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 Notes: I had to take creative liberties with scenes involving a mindless kyuubified Naruto. Approach it with an open mind. That shit is hard to write, yo. Kudos to Vandenbz, Sir Godot and OZxOZ for their help.

Revised at 3rd September 2015 to the best of my ability.


Chapter Sixteen – Salvation


When we crave salvation, we become crueller than ever

- Hiroya Oku


0.0

The atmosphere was suffocating.

A powerful shockwave tore through the area, pushing debris and the like into the air. As a towering pillar of vile red energy, stained with a black hue, descended upon Naruto, it shrouded him in a semi-translucent dome and demolished the surrounding buildings, the structural integrity giving way to the build-up of unholy pressure in the air. A repulsive burgundy energy started to consume its host, writhing around his form like a demonic parasite.

It was vile. The unnaturalness of it all. The stench of death and malevolence.

The worst of it was the irrepressible and frenzied rage that rolled off the creature in droves. It seemed utterly mindless. It wasn't seeking revenge or payment in blood, but the destruction of everything and anything in its path. No one would be spared—friend or foe. Nothing would stand in its wake.

Yet, its transformation, its descent, had barely even begun.


0.0

Midnight's red eyes went wide in barely concealed panic.

The creature let loose a low, primal growl, brimming with animosity. It reared its head up high and pressed its ears flat. Its resemblance to his human adversary was passable. As the creature got on all fours, its white, hollow eyes, large and round as saucers, sent shivers down his back. Then, it let loose a garbled and inhuman scream, its four red tails swishing wildly in a hypnotic, almost alluring rhythm.

Midnight unconsciously took a step back, pulling his foot off Wendy's stilled form. "What vile sorcery is this? Take-Over magic?"

Of course, he wasn't expecting a reply from the creature before him, its hollow gaze offering nothing save for the terribly negative energy pouring from its demented fox-like form. Midnight wasted no more time in pointless discourse. This was a being hell-bent on destroying him. There were to be no barbs or stinging rebukes, no clash of ideals separating different factions. This was a battle in its rawest form; survival and sheer instinct intertwining together.

There was hardly a sliver of hesitation as Midnight acted. Curling his fingers into a fist, he swiped it at the air before him, spreading his thumb and index finger out wide.

"Spiral Pain."

A thick, blinding haze of white converged on the monster, trapping it inside a vortex of distorted energy. Instead of being lifted into the air, its feet remained firmly on the ground, its hollowed eyes never once leaving his. It weathered through the worst of his attack with hardly a tremor of its body.

Sensing the urgency to reinforce his advantage, Midnight drew upon his Reflector magic, twisting the manifolds of currents in the air, and conjured up a mass of ethereal magic. It was like a tear in the fabric of reality. Intangible red slashes started to pour out from the empty void as he guided the multitude of blades forward with a quick flurry of his hand. They collided against the wall of distorted energy, adding to its already impressive destructive power.

Midnight could barely hear the growl coming from within the vortex.

Summoning the bulk of his reserves, he built upon the potency of his final onslaught. A large, singular scythe, unlike which he had ever conjured, emerged from the small tear in space. He could see the red, ethereal energy dance across the surface of the blade, pulsating wildly in tandem to his own heartbeat.

This was his coup de grâce.

"Distort Blade," Midnight whispered harshly.

It sailed towards its target. Due to its massive berth, it cleanly sliced through the rows of buildings in its path. The Distort Blade was just centimetres away when the ever-screeching vortex trapping the demon within was engulfed in a virile mass of flames, towering upwards. Three tails shot out from within and intercepted his attack. It shattered like fragile glass, fragmented shards of ethereal energy slowly fading into the void.

What followed was a quiet growl as the creature stalked, slow and deliberate, out from the column of dying inferno.

A skeletal paw greeted him first. It was followed by a bleached white muzzle, long and thin with sharp twin fangs. The gaping maw of the skull acted as a visor with its long and pointed ears peeking through the empty eye sockets. A hardy, arching vertebrae with protruding ridges covered its back, where small wisps of ember still clung to its form. Its tails were the last to emerge, and Midnight realised with growing dread that where there had initially been four tails, there were now five.

Every step as the creature crept forward was like a fist steadily tightening its hold around his heart. Midnight struggled to breathe as he was pinned under its hollow gaze.

What he never realised was: it had never left.

Unconsciously, his hands trembled and Midnight found himself crushed under the weight of this unwelcomed sensation; the very feeling he had discarded when he left the Tower of Heaven with his father. It was not the fear of rejection or loneliness, it was fear itself.

"Grrrrr!"

The first swipe almost caught Midnight off guard. However, with reflexes borne out of countless battles, he ducked beneath where the tail would have skewered him. Another tail lashed out, far faster than the first. His instincts guided him once more and he instinctively threw out a hand to reflect it away from his person. Nothing happened, and he only narrowly avoided its attack, while simultaneously retreating.

It hadn't worked, Midnight realised.

His magic was negated, being unable to affect the human body or living things in general. He had hoped it would work against the creature, unsure exactly what it was, but it had been found wanting. Now, his survival hinged on his ability to put as much distance between him and it. Its attacks were fast, dangerously so. There was no way he could survive a melee onsla—

A tail poked through the ground beneath him, partially hidden by the bulk of the creature's body.

It was a telling measure of its monstrous strength, that even though he evaded the brunt of it, a glancing blow to his body was akin to a runaway freight train. With four more at its disposal, it caught Midnight in the air by the ankles, his skin searing from the contact with the burgundy energy, and slammed him down to the ground with an almighty rumble. It continued; twice, thrice, before finally relenting. It left his crumpled form in the bottom of a crater of his making.

Pain.

Pain was foreign and unnatural. It made him relive burgeoning memories and phantom scars which he had long since repressed. Back when he was a child, he had been horribly accustomed to it, but in all those years since he left the Tower of Heaven, he had never experienced such a redundant sensation again.

His magic made it irrelevant.

It was absolute. It was undefeatable. It had also left him unconditioned to pain and that terrified him.

Even before the cloud of dust settled, Midnight was lifted in the air the wrong way up. He felt his body sway to its whims, like a helpless toy marionette. Then it stopped and he as well.

The fox-creature snarled lowly.

Without preamble, he was flung into the air like a carelessly tossed twig, thrown against one of the buildings with such force that his body punched through several layers of stone and mortar. He cleared at least a few dozen metres before coming to a crashing halt as the tremendous momentum dwindled. Gasping for his dear life, he looked around blearily, finding that he had crash-landed upon a hard stone cot.

What luck.

Groping around, Midnight clung onto the walls for purchase and pulled himself upright. Moonlight streamed in from the opening, and he crawled forward, half-mad with desperation, casting aside whatever prideful image he previously embodied in favour of survival.

What greeted him then was an unfathomable sight. A veritable sea of hellfire rained down upon the area, colouring the calming night skies with its potent shade of orange; it shone like a hellish candlelight vigil in the dark. Letting out a maddening and raspy laugh, a small dribble of blood leaked out from the corner of his mouth.

"D-Do you... wish for my death so badly, mister hero?"

The unnatural being was perched atop one of the nearby buildings, its tails curling around the pointed rooftop as it anchored itself on its new roost. Upon sensing Midnight's gaze, it opened its mouth wide. A small wisp of flame hovered at the opening of its skeletal maw which then slowly expanded, growing in intensity and size—much larger than the ones that blanketed the skies. It continued enforcing the great spherical ball of fire, earning Midnight a short reprieve from its blank stare.

Gathering what strength he had left, Midnight took a running stumble out of the opening, hobbling as fast as he could on his uninjured leg. His attention was divided between it and the throng of hellfire that streaked above, leaving fiery trails in the skies as the airborne barrage tore the capital apart. He sprinted out of an alleyway and into a small street, using his Reflector magic to deflect the occasional flying debris.

An unnatural 'thud' of crumbling stone alerted him to its presence on the other end of the street.

Midnight let out a strangled breath.

A miniature sun hovered over its five tails, its size comparable to the buildings that lined the street. Tendrils of fire ran through the great sphere as faint wisps licked the surface. The demonic entity raised the fiery globe higher in the air and rested on its haunches, raising its maw over its pulsating form.

