speed, she took a hasty step back and leapt away with a back flip, the surprise attack from Racer hitting naught but an empty space as a result. Even with the momentum against her in mid-air, Erza was able sneak in a quick swing at both of her opponents, who yet again, were able to manoeuvre out of her blades' reach.
Unfortunately, she noticed that another Oración Seis member had stepped up, leaving the prone forms of Lyon and Sherry behind, to confront her. The tall mage with long, flowing orange hair held two fingers before his eyes and swiftly jabbed them in the air before him.
The ground beneath her seemed to bubble like molten magma before it split apart and shot up as if trying to drag her under the earth. For a moment, it was a hair's breadth from reaching out and swallowing her whole, but a familiar soul intervened at the nick of time.
"Ice Make: Floor!"
Standing a few metres away from them, the only remaining Ice-Make user had managed to subdue a weakened Angel with renewed vigour, before coming in with another vital save for the second time today.
Even with one of their numbers down, the figures of Midnight and Brain refused to budge from their spot, both seemingly uninterested in the brawl as they stood over their young hostage.
The watery ground solidified, and the protruding piece of earth froze to form a crude wall of ice which offered her a feeble protection from any sneak attacks. Her first step on the surprisingly not-so slippery ground Gray had fashioned for her was not as awkward as she would have thought. Ducking low, she bounced on the balls of her feet as she spun, bringing the dual swords, held in a reverse grip, to a horizontal strike at Cobra's mid-section.
The artificial Dragon Slayer bent his body at an awkward angle, seemingly prepared to do so as if he was able to read her mind. Simultaneously, his snake familiar had slithered up his tall frame and used it as a springboard to launch an unexpected attack at Erza, its jaw wide open, revealing its set of deadly fangs.
Erza sprung up, raising one of her swords to intercept the snake bite, and with the other, prepared to lop its head off, but the act had left her sides momentarily exposed.
With the opportunity granted to him, Cobra slid in a crushing knee to her exposed abdomen.
She had tried to shift her body to deflect the attack, but it was to no avail as she felt the full brunt of it received on her side. She grunted, realising that her crucial attempt to intercept the snake had stalled as a result, causing the snake to have free reign to snap its jaws around her wrist, sending the weapon in her hand to clatter to the ground.
Initially, the bite itself hurt more than the actual poisoning, but the potent venom took to her bloodstream instantly, triggering a sudden bout of wooziness and mild numbness around the wound.
While the sudden dread struck a deep-seated worry in her core, Erza refused to give in to the flawed mentality that all was lost. If there ever was one more thing she could do, no matter how inconsequential, to help the rest before her inevitable end, Erza Scarlet would not yield.
Shakily, she brought the remaining sword in her other hand to hack the offending snake that had refused to let go, but it appeared that her body had already succumbed to the fast-acting poison.
Cobra, with surprising ease, stopped her desperate last attack with a lazy hand. He gripped it tightly to make the knight release her sword, before snapping out a front kick to send her crashing back on the icy ground limply.
"It takes to the body very fast, doesn't it?" she heard him say.
Cobra knelt by her side as he made a show of petting his familiar, her breathless pants intensifying with each passing second.
"But it won't kill you straight away. It will sap away your strength bit by bit, leaving you like a useless husk before you eventually die. It'd hurt, I guess, but I wonder what would hurt more: dying or having to watch your friends die first?" Cobra stepped away, revealing the sight which he had intentionally kept from her.
"G-Gray," she said weakly.
Not far away, Gray had finally fell victim to the might of the other two Oración Seis mages, having put up a bitter fight that seemed to only be a hindrance to the powerful dark guild. Similar scenes could be seen around the area: there was Wendy, most if not all of her team members, as well as the representatives from Lamia Scale—especially Jura. The fate of the Wizard Saint had been a large question mark ever since his unmoving body had been found inside the crater.
She tried to reach out a hand to her stricken teammates, but could not find the strength to do so—her heart in turmoil over their safety. However, it wasn't long before her feeble resistance gave way to the fast-acting poison, and Erza Scarlet sunk in oblivion.
Hopeless and defeated.
"Weren't there supposed to be more of them?" Racer ambled towards where Angel was, and nudging her listless form with a foot. It elicited a small groan out of her, making her eyes flutter open.
"Eh, maybe the rest got scared and ran off," Cobra said, his lips curling back to reveal a cruel smile.
"Yes! Camaraderie fails in the face of money!"
"Shut it, Hoteye..."
Angel's words were slurred. Gathering herself, she rubbed at a wound on her side as she struggled to find her feet. Then, the woman found herself facing the uncompromising stare of their leader.
The only female member of their guild tried not to show her trepidation even as her lips quivered. At least, her prayer—the black perpendicular-shaped line that ran at the topmost of his cheeks—had not been erased, Cobra noted. It was only then he noticed that Brain wasn't even looking at her, but at something behind her.
Following his gaze, Cobra turned.
A cat wearing elaborate clothes stood at the forefront, flanked by another one, though the blue-furred cat seemed horrified as his eyes roamed around the clearing. Not far behind them, a brown-haired man emerged from the forest, frantically chasing after the pair.
"You've won," The feline spoke clearly, but her breath hitched when she caught sight of their hostage. Cobra could only smile at how transparent she was. "S-Should you be willing to let everyone go, I will give you my word that we will stop pursuing you."
"Stop pursuing us?" It was the first time Brain had spoken in the entirety of the fight. "You will stop pursuing us?" he repeated, almost to himself, as his nostrils flared in indignation. "Vanish from my sight!"
Brain lifted his staff before him, pointing it to the sky. The surrounding air seemed to warp as the focus wedged in the jaws of the skull ornament glowed a bright green, washing the area with a vile, sickly energy. Haunting wails resounded as the energy finally took shape into that of horror-stricken faces, swirling slowly before rapidly gaining intensity around the tip of the staff.
