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: It has been 540 days since my last update. Understandably, I have my misgivings about posting this chapter, but I'm just going to try. I put up a synopsis in my author's profile if you're reluctant to reread the whole thing.
Revised as at 4th February 2014 to the best of my ability.
Chapter Fifteen – Of Monsters and Men
The wind picked up in the area, settling over the orange-hued skies as the sun began its descent over the horizon. There was the faintest rustle of leaves and an imperceptible shadow crossing through the thick canopy. The figure stopped on a tree branch, creeping towards the thick trunk and knelt beside it, using it as cover. With a cautious air, his blond hair peeked out from the side of the tree, observing his newly-located quarry. There, less than a kilometre away, his long and wavy orange hair stuck out in the sea of everlasting green and dull brown.
Like clockwork, Naruto witnessed a heavily-armoured individual approach the tall, heavy-set man—the individual's once pristine combat armour now ruined.
"Sir! We have a situation! Our guild has managed to subdue a hostile. It's tentative at this stage, but we believe he may have information on... N-Nirvana."
Turning, Hoteye acknowledged the grunt. With a casual tilt of his head, he smiled serenely and asked:
"Oh? And you are?"
"Sir?" The soldier pointed to his chest plate, where a crimson stained guild mark rested; it was a crude caricature of a muscular-bound and hellish-looking shark with a spiky dorsal fin. "I'm from the Flying Hellfish. You asked to—"
"Stop," Hoteye interrupted. "Your transformation is commendable indeed, but my men have been instructed to kill any intruders they might come across on sight. Not a soul shall be spared."
"But sir, he might know something about Nirvana!"
Hoteye shook his head sadly. "You fool, the Flying Hellfish was never privy to our plans to begin with." With a twitch of his fingers, a clump of earth shot up from the ground, squirming in place as the liquefied ground condensed into a sphere, roughly the size of a large pebble. "It is a pity that you have to meet your end here, but it is for the sake of Brain-sama that you must... die!"
At Hoteye's command the sphere shot forward, but the soldier reacted at speeds that belied his inflexible armour. Plucking a kunai seemingly out of thin air, he brought it up to a diagonal swing, slashing the pebble of earth into two. It parted with such incredible ease that he was left momentarily stunned; however, it did little to impede the momentum of the two attacks.
The soldier backtracked—ducking, jumping, and inching out of harm's way through sheer physical conditioning. His arm occasionally slipped out from his side to parry the relentless barrage that pursued him, but all it amounted to was tinier versions of those pesky mud pebbles, multiplying with every cut that he made.
"It is useless to resist! Your stock shall plummet with your life!"
He flung a kunai at Hoteye, but the angular-faced man hardly batted an eye as a thick wall of liquefied earth rose up and blocked the lone projectile. The wall then lost its shape, sinking back into the earth along with the kunai and back to its former solid state. Now bereft of his only weapon the soldier leapt back and disappeared in a tuft of white smoke before the mud pebbles shredded through where he previously stood, hitting naught but empty air.
"Nya ha!" Hoteye exclaimed triumphantly. "So it is you!"
Up in his perch, hidden away from view, Naruto could only frown at his quarry's odd declaration. Hoteye seemed unnaturally happy to know it was him.
He then held up his fingers in a half-seal.
As if on cue, the area around Hoteye exploded into a vast cloud of white. A dozen clones, forgoing any disguise, converged on his person. Grim expressions marred their features as they released a deadly assortment of chakra-enhanced kunai and shuriken.
Hoteye nullified the volley with two fingers, twirling sharply on his feet in a half-circle. The earth exploded into life, sheltering the tall man behind a wall of mud. The projectiles imbedded into the wall with a dull 'thwack', but did much else. With another sweep of his hand, the shelter parted around Hoteye like flowing water, breaking off into coin-sized pebbles and swarmed his clones.
Naruto was immediately wary.
Hoteye's earth magic was able to neutralise a barrage of chakra-enhanced projectiles, which could have torn through layers of concrete, quite handily. He had to be extra mindful not to be caught in his magic.
At the fore, the lead clone spearheaded the attack. Holding an arm back, strands of blue energy started to coalesce in the palm of his hand. It wasn't long before his actions were mirrored by the rest as each clone now sported an identical swirling blue vortex in their hand. The clones bulldozed through the earth magic; the annoying replication gimmick rendered moot as the Rasengan ground the liquefied earth into oblivion. However, the sheer volume of the attack was able to stall their charge as the pebbles continued to dart around them, constantly aiming for their blind spot, to secure a vital hit.
More than a few clones fell to the incredible onslaught. Still, his clones powered through.
They would have pressed on with their attack had the ground beneath their feet not began to pull them down, much like quicksand. The wet earth clung to their feet, wrapping a firm tendril of mire around their ankles and throwing them off balance. More clones succumbed to the surprised attack, but those that had stuck to the rear were nimble and vigilant enough to leap well above the death trap.
A fist, compacted with thick, unyielding earth, shot forth from the ground and blindsided a clone in mid-air. A few more followed, raining up a gauntlet of punches, but Naruto's pure physical prowess and dexterity proved to be more than adept. Pumping chakra in their legs, they leapt and vaulted, careful not to use their hands should their appendages get stuck as well, to propel them higher into the air to avoid Hoteye's limited reach.
As they eased in the distance, the noose around Hoteye's neck began to tighten.
A clone threw himself forward, driving the menacing blue orb deep into Hoteye's gut. Soil and mud gushed out from his back, obliterating the right side of his body with a nauseating cavity as he was blown back by its immeasurable force. Hoteye impacted against a tree with a sickening 'crack', as his body disintegrated into its former element. It was enough to fell the tree with a screeching crash, as the five remaining clones side-stepped it to avoid being crushed under its massive weight.
"Nya ha! Annoying, right? Just when you think you've won, you find out otherwise. You're not the only one with a few parlour tricks!"
Hoteye re-emerged on the other side of the clearing, his body stuck in a semi-flux state of liquid and solid as it slowly rebuilt itself up from the earth. Throughout the short skirmish, Hoteye hadn't even budged an inch from his original spot.
"So," the Oración Seis mage said, head tilting to the side pleasantly. "Won't the real one kindly step forward? It would save me the hassle of having to track you down and kill you."
The five clones looked unamused at the threat, but seemingly mindful of something, they parted down the middle. A whirling gust of leaves signalled his arrival. Naruto, having used the cover as distraction, body-flickered to the scene.
"You are the real one, yes?"
Naruto remained silent, his features grim and uncompromising.
"Unwilling to talk? That's fine. You may try hiding behind your veil of disguise and churlish copies, but you see," Hoteye said, motioning to his now glowing unnatural eyes. "These eyes... these eyes uncover everything. They will find the real you soon enough, wherever you may choose to hide."
Naruto was instantly on edge, but showed no outward sign of his wariness. A Doujutsu? It was the first time he had come across one in this world. Then again, he did recollect one of the clone's memories who had first scouted his location; Hoteye had mentioned something to that effect before his clone had forceably dispelled itself. He had merely passed it off as a rhetoric back then—nothing more.
"What makes you think I'm not the real one?" Naruto asked him.
"It is your magic. Deception! Trickery! They are all means to distract your opponent to gain the upper hand!" Hoteye thundered aloud. "But an upper hand will not grant you this victory. A man's worth is measured not only by the coin in his coffers, but also his strength! And mine will overcome yours!"
Naruto stared at the man in disbelief, his prior wariness partly replaced by confusion. Was this guy for real? It really did seem odd now since Hoteye's alleged Doujutsu couldn't single him out from his clones, and he wasn't any clearer on the extent of its ability. He would have to act cautiously but quickly to beat the Oración Seis mage into submission; the lives of his teammates depended on it.
At that, he clenched his fists tight. "Whatever. I know you know where my team is, and you're gonna tell me where they are."
"Nya ha! Stop talking and die, please!"
Hoteye once again brought up two fingers, held up in a 'V' shape, and summoned the earth, raising it up into great torrents of wave after wave. Their battleground had now changed drastically as Hoteye manipulated the earth to simulate the unforgiving seas during a heavy storm. Such was the magnitude of the man's magical prowess that whirlpools began to appear in the ground, sucking in shrubs, rocks, and trees into the crushing abyss in a one kilometre radius.
Hoteye stood at the centre of the storm—unmoving and formidable—orchestrating the bedlam with a flailing hand.
From where he stood, all Naruto could see was the terrain being transformed by Hoteye's earth manipulation. He wouldn't say it out loud, but he was impressed. During his time in Earthland, there were only a handful of mages who could imitate feats that only a Kage or to put it more aptly—a certain Kazekage could do.
Still, Hoteye could never stand up to the likes of Gaara.
Any thoughts of just simply running atop the muddy waters were squashed when one of his clones was unfortunate enough to stick a feet in. Rather than being able to tread across it and meet Hoteye head on, the incredibly adhesive slush sucked him in, crushing him before it could even pull him under its depths and dispelling him in moments. There was no way around it. Naruto couldn't help but be reminded of an old game he witnessed his classmates play back when he was in the academy.
There was but one rule: the mud was lava.
Despite all that happened these past few hours, he cracked a reluctant grin.
Naruto leapt back as he avoided the first powerful wave that crashed up and tried to envelope him beneath the earth. With consummate ease, he latched the soles of his feet against a firm trunk; the tree tilting back with a groan as its roots were pulled into Hoteye's whirlpool. He travelled up the length of the lofty tree, feeling it buckle dangerously as he neared the cone-shaped tip and leapt for the next platform.
His mastery over his shadow clones had enabled him to move across the battlefield like a trapeze artist, often summoning one while in mid-air when he started losing altitude. With another clone positioned underneath his feet, Naruto felt himself being propelled higher into the air as his copy lifted him off with a chakra-laced heave.
That was when Naruto heard a loud groan, followed by an incredible clamour coming from his blindside.
A gigantic fist, reaching up to half the length of the canopy, sprouted from the ground behind him. Its distinctive fingers then wrapped around a nearby tree and dislodged it, pulling its roots from the earth as it lifted the enormous tree in the air and slammed it into the airborne outline of Naruto.
The blond had little time to react and did so on pure instinct. Enforcing chakra into his leg, he swung his foot out against its massive form. There was a sharp 'crack' as a small fissure cut through the point of impact and quickly travelled across the width of the trunk, effectively cleaving it in half.
It was from sheer brute force—crude but effective.