"Guuoohh!"

Stomping down on its forelegs, it released the attack.

It wasn't exactly fast, but the sheer scale of its size and potency decimated their newly-relocated battlefield, indenting a deep groove on the street as it pushed towards him. Flying rubble and dust accompanied its devastating wake of destruction.

Midnight stood his ground, clenching his fists tight as he stared upon this false dawn of death.

How kind of it to provide him with a means of attack...

Midnight waited for it to come closer, relishing his counter-attack with a feverish fervour. As it loomed over him, he swept his hands across his body and activated his Reflector magic. Pouring all his strength into his magic, he bent the massive flow of energy to his will. The miniature sun obliged to his command, skewing off course and narrowly avoiding his person. It began losing its shape, taking on an almost snake-like quality as it circled around his back. The head of the attack began to mimic a drilling motion, shaping it into that of a cylindrical column. With a massive heave, Midnight fell to his knees and slingshot the drill back at his adversary.

The fiery drill zipped forward, at speeds that far outstripped its original construct, and powered on at full tilt towards the fox-creature. Rather than move away to avoid the reflected attack, it ducked its head low. As its five tails lined forward over his quadruped outline, cocooned to form an opening around its head, it pushed its maw back and roared.

The guttural sound that escaped it was unlike anything he had ever heard, piercing the night sky with such a savage cry that he was sure it could be heard from towns over. Laced with such ungodly killing intent, Midnight was floored by the weight of the unnatural presence pressing down upon his person, leaving him numbed and paralysed before its might. He could see the hazy after-image of his death play out in his mind's eye.

The spellbound air, hanging heavy with such strenuous tension, distorted just by the power behind the bestial roar alone.

As the force of the roar collided with the accelerating column of fire right in the middle, the fiery drill was left in a deadlock, stuck in some kind of suspended animation as if an impregnable invisible wall had cordoned off its path. The standstill was brief though and the attack unravelled, its two ends snaking uncontrollably.

Midnight could hardly react as he was caught in the imminent explosion.


.0.

He had been here before. Countless times.

Yet, it was strange.

There was something... off about it.

Every step in the murky, viscous liquid chipped away at his strength. Looking down, he couldn't differentiate the colour of the liquid from his surroundings, his retinas having been burned red from whatever light source this accursed sewer provided; he could see none.

Stumbling blindly, he leaned against the wall of the seemingly endless corridor for support. There was no bright white light at the end of this tunnel. Either way he turned, there was only the penetrating darkness—a pitch black void—to accompany him.

But distantly, subconsciously, he knew what awaited him at the end.

So he weathered on.


0.0

A charred limb poked out from beneath the rubble, the figure's arm dangling in the air with fingers outstretched. It collapsed back to the ground with a hearty 'whump'. The debris shifted and Midnight's exhausted form slowly rose. His body was hunched, his head bowed, and what was left of his unruly spiky hair that had not been singed by the explosion was laid flat across his forehead, shadowing his features.

His clothes were burnt and in tatters, clinging onto his soot-covered skin. As he slowly looked up, an ugly red splotch scarred the left side of his face, from the top of his left brow down to the collar of his black choker—the skin around his left eye had been seared, his eyelid sealed shut. What was left of his mascara and lipstick was smudged over his cheeks and chin, lending to his already haggard image.

Panting heavily, Midnight fumbled his fingers over his choker and tore it off roughly. He sucked in a great breath, gasping for his dear life, but choked instead, as he struggled to breathe properly. Despite this, every breath he took was his salvation. It was as if he could feel death's cold grip slowly loosen its hold around his neck.

Midnight willed his remaining eye to open.

His vision clouded, his surroundings felt disjointed, blurring and overlapping together to the point where he almost sunk lifelessly to the ground again. In that disorienting haze, however, a blur of fiery burgundy stood out like a sore thumb. Suddenly, clarity was restored for the briefest of moments. Then madness soon took over.

His single good eye narrowed into a slit. "A-Are..." he struggled to say, his voice hoarse. "Are you mocking me?!"

As always, the creature's hollow eyes never left his. Poised on all fours, it preyed on him from a distance, refusing to budge from its spot, growling lowly all the while. The reason for its behaviour was lost on Midnight; for whatever mindless mentality ruled its psyche. It was almost as if it was toying with him, like a predator playing with its food.

Despite his exhausted and battered state, Midnight felt magic surge through his veins, pouring off him to the point where it leaked into the atmosphere. The air around him was oppressive and reeked of a repulsive, negative energy. A hazy black glow started to shroud around him like a second skin, the shadow-like entity squirming and solidifying its mass against the burns on his body.

Midnight smiled crookedly, a thoroughly unpleasant sight to witness. The shadows pooled around the left half of his face like a broken mask, forever etched in a haunting, angry snarl. As a single red eye glinted in the back-lit moonlight, it made him look demonic—almost.

Letting his hand fall limply to his side, an ethereal red blade shot out from nowhere, cleaving the remnants of the broken buildings around him. With a gentle sweep of his other hand, he manipulated the trajectory of the large debris forward, launching it at his adversary. Soon, more red scythes followed, tearing apart the surrounding area and bombarding his adversary with the levitating wreckage. Falling into a slow rhythm, Midnight pressed on. He remained unmindful of the fox-creature, his head lolling back, up towards the cloudless skies, as he basked in the relative silence of his mind.

Unknown to him, his attacks were lazily rebuffed by his adversary, its swishing tails lashing out and breaking the debris apart like plaster, showering the area with crumbling bits of stone and dust. With every flickering parry, it pawed its way closer towards the last of the Oración Seis.

Midnight snapped out of his self-induced trance with a jarring shudder. A whirring magic seal hovered in the air above him, sinking the ground beneath him in a wide but shallow, circular impression. A foggy red mist rose up around his person, shrouding him from view. The white in his lone eye suddenly bled black before pervading his sclera in a glowing crimson, his pupil then narrowing into a long, vertical slit. Gradually, the tar-like shadow on his wounds began to stretch, spreading over the rest of his body, bulking up his mass to ungodly proportions.

A colossal monstrosity towered over the fox-creature.

Midnight looked down, revelling the sensation of his new-found power as their surroundings began to distort and ripple, the fabric of reality tearing apart at the seams. It gave way to a void; a black well of nothingness that stretched on forever, tinged with a dark shade of red as if the fiery hell of sulphur and brimstone awaited at the other side.

"You're not the only one," he snarled, a fanged smile on his lips. "Who can turn into a monster."

Bringing his hands together, streaks of reddish-black ethereal energy pooled in the air before his palms. Letting his arms fall back, the attack expanded, elongating to form a halberd of pure chaotic magic. The attack crackled with an ear-splitting screech. Midnight brought the great halberd over his head, ready to hurl it down at his unmoving adversary.

"My power is absolute! I am the greatestthe greatest of the six! I've reached heights beyond what my father could fathom!"

The fox-creature remained oblivious, rather it seemed to disregard his larger-than-life presence, staring at something below him, closer to its eye-level.

"I am the undefeatable, ultimate—"

One of its tails lashed out at the seemingly empty void between the space in his legs.

Just like that, the illusion shattered.


0.0

There was a sense of urgency in her gait as Erza kept her eyes peeled around her surroundings. The guttural roar that rattled the very concrete they walked on still weighed heavy on her conscience. Initially, she and Jellal had come in search of the destructive battle overshadowing the capital, but along the way, her intuition urged her to diverge from her intended path.

Only then did she realise why.

It was the quiet sniffles, the small anguished gasps, that guided her steps forward; a stark contrast to the sounds of battle and otherworldly growls that punctuated the skies. Turning a sharp corner, Erza spied an alarming scene. She broke out into a sprint, kneeling to a halt by Carla's sobbing form. The cat seemed to ignore her presence until she tried to touch Wendy.

Carla's eyes were wide and trembling. "I-I can't... s-she's not breathing; I don't think s-she's breathing."

Erza nodded once. At a glance, Wendy's bruised form hardly twitched. Blood pooled on the ground around her mouth, but there were no outward signs of a wound, barring the minor cuts that dotted her skin. She was deathly pale; it looked very much like death's cold grip had wormed its way around the Sky Dragon Slayer. Erza felt her heart plunge at the sight. Her adversary had not been kind. The small crater that was roughly in the shape and size of the young girl's face said it all.