Their young hostage sprang up suddenly, levelling her forefinger at Brain.
The blunt arc of wind was dangerously close to connecting with his adopted father's chest, but an invisible force stopped it cold just before it could, as Brain stuck his staff into the path of the spell. It had served its purpose of distracting Brain, as it dispelled the attack which he had built up with his staff.
Brain gave Cobra a disgruntled look to which he could only shrug.
The Sky Dragon Slayer pushed herself off the ground with her hands, clenching her eyes shut as she shouted hoarsely:
Rather than heed her words, the feline, Carla, rushed towards their hostage instead of retreating. She hurried on her stubby legs before a pair of wings materialised and she took to the air.
Her daring attempt to rescue Wendy backfired when Brain moved.
Cobra was glad that their leader had finally acted. He had honestly felt bad watching the pitiful display. His eyes then couldn't help but be drawn to Angel.
Waving his staff, a stream of darkness energy gushed from the jaws of the skull ornament; it acted like a whip as it snatched Carla out of the air, wrapping the wispy tendrils around her form before she was pulled forward. Brain held the Exceed up by the ear roughly. It was clear that the leader of the Oración Seis was still rattled as his nostrils flared once again and he gritted his jaws in barely suppressed anger, gnashing out:
"This is what you were trying to save?! Then, look! Look what your actions have wrought!" Brain sneered, turning to Hoteye. "Dispose of the rest of these maggots."
"Of course!" Hoteye called out to Brain's retreating back, his boisterous voice overshadowing the startled and pained cries from their hostages as Brain dragged them away forcefully. "After all," Hoteye said, turning back to the shambled remains of the Light Alliance. "When it comes to money, there is no difference between up and down!"
The ground beneath them split apart like trashing waves caught in the middle of a violent storm. The remaining members of the Light Alliance barely had time to shout out a strangled cry before they were swallowed whole in a masterful display of magical prowess, not that Cobra would admit it out loud. Just like that, the earth-based spell ended as the ground levelled out, reclaiming its former pristine state.
"That's it?" Cobra drawled as he gazed upon the now unperturbed forested scenery; the signs of battle were only noticeable around the outskirts of the large clearing. "Shouldn't we like kill them properly instead of leaving it like this?"
Hoteye's features remained serene. "Being buried alive is the most painful way to die, right?"
"I'm just saying, you might wanna make sure they're dead first so they don't come back and bite you in the ass."
"But Cobra, think of the—"
"Enough!" Brain barked loudly. "Should anyone of these maggots survive, they will come to know what it will be like to be corrupted by the ultimate influence. And for those who dwell in the light, that is a fate worse than death."
Their hostage was unable to strain her teary, disbelieving eyes away from the scene. Wendy's strangled and distressed sobs continued to resound around them:
Cobra stared at her incredulously. "Fishcake? You want fishcake at a time like this? Kid, you have some fucked up—" he stopped abruptly, realising that the clearing, and even the inhabitants of the surrounding forest had gone deathly silent.
There was a sudden standstill as Brain, flanked by the still sleeping Midnight, Hoteye, a reluctant-looking Racer, and their bound captives, levelled a portentous look at Angel, who was standing a few metres away from the others.
This time, there was no question who bore the full brunt of their enigmatic Guild Master's steely gaze.
"Do you still remember what I told you all back when I saved you from your fate in that accursed tower?"
Trembling, Angel sunk to her knees. "I-I couldn't use my summons because I was still exhausted from before. And... and—" Her gloved hands were raised to her face in a futile effort to stop the tears streaming down her cheeks. "P-Please, I've done everything you've asked me to! It was just a careless slip and that boy! He was—"
Cobra was suddenly aware that he was caught in the middle; halfway between Angel and where the rest stood. Gesturing with a twitch of his finger, he ordered his snake familiar to his side and turned his back on Angel, trudging slowly to stand beside Brain. He offered the Celestial Spirit mage a pitying look as a final farewell, but found himself strangely apathetic towards a woman who created her own ruin. There was no place for the weak in their ranks, even if she was lucky enough to bring down a Wizard Saint.
Hell, given a chance, maybe he could do it too.
Brain hardly reacted to the blubbering mess that continued rambling before him. "I do not tolerate failure, Angel. You know that," he chided quietly. "It is disappointing. I expected much more from someone of your tremendous potential. Know that your sacrifice will not be forgotten."
With a firm stamp of his staff, the surrounding air before skull ornament that acted as his focus grew heavy with the palpable unnatural force that was his Darkness magic. His eyes narrowed ever so slightly as he brought his staff to the fore, intoning:
In that brief instance, Cobra saw a small spark of fire ignite in her eyes, followed by a tiniest sneer that swept over her regal features. Her hand was in the motion of reaching down to her side. It was clear. Angel did not plan to die pleading for her life. Sadly, just like that, the small spark was gone as the swirling, sickly green energy converged on her person.
Angel never stood a chance.
Brain had already turned on his back even before the withered husk of flesh crumpled face-first on the ground before them. Except for her striking feathery outfit and milk-white hair, the body was near unrecognisable; it was horribly sunken and wrinkled as if she had aged beyond her years. Faint but frequent wheezes could be heard from Angel as she tried to lift up a bony hand, but could not find the strength to do so.
It was cruelly ironic, Cobra noted.
To take away the one thing Angel prized above all else: her youth and beauty.
A twinge of a devilish smirk came over Brain's features as one of the six prayer lines across his cheeks faded. "Come then," he said, leading the group towards the glowing teleportation circle just ahead. "Nirvana beckons."
The rest followed suit silently.