As one half of the tree plummeted to the earth, his kunai snapped out and pierced through the bark of the other half—the one still being held by the gigantic fist. Using it as leverage to pull himself up on solid footing, Naruto proceeded to summon another clone and with a subtle nod, directed him onwards. The half-formed golem construct tried to shake the duo loose from their perch on its now broken bat, but with chakra laced at the bottom of their feet, it proved to be in vain. Diving forward, the clone punched through the gigantic fist with a hastily-formed Rasengan; it was more than enough to do the trick as the clone dispelled itself upon contact.
With a jarring lurch, the trunk started its free-fall. He braced himself as it plunged down on the muddy seas. Crackling and snapping sounds could be heard as the earth started to envelop the bottom-side of the trunk under its oppressive density, and from where he stood, stuck on an improvised raft in the middle of a violent sea, his adversary drew ever closer.
A particularly violent wave crashed against him, and as if it had a mind of its own, shot up and stretched out, trying to swallow the tree—him included—whole. With quick and nimble feet, he moved to avoid the surge as it began a see-saw action that sloped downwards at an acute angle, sinking into the depths of the watery hell.
He leapt forward to a nearby felled tree and found respite there. However, it was brief. He was always on the move, never staying in one place long enough for Hoteye to fence him in an isolated area. With a quick signal to his clones, he prepared a counter-assault.
It was time to make the bastard sweat.
Three clones, finding haven atop the surrounding trees, flashed through a series of identical hand seals and awaited their cue, building the potency behind the C-rank technique. The final clone quickly found its way to him, weaving his way through whatever purchase or crude platform he could find.
"You ready, boss?" the clone asked eagerly. In between his forefingers, he held a small rock, slightly larger than a pebble. "Cause I'm ready when you are."
"Is that a rock?"
"It works the same way, doesn't it?"
"Well, yeah..." Naruto groused in defeat. He twirled his kunai deftly by the ring on its pommel and gave a firm nod to the others hidden above in the trees. "Now!"
A colossal gust of wind buffeted the area, aimed at Hoteye's general direction as the three techniques merged to form a terrifying force. Buoyant trees stuck in the muddy swamp were whipped back from the sudden change in air pressure, hurtling towards Hoteye without mercy.
However, the Oración Seis summoned two more of those gigantic fists constructs, batting the trees aside like measly debris. One of the hands grabbed a hold of one of the trees and tried to fling it back to Naruto's direction, but the prevailing winds proved to be too strong. The distraction ended up being a costly venture as Hoteye was forced to switch his focus to a more defensive approach, easing the incessant waves and giving Naruto and his clone more breathing space.
The C-rank technique had yet to subside. The duo were caught in the fringes of cross-fire, their log bobbing dangerously, but not in any immediate danger of being blown back by the tremendous squall.
"Your turn," Naruto instructed the copy next to him.
The clone flashed him a quick thumbs up with his free hand. "Heh!" With a small hum of anticipation, he flung the rock up high, letting the wind from the great breakthrough direct it to the intended target, as he rushed through the familiar hand seals. From a measly rock, it multiplied into hundreds, thousands even. The lethal hail of rocks rained down upon its target, seeking blood.
In response, the gigantic hands clapped and seemingly dissolved to form a cocoon. It wrapped around Hoteye's form in a protective egg, defending him from the almighty black volley that swallowed the sky around them.
Naruto found himself reminiscing about what seemed like a past life ago. It wouldn't be the first time he cracked an absolute defence. Maybe it was time he tried something he used in practice.
It had been borne from Wendy's increased inclination towards the offensive nature of her Dragon Slayer magic, and to help her unlock the full potential of her signature technique. Her Sky Dragon's Roar had all the necessary power, rivalling even Fūton: Daitoppa in sheer output, but whereas his technique was made to have a large area of effect, hers wasn't. Her targets either had to be fixed or stalled for her attack to connect. She still lacked the proper control needed to steer her great torrent of destruction at fast-moving targets.
His line of thinking made his lips thin unconsciously.
Naruto let out a breath to clear his mind, forcing his chakra to pool at his hands before he started to manipulate the widespread gale of the combined C-rank techniques to his will. It was harder than it was in practice; Wendy's Tenryuu no Houkou naturally simulated the rotating nature of a tornado. Here, he had to force it by himself. But he hadn't mastered wind manipulation for naught.
The series of hand seals were unfamiliar and complicated, forcing him to forego speed in favour of accuracy; he had never been that good at hand seals anyway.
The effects were faint at first, but he could feel the widespread gust of wind thicken with a palpable tension. The wind gathered around Hoteye's cocoon, spinning and spinning as it began transforming from a shapeless form into a more solid and opaque vortex. The tornado began tearing into the watery earth, raising higher in the air, and rapidly gaining momentum.
To anyone else, it looked as if he had just gave his opponent an advantage in the form of another protective shell. In the eye of the storm, Hoteye's defence looked nigh impenetrable since the buffeting winds hardly made contact with his reinforced mud cocoon. But Naruto knew better.
He reached into his pouch and pulled out a single sheet of paper.
"Eh? You're really going to use that?"
Tagging the sheet to the ring of his kunai, he regarded the clone. "It works, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, if you say it like that... But isn't that batch the ones with the extremely volatile arrays? The dangerously unstable ones?"
It had become a small obsession of his for these past few months, delving into Fūinjutsu from what he had been able to glean during his time with Jiraiya-shishou. Jiraiya had tried his best to explain the seal on his stomach to him, but Naruto wasn't the best student in that regard; there had been a lot of moaning, frustrating grunts and straight-up physical abuse during their impromptu lessons. In the end, Naruto had come out from the other side with a modicum of talent and knowledge in Fūinjutsu.
Although their lessons were mostly concentrated on the basics of the art and specifically, the Eight Trigrams Sealing Style, he had tried branching out to other arrays, experimenting with what he knew and saw back home. That said, recreating a sealing array from scratch was a subtle and maddening process.
As for trying to recreate the Hiraishin by himself, it was just him being bored and hopeful.
Channelling wind chakra through the kunai, a translucent blue energy coated the narrow leaf-shaped blade. There was always a risk that it could shatter when doing so, considering the instability of the mass-manufactured weapon to properly channel elemental chakra; after all, it wasn't like one of Asuma-sensei's trench knives. But with luck, it could last for indefinite period.
With a deft flick, the kunai sailed at his target. His aim went slightly askew as it perforated the tornado, embedding itself at a slanted angle into the incredibly resistant defence Hoteye's cocoon provided. He wasn't even sure if the man knew what was going on outside his bubble of protection. Hell, the man had a Doujutsu, maybe he could see this.
Naruto then held up the 'snake' hand seal.
A thundering 'boom' resounded in the clearing, obliterating the sludge-like earth construct instantly. The explosion itself; however, was far stronger than the average exploding tag, and the blast bled into the eye of the storm, contained within the powerful walls of the tornado. With a violent 'swoosh', fire and soot flared up to the very top of the tornado, trapping Hoteye in the great conflagration. It spiralled around the counter-clockwise rotation before finally escaping into the atmosphere.
The attack dissipated not soon after.
Naruto took stock of the aftermath he had caused. The violent seas had calmed, and the treacherous whirlpools had receded back into the depths, leaving the swirling grooves in its place. The mass of trees that had been sucked into Hoteye's magic were jutting out of the earth, partially exposed in the air. Sensing it was safe to proceed Naruto took a tentative step forward—towards the downed form of his enemy.
Hoteye had almost succumbed to his wounds, breathing heavily as the tall mage was forced to his hands and knees. His strange tome was nowhere to be found, only the blackened singed pages that floated in the air was all that remained. The broken shards of his brown prayer beads was scattered around his hunched form. He pressed a hand to his shoulder, blood seeping from the wound and staining the white V-collar of his loose shirt, which was already covered in soot, red.
Hoteye finally looked up, his face similarly covered in soot and littered with large, disfiguring cuts that extended down to his massive torso.
Naruto assumed that it was from the shrapnel caused by when the exploding tag obliterated the primed kunai. All in all, he was quite surprised that he had been able to best the mage with a simple exploding tag. He had only toyed with it as a distraction for a more punishing follow-up to end the fight.
It was kind of anti-climatic, considering that he was hardly even winded.
But then again, how could someone from Earthland comprehend a relic from back home? To them, it must have looked like an ordinary sheet of paper. Even Wendy had giggled when he tried to explain the concept of a sheet of paper that could explode; she had assumed that it was some kind of game.
That second reminder caused him to frown, and he found himself walking closer to Hoteye.
"Tell me where my team is!"
Hoteye still had some fight left in him as he swayed to his feet, levelling his free hand, the one stained with blood, at Naruto.
"I shall tell you nothing!" Holding his arms out parallel to the ground, Hoteye shouted, "Even if I perish here, I will take you to hell with me!" He brought his arms together with a resounding clap.
There was a deep rumble in the earth, and unlike before, Naruto could actually feel the ground quake beneath his feet. He could finally see why. Two veritable tsunamis of liquified earth, one at each side of him and standing taller than even the thick and lofty canopy of the Worth Woodsea, rose up, bulldozing all the obstacles in its way towards them. The two of them were at the heart of it; it was as if Hoteye had parted the sea and they stood on the empty seabed. The mage was hell-bent on trying to sandwich and bury him under its crushing depths.
A last ditch kamikaze attack.
Gathering his clones, Naruto hastily ordered them to work, "The two of you, take the one on the left. And you guys, the right. Got it?" They saluted sharply and he set off on a run. "Don't do it so close to us! We need him alive and I don't want to get sucked in by the blast!" He didn't know whether they heard his last command as they started manipulating the tendrils of blue chakra into its sister technique—the Ōdama Rasengan.
Shaking his head, he set his mind back to the task at hand: stopping Hoteye's final act of desperation.
The massive mage was seemingly defenceless as Naruto encountered no resistance interrupting his charge. With another big push forward, Naruto got inside his guard and raised his left arm to block a clumsy strike from Hoteye. Clenching his other fist tight, he thrust it against the man's side, hearing a audible 'omfph'.
Hoteye doubled over, but Naruto refused to ease up. Jumping slightly, Naruto smashed Hoteye's face into his knee. Hoteye staggered back, his eyes already rolling up to their whites, dangerously close to toppling over and falling flat on his back. But with the fluidity expected of a shinobi, Naruto twisted in mid-air and snapped out a kick with his other leg, sending Hoteye to go flying back into a tree, and hopefully, far enough to escape his own suicide bid. Landing lightly on two feet, he turned—just in time to see his clones drive his first original A-rank techniques into the imposing and seemingly unstoppable forces of nature.
He was still pretty damn close to it.
So much for anti-climatic...
:Can you hear me, Naruto? Naruto-san?:
There was an annoyed grunt, followed by a small moan.