The knight swallowed the uncomfortable lump in her throat angrily.

Careful to avoid exacerbating Wendy's injuries, Erza discarded one of her gauntlets with a quick requip, placed the tip of her bare fingers against Wendy's neck and leaned in over her face. "She is breathing—I can hear it," Erza said quietly. "But it is faint and so is her pulse." Looking up, she continued, "There isn't much we can do between the three of us. We need to find Ichiya-san. He might be the only one who can help."

"Then, perhaps we should hurry," Jellal said, his hand reaching up to wipe away the smudge of thick, dried blood on Wendy's face. A harsh voice stopped him cold:

"Don't you touch her."

Jellal quietly acquiesced without complaint, but shared an uneasy glance with Carla as he rose to his feet. "As you wish." His tone remained level; however, Erza could sense the confusion teeming in his voice.

Erza's brows furrowed. "Carla, Jellal is on our side. You have no reason to fear him."

"No reason?" Carla parroted spitefully. "It was him. It was because of him everything happened; Oración Seis kidnapping Wendy, him activating Nirvana, a-all of it... All of it was because of him! A-And my team... If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have done what I thought I h-had to! None of this would have happened! Not to W-Wendy... Not to N-Na—"

"Do not be foolish," Erza chided tersely. "They would have still found a way." She let out a deep breath, her features sympathetic. "I know you're angry, but wallowing in pity and trying to delude yourself with what could have happened will not make it better. Wendy needs you now; she needs you to be focused. Do this for her, Carla.

"Carla? Carla, look at me." The knight held the feline's attention with an uncompromising stare. "I promise you that Jellal will do everything in his power to help her. You just have to let him. Isn't that right, Jellal?"

Jellal wasn't paying them any mind. His features were noticeably grim as he trained his eyes over to where the sounds of battle raged.

"Does anyone else feel that?" he asked. "That monstrous build-up of magic?"


0.0

He was human again, Midnight blearily realised.

Coughing violently, a gurgle of blood dribbled down his lips, and his face twisted in anguish as the smell of burnt flesh permeated the air. Uncontrollable spasms wracked his body, and his hands fell limp by his side. His strength had left him completely. He could hardly reach up to his wound, where the fox-creature had speared a tail through his abdomen.

Feeling himself being held aloft, Midnight forced his single, good eye open.

He was face-to-face with the damning creature, its head tilted to one side as it observed him. Midnight swore to himself. Looking deep into its hollow eyes, he could get this distinct sense that it was... bored? Disappointed?

This?

This was all he amounted to?

For all his father's praise of his potential and ability; the countless victories he had amassed; having elevated their guild's name and status to where it stood today? In the end, he would fall to the whims of a creature that regarded his presence as a broken plaything.

It opened its maw wide.

Everything he had amounted to in his life was truly in vain. As Midnight coughed, spewing blood onto its bony white skull and revealing a bloody smile, his final thought was surprisingly simple.

"A nice... quiet... p-place..."

The air was thick with a palpable tension, to the point that he could feel gravity crushing down upon him. Visible cracks rippled throughout the already devastated streets. Globs of black and translucent white energy started to rise up in the air above the creature, squirming and merging together to form a large orb. As the last globs of black and white piled on to the rapidly expanding mass, it quivered, convalescing and tightening into a dense sphere—about the size of his open palm, smaller even.

Midnight could feel the sheer power ebbing from the unassuming attack.

"To fa-fall... into..."

He was dislodged from its tail with a sickening 'squelch' and was flung carelessly across the street, directly in its path. Flat on his back, the only memorable thing he could see was the cloudless skies enveloping his ever tunnelling vision. In his final act of desperation, he tried to reach out for it.

There was no blinding flash of white, no fiery explosion engulfing his person; his eyelid drooped shut even before the super-charged attack could reach him.

"Grraaohh!"

There was just nothing—nothing but darkness.


.0.

A muffled 'boom' echoed throughout the empty corridor. Tremors ran through the entirety of the infinitely-looping passage, unsettling the waters that reached up his shin. Suddenly wary, he paused in his steps, caution overriding his need for progress, and knelt against the wall, pulling his head close to his body.

Stilling his breath, he strained his ears and listened intently.

The sound was faint, and despite walking for what felt like ages, the acoustics in the sewer made it sound so distant; lost amidst the echoing silence and the soft and awkward splashes when he trudged forward. Something clicked in his brain as he stared at the rippling surface of the murky liquid—that was it.

The sound of gushing water.

As he turned to look back at the pitch black void behind him, he felt a gentle wave splash against his leg, dreading what he knew was to come. Heart pounding, he found his body moving automatically as he quickened his pace, soon breaking out into a sprint. The previously untouched shallow pool of water began rocking back and forth, bobbing dangerously as if it was the strong currents out at sea, and offered more of a resistance than he first imagined.

It was almost upon him. He could hear the gushing waves getting louder, the liquid crashing against the walls, and drenching his clothes against his body, his blond hair now damp and flat.

He was just delaying the inevitable.

It wasn't long before he felt his legs being pulled in first, and the rest of his body followed suit by the massive surge of raging waters. With flailing limbs, he struggled to recover his equilibrium when he was pulled under the powerful waves. As water filled his lungs, depriving his body of oxygen, he kicked his legs out and broke the surface of the water, expelling fluids and gasping for air.

The rushing rapids were far too strong. His face was already pressed against the ceiling, and it was getting harder and harder to stay afloat as the strong currents threatened to swallow him under again. It wasn't long before the corridor was fully submerged, stringing his body along like a thrashing ragdoll.


0.0

There was extremely powerful magic afoot.

It was a scale of power that Erza rarely witnessed. Even the Magical Convergent Cannon: Jupiter paled in comparison by two, three-folds even. She could only think of one suspect, and it belonged to whatever entity whose piercing, nightmarish growls still echoed in the night.

There was a sense of tranquility in the moments building up to the climax, as if time had slowed to a crawl as the blinding dome of white expanded exponentially. It seared her corneas in the after-image of its explosion.

Unfortunately, her sense of hearing finally caught up.

Erza ducked her head down over Wendy's and shifted her back towards the explosion, shielding her charge from the large plume of dust and debris that swept over the area. The ground beneath them rumbled violently, groaning as the Nirvana construct lurched and tilted precariously on one side. The resultant explosion had obliterated Nirvana's western side, as well as three of its robust, spidery legs. It went beyond Nirvana, levelling huge tracts of the Worth Woodsea into a barren wasteland.

"Jellal!"

Her shout sounded garbled due to the high-pitched squeal ringing in the walls of her ears, but Jellal looked up at her, nodding with a grimace. Just as they started to slide down the awkward angle, Jellal reached out and snagged the feline close to his chest. Erza did the same for Wendy. They ended up using a destroyed building as a platform, careful to avoid the gaping holes, lest they fall. From where they stood, they had an eagle-eye's view of the aftermath of the devastation.

Far below them, closer to the centre of the explosion, a demonic creature hung off one of the broken spiralling rooftops by its tails. Sensing their gaze, it tilted its head up towards them, revealing its hauntingly empty features and spread its jaws wide.

"Grraaohh!"

Dreading the worst, Erza shared a look with the former Wizard Saint, a fleeting sense of understanding passing between them.

'Run,' she mouthed to him.

Thankfully, Nirvana was starting to get back on level footing. Hibiki had partly briefed the party about the legendary construct's self-regenerative ability. The remaining energy converters were churning overtime as it absorbed eternano in order to compensate and recover its destroyed sectors. Glowing fragments started to rise up around them and into the sky, loosely cluttered to form sheets of pure white, wafting towards the hypocentre as if caught on the uplift of a gentle breeze.

Erza would have stopped to marvel at the view had it not been for the fact that they were running for their lives. Above her, Carla took flight, fidgeting restlessly to look behind her. That was when Erza realised that the other pair of footfalls was noticeably absent.

She stopped abruptly. "Jellal! What are you doing?"