Midnight hardly twitched in his sleep, even as his comrade lay dying. Racer shared an uneasy grimace with Cobra and a small shake of his head as he left. Hoteye had already gone ahead, not glimpsing back as he muttered about the present value of the revenue streams of Angel's operations and how it ultimately led to her demise. In the end, Cobra was the last to leave, glaring heatedly at his fellow guild members' backs when they left their two captives behind for him to deal with.
The teary Dragon Slayer and her cat were now strangely mute, especially after the little fit they had before, unable to draw their stupefied eyes away from the traumatic sight before them.
Angel had now locked her somnolent, confused gaze with Wendy, her black eyes pleading silently for the girl's help.
Unperturbed, Cobra grabbed a fistful of Wendy's hair, erasing any half-formed ideas of her doing so and eliciting a pained cry from his captive. Tugging hard, he used it as an improvised leash to lead her away. Similarly, Cuberos had already secured the cat by wrapping the end of its tail around her form, restricting her arms in place.
"See, kid," Cobra said softly, careful not to let the others overhear. "What'd I say? Some people just have fucked up priorities..."
Vaguely, Lucy could hear inaudible murmurs around her.
They sounded familiar, but she couldn't put a face to their voices. It wasn't long before the sudden pang of pain came rushing back. She felt sore all over, but the throbbing ache in the back of her head hurt the worst. Instinctively, she let out a pained groan.
The feminine voice was delivered with the familiar robotic tone of her Celestial Spirit, Virgo, but she didn't remember having summoned Virgo earlier. Did she? What exactly happened before... before all this?
When Lucy propped her elbows on the ground, she felt a pair of soft hands wrap around her arm and back, and guide her up. As her eyes fluttered open, she was blinded by the sudden brightness, but quickly sought for her ever faithful but perverse Celestial Spirit. However, Lucy witnessed something else entirely. The unconscious forms of her guildmates, as well as members of the Light Alliance, were scattered around the clearing; all in various states of disarray. Even from afar, she could see their features and clothes caked in a mixture of dried blood and mud.
It all came rushing back.
Lucy felt bile rise up in her mouth. She probably wasn't even awake two minutes into the battle. Clenching her fist around the hem of her skirt, the blonde swallowed that uncomfortable bitter lump lodged in her throat.
Was Racer right about her?
Was she really that—?
She was jarred from her stupor when she noticed movement out of the corner of her eyes; it proved to be a decent distraction from her self-depreciating thoughts. Ren and Eve were the only other conscious members in the clearing. The two were hovering around a red-headed figure dressed in a skimpy leopard-printed outfit. They were murmuring amongst themselves, their faces grim and taut.
"Erza!" Lucy tried to stand, but a firm hand on her thigh stopped her from doing so.
Virgo, still clad in her maid's outfit, was to her left, seated in a seiza position. Her façade remained as stoic as ever, though the tiniest hint of concern could be seen in her blue eyes.
The Celestial Spirit's gaze travelled over to Erza's form. "Please do not be troubled. They have assured me that they will do whatever necessary to treat Erza-sama's affliction."
"Affliction? W-Wait, what happened after—after I..." Lucy swallowed hard, looking away. "An-And what about Gray or Natsu?"
"They will be fine given time, hime. Fortunately, Horologium was set to Automated Danger Response Mode and was able to summon himself and shield you just moments before you were all buried alive." While Lucy paled at the revelation, it had at least explained why there were so many holes in the ground. "Once he tunnelled his way out and ensured your safety, he was kind enough to inform me the moment he returned to the Celestial Spirit World. Then, I merely dug up the rest of the members and left them in their care," she said, beckoning towards the two hosts with a gentle sweep of her hands.
"After that, it was only a matter of relieving you from your state of undress. I would have done so sooner, but the lives of your friends took priority." It was as if Virgo was discussing the weather as she continued, "It was fortunate that I brought along a spare change of clothes."
Lucy looked down at her new outfit, a cute blue cocktail dress with matching frilly accessories. She tried hard not to think of the implications of what Virgo described as her 'state of undress', and the fact that the clothes she had been wearing previously were haphazardly scattered nearby—even her lacy white bra.
Despite herself, she blushed a cherry red.
"And Erza? What's wrong with her?"
"I was told that she has been poisoned. I believe it is quite severe. They are evaluating the need to amputate her—Ah, hime! Wait!"
Lucy got off into a stumbling run towards her red-haired knight, on the way passing by her two other teammate, as well as Happy. She would have stopped and checked on them, but Erza's condition—or the thought of keeping her in one piece—took priority.
"Lucy-san!" Eve said.
The former Rune Knight Cadet was kneeling next to Erza, and when he stood to greet her, he grimaced, favouring his left shoulder. His guild mate, Ren, was noticeably better. Apart from the small cuts that dotted his exposed skin, he looked no worse for wear.
"You can't," Lucy said suddenly, panting. "There... There has to be another way to save her! Maybe we could just suck out the poison? That could work, right?"
"Don't be stupid," Ren warned, sighing. "It would only exacerbate the problem, even if this were a common snake bite. I'm not sure how far the poison has spread. For all we know, it could be circulating all over her body as we speak—even amputation would be considered a desperate gambit." His expression softened. "I'm sorry, but there's nothing much either of us could do for her now."
Lucy felt like she was slowly being suffocated. A soft hand reached out to touch her shoulder, and unconsciously, the blonde leaned back into the comforting gesture of her Celestial Spirit as she sunk next to Erza's pale form.
"I apologize, hime. Perhaps if I had reacted quicker..."
Virgo refused to elaborate, but for the normally stoic maid to look downcast and forgo her usual inappropriate humour, it spoke volumes of her grief.