"Ugh, I'm here," Naruto grumbled aloud, pushing off a thick branch that had landed on him in the resultant explosion. His ears were still ringing and he blinked, trying to get rid of the after-image of horrifying white from his eyes. Even with a Kawarimi, he had been unable to fully escape the shockwave of the two powerful forces colliding.
Where was that big guy?
Naruto could hear a sigh of relief coming from the telepathy link. :Good, you're alright. There was a terrible explosion coming from your direction. We think that an Oración Seis member may be involved in—:
"Uh, actually," Naruto cut Hibiki off. "That was me. No worries though, I took care of it."
:You... took care of it?:
"Yeah, I won. It was that really big guy with orange hair. I can't remember what his name was, but I'm going to bring him back and see what he knows about Wendy and Charle." He looked around the aftermath of the devastation, trying to single out a strand of orange hair. "When I find him, that is."
:About that,: Hibiki said brightly. :I've got some good news to relay as well. They've found your team, Naruto-san. Natsu and Happy are bringing them to us as we speak.:
He perked up considerably. It seemed he owed Fairy Tail something big. "Really?! They're all right?"
:Physically, as well as can be. But... Natsu did mention that Wendy-san remains inconsolable about something that happened during her abduction. His explanation wasn't all that clear.:
"What?! What did those bastards do to her?!"
:I'm afraid you have to ask her that yourself, Naruto-san. I'm in the dark as you are.: There was a small pause. :Hurry back.:
With that, Hibiki cut off the link to his telepathy magic, leaving Naruto to stew quietly at the host's words. Although a large part of him was relieved that his team was safe, that feeling, the one driving him forward, was not sated. It had been gnawing at his conscience ever since. He had been culpable for his team's abduction and yet couldn't even properly redeem himself by saving them.
He had failed them this time around.
Balling his fists tight, Naruto buried that feeling deep inside and with a deep breath he set forth, leaping towards a displaced tree—only to hear a loud groan emanate from below him.
He looked down.
That big guy...
"Eep! N-Naruto!" Lucy cried out, arms angling up over her head.
It was like the first time they met; the blond had popped up in front of her out of nowhere. Another Naruto followed not soon after, dropping down from one of the surrounding trees and carrying the prone and bound form of a man draped over his shoulder.
She let out another terrified squeak. "W-Wait, isn't that one of the Oración Seis?"
It was the same one who had triumphed over Lyon and Sherry during the previous fight, Hoteye, if she remembered correctly, and here he was, getting dumped onto the ground next to his shrivelled-up guild mate.
Naruto gave her a strange look. "Yeah," he said, oh so casually—like it was a common occurence to him.
The teen in question didn't even look winded or worse-for-wear, the only blip she noticed was that the trimmings of his poncho was slightly muddy. She may have overestimated his handicap when Naruto fought against Gajeel, but this was on a whole other level.
What kind of monster was he?
He gave her a faint smile before running over to his teammates. "Wendy! Charle!"
There was an odd quality to Charle's voice Lucy couldn't quite place when the small cat shouted his name back:
Much like Happy, her white wings materialised on her back and she took to the air, flying towards the blond. Naruto made the motion to embrace her, but Charle bypassed his arms and dove straight through his stomach, making him double over and tumble to the ground on his butt.
"Oufhhh!" He remained still for a time. "I probably deserve that."
Yeah, some sort of insane, unstoppable monster apparently.
Charle beat her tiny paws against his chest, pouring out her strained frustrations on him. "You deserve more than just that! Gallivanting out in a forest for what? Scouting? Trying to destroy Nirvana? Having the cheek to lie to me? To Wendy? Are we even your teammates?" Her face twisted into a snarl. "This is on you, Naruto! This is all on you! Look at what your recklessness has amounted to! Who knows what would have happened if Natsu-san didn't come? They could have... t-they—"
Naruto recovered, having been stunned into a stupor by Charle's tirade, to embrace his teammate close, muffling her against his poncho.
"Sorry," he said softly, then proceeded to whisper a few more words into her ear.
His apology was faint and Lucy strained her ears to hear the rest of it; too caught up in eavesdropping on their conversation to stop. Guilt blossomed in her conscience. She was intruding on an intimate moment between the two. Unconsciously, Lucy drew her eyes away, finding Hibiki staring back at her, his brows rising up in surprise. Whatever he was trying to convey was lost on her.
Next to her, Natsu gazed at Hoteye's prone form with open longing, his fists clenching and unclenching slowly as spurts of fire started to erupt around his hand. She inched back a step as the heat given off by the Fire Dragon Slayer was starting to get unbearable. Her close companion was uncharacteristically serious, locking his jaws tight.
She never did ask him what happened during Wendy's and Charle's rescue bid.
Just as she was about to, Charle's biting voice stopped her, "Get off me. Your clothes are muddy... and you smell." The feline pushed him off, stepping off his person and walking away to settle down by Wendy's side. She gave Naruto a pointed look and furtively gestured to Wendy.
The young girl hadn't even looked up once when Naruto arrived; her long, dark hair shadowing her features from view. With her legs folded underneath her thighs, Wendy methodically worked on her patient—Erza. A pale blue glow emanated from her hands as she set it over parts of the redhead's body, washing over her form like a soothing and welcoming embrace.
All her hope was riding on Wendy being able to cure their unofficial team leader from the debilitating poison.
Wendy had done a remarkable job with Jura, saving him from the brink of near-death. Lucy had been there to witness it with quiet awe. Most of his injuries were healed to the point that not even a scar tarnished his muscular frame. Jura remained unmoving. However, she noticed his beady black eyes peek open, his vision unfocused.
Even as Naruto knelt by Wendy's side, the young girl didn't acknowledge his presence. He said nothing at first but leaned in close, cradling her head to his chest and ignoring the faint sheet of dust that coated her hair.
Naruto's voice was tentative and tender, "Wendy..."
It wasn't long before her body quivered as racking sobs started to fall free against his poncho. Her curative spell wavered, flickering and dimming before it died down.
Erza had regained a healthy red flush in her cheeks, whereas compared to her deathly pale and sickly complexion when the poison had ravaged her system earlier. Even Lucy could sense that the knight was beginning to stir as her body began to respond to Wendy's treatment.
Suddenly, a pillar of light gushed up from the earth behind them, quite a distance from their location, towering towards the sky. Visible streams of dark magic started to intertwine with the pillar, corroding its natural silvery-white and staining it with a cold and sinister black. There was an intense battle in which the two warring sides vied for control, but it was short-lived as the black energy started to consume the entire pillar, bathing the forest in an eerie and unnatural glow. The palpable tension in the air became thick with a suffocating malicious presence.
Lucy shivered, gasping. "Is that... N-Nirvana? Does that mean we failed?!"
"That all remains on who got to it first," Hibiki said, pressing his fingers against his temple. "One of ours or theirs..."
"No, it's him," Natsu growled lowly much to Lucy's surprise. "Jellal is there."
A muffled, anguished sob silenced the group.
"It's my fault," Wendy whispered, her subdued voice was raspy and despondent. Clenching her eyes shut, she clung closer to Naruto's chest as she poured her heart out, "They got to Nirvana because of me. I didn't w-want to do it, but they had Charle... And when they showed me who it was, I-I couldn't stop myself." Naruto tried to shush her, but her teary eyes begged him to believe her. "I owed him so much, so I had to bring him back. I just... I just wanted to see Jellal again so much! It's my fault, Naruto! It's all my fault!"
"Hey, hey, listen. You're not to blame for this, Wendy," Naruto said, cupping her face in his hands and forcing her to look up at him. "It's because of me, okay? You and Charle should never have been in that situation in the first place. Do you understand? Wendy? Wen—"
Her eyes suddenly fluttered close and Wendy fell limp into his arms, unconscious.
The two successive bouts of healing had taken a lot out of the young Dragon Slayer, and Lucy silently admired how Wendy had held out for this long. Quietly, Naruto set her down gently before brushing the few strands of hair that had splayed across her face.
Even unconscious, she looked troubled.
"Wa-Wait!" Lucy started, finally noting something amiss as she pointed to the vacant spot near Naruto. "Where's Erza?! She was right there like a second ago!"
"Damnit," Natsu snarled suddenly, refusing to draw his attention away from the pillar of black light. "I know where she's going. We can't let Erza meet that guy again! I'm going to stop him! No matter what!" With an unwavering growl, he charged forward with Happy ever present at his side. Wisps of orange flames trailed in his footsteps, leaving black scorched earth in his wake.
"Oi, Natsu! Happy!" Lucy screamed to their backs.
Inwardly, she was torn between staying behind with the others and chasing after her rogue teammates. Inexplicably, her eyes were drawn towards Naruto, who looked confused before nodded lightly in response. Determination started to set in her bone as she straightened. Throughout the mission, she had done little else but fail her teammates. It was time for Lucy Heartfilia to step up and be held accountable as a Fairy Tail mage.
"You guys, wait for me!"
Naruto watched Lucy's retreating form, baffled as to why the Celestial Spirit mage would look to him for answers so suddenly. Even with their short-lived meeting in Hargeon Town all those months ago, he hardly knew her.
It was the same with Erza as well.
In the thick of the confusion between Nirvana's sudden activation and Wendy's confession, Naruto was caught flat-footed when he felt a body make his way past his back. He had to be a failure as a ninja if he didn't catch it, but her steps were graceful and silent. No one else noticed her disappearance. It wasn't long before he noticed a streak of red hair and a glimpse of a leopard-printed blur zipping through the forest.
The figure had hesitated upon sensing his gaze and stopped dead. Her brown eyes pleaded silently with his, conveying her gratefulness to her saviour and her regret at not being able to stick around to help. Her lips thinned into a firm line before she set off, obviously with a purpose in mind—towards the pillar of black light.
"I'll give Fairy Tail one thing," Hibiki said. "They're an eager lot. So what will you do now, Naruto-san? Two of the Oración Seis have been subdued. That leaves four more members and of course, Nirvana. That alone is a daunting task I might add."
Naruto couldn't help but frown. "Why is everybody asking me all of a sudden?"
Hibiki looked amused, saying, "Perhaps we're drawn to your leadership? The rest are starting to look at you as the unofficial leader for the Light Alliance."
"But you're the one giving out all the orders..."
"And that makes me a leader? I'm afraid not, Naruto-san. I lack... a certain quality compared to you. Look, I made the choice to stick by you when the whole double agent act of yours divided the group. Of course, nerves were frayed, and all of us were on edge thinking about the possibility of losing Wendy and Charle to Oración Seis, and Erza and Jura to their injuries."
"Your point being?" Naruto asked him.