His back was to her, his stance rigid as he gripped his fists tightly. A faint sheen of gold shrouded his person. As Jellal turned his head slightly, Erza could see a twinge of a smile peeking over his shoulders. "Everything in my power, right?" He looked forward just as a shower of debris announced its arrival and the house that it had just barrelled through caved in.

Erza was already on the move.

"Keep them safe, Erza."

The last part was barely audible, but she heard it all the same. Firming her resolve, she refused to look back, unshed tears welling at the corner of her eyes. Still, she felt her heart flutter at his words. Even if he had lost his memories, the boy that she had once known—the boy who had meant so much to her back at the tower—was still in there.

Erza Scarlet swore she would come back for him.


0.0

"Did you get through to them, Hibiki?" Lucy asked, worried.

Her steps were hurried, even though the whole capital had been tilted dangerously to one end, as she tried to keep up with the host's longer reach. It had been Hibiki's idea to head towards the nightmarish growls and that cataclysmic explosion rather than far, far away from it. Still, she was glad that they hadn't been caught in that blast.

She only hoped no one else was though...

"No," was his clipped reply. "And I honestly can't understand why though. Naruto-san should at least still be in range for a link-up."

"Then you think that's him?" Lucy motioned towards where they had witnessed the blinding dome of white that had engulfed parts of Nirvana as well as the surrounding forest. "Over there fighting? That... that's crazy!"

"For now, we can never be too sure."

Lucy shuddered, rubbing furiously at her arms to dispel the sudden bout of goosebumps that came over her. "Well still, that attack just now—it was just... it made your legs feel like jelly, you know."

"I'm afraid I do." Hibiki suddenly paused. Sweeping his hands in the air before him, his Archive console shimmered into existence at his fingertips. He smiled in relief. "What luck," he said, tapping two fingers to his temple. "I'm patching us through to the rest. We managed to make contact with Erza and Carla. Give me a sec."

:Hibiki-dono,: came Jura's voice over the link. :Lucy-dono.:

"Ah," Lucy started with an awkward giggle. "You don't have to call me that, Jura-san."

Her request went over his shiny head. :Have we been able to determine what or whom exactly caused that terrible explosion? We cannot rule out that the last Oración Seis may still have an insidious plan in motion.:

:Indeed, it is most troubling. A volatile mix of aromas still permeate the air. Very spicy, yet terribly pungent.:

"Well, I was hoping to ask—"

Erza cut Hibiki off in mid-sentence, her breathing laboured. :Hibiki-san, please send us Ichiya's coordinates. We need to regroup with him immediately. Wendy has sustained extensive injuries.:

Though the knight's tone remained level, Lucy could sense the urgency and desperation behind her words. The blonde gasped quietly. "W-Wait! Wendy? But Naruto went after them! What happened?!"

There was a lull on the other end, with Lucy half-expecting Carla to fill them in on the details, but instead Erza continued, :There is no time to explain. Jellal bought us enough time to escape by fending off the one that did this, but he... he needs our help. His magic is depleted enough as it is.:

:Jellal!?: Natsu roared into the telepathy link. :Dammit! Where the hell is he?!:

:Natsu, not now.:

:But—:

:Please...: Erza's voice was quiet and pleading. It was a side that those in Fairy Tail rarely witnessed, especially Lucy. Her words left Natsu too floored to even string a coherent sentence together in protest.

A frustrated yell followed not soon after, :Argh, fine! Just this one time!:

Hibiki cleared his throat as the silence lingered. "I'll do what I can to help. There... I've pinpointed the coordinates where we can all rendezvous. Everyone, please make your way to the location and prepare for their arrival. Judging from the devastation we've seen, this new threat cannot be underestimated. Please be careful. We need everyone together for this."

:Excellent work, my young protégé,: Ichiya said. :We are en route now.:

To Lucy's left, Hibiki's eyes were transfixed on his screen, his fingers working furiously as it punched in a series of jumbled codes that she couldn't understand.

"Carla, are you there?" he asked. "Can I ask what happened to Naruto-san? I still can't get through to him."

Her reply was despondent and listless, :He's back there... fighting Jellal...:


0.0

His face was taut. Cracked lips thinned into a firm line. Balling a fist tight, his right eye, the one with the strange reddish symbols marked from the top of his brow to his cheek, twitched.

Then Jellal acted.

He snapped his right hand in the air, palm facing out, and with the other, supporting it by the crook of his elbow. Swiping his dominant hand down, a whirling golden seal appeared before him, and several beams of rich yellow shot forth—towards the fox-creature.

It batted the first beam with a swipe of one of its tail, the attack exploding prematurely over its form and blanketing it in a haze of pale, golden light. Its hollow eyes then glowed ominously in the cover, snarling angrily. Dodging the next one, it bobbed and weaved through the onslaught, but the beams persisted in their pursuit of their target, like a swarm of angry hornets. Despite its mindless state, the creature proved that a modicum of intelligence ruled over it. Levelling itself close to the ground, it sprung forward, luring the Heavenly Beams along with it to Jellal.

A yellow and black blur danced around its thunderous charge, unleashing a hail of crackling gold beams meant to distract and chip away at its yet unknown defences. Still, Jellal had to concede that it was fast, unnaturally so. What was more troubling was that it was keeping up with him—in Meteor. Had it not been for the added boost to his agility, he would have been mauled to death in that last charge.

It turned sharply from a dead end, bursting away so fast that the attacks trailing after it could not manoeuvre away in time, impacting the buildings in a delayed blast of yellow light. Simultaneously, its tails struck out at the destroyed remains, flinging debris at his hazy after-image, the fragments spontaneously combusting while in mid-air.

With a quick flurry of thrusts, he met the attack with his own, sweeping past the colliding forces to avoid the resultant mini-explosions. However, despite his best efforts, Jellal couldn't match the fox-creature in sheer output. Between zipping around the battlefield and unleashing his magic to counter the unending fiery wreckage, Jellal realised that his reserves, already depleted when he tried to activate the self-destruction spell on Nirvana, were reaching a critical low. His breathing began to labour, the shroud of golden haze coating his person flickering as a result.

The creature's ears perked up as if sensing his distress. It upped the ante of its next salvo, two of its tails widening and morphing into large hands that dug into the concrete foundation of the remains of a modestly large building and pulled it aloft, the ground trembling from the effort.

Jellal stilled at the sight.

It catapulted the remains at his general direction. Then, crouched on all fours, it threw itself forward.

But he could not falter. Not here. Not now.

The former Wizard Saint sucked in a breath, his Meteor gaining his vigorous sheen just as he hunkered down through the worst of it behind a still standing building. The area was quickly showered in debris, and a tail burst through the rubble not even a fraction of a second after. He barely evaded it and a glancing swipe of its claws, its five swaying tails finding empty air as he propelled himself into the skies.

The fiend made after him, the ground beneath it cracking and sinking inwards, but its aerial prowess was non-existent. Like a fish out of water, all it could do was grope at him with its tails.

Jellal flitted out of reach, pushing himself higher into the air, inching and weaving away from the elongating tails that continued to pursue him relentlessly; however, at the apex of its steep jump, a single tail managed to graze his torso before the fox-creature started its descent, losing all of its momentum from earlier.

He spiralled into a dangerous plummet but recovered momentarily, letting out a pained hiss.

The force behind it hadn't connected properly, but his shirt had been burnt off, revealing a minor reddish-pink welt that marred the part of his chest that had made contact. While Meteor's principal magic granted him a near-unparallel speed boost and flight, it also afforded him a weak, but not entirely flimsy, armour. The damage proved just how corrosive and dangerous the foul energy coating its form was.

Blocking out the stinging sensation in his chest, Jellal swiped two fingers behind him. The Heavenly Blast surged down towards its falling target in a shining beacon of light, radiating brilliantly against the night sky.

His foe blocked the drilling magic with its tails, locking it in a brief standstill. The Heavenly Blast continued to accelerate its descent, but not soon after its tails prevailed; the magic then unravelling and dispersing into the atmosphere.

Its subsequent roar sounded almost triumphant.

But far above it, Jellal had his eyes shut in quiet concentration, humming inaudibly under his breath. The build-up of his magic was palpable. Seven golden magical seals materialised in the air before him, stacked atop each other. Bracing his hands, the seals slid away and spaced themselves evenly, like a brightly lit constellation.