Erza had always been a constant in her life at the guild. Lucy refused to process the thought of returning home without the red-haired knight or the rest of her teammates; in fact, the thought had never even crossed her mind. There was always a glimmer of hope, even against the odds, whenever she fought along-side them.
Lucy began to relive a burgeoning memory that had been repressed and forgotten ever since her childhood—that utterly dreadful feeling that used to accompany her as a child.
She had never felt so alone again.
The sound of something hitting the ground behind her was so soft that Lucy barely heard it. Tearing her eyes away from Erza, she turned, just in time to witness the shock and horror play across the new arrival's features as he took in the casualties around the clearing. She had never seen him look so distraught when he finally noticed it.
He palmed his hands over his face and trekked upwards, scrunching his blond hair, which was slick with sweat, tight.
"Where's Wendy? Carla?"
"N-Naruto?" she breathed.
With a violent heave, Wendy was tossed towards the far end of the cave, skidding to a painful halt on the harsh and uneven ground. She struggled not to cry out in pain.
How could it have turned out like this? Everyone... back at the clearing was-was—
"Wendy Marvell." The voice was crisp and commanding, tinged with excitement, as the speaker regarded her with the slightest tilt of his head. "Our meeting here could not have been more fortuitous. It should not be dismissed as a mere coincidence either. There is a far greater force at work here—a force that I can't help but believe is firmly in our favour."
Through tear-filled eyes, Wendy reminded herself to stay strong. The sheer hopelessness of her situation didn't dampen what little faith she had left; the ever-present faith she held in Naruto.
He would come to everyone's rescue.
She knew it.
Wendy found herself being stared down by Brain's intimidating visage. The rest of Oración Seis milled around his form, appearing aloof as they looked on. The large snake made its way to the fore, its small hostage being held up by the end of its tail. Carla continued to paw against its hold on her neck.
Wendy paled even further. "What... What do you want from us?"
Brain smiled faintly. "A simple task really, especially for one with such a considerable talent like yours." He gestured to something behind her; an imposing coffin which stood more than twice her height. The sight of it alone sent shivers down her spine. "Revive the one inside," Brain commanded, not bothering to voice out the veiled threat as Carla's struggle intensified at his words.
Wendy sat up straighter, clenching her fists over her dress. Despite her age, she was no fool. Being around someone like Naruto for three years, one was bound to pick up the subtle nuances that came with the seedier side of mission requests—subterfuge, sabotage, betrayal. There was always a hidden agenda.
Naruto referred to it as being prepared for anything. Carla would then point it out as an unhealthy paranoia.
She knew that her life would be forfeit the moment she served her purpose, and there was no telling whether she could even secure Carla's safety if she did. The savage brutality the Guild Master displayed earlier by striking down not only her new companions, but his own guild member in cold blood for the apparent reason of losing, did little to assuage her fears.
"O-Only if you release Carla first. Or... or else—"
Brain's features darkened. "Child, you are not in a position to make demands."
Carla's face was now a frightening shade of purple. Cuberos didn't let up as it coiled into itself, positioning its head just under Carla's dangling feet with its jaw wide open as if wanting to swallow her whole.
In the background, Cobra snickered.
"No, no, wait! Stop!" Wendy cried out in alarm. "I'll do it, s-so please just... just stop," she ended with a defeated whimper.
It was a fruitless gamble.
Resist their demand, and Carla would fall victim. If she complied, there was no telling what would happen to them afterwards. Whoever these people wanted her to revive, it had to be tied to Nirvana. They had been briefed in the meeting earlier, and the way Hibiki-san had stressed upon the significance of this supposed legendary magic, it could spell ruin on a kingdom-wide scale...
And that mountain of a responsibility had been thrust upon her shoulders.
A small part of her harboured the thought of sacrificing their lives to prevent such an outcome. Could she do it? Something she could only see Naruto doing? For all she knew, she could only be delaying the inevitable. But maybe... maybe it would buy the precious time Naruto needed to stop Oración Seis?
"—the rest of you should spread out and cover the forest. Midnight and I will remain here to oversee his recovery. Continue to search the whereabouts of Nirvana. Should there be any—" Brain looked down at her in disgust, "—complications, I do not wish to unnecessarily delay Nirvana's activation."
Heeding his instructions with a nod, Cobra feigned boredom as the massive snake released her feline companion. It tossed Carla back at her, and Wendy did the only thing she could: cling onto her like a lifeline.
"Eh, got it. But didn't the kid have a partner or something who escaped? What if he comes snooping around?"
"That depends on her, then," Brain said as he swept past Wendy. His hands hovered over and trailed the runes that covered the width of large coffin. "Should she fail to revive him, do whatever necessary to ensure that he dies a slow, painful death. If not..."
"His death shall be but a pittance to add to our ever-growing wealth, right?"
Brain continued, "Use your best judgement. Perhaps she needs a bit more encouragement to finish her task."
Her determination only grew stronger at hearing that. Naruto was out there looking for them—she knew it. All she needed to do was to stall for time. She could fake a complication when trying the heal whoever it was they wanted her to.
A soft hissing sound resounded in the cave.
Smoke was gradually released from a tiny opening in the confines of the coffin as the top-half slid off with a heavy groan. It wasn't long before the occupant's identity became clear. While his features may have been sharper and more pronounced, there was no way she could mistake his shaggy blue hair and the distinctive red marking over his eye.
In an instant, her resolve shattered.
"Argh, dammit! Once I get my hands on that guy, I'll—"
Lucy listened as the brash Dragon Slayer started to string a list of obscenities. Natsu then went at length to describe how he would crush the stuffing out of those Oración Seis mages for what they did to Erza. Few paid him any attention, but the ever loyal Happy stayed by his side to egg him on.
It was a stroke of luck for the Light Alliance once Ichiya came stumbling into the clearing shortly after Naruto himself. The man's mastery over his Perfume magic was incredible; being able to single-handedly heal almost everyone with but a single flick of his thumb was nothing short of amazing.