"Well, even if you have made a few questionable calls that really isn't here nor there, you have this... ability to make people want to put their faith in you, despite everything that happened or will happen."
Naruto blinked once. "Yeah, I may have heard that once or twice before."
Hibiki shared a rueful grin. "If you're dead set on rejecting it, then we will be forced to disband unless someone else has the means to take over. If it was up to me, I'd nominate Ichiya-aniki, but he has enough on his plate as it is."
"Then we're all doomed either way," Charle said as she made her way towards them.
Naruto scowled at the feline. "Cut me some slack, Charle. I'm not that bad."
"I will when you—"
"—deserve it. Yeah, I know. Not the first time you said that to me."
Charle rolled her eyes at him. "Well, oh great leader, what do you propose we do now?"
That was a good question. Having failed to suss out the location of Nirvana during his earlier scouting mission, the chance had instead fallen on Oración Seis' doorstep. Under their reign, it made Nirvana a credible threat to every man, woman and child in the Kingdom. He couldn't, not in good conscience, put Chief Roubaul's request before that of the entire Kingdom.
Every measure had to be taken to stop it first.
"Well," Naruto started. "Maybe Natsu was right about finding whoever this Jellal guy is. If Oración Seis went through so much trouble for this guy to awaken Nirvana, it's possible he knows how to stop it too. Did Wendy ever say anything about him to you, Charle? The way she talked about him just now... it sounded as if she knew him on a personal level."
"No, and I would have remembered if she mentioned knowing a disgraced council member and Wizard Saint. Also, didn't he disappear after the Etherion incident?" Charle put a paw to her chin. "That's strange... Do you think it happened before she met us? Back when she was with Grandine?"
"Yeah, maybe. But now that I think about it, Wendy never did tell us much about her life before she joined the guild. She always said that it was because of—"
"A friend!" both of them answered together.
"Wow," Charle breathed, looking down at their unconscious teammate. "You don't think it was Jellal who brought her to the guild, do you?"
"I dunno. It sounds far-fetched, but it could've happened."
"She's friends with a Wizard Saint? I wonder why Wendy kept that from us," Charle muttered, her features scrunching up in disapproval. "It's just so... unlike her to do something like that."
"We all have our secrets," Hibiki explained simply.
Naruto shrugged, nonplussed. "Everyone has their reason, I guess. That's not important now. Jellal seems to be our best bet to stopping Nirvana. Since Fairy Tail are already heading there, maybe we'll find the rest of them there too."
"The rest?" Hibiki asked. "You mean our allies or the Oración Seis?"
"Then, you will need help, Naruto-dono." Coughing, the recently revived Jura swayed to his feet and furrowed his panda-like brows. "Jellal Fernandes is not an easy opponent. Even if the rumours surrounding his appointment have muddied his reputation, the title of a Wizard Saint is not one to be given lightly. Jellal Fernandes or Seigrain, whichever persona he adopts, remains a threat."
"Oh, you've met the guy?" Naruto asked him.
Jura nodded as he tried to stand tall, eliciting a tiny grimace from the towering mage. "Once, which I now believe to be his thought projection, Seigrain." He shook his head and moved closer to the group. "That boy was arrogant and foolhardy, even if he tried to mask it. Though, I do have to admit, despite his flaws, Jellal is not an opponent that one should ever take lightly."
"Jura-san, are you sure you're alright to move around?"
"Please, Hibiki-dono. I am perfectly fine." The Wizard Saint held up a hand, placing it against his exposed abdomen, where the Ichiya imposter had wounded him; the scarring was now a mere memory. "And it is all thanks to Wendy-dono. I have never come across a Dragon Slayer before, much less one like her. She possesses one of the most remarkable magic I have ever seen."
"Yeah, turns out that you're not the only one who knows that now." With a quick hand seal, Naruto summoned a clone. Crouching, the clone gently heaved the unconscious girl on his back, letting Wendy rest her head upon his shoulder. "Come on, we better get moving. Nirvana isn't going to wait for us. We still need to—"
A piercing scream interrupted him.
Like a precursor to something worse, the pillar of light above them began to shudder. In the blink of an eye, the black light faded, giving way to its previous silvery-grey.
"Ah, love~ is in the air! Can't you feel its heavenly warmth caressing your very soul? I have seen the light and it is thanks to you all, my friends~!"
Hoteye sat up, still bounded by the ninja wire Naruto had previously trapped him in. He tried to stand, but his fastened legs were unable to support his outrageously disproportionate torso. The man ended up hopping on his butt slightly, smiling radiantly like the sun; the effects were lessened however by the disfiguring bruises and cuts that littered his face.
"Come, friends~! Free me from these unearthly bonds and we shall rejoice! Nya ha! Rejoice, I say!"
The four of them were in varying stages of awe and disbelief; Naruto, himself, preferring to just gawk at the born-again mage. Next to him, Hibiki laughed nervously before adding:
"Right, I forgot to explain what exactly Nirvana is capable of..."
"Natsu! Happy!" Lucy breathed out an anxious murmur, daring to shout once more, "Where are you guys?" After all, it wouldn't do if some of the minor dark guilds under Oración Seis caught wind of her location. A helpless blonde lost in the forest... alone.
It sounded like some bad fairy tale.
Shivering from the thought of being caught in an ambush, she rubbed her arms worriedly. Common sense dictated that Natsu would most likely be at the pillar of light, but that meant that she would have to traverse the forest by her lonesome. Maybe it was more prudent to turn back and regroup with Naruto and the rest.
If only she remembered which way she came from...
Suddenly, Lucy heard the soft crinkle of a footstep near her and struggled not to let out a yelp. A strand of shocking pink stood out, as a pair of delicate hands brushed aside the surrounding shrub and made her way towards Lucy, who sighed in relief.
"Sherry? Are you alright?"
Dazed, Sherry continued her trek forward, unmindful of Lucy's question—her blue eyes vacant. She was a mess. The exposed parts of her skin were dotted with minor cuts and angry red welts, and her lovely pink tresses were now haphazard and dishevelled, as were her clothes. It took her a while to finally register Lucy's presence.
"Oh, what's this?" Sherry pondered out loud, releasing a breathless, manic giggle.
It caused Lucy to furrow her brows and back up a step. "A-Ah, Sherry... w-what happened? A-And where's Lyon? Didn't he—"
"Not another word, you weaselly bitch! Don't you dare utter his name in front of me!" she hissed contemptously, before giggling madly once more. "Oh, well... but what's another fairy for Lyon-sama's sake?" Her expression turned downright vile as she brought her hands level to her chest.
It was a first for Lucy; to receive not one death threat, but two in the same day. With a strangled yell, she dived to the right, narrowly avoiding a pair of wooden hands that sprouted from a tree behind her and tried to trap her within its gaunt and irregular fingers.
As Sherry pushed her arms out, she curled her fingers into a fist. The tree—now a possessed doll-make construct with haunting and equally creepy hollow features—followed suit to her non-verbal command. Swinging wildly, the treant lumbered forward, landing a clumsy haymaker down on the ground, dangerously close to catching her. It left a deep impression, moulded in a giant fist, raining down earth and shards of bark in the air.
Unconsciously, Lucy scrambled away from the rampaging monstrosity and picked out Taurus, but Sherry's condescending giggle stopped her cold.
"Awww, trying the same old thing again, Lucy? Are you honestly that pathetic? I would have at least expected you to learn something new." Sherry placed a hand over her mouth, shielding a coy smile. "Like I did..."
A thick tree root shot up, penetrating through the earth and wrapped a tendril around Lucy's ankles. She tried to struggle and wriggle herself free, but it was in vain as she was yanked into the air, dangling by her feet. Her transgressor remained in place, inverted however, and with another simple gesture, commanded the lone root to shake her—much like a bully would do to his victim.
Red-faced, Lucy shouted, "W-What's the point of this?!"
As cute as the dress was, Lucy couldn't help but scorn Virgo's choice of wardrobe right now. She struggled to keep her modesty in check, one hand was tugging the hemline over her thighs to stop from exposing her laced panties to the world. With the other, she reached over to her shoulder, draping an arm over her chest before something else was exposed too.
Honestly, she should have gone back to get her bra first...
Sherry looked pleased with herself. "It's to rid you of your keys and humiliate you, of course. Oh, and let's not forget this!" She brought her hand down like a whip, and the root duly complied by smashing Lucy's flailing body to the ground.
Pain flooded her senses, as her limbs were paralysed by the sudden shock to her system. It was only by instinct that Lucy twisted her body to the side, cushioning the impact slightly with her arm, but it did nothing to the resounding crack of her bones protesting upon impact. Stunned, she lay on the ground unmoving, her vision clouded by a blinding white haze of pain. Distantly, she was aware that she was being pulled back up in the air—like a helpless marionette lolling on its strings.
"So how does the 'heroine' act when there's no one to save her? Boohoo~ She starts crying." Sherry pouted patronisingly and let out a spiteful giggle. "You may have gotten lucky the last time we met, but blind luck won't help you twice. So for you, Lucy, I'll make it slow and agonising. Because of what you and your guild have done to Lyon-sama, I will take my vengeance out on you."
Lucy choked out a gobble of blood. It dripped from the corners of her mouth, diluted with saliva and tears as it trekked down her cheeks and pooled near her eyes, obscuring the vaguest outline of her former ally, who made another exaggerated gesture with her hands. Lucy could only manage a whimper before her lifeless body met the ground for the second time.
"Come now, Lucy. It wouldn't be fun if you don't play along. What else do I have to do to hear you scream? Do I have to get your friends here in front of you? It wouldn't be too hard. I've already dealt with Gray, and Erza's almost dead from the poison. Natsu, well Natsu, will be a cinch. Almost everyone knows his weakness, right?" Pausing, an ugly sneer came over her features as a look of pure malice soon took over. "Are you even listening to me?!"
An actual glimmer of hope—that's what Lucy saw; a glimmer of silver lying just in reach of her fingers. She took hold of it, mindful that her attacker would not see her. The engraving on the key was foreign to her touch, and she knew instinctively that it was not one of hers. It was most probably the new trio of keys she received from the cursed Oración Seis mage. There was only one way to know whether it was still contracted to Angel, and that was to see whether the foreign spiritwould answer her call.
Despite the odds, Lucy gripped it hard.
Sherry dragged her up again, ordering the menacing treant to stand before Lucy. "I said, are you—"
Mustering all the strength she had left in her broken body, Lucy shakily brought the key forward, pointing at the advancing treant. Her whole body was trembling from the effort of raising something so insignificantly light that it felt like she was carrying a lead weight. But fuelled from the anger and drive to put down the woman who dared to threaten her teammates, she poured every single ounce of magic and the sheer desperation within her being into the Celestial key, hoping against hope that it would come to her aid.