His eyes snapped open.

"Grand Chariot!"

Beams of yellow light started to pour out of the magical seals in the sky. The seven-fold streams then converged together to create a single concentrated torrent aimed directly at the monster, spilling into the surrounding area with a resounding 'boom'. A large plume of dust swept past him, as high up as he was, obscuring the destruction his magic had wrought.

Jellal felt his lungs burn from the exertion of summoning a spell of such magnitude. Was that really enough to fell his foe? He scanned the battlefield for any sign of movement, but his eyes fluttered open and shut several times to get the tiredness and fatigue out from his haze-filled vision.

Then, it happened.

"Grrrrr!"

Pain clouded his senses, centred on the right side of his body where the gigantic fist had blindsided him. The next thing he knew, he was sent flying over the capital, struggling to stay conscious.


0.0

Erza's eyes widened.

There was a sudden uproar of disbelief, but Carla fell silent soon after, refusing to elaborate. They were nearing the rendezvous point, but it was still quite a distance before the rest reached them. Hibiki's impressive Archive magic, through the use of a strange heads-up display, estimated that it would take them another five minutes to arrive.

It was time they did not have.

:Is this true, Erza?: Hibiki asked over the link.

She gauged the feline flying above her with a critical eye. Carla was struggling to rein in her emotions. Her features were scrunched up in a mixture of guilt, anger and sadness.

"I was not there when it happened," Erza answered, albeit hesitantly. "But what I saw looked nothing like Naruto, it was this... this monstrous creature cloaked in red. If what Carla says is true, then—"

Carla interrupted tersely, "It is. I. Saw. It. Happen."

"Then," Erza said slowly, nodding at Carla's words in a show of acceptance. "The shock of seeing Wendy in such a state may have pushed him under Nirvana's influence."

:S-So that explosion?!: Lucy spoke up. :That really was Naruto?!:

:Naruto-dono is quite the formidable mage,: Erza recognised the deep baritone voice as Jura's. He sounded worried. :For him to be turned against us during such a critical juncture does not bode well for us or our mission. Erza-dono, you say he's transformed into some sort of creature? But how could Nirvana have caused this?:

:Hmm... I've checked it through Archive. There is no concrete proof that Nirvana has such an ability. It is possible that Nirvana triggered a failed Take-Over when he was turned.:

There was a low growl at the other end of the telepathy link, which could only belong to Natsu.

She felt guilt creep in her conscience. Erza thought back to that day when Mirajane's and Elfman's listless and inconsolable figures returned without the youngest Strauss sibling. Lisanna's death still weighed heavy in his mind, but it had totally slipped hers. She could see the parallels between both events now. No doubt Natsu had made the connection first.

"Yes, that seems the most likely reason," she said quietly.

:Well, shit...: That was Gray. :This is starting to hit close to home.:

Erza expected an angry retort from the Fire Dragon Slayer, but Natsu was uncharacteristically silent. It was definitely troubling him. She blinked suddenly when he growled aloud, :Oi, there's someone following us.:

:What's happening now?: Lucy asked, anxious. :Who are you talking about?:

:It's that guy again, but he smells different.:

:How strange that many consider a Dragon Slayer to be an arcanum branch of magic. Its users are no different from common mongrels,: Brain's voice resounded in her mind and she stilled. :The Light Alliance... Hmph. It was foolish to leave my counterpart alone, defeated though he was. Tsk, tsk. Sloppy.: His tone was teasing. :And to think Oración Seis would fall to such a ragtag bunch. Brain has been complacent while I was away.:

Natsu didn't miss a beat, it seemed.

Erza had witnessed his signature attack to the point that she didn't need to imagine the intensity behind the fiery inferno as his Fire Dragon's Roar presumably tore through wherever Brain was.

:That was pre-mature, Natsu-dono.: There was a small pause. :But we are in a hurry. Ichiya-dono, please proceed to the rendezvous point. We shall cover your retreat.:

:Understood, Jura-san: Ichiya said curtly. :Ladies, I shall be there shortly.:

:Lyon, Sherry, on me!: Erza could hear two voices shout their affirmation. :Richard-dono, does Brain—:

:Brain is no longer of this world,: Hoteye said, his voice hard. He was directing his words to those around him, and Erza could only follow so much without being able to see what was happening. :He was an artificial personality created by the one you see standing before you. This man is the real Brain, the one sealed deep within his psyche, Zero. And if he is here, then it means that Midnight has fallen.:

:You disappoint me, Hoteye. You continue to masquerade as one of them?: Zero barked out a harsh laugh. There were no tell-tale signs Erza could discern over the telepathy link of Natsu's attack having affected him; he didn't sound hurt. :Then join in their suffering and despair. For none of you shall live to see through this day.:

:Pffh... so what if you look different?: Natsu sounded bored. :You're just like the other guy. All you do is talk, talk, talk. Then, you get your ass whooped.: Erza could almost sense the feral grin that split across his face. :I'm gonna—:

The sky above them lit up in a bright blast of yellow. There was a resounding 'boom' and the ground beneath them trembled, but it paled in comparison to the destruction wrought by Naruto's failed Take-Over form.

:That one was definitely weaker than before,: Lyon echoed her thoughts over the link. :Could it have been your comrade, Erza-san?:

:Yeah, that was definitely that bastard! I'd know that magic anywhere!:

She had seen it once before, back during their fight at the Tower of Heaven. "Grand Chariot..." she mumbled distractedly.

Instinctively, Erza looked up and her eyes went wide. She didn't realised that she had stopped running. A flickering golden light, almost like a falling star, streaked in the sky above them. The shining object lost altitude rapidly, flying over her head towards the general vicinity where she knew the others were.

Her heart sank.

She knew who it was.

:Oi, Erza,: Natsu's voice broke through her self-induced trance.

Erza hated that her voice wavered when she asked, "C-Can you see him?! I-Is he alive?!"

:He looks like shit.: The Fire Dragon Slayer snorted. :He flew into a building and totally creamed it. Bastard's having trouble trying to stand though, but yeah... he's alive.:

She sighed in relief.

:Jellal has failed. Naruto-dono will undoubtedly be here soon. Erza-dono, we will require your assistance during this endeavour. Please hurry to our location once Wendy-dono is—:

:I grow weary of this,: Zero spoke curtly.

The link promptly disconnected.

Erza bit out a curse as the sounds of battle continued to rage overhead. Together with Hibiki's telepathy magic, the heads-up display that relayed real-time information through his Archive magic was also gone. As it were, she only had Carla to rely on to scout ahead.

Luckily, it wasn't long before she found them.

"I see them!" Carla said above her.

Lucy was heading the group, waving her arms wildly. "Erza! Carla!"

Erza set Wendy gently to the ground, just as Ichiya rushed over, pushing past Lucy and Hibiki. Many, even her initially, chose to disregard the man simply for his outlandish looks, incredible vanity, womanising behaviour, or shocking cowardice at times... but Erza knew better. There weren't many that could stop an Ichiya in his pomp if he unleashed the full, devastating array of his Perfume magic.

The undoubtedly talented mage roved his eyes over Wendy's form and shook his head once. Erza continued to watch him with his prognosis, but asked Hibiki:

"What happened to the telepathy link?"

The handsome host scowled. "Zero's doing unfortunately. He's erected some kind of magic to disrupt any communications in the immediate area. Remarkably, he hasn't cut off our line of communications to outside channels, so there may be a way around it. Give me some time."

She nodded distractedly.

Ichiya knelt down and reach for one of the vials on his belt, placing it over Wendy's face. He then made a waving motion at the opening of the vial, and the swirling, red vapours reciprocated by circling around her nostrils.

"Her injuries are far too severe." His tone was clipped, professional. "There is only so much my parfum can do. It can alleviate the pain, but her injuries... there's nothing I can do to heal that." The leader of the Trimens wasn't even looking at her, instead at Carla.

"But this is doing something to help her, right?" Carla asked, her desperation evident.

"If administered in small doses over time, then yes. It will help to regulate her breathing and replenish all the blood she's lost, but it will be useless unless we heal her internal injuries. Excuse me..." Ichiya reached over and pressed down lightly over her abdomen. "I believe a broken rib has punctured her lung. I am no healer, but this could be one of several injuries which I am unqualified to treat. There is nothing more I can do besides this, Carla-san."