Then again, there wasn't much else to his magic but to flick the cap off.
It was still amazing, really.
However, despite the potency of his healing perfume, there was little Ichiya could do for Jura or Erza. The former's injuries were far too severe, and there wasn't much that could be done for Erza except to delay the poison's effect from totally ravaging her system. At the very least, Lucy was thankful that Virgo was able to dig everyone out before suffering from any permanent, debilitating injuries.
Lucy could only imagine what would happen if she didn't.
The maid-in-question had quietly made her way back to the Celestial Spirit World, wanting to conserve her magical reserves in case she was called upon again.
"You've been staring at him..." Startled, Lucy was finally aware that Gray had snuck up and sat next to her. She flushed a bit at being caught in the act. "So, anybody know what's up with him? It looks like he's taking it pretty hard."
She glanced back at the scene that had gripped her attention for the past few minutes; Naruto was hovering over the wrinkled remains of the woman who had nearly beheaded her earlier.
According to Ichiya, the fact that Angel was still breathing was a miracle.
Lucy mulled it over, unsure of what she knew as well. "Well, I guess he's coping, but he's still a bit... unstable? Ugh, that's not the right word. But you understand what I mean, right?"
"Yeah. I heard that you were the one who had to tell him what happened. How'd that go?"
Lucy winced at the memory, feeling her heart sink at having to relive that awful experience again. Back when they first met in Hargeon, Naruto had always struck to her as a calm guy, much like Gray or Erza, but without the obvious temper streak. Witnessing the swarm of clones he had summoned shortly after he reached the clearing had been an unsettling experience. Just remembering all those clones mirroring the original's expression—their faces grim as they set off into the forest—sent shivers down her spine.
It felt so unnatural. At least, the rest of the unconscious members didn't have to see it.
"It wasn't... pleasant," Lucy mumbled, grimacing. "I didn't want to be the one to tell him, but I was the only one there who saw what happened—well, until I got knocked out. Ren and Eve weren't there, so... so I—" she ducked her head down, and clenched her fists over her thighs, gripping the hem of her dress tight, "—I uh, told him everything; our fight with that rooster-hair guy, how easy it was for him to stop me, and what he said about Wendy. Naruto, well, he tried to hide his anger, but it was so obvious. You could see it in his eyes. By then, the only thing I could do was apologise."
She stopped to wipe a stray tear sliding down her cheek, her tone becoming increasingly hollow, "He couldn't even look at me. All he said was 'don't worry about it'. And he just walked away like, like... he couldn't stand being near me."
A weak, mirthless giggle escaped her lips. "I must be really pathetic, huh? Gray?"
It was then she noticed that Gray was on his feet, his anger pouring off him in waves as he made his way towards Naruto. "Gray, don't!" Lucy clung onto his arm with all her might. It left noticeable grooves on the ground, but did little to slow the incensed Ice-Make mage's warpath.
"Damn bastard! Who the—urgh—does he think he is? Stop it, Lucy! Let me go! Oi! Oi, Naruto!"
Naruto looked peeved at being interrupted, before raising a brow at the duo's antics.
"What?" he asked finally.
Gray had been able to soldier on for the last few metres, leaving Lucy flat on her back as her resistance finally gave way. Her small moan of protest was ignored. Gray squared off against the blond, his face just centimetres away from Naruto's, as he growled, "You got a lot of nerve doing that to Lucy, you know that?"
From way across the clearing, she saw Natsu's ears perked up, like a hound dog sensing trouble.
Ugh, the only trouble was going to be on her if they didn't stop!
"Eh? Who did what to Lucy? Tell me!" she heard him shout.
If no one was paying attention to their bickering then, Natsu's enraged scream as he barrelled towards the girl in question certainly did it for them. Lucy could only cringe when she realised that they were now at the centre of attention. Even Naruto was acutely aware that he was on the receiving end of several pointed stares. She was equally embarrassed and terrified at being the end of his.
"I don't understand," Naruto said, confused. "What did I do?"
"N-Nothing! Gray's just overreacting to something I told him and—"
Gray scowled, an action that Natsu quickly mimicked as the Fire Dragon Slayer folded his arms into himself and stood protectively over Lucy. His pride must have still been smarting over his failure to save Erza. Natsu seemed adamant not to make the same mistake for her.
Lucy's heart fluttered at the thought.
"You know damn well what you said to her. Don't give me that bullshit," Gray warned. "Like hell I'm going take this lying down! Who gave you the right to act so high and mighty when you weren't even here in the first place?"
That had struck a nerve.
Even Lucy winced.
Naruto flinched then settled his lips in a grim frown. "I didn't know it was going to turn out like this," Naruto said tersely. "If I had known, I wouldn't have... I would have—"
"Wouldn't have what, Naruto-san? You wouldn't have abandoned our mission—your teammates— halfway though?"
Gone was Hibiki Laytis' charming smile, replaced by a consummate, if not slightly haggard, business-like bearing. The host stepped in and created some distance between the two.
"I made a mistake, all right?!"
The intensity behind Naruto's words caused Lucy, among others, to be taken aback. He was breathing deeply in an effort to calm himself.
"Look," he said slowly. "I made a bad judgement call, but I didn't abandon anything or anyone. I was out there scouting the forest for clues. How the hell could I know something like that was going to happen? You think I'm happy letting my team get kidnapped like that when I wasn't around?!"
Hibiki shook his head. "Well, Oración Seis certainly made fools out of all of us then. But it still doesn't explain why you did what you did, Naruto-san. You're certainly not doing yourself any favours by being so distant."
"Distant?" Naruto frowned deeper. "I'm not being distant."