At first, there was nothing.
Then, in a flash of blinding light, it appeared, hovering in front of her in its dull metallic glory—the Celestial Spirit: The Chisel.
The silver spherical spirit with the almost translucent halo had deep vertical tracings running through the length of its body—designed as a means for its transformation abilities. At the centre of the sphere, a darker shade of grey covered its width, making the green circular light, which seemed to be its lone eye, all the more prominent.
It responded to Lucy's summons with a series of intermittent beeps and clicks. Then, its single eye locked onto the stunned treant and owner, flashing from green to red. It quickly expanded; its mechanical joints whirring into life, as the tracings around its body popped out, revealing its rapidly expanding interior compartments. Within seconds, it finally settled, crashing down onto the ground on its newly-introduced stabilising mount. The centre of the sphere parted, giving way to a futuristic-looking cannon with its trademark halo suspended over its sleek barrel.
With a wave of her hand, Sherry's tree doll suddenly shrivelled slightly, its movement increasingly erratic before it stilled entirely. It seemed there was a cooldown between each possession as the hauntingly eerie features took longer to fade away, but just as Sherry started forward, obviously intent on relieving Lucy of her Celestial Spirit, it was already primed to attack.
Beeping rapidly, the translucent halo began to fill up at an incredible rate, much like a power gauge; even if she couldn't fully understand her new spirit, she could almost tell instinctively that it was pooling every ounce of magic and the sheer desperation she had poured into it. It started to glow a brilliant green when it reached completion.
Then Lucy heard it, a familiar boyish voice, hoarse and distant, shouting at her:
Without fanfare, her new Celestial Spirit fired.
It was nothing like Lucy had ever witness before, especially coming from her. She had never been the one with the flashy, ultimate attack; she was wholly reliant on whatever her spirits had to offer at their disposal. However, the power behind this seemingly innocuous machine was unparalleled.
It was said that the spirits were only as strong as its master, and it would be quite a while before she fully realised what it really meant; that strength wasn't merely brute force, but something much more.
A beam of purest white consumed the once menacing treant, sparing it no mercy as it vaporised instantly upon contact. Its owner, momentarily shielded behind her towering treant doll, stood there slack-jawed—her blues eyes were wide as she stared, unblinking. Her death seemed almost certain had the beam of light not curve away from her person at the last second, singing parts of her hair and dress from the heat given off by the attack. The Chisel's cannon blast continued on with its path of destruction through the forest, tearing through the customary trees and rocks before it finally died down.
Sherry collapsed to her knees, her eyes still unfocused and her body trembling at her near-death experience. Unknown to Lucy, a faint, translucent dark energy seeped away from her body, drifting in the air before disappearing from view.
It released her hold over the tree root, making Lucy fall flat on the ground with a small and tired 'oomph'. She lay there, still unmoving and breathing heavily from her wounds. Above her, she could hear the beeps and occasional whirs of the robotic Celestial Spirit, now shaped back into its default spherical form. If she was honest with herself, she could have sworn its speech patterns sounded as if it was curious of its new situation.
Hmm... actually that may have been the concussion talking.
"Oi, Lyon! Get your ass over here!"
The last thing she remembered was being pulled into a pair of strong, lean arms as a shade of black hair shrouded her increasingly blurry vision. For the second time, in just a few scant hours, she fell unconscious again, cursing her weak constitution. Why couldn't she stay awake when it mattered?
Still, Lucy felt content.
That was for trying to mess with her guild.
Fuck, Cobra cursed inwardly.
The damning light was blinding his corneas, and there he stood, right in front of the magnificent tower bathed in white light that appeared after Nirvana's activation. He craned his neck upwards, trying to understand what the hell Jellal had just done.
Damn amnesiac bastard with his chronic saving people syndrome.
Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!
He didn't know what he was doing, his eyes trailing after the detailed runes interconnected and layered into several levels—complex runes which he couldn't even understand in the first place. It was pretty sophisticated shit, and he wasn't the smartest guy if he was honest with himself.
Is it this?
Couldn't be that now, could it?
Sensing his distress, Cuberos slithered to his side, hissing what could only be calming sounds to soothe his frayed nerves.
"Jellal! Tell me the cancelling code!" Cobra roared.
The former Wizard Saint ignored him, favouring to focus his attention on the miraculously revived Erza Scarlet. Cobra had told Hoteye—he had fucking warned that money-obsessed buffon—that leaving things half-assed would bite them back in the ass. Losing the Sky Dragon Slayer was worse. It meant that the Light Alliance was now all but restored in strength. So much for things going according to plan.
Worse, word from Brain was that Hoteye had fallen. Cheh! That idiot better be dead or so help him...
Unable to decipher the dizzying array of runes in front of him, Cobra could only watch the pussy-shit romance play out. If this was a show, he'd jeer just for the sake of how fucking cheesy it was.
Okay, maybe that may have been his vindictive side.
Jellal was smiling thinly as he placed a hand against his chest. "Erza Scarlet, I feel kindness, brightness and warmth coming from that name. You may hate me now and curse my very existence, but I hope, in the future, you'll come to understand why—why I can't go there... to stand in front of you."
He didn't need this fucking melodrama now! He needed the cancelling codes!
Jellal started to fall back, his arms held out. A circular rune glowed before him, hovering over his heart. It quickly branched out, interlocking with a series of angular shapes that covered the width of his torso.
"I'll take your hatred... your sadness... and your regret with me..."
Was that bastard going to take the cancelling codes with him to the grave?
"Be free, Erza Scarlet."
Aw, fuck no.
Emerging from the forest, Natsu barrelled into the clearing with his faithful feline sidekick in tow, looking as every bit as livid and menacing as the Fire Dragon Slayer, though it made the stupid cat look more comical than menacing. His clothes were in tatters and he was breathing heavily, probably from the feeble resistance their minor dark guilds provided when he encountered them. Although, when Natsu locked eyes with Cobra, he looked just as dumbfounded.
"Argh, you're here too!" Natsu shouted at him.
It was just what Cobra needed—another fucktard to ruin it.
That was the second time today he messed up and let somebody slip under his notice. He was getting sloppy. But that was when Cobra heard it. The incessant 'clanking' pressing closer to their location, which was followed by the harsh, atypical march of their leader.
Honestly, he was relieved. Brain was the only one capable to stop the self-destruction runes on Nirvana. If there was one thing he could do to help his leader, it was to rid him of one less distraction.
"Come on, you old-school bastard! This time, I'll put you down for real! No more repeats!" Cobra smirked as Cuberos spread open its wings and took flight, leaving Natsu fuming on the ground, undecided between going after him or Jellal. He decided to help ease the idiot's decision by gesturing crudely with a finger.
The fight was on.
Down below, the minute form of Brain advanced towards the brilliant glow of Nirvana with Jellal and Erza still preoccupied in their little reunion. There was no doubt now. Cobra could practically hear it: the sound of the light collapsing before their new-found might.
Nirvana would be theirs.
"Even if it does sound highly improbable, I must admit you certainly do prove the case, Hoteye-dono."
Looking at the person in question, Naruto frowned.
Hoteye nodded serenely. "Nya ha! Indeed, Jura-san, but please, as my friends, you may all call me Richard. And while Nirvana does have the powers to alter the personalities of those wavering in their beliefs, what we're seeing now is merely the first stage. Even I am unacquainted with what happens next."
The rest had decided to relieve him of the ninja wire Naruto had ensnared him in. Naruto did voice out his hesitation. This was the same guy who had tried to kill him too. Ever the two peas in a pod, Charle was on the same wavelength.
Travelling alongside the two behemoths of Jura and Hoteye, the small form of Charle proved to be an odd sight. "So, you were doing all this just to find this brother of yours? How exactly does Nirvana help to achieve that?"
Hoteye looked glum; it was a rare feat considering that it was the first time Charle had spoken to him at all. "I once believed it was for the sake of earning enough to fund a search for Wally. Reflecting on that now, it turned out to be a misguided effort driven purely by my greed."
"Hmm, I see..." Charle then took a paw to her chin, brooding. "But what are the chances that someone could relapse and have their previous personality take over again? Anger, hatred or doubt are all common things to experience; they're all impulsive feelings that could be triggered so easily. So what's stopping him from becoming all evil again?" Charle found herself being subjected to a few wary stares. "What?" she said defensively. "Is being sceptical going to put me under Nirvana's influence?"
"Most likely not, but that is a moot point," Hibiki said. "To be honest, Nirvana's history is too muddled with inaccuracies. For all we know, Richard here could just very well kill us when our backs are turned."
"Nya ha! I won't."
"But then again... one could argue that everything is subjective to the individual. You just have to look and see that the proof is right here in front of us."
Hoteye was downcast. "Yet, it does not excuse the deeds I've done in the past in my pursuit for money. But this shall be my first step to redemption!" An inviting smile followed. "I shall help my new friends stop the madness that I've once wrought! By my honour, Nirvana will be destroyed!"
"Yes, yes, he's sincere about helping us," Charle said. "But you're horribly deluded to think that just because you're able to see that someone's reformed, then he's no longer capable of committing evil. Evil itself is subjective. This isn't some fairy tale where the hero is the epitome of good and the villain is the antithesis."
"Actually, because of Nirvana, it has turned out to be ridiculously similar—barring the fairy tale, of course."
"No," Charle said, scowling at Hibiki. "What I mean is that even good-natured people could be consumed by such impulsive feelings; jealousy, anger; no matter how much they try to suppress it when they're pushed beyond their breaking point. Isn't that right, Naruto?"
Baffled, Naruto nodded. "Yeah, if you put it that way."
"There!" Charle exclaimed victoriously. "So that proves that—"
The bipedal cat stopped, halting in her steps. Her eyes gained this unfocused look as her vision clouded over. Then, she started shivering and a cold sweat started to pour over her brows and down her cheeks.
Worried, Naruto kneeled down to nudge his teammate. "Charle, what's wrong?"
Charle flinched back from his touch as if it was fire and swatted it away. "N-Nothing," she muttered quietly, avoiding his questioning gaze. "I'm just tired."
Naruto silently acquiesced with a nod.
Whatever it was, the small cat wasn't comfortable with sharing it with everyone else present. What remained was an awkward air between the two teammates. They remained close physically, but the fact that Charle seemed hell-bent on avoiding him after her little episode should have been obvious to the rest. Despite the sudden episode, the Cait Shelter trio tried to put up a united front.
"So... what was it you wanted to say earlier?" Hibiki asked, trying to restart the conversation.