The feline seemed utterly crushed. "T-Then what else can we do? I can't... lose her." She swallowed thickly, blinking back tears. "P-Please, there has to be s-something else—anything else!"

Ichiya's features softened. "There is," he said. He proceeded to unbuckle his utility belt, removing most of the vials before holding it out to the feline. Two red vials were nestled inside the holsters, one uncapped. "Abandon the mission and bring her to a proper healer, Carla-san. You are the only hope she has left."

"W-What...?"

"There is nothing more the either of you can do here. I urge you to find the nearest town and save young Wendy's life. Please do not allow her efforts to be in vain. She was pivotal in saving Erza's and Jura-san's lives. Without her, this mission would have been doomed to fail from the start."

"...B-But what about Naruto? He's still—"

"Don't worry about that! Leave him to us! If it wasn't for Wendy, I'd be down for the count too." Lucy's smile was strained, but her brave front was commendable. Her voice wavered a bit, "W-We'll totally make him snap out of it!"

"It is for the best." Erza nodded at Lucy's words. "Hibiki-san, are you able to search for the closest towns or settlements from where we are currently?"

"Of course."

"W-Wait, I know where we are," Carla voiced uncertainly. "Nirvana's headed towards Cait Shelter, our guild. Wendy and I, we found that out before... before Midnight confronted us."

"That is troubling, indeed," Ichiya said. "Does this Zero character plan to turn the first guild in the vicinity?"

Erza took the offered utility belt from Ichiya's hand and slung it around Carla's shoulder. Her hand lingered on the feline's shoulder. "Then your objective will be two-pronged: to find a healer for Wendy and notify your Guild Master so that you can evacuate your guild mates. You will need to act quickly but be careful not to exacerbate her injuries. Can you do that?"

"Yes!"

She smiled softly. "Good. Please hurry, Carla. Your guild mates are depending on you."

"R-Right!" The wings on her back materialised in a flash of white, but before Carla took hold of her grievously wounded charge, she stopped and bowed deeply. "Please do all you can to help Naruto," she continued softly. "It was my fault he turned into what he is now. If I hadn't done what I did... none of this would have happened. I won't be able to live with myself if anyone of you got hurt fighting him. He'd... he would feel the same way."

The cat didn't say anything more. With a grateful nod to everyone present, Carla took to the skies with Wendy in tow.

"I hope Wendy comes through," Hibiki said aloud once they left.

Ichiya patted his handsome protégé on the arm. "I'm afraid that is all we can do for her now. Hope." He shook his over-sized head. "Hibiki, please contact Master Bob and the authorities. Because of the combined threat of Nirvana, Brain and even Naruto, this mission is now critical and in danger of failing. Tell them that we are in dire need of reinforcements, but they are to refrain from approaching Nirvana. This may be what Zero is counting on. More bodies and minds to turn against each other. There is no telling the havoc their presence will raise."

"Of course, aniki. I'm right on top of it."

"It's that bad, huh?" Lucy was visibly shaking now. "Why couldn't we get someone from Cait Shelter to help us stop it?"

Hibiki gave her an odd look. "Don't you know, Lucy? Cait Shelter is a guild in name only. According to official records, Naruto's team is the only active team available from their guild."

"What?! Wasn't our alliance supposed to be between the five strongest guilds in the Kingdom? How could they have only one team?!"

"It was at the behest of their Guild Master. He was the one who requested to participate in the alliance," Hibiki explained. "But I wasn't aware that we were chosen because of our strength. I heard our Guild Masters drew straws. Whoever drew the short ones had to send a team as part of the alliance."

"W-What?! That really happened?! I thought Gray meant it as a—"

A primal, savage roar pierced the night for what felt like the third time today. The killing intent that washed over them floored them into a stupor. Erza was only able to stop herself from shivering as she gripped her fists tight, feeling one of her hands wrap around a familiar length of steel. Unconsciously, she had requipped a broadsword.

She couldn't afford to waste time. She had to leave now.

Ichiya knelt on the ground, his perfume concoctions spread out before him in vials of varying colours and sizes. The man nodded at Erza's unanswered question.

"Never fear, my lovely flower. Give me some time to prepare and I shall meet you there shortly."

Erza ignored that first part. "Lucy, you can stay here with Hibiki. We—"

"No way!" A cold sweat had formed on Lucy's forehead, and the act of speaking alone seemed to take up a lot out of her, but the Celestial Spirit mage still looked determined. "I can't leave you to fight alone! I can fight! I'm a Fairy Tail mage too!" She continued in a quieter voice, "Besides, you're worried about Jellal, right?"

Erza nodded imperceptibly. "Just as much as I'm worried for Gray and Natsu... and everyone else there fighting."

"Then I'm coming with you! I'm worried about those idiots too!"

Lucy's firm resolve made her heart swell in pride. It was one thing to be afraid; she would not begrudge the blonde heiress and think any less of her, but to have the courage to face it head on was something different altogether. Despite not being the most capable mage, Lucy Heartfilia was willing to put her life on the line for the sake of her allies.

Erza gave her a grateful smile.

"Then let us hurry."


.0.

His head broke through the still surface of the water. He coughed violently, expelling the water in his throat as he took in his first breath of air. When he tried to orientate himself in the pool of water, he was surprised to note that it was only knee-deep high, and his hands and feet could feel the solid concrete underneath.

Wasn't he just...?

His mind was swimming, figuratively speaking, as he blearily took stock of his surroundings. What greeted him was the accursed sewer he was accustomed to over the years, but it had taken a sinister turn.

Translucent black energy burrowed deep into every surface he could see, eating away at the very foundation like an infectious plaque. There was nothing beyond the bland walls surrounding him except for a blank canvas. Before him, the tall gates housing his prisoner were teeming with the foreign matter, blanking the normal red paint, the only contrast there was in this sewer, with its inky black. It chipped away at the gates, although not at the same rate as the walls. It was corroding the metal a dull orange-brown and leaving deep, rough grooves into the bars; they looked ready to crumble at a simple touch.

He could see the black energy start to creep towards the seal, like it was sentient. The seal didn't crumble immediately like he thought it would, but the edges had been burnt black, making inroads to the centre of the paper marked with the 'seal' kanji.

He grimaced suddenly, crumpling to his knees. His abdomen felt like it was on fire. Lifting his shirt, he found the alien energy burrowing into his abdomen, over where the seal was, an unknown black substance oozing and leaking down his pants.

Dread crept into every fibre of his being.

Large red eyes peeked open from beyond the gates. Its eyes were hungry, like a predator ready to pounce on an unsuspecting prey. He couldn't help but feel like one as he was paralysed by its powerful gaze.

"I warned you," it told him simply with a satisfied growl.

The walls of his throat felt like they were lined with sandpaper. When he spoke, he swore it was the first time he'd heard his voice in what seemed like aeons:

"N-No, I didn't... want this."

"You did. You all but screamed for it. But no more. This will be your last."

Then, it let out a guttural, earth-shattering roar, and the cage shattered.


0.0

"Do I look like a fool, Roubaul? Do you think that this wrinkly sack of flesh was born yesterday?!"

In the communication lacrima orb, Roubaul could see the Guild Mistress of Mermaid's Cove pinching and pulling away at her wrinkly face. Just as he was about to retort, the purple-haired girl standing in front of him gave a deadpan look and shook her head.

The rest of the members milling around their guild tent stayed well-clear of their recent visitors; not in fear of the clearly exhausted girl with the tall warhammer, but wariness of her other comrade, a tall, hulking woman with blonde hair. The woman was glaring at anyone that moved.

Beyond her, he could see Grognak nodding his head in appreciation.

Roubaul suppressed the urge to sigh. He hadn't been expecting a house call from their neighbouring guild. Agatha's persistence was legendary, and he wasn't sure whether he could ward off her attempts to leave him, and by extension his guild, in peace.