"Add 'defensive' to the list too." Seeing Naruto scowl, Hibiki backed off, saying, "I apologise. That was rude of me. But I digress, your actions so far have proved otherwise. Why didn't you tell anyone onboard what you were doing? You even went as far as to leave your teammates in the dark about your activities. It's like you have your own hidden agenda in this mission."
Hibiki left the unspoken question hanging, and Lucy found herself thinking the same thing, not that she'd say it aloud.
Fortunately, Lyon did it for them.
"Do you? One can't help but wonder what your stake in this mission is, Naruto-san."
"It's the same as yours: to stop Oración Seis! What else?! And every second we waste with this stupid witch hunt, it's time that we could be using to search for Wendy and Carla!"
Lucy watched with a small amount of awe at how well Hibiki had played the situation. He held his hand out, waiting for Naruto to continue, as he said:
"So if you please..."
Exhausted, Naruto realised that there should only be one final outcome at the end of this argument: to guarantee the safety of his teammates. Honestly, that should have been the priority over his hesitation to reveal his true purpose in this mission. Chief Roubaul had never explicitly said he had to keep it a secret.
He felt like such an idiot.
Naruto palmed his hand over his face, rubbing at the bridge of his nose wearily. "I wasn't lying when I said my goal was to stop Oración Seis, but there is something else I have to do." In the back of his mind, he found a weathered, old voice repeating itself:
'...I don't expect you to do so alone. You will have allies by your side.'
"I, uh, have to destroy Nirvana."
There was a tense silence as a lull descended on the area. Each were in varying states of shock and incredulity as they tried to absorb what he had just said.
"You have to destroy Nirvana? Like really destroy it?" Lucy gaped at him. "That's crazy! Isn't the whole point of this mission to stop Oración Seis before they get their hands on it?"
"That was the intended goal," Eve said. "It was our hope that we would be able to overpower Oración Seis before things got complicated. But now..."
Hibiki had remained silent, gazing off at the tip of his shoes in quiet deliberation. "The fact that you were unable to recover it then means that you have no idea where it is, but you must already have a plan in mind to destroy Nirvana. What is it?"
"Well, it obviously has to have a source powering it. Destroying it should be enough."
Hibiki only raised an eyebrow at his flimsy plan. Narrowing his eyes, he asked, "This isn't your agenda, is it? Who are you doing this for, Naruto-san?"
It was to Naruto's credit that he remained impassive.
Indecision racked across Hibiki's features as he spread a hand over his eyes conspicuously, pretending to rub at his temples.
:I understand your hesitation, and time is of the essence here, especially taking your team's well-being into consideration. However, I am taking a leap of faith in trusting you. I hope you won't prove me wrong, Naruto-san.:
Naruto nodded subtly, and Hibiki relaxed.
"Thank you for your honesty, Naruto-san."
"Wait! That's it?" Sherry spoke up, regarding Naruto with a frosty glower. "You're going to buy his story just like that? Am I the only one who thinks it sounds fishy?"
Naruto didn't visibly react.
The loss of their team leader must have struck her hard. Add to his worsening condition, it did not offer her frayed nerves any respite. He wouldn't begrudge her an outlet for it.
"Everything's too suspicious! He was onboard the ship before it exploded, wasn't he? Then he disappears and is apparently off gallivanting in the forest, trying to destroy Nirvana?! For all we know, this Naruto could be an imposter as well!"
Ichiya agreed surprisingly, his eyes shifty. "It is plausible. After all, the imposter that overpowered me was quite the formidable and crafty opponent. I managed to put up a fight, but was subdued by a cowardly feint. Sadly, it seems that I only managed to delay him despite the crippling blow that I landed to his body."
Of course, no one batted an eye at the holes in his story.
"Look, I'm not an imposter! It's my magic. I can use it to make copies of myself." With practised ease, Naruto summoned two clones by his side and made a small demonstration of dispelling them. "And I already dealt with that Ichiya imposter, it turned out to be these weird little alien twins."
He was greeted by a sea of scepticism.
"I'm not lying! Erza was there! She saw it too!"
A breathless wheeze resonated behind them, and Naruto finally remembered that they were still in the presence of an enemy.
Recognising the prompt, Naruto rifled through his pocket and took out the gleaming assortment of loose golden and silver keys he had lifted off her person. It was of little significance to him, but these were all that Angel had on her.
"You mean these? What's so special about them?" he asked her.
Eyes wide, Lucy marvelled at the set of keys, her prior unease forgotten. "Those are Celestial Spirit keys! They're what we use to open the gates to the Celestial World and summon spirits. That must have been what you saw." She showed off her own keyring. "I bought one when we first met back in Hargeon, remember?"
"Oh, uh, right." It was kind of like summoning in his world. With barely a thought, Naruto tossed the set of keys to Lucy. "You could probably put these to good use then."
She caught it with a less-than-convincing fumble. "E-Eh! But these are..." Lucy baulked when her gaze wandered over to its former owner. "I-I can't! And even if I wanted to, these spirits are already contracted to someone else! There's no way I'd take them!" Despite her obdurate refusal, he noticed her grip on her new set of keys tightened.
"There's no loophole or anything?" Naruto asked.
Lucy remained quiet.
Natsu called out to her, "Lucy, what's wrong?"
To Naruto, it was easy to tell what she was feeling: guilt.
Though he couldn't really understand why exactly. Shouldn't having more summons be a good thing? Her magic revolved around acquiring more spirits to aid her in battle. Truth be told, he missed summoning the toads just as much as his friends back home.
"I-I really can't take these keys, Natsu."
Natsu frowned. "Why? Wouldn't it be better to get more keys? Maybe you'll get a really cool spirit! One that's a big as a house and has horns! That could also breathe fire! You think there's a dragon spirit out there?"