Shaking her head, Charle said, "It's—whatever... it was nothing important."
"Wait," Naruto said suddenly, placing a finger to his lips. "Can anybody else hear that?" He had his head bowed, trying to single out the mysterious rumble. "It kinda sounds like something underground is moving." Narrowing his eyes, he turned to Hoteye. "This isn't your doing again, is it?"
Hoteye could only shake his head.
Suddenly, the very earth was split apart with a deafening rumble, as six long, gigantic appendages rose up from beneath the earth; the granite construct was stained with a dark brown and light rustic orange after centuries of disuse. The unearthed appendages sent shards of bark and lumps of soil into the air, raining down upon the group. Jura was kind enough to shelter them from the worst of it by summoning a crude awning with his earth magic. It wasn't long before the main body was raised, with an abandoned ancient city settled atop it.
"That can't be anything else but Nirvana, right?" Naruto asked aloud.
He already had an inkling about Nirvana's true form from Chief Roubaul, so it had come but a little shock to his system. Of course, he debated with himself to simply whack the supposed self-regenerating castle-like structure with a Rasenshuriken, but then decided against it. He could never be sure whether his attack could unintentionally hurt an ally if something went awry.
It was another reason why he should have done this mission alone.
"I never imagined it would be this big," Hibiki breathed quietly. "No wonder they call it one of the lost legendary magic."
"Destroying that will not be an easy feat," Jura rumbled anxiously, frowning as the octopus legs started to work in tandem to move forward, away from them. "And whoever is controlling this behemoth seems to have an objective in mind. We should move quickly."
The Ancient Capital of Nirvit was a large, sprawling metropolitan of dull brown segmented into several levels. The architecture seemed to be conceived straight from the twisted mind of a horror novelist—with its spiralling, pointed rooftops that dotted the skyline of the capital and the eerie web-like designs of the buildings. In the centre of everything, stood a large tower of mysterious origins. Perhaps it would have been magnificent in its prime centuries ago, but time had done a number on the ancient city, leaving it in a state of haunting, almost ethereal, beauty that only a few would appreciate. It was remarkably well-preserved after being locked underground for so long. Some would call it a centuries old memory preserved in a time capsule.
To Naruto, whose eyes kept shifting around the area as if waiting for a ghostly apparition to pop up, especially in the windows of the numerous abandoned abodes, he had one word to describe it:
"This place is creepy," he said, shivering.
Climbing aboard the moving construct proved to be less of a hassle than it seemed. Jura and Hoteye were able to team up and use some kind of earth-based spell to lift them into the air; it was something akin to a snaking stairwell that they could control in tandem. Charle dealt with Hibiki easily enough, and that left Naruto, his clone and Wendy to sprint up the insanely large tentacle leg.
As luck would have it, Wendyhad finally come to her senses once aboard Nirvana. Although, she hadn't fully recovered from the sudden drain of her reserves. Her repeated usage of her healing ability was a taxing strain on her body. At the very least, their small party of six was almost at full strength.
"Oh, that's right," Charle said. "I forgot you were a coward."
The duo tried to restore some normality into their group again by bickering amongst themselves. It was, however, purely for show and intended solely for one person, but it seemed that she wasn't paying them any mind; her keen sense of smell and hearing had aided their group well with their search aboard Nirvana.
Wendy covered a hand over the top of her eyes, squinting. "Ah, is that Natsu-san?"
The two airborne figures finally came into view, darting above the backdrop of the ancient city like a pair of buzzing insects. The fighting duo were closer towards the north-east end of the mysterious, looming tower—almost on the other end of where they climbed from. Occasionally, the darkening twilight of the skies was punctuated by a bellowing and frustrating shout courtesy of Natsu.
"So what do we do now?" Hibiki asked, grimacing. "It's obvious that the rest of the Oración Seis are there, but our priority now should be to stop this thing from reaching its destination. Should we go our separate ways? Divide and conquer, if you will?"
Naruto pointed to the tower. "We could probably stop Nirvana if we head there. The controls are probably inside. Where else could it be?"
"...You can't honestly believe it'd be that simple?"
Charle spoke up, "Actually Hibiki-san, despite his rather simplistic logic, it does make the most sense. The tower does provide the height required to navigate Nirvana, and the fact that its design alone stands out from the rest proves that it must at least be some kind of important landmark."
Jura looked pensive. "But Hibiki-dono makes a fair point as well. There's six of us here compared to their four. We should split our manpower and try to figure out how to stop Nirvana as well as Oración Seis."
Naruto frowned, looking over at his teammates. "I don't think splitting up is the best idea. The last time we were forced apart, they ambushed us." Charle's subsequent scowl cut him deep. He didn't need words to understand her lingering anger. Their impending argument, however, was interrupted by a familiar—if slightly weak—whine.
"Gray, I told you... I'm fine."
Gray's frantic voice came next. "Don't say that when you can't even walk on your own two feet! And look! Your head's bleeding again!"
A guilty breath was followed by the rapid shuffling of footsteps. "A-Ah! Wait, I'll try to get something to clean the wound." That was Sherry, but the strange thing was the pink-haired girl sounded uncharacteristically... docile and nice.
To Lucy of all people.
It wasn't long before they popped out from one of the narrow and maze-like alleys just to their left. Saddled on Gray's back was Lucy, and true to word, dried blood stained her forehead down over her right eye. Sherry was hovering near Lucy, fretting over the wound on her head, and Lyon lagged at the rear.
A general sense of relief washed over both groups when they finally noticed each other, but what followed was a short pause and a moderate amount of disbelief.
"That's one of the Oración Seis!" Sherry said, gasping.
Lyon could only muster a raised eyebrow.
Sadly, no one else could think of a proper retort.
Lucy gave her petite miracle worker a beaming smile. "You really are amazing, Wendy. But are you sure you're all right? Doesn't this healing magic of yours take a lot out of you?"
The humble girl shook her head slowly, her features looking slightly off-colour. Naruto surreptitiously took note of that. He hoped that no one else would be in need of healing in their immediate future. Wendy had never strained her magic to such a degree before.
"It's all right if it's something like this," she explained with a nervous smile.
Their newly-minted group, which consisted of their normal trio, plus Lucy and Hibiki, had deviated from their intended destination, the central tower as Naruto had suggested earlier, at the host's behest. Supposedly, Hibiki had a vague hunch on how to stop Nirvana now.
The rest; however, had broken off into their own groups and objectives.
Surprisingly, all it took was Jura's seal of approval and the other two Lamia Scale members eased up to Hoteye's presence easily enough. From there, they settled on a risky gamble to split up their newly-enforced party despite some raised objections from Naruto. So naturally, they parted ways. Since Naruto was reluctant to leave his teammates, he went along with Hibiki to try and find a way to stop this infernal legendary construction. Lucy tagged along as well, considering her fresh injuries.
"Still nothing?" Naruto asked.
Hibiki shook his head, taking his hand off his temple and resumed his work on his Archive interface. "I can't get through to Ichiya-aniki and the rest; there's still some kind of interference on the link, but less so on Nirvana. I'm still able to connect to Jura-san and you as well."
An odd chibi-version of Jura popped up in his screen. It was quickly followed by a chibi-Naruto, which the original frowned at.
It looked ridiculous.
"Proximity seems to be the key here. We did just part ways with the other group, which would explain why. But no matter how hard I try, I can't seem to find the others."
"I think the same thing happened to me when I was scouting the forest earlier. I kinda have this sensor ability, but I can't get a grip on the surroundings because of all this feedback. I'll do what I can to help you find them." With a quick hand seal, more than a dozen clones surrounded him. They exchanged a curt nod with Naruto before setting off. "It might take a while to comb through the forest. But who knows, maybe your guild mates are already onboard. We can only hope so, huh?"
The host sighed, echoing his sentiments. "It appears so, Naruto-san." Their small group fell into an unwanted silence soon after, but thankfully it was broken when Hibiki made a curious noise and paused in his steps.
"What's wrong, Hibiki?" Lucy asked.
Hibiki bit the inside of his lips, saying, "This is it. I think I finally found it—something that could help us stop Nirvana. This is the reason why I asked you all here. Give me a second, I'll share it through the information transfer." His fingers worked furiously over his keyboard and he ended the process with a satisfied smile. "You should be able to see it now."
A crude blueprint-like map of Nirvana popped up in their mind's eye; it was a complex piece of construction and technical detail despite the fact that it was engineered closed to four centuries ago. It came complete with tiny, untidy scribbles along the margins. The diagrams and words were all foreign to Naruto; it wasn't a language he had ever come across in Earthland.
Naruto raised a brow at Hibiki, blowing out an awed breath. "How did you get your hands on something like this?"
He was genuinely curious. After all, Roubaul—while not the principal architect—was the one who instigated the Nirvana project for the Nirvit tribe. Why didn't Roubaul have this stuff to share with him on hand?
"Well, the Archive system is a pretty complex piece of magic. Even I'm not completely sure of its origins. Although, I have heard of some rumours that it was founded by the Magic Council as a means of keeping their historical records and lores handy. It is, of course, just a rumour. But I'd like to think it's true. After all, the amount of classified information I'm privy to could make one's head spin."
"Can't they just lock you out?" Lucy asked him.
"No. I'm pretty sure they've tried too. It could be the reason why I'm not so well-liked by most government officials. They all seem to be men, if I remember correctly," Hibiki added as an after-thought.
Lucy shared a look of disbelief with the others, causing Naruto to mask a grin. "Yeah, go figure. Now, how exactly does this help us destroy Nirvana?"
Hibiki made a few odd gestures on his screen, and the map seemingly displayed in their minds reciprocated to his actions, popping out to form a three-dimensional holographic image of Nirvana. Pinching his fingers, he zoomed in on a section. "This is us, right here," he pointed out. "And you see this blanked out grey area under us? It's like some kind of chamber."
"So? What's the big deal? Couldn't it be like a basement or something? For storage?" Naruto reasoned.
"Granted, that's what I thought at first. But it's far too big to be just for storage purposes. It seems rather suspicious to me. I've been trying to find if there's more of these chambers in the capital."
Charle was straining to keep her annoyance in check. "And...?"
Hibiki smiled a tad smugly. "I found two more hidden throughout the northern and eastern section of the capital. It wasn't easy, mind you. There were close to at least a hundred blueprints on hand in the Archive, and all of them differed in their design. I couldn't even find if there was a mastered copy, but that was probably the intent should its secrets fall into the wrong hands. I lucked out by finding these three so far. I should be able to find the rest soon enough."
"Wow," Wendy murmured. "You're amazing, Hibiki-san."