"Uh... Pish-posh, Agatha. Surely you—"

"Enough. I don't want to hear it." Agatha coughed violently, turning her face off-screen as she palmed her chest repeatedly to ease her fitful state. A helper appeared on-screen, but the ill-stricken woman shooed her away. "Honestly... I shouldn't have skipped the last meeting. Straws! They picked straws to decide on a mission of this magnitude! What the hell were they thinking?!"

"Well, if every one of us were to send a group of representatives for this undertaking, it could prove to be detrimental to the success of the mission. It was decided that drawing straws, as childish as it sounds, was an impartial way of deciding who would be involved."

Agatha leaned into the orb. "Oh? And when did you become so well-versed in their reasoning? I've known you for the better half of a decade and I haven't even seen that mug of yours face-to-face, much less in our meetings. Don't try to bamboozle me, you crazy hermit. I asked around. I know from Ooba Baba-chan that you begged to be on this mission."

"H-Heh. Despite my reluctance to attend, I remain a... staunch advocate for all of the league's undertaking. Given my past failures to uphold the standards required of me as a Guild Master, I decided it was uh, high-time I did something about it!"

Agatha sighed. "Are my girls there yet?"

"You want to talk to the surly purple one or the hostile she-man?" Roubaul ignored their resultant death glares. The purple one had to physically restrain her taller, muscular teammate, if that was at all possible.

"You despicable man flesh!"

"G-Gah! Stop, Sarah-san!"

"Don't go insulting my girls, Roubaul," Agatha said, scowling. "Minori-dear... Should he do it again, you have my permission to whack him with your little hammer."

"S-Sure, Mistress..."

"Now, listen here, Roubaul. They're the most capable team I have that can help you at the moment. I'm surprised that Minori was even able to make it to your guild so fast with Sarah in tow, but she insisted on helping your guild. Don't be fooled. Minori is one of our best and brightest, and Sarah, despite appearances, is our most capable healer. Yes, I can see the irony, but the sweet, young thing is incapable of hurting a fly."

Roubaul could only stare at the blond she-man, nostrils flaring and all, with a skeptical brow raised.

"Somehow I don't quite believe you."

"Uhm, should... should I hit him now?" the one named Minori asked.

"Honestly! Must you continue belittling them? I had half-hoped you'd already evacuate your guild, but god only knows why you're still there! I've already coordinated with Frank and some of my girls are helping the town of Camoa with their evacuation to Diligeon. Listen, Roubaul. This stopped being a joke the moment the Magic Council stuck their noses in our business. They're calling the shots now. Surely, they've told you about Nirvana's imminent arrival?"

"I uh, might have missed their call... or calls."

"You blundering old fool! Nirvana's headed to your location as we speak! You only have so much time now to evacuate!"

Roubaul waved away her concerns. "Bah! Who's afraid of that thing? I'm not worried. I got Grognak here to protect me. Look at him." He took hold of the communication orb and held it towards the shirtless barbarian. Grognak obliged to his unspoken request and began flexing his muscles, grinning. "Besides, I have complete faith in Naruto and his team, as well as his much vaunted allies."

Agatha harrumphed. "Your over-reliance on that boy wonder of yours is unbecoming. You talk as if the boy could walk on water."

Minori leaned over the desk to look at her Guild Mistress. "Naruto really can walk on water, Mistress." Her eyes bugged out. "A-Ah, but I knew you were using it as a metaphor or analogy? Uh, whichever one it is, and... I'll totally shut up now."

Roubaul chortled happily. "Gahaha! You got a funny one here, Agatha!"

He was hoping to get a rise from his fellow Guild Leader, but Agatha was frowning deeply. "Please, Roubaul. I'm asking you as a friend. The threat of Nirvana is far too serious to take lightly. Come to Diligeon. The Magic Council is planning to set up a command centre here, and they're requesting aid from guilds in the region."

"I cannot," Roubaul said finally, puffing out his chest. "The Nirvit tribe has resided in these lands for generations, even before recorded history. I will not be the one—" he paused deliberately, feeling aggrieved by his own admission, "—who destroys our proud heritage."

All around him, the chatter from his guild members stopped abruptly, their solemn faces reflecting his own.

"And who will remember the heritage of your people if there's no one left?! Goodness gracious, Roubaul! Your logic is confounding! I can't believe you would forsake the lives of your guild members for—"

"C-Chief Roubaul! H-Help!"

His eyes locked onto the entrance, and Roubaul could only watch, mouth agape and horror-stricken, as Carla flew in and collapsed under her own weight along with the broken form of the child he had considered a granddaughter. It was only by Grognak's quick reflexes that Wendy did not exacerbate her injuries, scooping the young girl and cat into his broad arms before they fell.

Panicked screams and howls echoed in their guild tent, but the nature of his illusion magic meant that he experienced and saw what the guild members around him felt to an extent, almost but not entirely like an omniscient being; distant, yes, but painfully aware. The cumulative feedback was so intense that he lost control momentarily. Most of his illusions fizzled, their beings flickering in and out of existence if only for a second. He corrected it almost immediately, but he was sure that the purple-haired one, Minori, noticed it.

Her back suddenly went rigid. Through the connection he shared with his illusions, he witnessed the girl's eyes slowly shift from side to side. She was trying to remain inconspicuous, but there was a sense of alertness in her body language. She didn't turn back to face him. Fortunately, the tenseness in her shoulders left. She shook her head, as if casting aside her suspicions due to a trick on the eyes.

Her comrade, Sarah was already on point, directing a stunned Grognak to gently place Wendy down on a nearby table, not before sweeping the contents off it with her long, muscular arm.

Carla climbed over to kneel by Wendy's side. "Please," she begged the woman. "Please tell me you can save her."

Sarah chose not to answer the feline, instead her hands began to roam over Wendy's body like a seasoned professional, bathing the young girl's form in a pale green light.

"W-Well, can you?"

Minori tugged Carla into her arms, and the cat didn't immediately resist. "C'mon. You can't disturb her now, Carla."

Carla looked up at her with wide, teary eyes, sounding dazed and confused. "Minori... she can heal Wendy, right? I have these things that Ichiya-san gave me." She fumbled at the oversized belt pouch slung around her frame and produced two uncapped vials, the contents inside were almost depleted; the red vapours that seeped out were faint but still visible. "She can probably use these to help her."

Minori took the vials out of her grasp and put them aside. "It's okay, Carla. Sarah-san is the best healer we have in our guild."

"So she can save Wendy?"

The witch didn't immediately reply, but instead she hugged the cat tighter and mumbled, "You just gotta let Sarah-san do her thing..."

"Roubaul! Answer me, Roubaul!"

He blinked and looked down, only realising now that he was standing, fingers gripping the edge of his desk. Agatha was red-faced and breathing deeply. He was distantly aware that the woman had been shouting for quite some time.

"Tell me what happened!"

Roubaul hung his head low, shaking it slowly. "My youngest," he said, swallowing thickly. "My youngest was brought back from—"

The feed from the other end shook roughly as Agatha was pulled off-screen, amidst loud protests from the background. A bespectacled young man garbed in a Rune Knight Officer's uniform came into a view.

"My apologies, Guild Mistress Agatha," the officer said curtly to the woman who was now off-screen. He turned back to face him. "Guild Master Roubaul, my name is Captain Lahar. I've been given temporary command here in Diligeon to establish a defensive perimeter around the area. I'd apologise for the intrusion, but you're a hard man to get a hold of."

"With good reason," Roubaul replied gruffly. "Don't they teach you fools any manners at the Magic Council?"

"Your reticence left us with no other alternative, and please forgive my behaviour." His apology didn't sound at all sincere. "My being curt with you has nothing to do with the crisis we now face. Let me be brief then: we've received word on the ground that the mission is now critical. They've requested for aid, but I am hard-pressed to offer them bodies if what they say about Nirvana's capabilities is true. As we speak, they are now headed towards your location."

The ground beneath them trembled, and everyone present stilled.

"No," Carla said. "It's already here..."

"Then it is as Hibiki Lates says. Their objective is the destruction of your guild, Guild Master Roubaul. From there, I can only assume Nirvana would make its way down to Diligeon."

Carla leapt out of Minori's arms and onto his desk, shouting at the lacrima orb. "Then do what you must! Help us stop it!"