"Aye! Or even a cat spirit too?"
Lucy smiled at their enthusiasm. "I don't know, maybe... But it's still doesn't make it right. Celestial Spirits are never meant to be treated as objects to be hoarded, but instead a pact of friendship and camaraderie gained. I can't force them to become my spirits just because I have their keys, Natsu. They have their right to choose."
Naruto was only half-listening to the explanation at the end, having heard something else entirely. He walked over and knelt by Angel's side, with Hibiki lingering close by after noticing the same thing. Naruto tilted his head to the side to make out Angel's ragged wheezing.
"Your word..." he heard her say.
"Uhm, Naruto?" Lucy said timidly from behind him, but he silenced her with a finger.
"Give... me your word... that you'll kill me. Kill me... and I'll tell you... everything..."
Time slowed to a crawl at that instant.
"No, no, no. Not like this, Naruto-san," Hibiki warned him. "Is that how extreme your resolve is? That's unthinkable!"
Distantly, Naruto drowned Hibiki out. His thoughts were already preoccupied and jumbled up in a haze of indecision and guilt, and he didn't need the host's grating voice to add to it.
"Can you even comprehend the consequences that would befall your guild if this were to be made known to the Magic Council? A leeway could be given for extreme circumstances, but this is murder in cold blood!"
For the past three years, he had rarely fought with the intent to kill; it had always been to subdue, especially with an impressionable girl by his side. Death was an exceptional occurrence. In fact, he could limit the number of deaths he had caused—or inadvertently caused—to one hand.
He had always deemed it to be an unfortunate casualty.
But this... Angel was begging for death, welcoming the escape with open arms. From her strained and subdued explanation, they learned that the once fair young woman had been stricken with a curse courtesy of her former Guild Master, robbing her of her youth and leaving her in a perpetual state of near-death. She didn't know how long the curse would continue to prolong her suffering, and a cure was never mentioned.
It wasn't murder. It was almost a mercy killing. It was a thought he had entertained in his life only once before when he was far younger, naïve. He couldn't help but imagine Haku's face in place of Angel's.
"Cait Shelter could be disbanded and you'd be hunted down like a criminal!"
Naruto shook his head. "I'll cross that bridge when it happens. But right now, we need answers. This is the only way." He could sense their questionable eyes on his back, judging him so plainly. "It's not just my team you have to think about, you know. It's yours." He pointed at the two Lamia Scale mages. "And yours too." Ditto those from Fairy Tail. "Their lives hang in the balance. With injuries like that, you know what will happen if we don't act fast. There's only one way we can save them. All we have to do is to find my team."
"You're talking about Wendy's healing magic?" Gray asked, his expression unreadable. "Something like that could cure Erza and Jura?"
Naruto was grateful that the Ice-Make user was level-headed enough to see the bigger picture and put aside their differences.
"Oh, yeah! It totally worked for me on the ship! I don't even feel sick or anything now!"
Meeting Natsu's rambunctious approval with a nod, Naruto continued, "It's our best bet. If we get Wendy back unhurt, I'm sure she could do it. If not, I..." He stopped, his fingers unconsciously digging into his palm as he stared at Angel.
"As such as I hate to agree with the sentiment, it is a practical decision," Lyon said, filling in the uncomfortable silence when Naruto trailed off. "If she wishes to die that much, then I can't see why we should stand in the way of that. We gain something in return that would help us save our friends and potentially help us bring down Oración Seis.'"
"It's the morality of it! You have to draw a line somewhere. And this is it! This is the line! We do not condone murder! How can we call ourselves members of a legal guild if we cannot abide by the Council's conventions?"
"Hibiki," Ren said cautiously. "It's... different. You can't really fault Naruto-san for wanting to go through with this. I'm sure that if it was one of us, we'd do anything and everything to get them back. You can't draw parallels between this and what happened to... Karen."
Hibiki flinched, looking hurt. Before the host could come up with a proper retort, a rasping wheeze cut him off:
Angel, despite her crippling frailty, was laughing mutely. Her smile had turned downright maniacal. Weary amusement danced in her eyes as she raised a finger towards Lucy, who had flinched back from the gesture.
Hibiki was visibly struggling to control his nerves. He held his hand out to Lucy. "The... the keys, Lucy. Let me see the keys."
With trembling hands, Hibiki examined each one of them, and an unreadable expression flitted across his features.
"I killed her... It was so easy..." Angel said. "S-She was a weak b-bit—"
"Shut up," Hibiki gritted out.
Hibiki's features were shadowed, and the way his mouth creased into a thin line showed how much he was holding back. But with a deep breath, he regained his impassive nature and handed the keys back to Lucy.
"E-Eh, but don't you want them? They obviously mean something to you. It's not right for me to keep them."
Hibiki answered her with a winning smile, "To us, they're just simple keys, but as Naruto-san said, someone like you will put them to good use. These spirits need a proper owner who would treat them with the care and respect they deserve. They've been unlucky so far, but I know they'll find their place with you."
Stunned, Lucy took them back without any further clamour.
"And Naruto-san, I'm afraid Ren was right to say that I've let my past cloud my judgement. Certainly, if I were in your position, I wouldn't hesitate to do whatever necessary to save those precious to me. The decision lies with you. We will follow your lead."
Hibiki's sudden reversal did not sit well with him.
Feeling uneasy, Naruto couldn't help but feel that he was being used as a conduit for Hibiki's revenge for whoever this Karen woman was. Despite his misgivings, he knew what had to be done. Naruto shared one last look with Hibiki before he stepped up, relieving a kunai from his leg holster as he hovered over the woman who had offered them this twisted proposal. Twirling the kunai by the ring out of sheer conditioning, he gripped it tight as he mustered up the conviction behind his words:
"You have my word. Now talk."