"I try," Hibiki said, smiling. "But more importantly, we shouldn't waste any time. The faster we stop Nirvana, the better. Come on, the entrance is this way."
Just as he finished, a guttural, piercing roar punctuated the skies and everyone darted their heads towards the origin, far off towards the central tower. A crashing rumble resounded and the ground trembled beneath their feet.
Taking her hands off her ears, Lucy winced. "That was Natsu! D-Do you think we should go and check on them?"
"Sorry, Nirvana is our main priority," Naruto said, apologetic. "Besides, Jura and the rest can handle whatever Oración Seis throws at them." Smiling slightly, he added, "Have faith in your friends, Lucy."
Lucy was hesitant, and one could bear witness to her reluctance in her eyes, but finally she gave a firm nod and an endearing smile. "Yeah, you're right. Knowing Natsu and Gray, nothing could stop them... save for Erza."
"Great," Hibiki said. "Let's not waste anymore time. Follow me." He proceeded to lead them down a narrow alleyway and through the winding corridors of the desolate capital towards this supposed entrance.
Unseen by Naruto and the rest, Charle lagged at the rear, resting her apprehensive gaze upon Naruto's back.
"This is amazing," Charle breathed.
What greeted her was unlike anything she had ever seen before. Her moment of wonder ended the second she remembered her actual purpose here.
The narrow passageway of the entrance eventually gave way to an eerie antechamber, segmented by rectangular stone pillars and a large, square stone slab that was centred in the room. Worse still, visibility was poor; the room being sparsely lit by the haunting blue afterglow of the lacrimas hanging from the walls. Not only did foreign runes dotted the entirety of the antechamber, from the walls to the very floor they walked on, but strange and poignant hieroglyphs were detailed, signifying some sort of primitive culture before their time.
"It is pretty cool," Naruto quietly agreed, using a hand to trace the grooves of a particular glyph. "Any idea what of all this means?"
"Absolutely none whatsoever," Hibiki said. "Archive can't even register it in its database. I daresay we've stumbled onto a new discovery, and while it is significant, I doubt but only a few would be interested in."
Naruto pulled back from the examining the pillar. "Yeah, maybe this could wait. Let's head down into the main chamber. We're probably on the right track with this one."
When Lucy and Wendy made the motion to follow them, Charle almost wanted to pull the young girl back and fake an excuse. She was hesitant as she gripped onto Wendy's calf to stop her. She knew Naruto would read into her strange behaviour, but instead Naruto made the excuse for her.
"Maybe you guys could wait here for a minute while we go check if the area's safe first. I'll call out for you once it's clear, okay?"
He received less than enthusiastic responses from the trio before he left, and Charle released a breath of relief. Hopefully, their team leader would mistake her hesitancy as her fearing for Wendy's safety.
Lucy crinkled her nose, not soon after asking, "Naruto's a pretty protective guy, huh?"
Wendy smiled unconvincingly. "Uhm, sometimes..."
After Naruto's and Hibiki's departure, there was an odd tension in the air as Charle not so secretly directed a reproachful gaze Lucy's way. Sensing the mounting awkwardness as Lucy stood rooted to the ground in front of Wendy and her, mumbling an inane string of sentences, the blonde finally decided to scuttle off towards the other end of the room, closer to the passageway that led into the main chamber, mentioning:
"Huh, what's that? Heh... I think I see something interesting over there."
"Charle," Wendy whispered harshly once she was out of earshot. "What's wrong with you? That was mean!"
The bipedal cat didn't even look apologetic. "Do you trust me?" she asked plainly.
"E-Eh? I—I, of course I do!"
"Then we need to leave. Immediately. No questions." Charle eyed Lucy out of the corner of her eye. "Quickly now, while she's distracted!"
"Wait, you're not making any sense! What about Naruto? We need to—" Wendy didn't even get a chance to finish her sentence as Charle pulled her roughly by the wrist. The young girl had to bend her body at an unnatural angle to compensate for Charle's height as they sprinted towards the entrance of the chamber.
"Charle, stop!" the Sky Dragon Slayer pleaded.
Hearing the sudden onset of panicked hushes and rushing footsteps spurred Lucy into action, but Charle already knew she couldn't fool the blonde for long. The Celestial Spirit mage warily peeked her head around the pillar, then, she blinked upon seeing their escape.
"O-Oi! Where are you guys going? Wait!"
Their head-start was only the length of the antechamber, but caught unaware and flat-footed by their sudden escape bid, they were able to push ahead of Lucy despite the older girl's longer reach. Upon feeling the cooling breeze as they neared the entrance, Charle released her Aera magic, grabbed hold of her passenger, and pushed off the ground.
"Charle... w-what's going on?" Wendy's voice, brimmed with a worried inflection, questioned breathlessly.
Far below them, they could make out the anxious and restless form of Lucy still trailing after them into the winding alleyways of the capital. But after a few seconds or so, Lucy reluctantly stopped and rested her hands on her knees, watching over their airborne outline.
Have faith in your friends, Lucy...
Back then, she had been haunted upon hearing his words. It did little to assuage that tightly-bound ball of nerves in her stomach. That... and the glimpses of the monster she saw him become; the ones she failed to understand. The crude visions had assaulted her senses in a rapid burst, barely stringing coherency—just flashes of carnage and agony.
The fiery red that bled.
The destruction of everything that she held dear.
The only precious person in her life she had apparently failed to save.
As the troubling images flashed through her mind for the penultimate time, Charle shivered, wondering what cruel things fate had in store for them, and if indeed these nightmarish images seared into her memory would come true. She had only ever received such a vision once before; a day that despite it being her birth, she remembered with such vivid clarity.
The mission that she had been sent upon to undertake in this world, her primary objective coming in the small form of a beaming six-year old girl; the first person she had ever laid her eyes on.
'My name is Wendy,' Charle remembered her say amidst the whoops and cheers of their guild members. Although her hair was shorter, her brown eyes still held the innocence and naivety that remained until today. Yet despite herself, Charle had taken her small, proffered hand, feeling it wrap around hers in a comforting embrace. 'And welcome to Cait Shelter.'
It was to be a cruel twist of fate; a fate that she would never ever wish to act on. Charle had made a silent vow on that very day: if there was one thing she would do—if she had to lay her life on the line in the process—she would protect her charge.
Even if it meant prying her away and shielding her from the only other constant in her life:
"So you think there's more of these lacrima orbs scattered around the capital?" Naruto stood before the aforementioned huge, hovering opaque lacrima, sizing it up with a critical eye. "But I suppose the better question would be: how many more? And where else?" He paused, realising that his companion was unmindful of his questions, working away on his Archive interface and ever oblivious to the world.
Blowing out a breath, Naruto closed his eyes and entered his centre, allowing the natural energy in the surroundings to blend in with his own chakra. The process didn't take that long, a trait he had been accustomed to over the years, as his eyes gained the tell-tale sign of sagehood. But there was something odd about the natural energy in the air; something that didn't sit right with him—this feeling wasn't as bad as when he was in Sage Mode earlier in the day.
He furrowed his brows and clenched one of his hands open and shut.
He had initially wanted to test whether he could learn how this damning lacrima orb thing worked. Of course, he'd considered the interference in his sensor abilities, but it was still worth a try. But rather than finding a solution, it only brought up more questions.
Did Nirvana's presence and subsequent activation had an adverse effect on the natural energy?
Putting that thought aside for the moment, he began to gather chakra in the palm of his hand, letting the tendrils of blue energy swirl into a perfect sphere. The wind picked up around the area, but still Hibiki remained oblivious. As calm as ever, Naruto walked up the steep incline to the lacrima orb and pushed the A-rank technique into its core. He met some feeble resistance at first, but not soon after the lacrima exploded, sending small fragmented shards to pepper the area.
It made Hibiki yelp—not that he found delight in such things. The host fell on his butt, having to shield his face with his arms.
Ever used to the destructive nature of his technique, Naruto merely squeezed his eyes shut, only managing a small peek when the attack subsided. The lacrima was obliterated by the Rasengan, leaving its base in an almost jagged-edged crescent shape. It was a fact that caused Naruto to frown; he had half expect it to be fully destroyed.
"I should have put my weight into it," he mumbled distractedly.
Suddenly, a frightening shudder racked the chamber and runes upon runes brightened in its soft blue hue, lighting up the entirety of the chamber. It started from the centre of the spiralling arrangement on the floor close to the decimated lacrima. From there, it branched out to the interlocking glyphs one by one, emitting a strange and quiet chime each time it did so. From the floors, it spread up to the walls, bathing the spherical chamber in its mysterious glow.
"Oh," Hibiki started. "Wow..."
The broken fragments of the lacrima glowed a bright white and rose up off the ground; even those that had been ground into fine dust by the intensity of the Rasengan. It made for a fascinating spectacle as the glowing fragments and particles danced around the circumference of the chamber, joining together to form an odd cloth-like entity, lapping around them. With a final chime, it started to rapidly circle around the remnants of the lacrima orb, and in a blinding haze of white, it merged back with the lacrima, restoring it bit by bit to its former pristine state.
"Okay, that..." Naruto said. "...was weird." He grinned not soon after. "And so damn cool!"
Hibiki chuckled breathlessly. "You could have killed us, you know? There could have been protection imbued in that lacrima to prevent interference, or fail-safes that could have been triggered if it was destroyed." He regarded Naruto with a sceptical brow. "What happened to your eyes anyway? I didn't realise you were so vain to touch up your make-up in the middle of a mission, Naruto-san."
Naruto scowled, pointing to himself. "Not make-up—power-up."
"Sure, have it your way." Hibiki shrugged. Standing, he added, "And however dangerous that little stunt of yours may have been, at the very least we've learnt something useful."
"What? That it can't be destroyed?"
"No," Hibiki said, reactivating his Archive interface and turning it to face Naruto. "It can and it will be destroyed. I was just about to confirm the theory when you decided to act ahead. That is: we may just have to destroy all six of them at once."
There was an inscrutable pause as Naruto stared long and hard at the screen. "Uh... am I supposed to be seeing something important here?"
Hibiki scowled. "It's the location of all the lacrima—" With a quick swipe of his fingers, he turned the screen back to face him, only to find that a chibi version of Ichiya had popped up; his large, angular features having taken the whole width of the screen. Touching up two finger to his temple, he brought up his telepathy link.
"Aniki!" Hibiki shouted jubilantly. "You're all right!"
There was an exaggerated sniff on the other end.
:Indeed,: Ichiya finally said. :As are Ren and Eve, but their injuries are quite unfortunate after coming across the one known as Midnight. I've asked them to sit out for the remainder of this mission.:
The handsome host heaved a sigh of relief. "I'm glad to hear that, but where are you now?"
:I am with the rest; however, we have yet to come across Erza, and from what I was told, this Jellal character as well. But I have other good news to relay. We have incapacitated the leader of Oración Seis. All that remains is a single member: Midnight. Even better, we've learned their primary objective onboard Nirvana. Though, it is highly unlikely that they'd be able to accomplish it now.:
"That's great! Naruto-san and I have figured out a way to stop Nirvana as well. We could rendezvous first and I'll—"
"Naruto!" Breathless and panting, Lucy burst through the archway to the chamber, a thin sheen of sweat coating the top of her brows, and her pretty face was bright red from the exertion. "They're gone!" she said suddenly, gasping. "Wendy and Charle just ran away and flew off! I couldn't stop them! I-I tried but..." She cringed suddenly.
They ran away?
But he should have heard something if there was such a commotion, unless this chamber had something to do with it. All the possible should haves or what ifs circled his thoughts, before he roughly pushed it away. Naruto's movement was a blur as he shot past her, but not before, leaving a quick, encouraging pat on her shoulder.
"Thanks, Lucy!" His voice echoed off the passageway leading out to the exit. "I'll take it from here!" As he pumped chakra into his legs and lengthened his stride, he felt the familiar trickle of Hibiki's telepathy magic reach his mind.
:I won't say I know what's going on in your own team, but I'll try to help in any way I can. I'm patching up a private link between you, Charle and Wendy. Bring them back soon, Naruto-san. Midnight is still out there somewhere.:
"Thanks," Naruto said quietly.
With that he felt the connection end, and a new one being bridged to his wayward teammates. Taking an anxious breath, he uttered the first words that came to his mind:
"...What the hell, Charle?"
"Charle," Wendy called out worriedly.
The feline in question had landed them near the front of the capital, overlooking the vast wilderness of Worth Woodsea. They had settled atop one of the roofs of a spacious abode, awaiting whatever it is that was to come. As she looked up at her charge, Charle could feel the wariness and confusion swell within the young girl upon hearing Naruto's frustrated voice carry through the telepathy link.
"Ignore him and cut off the link," she instructed plainly. But upon seeing Wendy's hesitation, she raised her voice, "Just trust me and do it!"
:Wendy, don't!: There was a frustrated sigh. :Damn interference! Look, just tell me where you—:
Charle cut off the link without preamble. "Did you do it?"
Head bowed, Wendy nodded her head in affirmation, turning away from her and refusing to even glance at her direction.
"Good. I know that wasn't easy, but it was necessary."
Wendy voice out one simple question:
"I-I," Charle faltered. "I can't explain what it is so easily, but it's just something you have to trust me on. It's just best for the both of us to be away from Naruto for the time being."
"But we can't just run away from Naruto! We're a team! We're supposed to help each other! Trying to run away and hide all these secrets, it-it's... stupid! What kind of team are we? Don't we trust one another?!"
"Don't be so naïve! Everyone—" Charle stressed, staring at Wendy pointedly, "—keeps secrets. And Naruto, who knows how many skeletons he has in his closet? How much do you think he's withheld from us all these years? Can you honestly tell me where he's from, Wendy? What he's been doing for the past sixteen years before he came to the guild? Or what he's truly capable of? Have you never wondered why something never truly sat right with him; the little things that would have made sense to a child and yet he doesn't know it?"
Wendy fell silent at that.
Schooling her features, Charle continued, "Besides, what I'm about to tell you is no secret. I've had a really bad omen that something might happen to us, to our guild, and no matter what I can't shake off this feeling."
That caught Wendy's attention. "What? Our guild?"
"Wendy," Charle whispered. "Doesn't that seem familiar to you?"
A distinctive landscape came into view in the distant horizon; a view that greeted them every morning in the small community housing Cait Shelter. The steep slope leading up that they—as a team—had scaled out of sheer boredom in their downtime between missions. It was a memory she knew Wendy wouldn't soon forget.
"That's our guild," Wendy mumbled anxiously. "They're heading towards our guild."
"Don't you see that—"
"Naruto!" Wendy suddenly shouted. "It's heading towards our guild! They're going to destroy Cait Shelter!" A small pool of tears started to gather around her eyes as she told him, "Stop them, Naruto! You have to stop them!"
"Wendy! What are you doing?!"
But the Dragon Slayer was too far gone to listen. "We're just north of the tower, but Charle and I will go ahead and warn everyone at the guild to escape!" Wendy stood straighter as she squared her shoulders, and Charle could see the firm resolution spark in her misty eyes. "We can't let our guild be destroyed!"
Charle could feel her anger pouring off herself in waves as she trembled in place. What had Wendy done? Things were going to get worse—so much worse.
"Stop it! Cut off the link now!"
"Naruto needs to know! We need all the help we can get!"
"You stubborn little girl! You don't understand anything! Why couldn't you just listen to me!"
It marked the first time she had ever snapped at Wendy, and even the young girl knew it, judging how she fell silent at Charle's sudden tirade; how far she had crossed the line at that very moment.
"Now," Charle continued, her voice strangled and subdued. "Now everything's going to come true."
A suffocating pause settled between them.
"Charle," Wendy voiced out hesitantly. "W-What's going to come—"
She stopped all of a sudden, as she stared, slack-jawed, at something behind the feline.
"Yes, pray tell... What's going to come true?"
It was Midnight.
His eyes were half-lidded to almost completely shut, highlighting the black eyeliner shadowing his paralysing red eyes. He regarded her and Wendy with a tiny frown, and that alone was able to stun them into a stupor. He bent down and picked her up by the neck, gripping it tight like she was a mere plaything.
Charle could only struggle feebly against his hold.
"How absolutely droll," he said suddenly, ignoring his previous question. "Where's the rest of this mighty alliance of yours? Don't they know it's dangerous to let kids like you to wander around at night?"
Finally finding her voice, Wendy let out one final plea through the telepathy link:
With a trembling hand raised, she made the motion to slash the air in front of her, but the spell didn't materialise.
Midnight's face was pleasantly patient as he said, "Try again," his voice was gentle and understanding, "I'm sure you can do it."
Charle could only watch in quiet anguish as his reaction caused Wendy to become a nervous wreck. Her earlier vision replayed in her mind with vivid clarity. So consumed by the need to protect Wendy from what she saw Naruto become, Charle never even considered the notion of what, or who, could have possibly cause her vision of him to come true.
It was her fault—and she knew it. There was no Naruto to blame this time.
She had taken them away from their one safety net, and Wendy was utterly crushed without the familiar presence by her side. While Naruto would have protected them with his life, she had all but forfeited theirs.
"S-Sharp winds that... that tear the hea-heavens asunder! I-Ictus!"
The translucent streak of silvery light didn't meet its target. Just centimetres from Midnight, it stopped dead and zipped back towards Wendy—faster than what she could have ever managed in practice.
Wendy blacked out from the unexpected reversal.
The blunt, horizontal attack hammered her small form with mercy. It lifted her off her feet, her body folding into itself as it connected against her mid-section. She was flung off the roof like a ragdoll, colliding against the adjacent building forcefully. It left a deep imprint as dust and falling debris settled over her listless form.
Eyes wide and trembling, Charle shouted desperately, "W-Wendy!"
"Help isn't going to come, sweetpea. Not in time for you, at least." With a cruel, vindictive smile, he swiped his free arm wide towards the unconscious Dragon Slayer and intoned:
Panting, Naruto could feel his rapid heartbeat pounding in his ears; his surroundings were on mute for all he cared. His brain was on auto-pilot, guiding him towards where he knew his team would be and he all but willed himself to go faster. In his dazed state, all his mind could do was replay Wendy's meek, desperate plea to come save her.
And over again.
Whatever grace and finesse imbued in his gait vanished as he landed onto the stone pavement with a deep and audible crack, the boost in his power from his Sage Mode sending fragments of rock to fly off in every direction. His breathing got steadily faster and shallower as he took in the sight before him. Try as he might, his mind unconsciously flashed back to a what felt like a previous life; how a girl had tried but failed to save him and how she had paid the price in blood.
Her frail and prone body laid deep in the small crater, face-down on the ground as her long hair splayed across her features, shielding her face from view. Her yellow and blue pinstriped dress, the one Magna had given her for her previous birthday, was in tatters and stained in a rich crimson. The wing-like designs she had adored so much had been symbolically ripped off in what seemed like a crude gesture to mock her. But what stood out the most was her hand; kept away from her body as if she was reaching out.
He felt something welling up in his eyes as he stared on in muted horror.
"Aah..." Naruto breathed out, panting.
Midnight regarded him with an almost pitying look. "Mister hero was too late, it seemed."
Standing over the prone form of his victim, Midnight then threw his feline hostage against one of the surrounding stone abodes with an almighty 'crack'. Charle slid to the ground with a pathetic whimper, a single eye peeking open that went largely unnoticed.
Undaunted by his sudden arrival, Midnight took a step forward and pressed his foot atop Wendy's head. One could hear the not-so subtle crunch of gravel as her face was grounded into the crater. "Are you strong, Naruto-san?" Midnight asked, as he pressed down harder. "Because I've been looking for a challenge, someone who can really excite the blood. I hope you won't disappoint."
Do not be swayed in the presence of Nirvana...
His mind went absolutely blank. Naruto could hardly draw his eyes away from Wendy's fallen form as her assailant saw fit to hammer home the humiliation of a young girl to such a sadistic degree. He could feel the familiar yet foreign presence start to invade his body, its malignant aura staining the very essence of his soul.
The evil lurking within you will corrupt and devour you whole...
But it was a welcomed sensation. It filled the turmoil in his heart with a new distraction—rage.
Mindless, indescribable rage.
Your faith in yourself must remain strong...
His entire being trembling, Naruto let out an muted scream and saw red. In the back of his subconscious, he would hear a voice—a voice he would forever remember as the one who had caused him to lose all self-control.
When love gives birth to sacrifice, which brings forth hatred, only then will it let you know pain.
Side Note: This sucks.
The cliffhanger is the main reason why I didn't want to release this chapter. I'm having trouble writing the next few chapters to end this arc properly. So no, I can't give you a timeline as to when it will done. Two years of inactivity has yielded nothing but wasted drafts, and IRL is a bitch.
Still, thank you all for the continued support though. I honestly appreciate it. If any of you don't mind being a soundboard for my ideas, I'd like someone to help me keep this story on track.
Angel: A lot of readers were angry with the way I left it. I can't blame them now, but it was supposed to come full circle by the end of the arc had my muse not run into a brick wall.
Plagiarism accusations: Really? No...
Next Chapter: Salvation…