Gliding past the undergrowth with hardly a noise, the clone dashed across from cover to cover, finally settling against the trunk of a tree thick enough to hide his profile.
It had become almost second nature.
There were dozens of clones—hundreds even—scouring the large expanse of the Worth Woodsea, leaving no stone unturned as they spearheaded the search for their captured teammates. Thus far, none had a lead that was even remotely useful to follow up on.
Leaning out, Naruto peeked around his cover, observing his latest quarry.
It was a towering, heavy-set man with broad shoulders. The clone was unable to make out his features, seeing that his back was to him, but there was no mistaking the man's distinctive wavy orange hair.
The clone let out a soft sigh of gratification. He had stumbled upon one of the Oración Seis.
In the dim surroundings afforded to him by the thick canopy of the forest, Naruto witnessed Hoteye turn on his heel sharply, facing towards him as he pressed two digits before his unnaturally glowing eyes.
"Foolish boy! Nothing escapes from my sight! Liquid—"
The clone was gone before he could finish.
Naruto sighed in frustration.
It had been a trying process to get information out of Angel. As climatic as it was, she knew little about her guild's operations. Their headquarters was in some cave at an ancient ruin that was once part of the Nirvit capital. She neither knew how to get there by foot nor any distinguishable landmarks around the area.
When probed about their grand plan to unleash Nirvana, it seemed that she was as clueless as they were. Brain kept his cards close to his chest. Her objective, much like her fellow guild members, was to scour the forest for its location. He had also ordered each of the individual guilds under their personal command to stall any intruders they might come across.
Thankfully, Angel was able to shed a bit more light about Wendy and Carla's precarious situation. Brain had sought her Sky Dragon Slayer magic to revive a figure that would be instrumental in activating Nirvana. The identity was unknown seeing that the body was enclosed in a ten-cross coffin, and Brain refused to elaborate on the mysterious individual. Sadly, Carla had just been collateral in the melee that occurred during his absence.
"I won't lie," Hibiki said. "I am disappointed. I expected her to know more. Even the information she gave about her guild mates isn't all that different from mine. Naruto? Naruto-san?"
The blond remained silent, staring blankly into the distance.
Angel tried to reach out for him. "I've t-told you everything I know... Now kill me..."
He walked around her, before finally saying, "No."
"B-But you gave me your word..."
Naruto refused to meet her gaze, instead sharing it between his allies. There were still seeds of doubt in some of them, but most appeared relieved—Lucy in particular as she hugged her new set of keys against her chest. She tried to force a smile as their eyes met.
Naruto didn't know why he couldn't just give the woman the release she so desperately wanted, but his conviction had failed him; just like he had failed to be there for his team.
"I never said I was going to do it now. Maybe once we rescue my team... or after we finish the mission."
It would have been simple; a quick and clean death, just like he had been taught back at the academy. But try as he might, the kunai felt like a dead weight in his hand. With a heavy heart, he holstered it back in its sheath.
"But not now."
Tears started to drip freely down her cheeks. "N-No, please... Just let me die..."
Naruto turned his back on her and joined up with the rest, folding his arms around himself. He ignored the relentless sobs from the miserable wreck behind him, not even sparing Angel his attention by appearing firm and resolute. "We've learned what we can from her. It's nothing much, but at least we have a base to start from."
"So you're not going to..."
Naruto regarded Eve, who looked reluctant to finish his sentence. "No, but if any of you want to, then by all means. I'm not going to stop you."
No one seemed eager to take up his offer.
"Okay, then it's settled," Hibiki said. "We have one clear objective, and we all know what we have to do, right?"
The mood was low and painfully tense, but luckily, a certain someone decided to intervene. Even Natsu had lost his trademark exuberance, adopting a serious countenance that reflected the gravity of the situation. Then, the Fire Dragon Slayer punched a fist in his palm and cracked his knuckles.
"Yeah, we just gotta rescue Wendy and Carla, so we can save Erza and Jura," Natsu growled. With a determined—almost savage—grin, he continued, holding his fist up, "Well, what are you guys waiting for? Let's go out there and kick some ass!"
With the fresh injection of zeal, their spirits were buoyed as they culminated their wills with an affirming battle shout. Armed with a single goal, the members of the Light Alliance naturally grouped with their individual guilds.
The duo from Lamia Scale, Lyon and Sherry, branched off from the group and headed west. Ichiya, Ren and Eve searched east, where the wreckage of The Christina still burned. Natsu, Gray and Happy had gone on ahead and left for the south, towards the mysterious blackened trees. Lucy, on the other hand, opted to stay behind with the wounded. It would become their temporary base of operations with Hibiki manning the operation through his Archive magic.
For Naruto, the north beckoned. It was almost auspicious. It was a path he knew would lead him towards the orange-haired Oración Seis member; something which he had intentionally kept from the rest.
Hibiki, must have noticed something was amiss, as he voiced out, "Naruto-san? Will you be all right alone? I'm sure Lucy wouldn't mind tagging along with you."
The girl in question almost bugged her eyes out at his suggestion.
Naruto shook his head, smiling at Lucy. "Nah, it's all right," he said. Unbeknownst to the two, anticipation and adrenaline flooded his system at the thought of the battle ahead of him. Looking ahead, he added:
"I'm going to be just fine."
Side Note: Get excited.
Unfortunately, y'all have to read below to understand where I pulled a retcon. For that, I sincerely apologise for my failings.
Akatsuki Redux: For those that remember, I had a scene depicting 'Madara' talking with Kabuto in one of my earlier chapters. Unfortunately, as I progress with my writing, I have come to the realisation that this scene conflicted with the outline I have in mind. So I scrapped it, because I have a clearer picture on my end game.
Next Chapter: Of Monsters and Men…