There was a spark of recognition in the Captain's eyes. "Oh. We've met before, haven't we? You're part of Uzumaki's cell. I read reports that you were part of the delegation sent for this mission. We've stopped receiving updates from Hibiki Lates as of five minutes ago. His information was vague enough as it is. Are you able to give us a proper sitrep of the situation?"

Carla seemed hesitant to answer. "They're—"

Roubaul waved his hand over the lacrima orb and cut the feed. Carla looked up, horrified at what he had done, but he put a hand on her shoulder and gripped it loosely. "Some things are better left unsaid, Carla. Be careful what you say to them from now on, even after I'm gone," he added quietly.

Her eyes widened a fraction. "C-Chief Roubaul?"

"Something has happened to Naruto, hasn't it?"

Whatever self-control the normally stoic had left vanished as she let out an anguished sob. Her paws covered her face, and her legs wobbled, but she didn't allow herself to fall to her knees. "I did something stupid," she managed to say in between breaths. "Wendy got hurt and Naruto... when he saw what happened, he lost it."

"Nirvana got to him then?"

She could only nod, not trusting herself to speak.

Roubaul's heart tore at the sight; he had been a party to Naruto's downfall, and one of his youngest was putting the blame on herself. Perhaps Agatha was right. He was too over-reliant on Naruto.

Had his longing to end his accursed existence on this earth clouded his judgement?

Naruto had always been strong, in body and mind, but Roubaul knew the darkness that lurked within him could take hold of him if he was exposed to Nirvana's influence. That had been his main reluctance to ask the boy for his help all these years. His hand had been forced, however, when the Provincial Guild Masters' League had colluded to stop the dark guild Oración Seis from acquiring Nirvana.

He saw the opportunity and took it; it was a chance to kill two birds with one stone. He had been foolishly deluded into thinking that Naruto would prevail in the presence of allies he could count on.

"He's turned into this mindless demonic creature. Almost all of the Oración Seis have been defeated," Carla continued. "He's the only one stopping everyone from destroying Nirvana, even if he doesn't know it."

"A creature, you say? That... that isn't possible," Roubaul said. "Nirvana shouldn't be capable of doing that to someone."

"I saw it happen! Something burned his skin off, and he transformed into this... thing! The others kept saying that it was some kind of failed Take-Over, but I knew it wasn't! I knew! We've known him for three years and not once has he showed something like this." Whatever anger that had been driving her rant abated, causing her to deflate visibly. There were fresh tears in her eyes. "Then, he went berserk on the one that did this to Wendy. He did something that cleaved Nirvana in half and destroyed pretty much everything else, even the forest behind it."

There was a terse silence which was only broken by Minori.

"You mean Naruto did that?" she asked, blanching. "I felt it on my way here; totally threw us off my broom. I just figured it was you guys fighting Nirvana."

"Yes, troubling indeed," Roubaul finally said.

"Well... we are going to help him, right?" Minori asked again. "I have even less of a clue about what's going on with Naruto, but I came here to help. I mean, like Carla said, if we can stop him, then we can totally stop Nirvana as well."

"You don't understand," Carla said harshly. "You haven't seen what he's turned into. He'll kill us the moment he has a chance. Do you honestly believe that there was no one on the receiving end of that explosion?"

Minori grimaced.

"Right... That's a scary thought. But surely there has to be a way to bring him back? Even if we don't stand a half a chance against him, maybe a familiar face would help? You say he's turned into a monster, but maybe Naruto's still inside, deep down somewhere?"

"He's—"

"Perhaps it would," Roubaul mused aloud, interrupting Carla's rebuke. He smiled pleasantly at Minori. "Your courage is admirable. I can see why Naruto values your friendship, as do Carla and Wendy."

The feline looked up, startled.

"There is no need to be ashamed, Carla. You should feel proud to have a friend who would go through such lengths for you," he said, before turning back to Minori. "But I am afraid that I must ask something else of you, young miss."

"Okay... What do you need?"

"Leave this place. Bring Carla and Wendy with you to Diligeon and keep them safe. No matter what you see or hear, do not turn back. Do not let Carla out of your sight; restrain her if you must."

"Chief?! What are you saying?! I'm not going to run away! This all happened because of me! I-I need to help fix this!"

"Oh hoho... It is naïve to think that you are to blame for this, Carla. After all, it was I who decided to send the three of you on this mission."

"That's different!"

Roubaul frowned. He had made his bed, now it was time for him to lie in it. He could not allow others to bear the weight of his sins any longer. "Then would it assuage your guilt knowing that I was the one who asked Naruto to destroy Nirvana?"

Carla fell quiet at that, but she didn't look too surprised by his revelation.

"As sharp as ever I see," Roubaul said with a wry grin.

"I figured as much. Naruto wouldn't endanger us or the mission unnecessarily, and he went to great lengths for us not to find out. He wouldn't do all that just for anyone."

Her unanswered question lingered.

"Yes, quite. That is the Carla I know; calm and rational. Now consider your decision to stay. It certainly is the right decision, the just one, but is the best course of action for you? For Wendy? How do you envision yourself fighting someone, who in your words, would kill us given the opportunity?"

"I-I can't leave Naruto as he is."

"Then let an old man try to correct his mistakes one last time. Believe in me as you would believe in him."

"So wait, you're going out there to fight him?" Minori asked. "I know you're a Guild Master and all, but you really want me to do this? Leave everyone else in your guild here while we bring just the two of them to Diligeon?"

"That's right! I can't run away with everyone else still here!" Carla added.

"Yeah, exactly. Look I'm not even sure we can move Wendy as it is. I flew Sarah-san out here on a broom, so our way of travelling isn't exactly the safest or the comfiest. We could end up hurting her more. Sarah-san, what do you think?"

The healer was quiet for a long while.

"I've done what I could to stabilise her," Sarah finally spoke, not looking up from her patient. "I would recommend against moving her, but I understand the alternative is far worse."

"That is truly excellent news," Roubaul said. "And please forgive however callous my remarks were earlier, the two of you truly are a godsend. Thank Nabura for guiding you both to our path."

Minori eyed him strangely, rubbing at her forearms.

"Okay... Then, what do I tell Naruto or even Mistress Agatha about abandoning the rest of your guild members? I know about you not wanting to tarnish your tribe's legacy and all, but you can't seriously expect me to leave you all here to die?"

Minori's hesitation was obvious, but he could sense that the girl could be persuaded to see reason. However, the defiant glare Carla sent his way showed that it would take much more to convince her. He could think of only one way to do it now.

Roubaul smiled, a tad bitterly. "I'm afraid to say I was lying then. I've tarnished that legacy long, long ago. What remains here is but a shadow; a memory of our once prestigious tribe." With a heavy sigh, he eyed Carla in particular, saying, "This was not the way I imagined I would break the news. It isn't right, and neither is it fair to either of you, Carla, Wendy."

All around him, the odd-thirty or so members of the Cait Shelter guild, all the faces he remembered a lifetime ago, stood. Some walked over to be by Wendy's side. Their features were solemn, as was his. He then released his tightly-grasped hold over his illusions. One by one, they disappeared, some without even the chance of a final goodbye.

The emotions that played across Carla's face; hurt, confusion, made him sick; hurt him deeply.

"W-What?! What is this? What's happening?!"

"This," Roubaul said to her slowly. "This is the truth which I've intentionally kept from you, Wendy and even Naruto. You have questions no doubt, to which I have the answers to, but time is running short. Though I have this to ask of you, Carla: be their rock. I know how terribly this will devastate young Wendy, but cherish and protect her like you've been doing all these years. She is still a young girl, and this loss will hurt her. She will need her real family, you and Naruto, to be there for her.

"Naruto... Yes, he has the strength, the conviction, and the passion. He may be one of the strongest beings you'll ever come across in your life, but never forget that he is human. No matter how strong he is or may appear to be on the outside, his actions here will haunt and eat at him on the inside.

"You mustn't let your fear blind you, despite what horrors you may have seen him do. He relies on the both of you. Do not alienate him, it is what he fears the most. That is why he has kept this burden, the taint he carries inside him, to himself all these years.

"And you, Carla. I've asked this of you because I trust you the most; you are the strongest one I can rely on. It is the strength of your resolve that shines through. You will be angry, you may come to resent me, but you will look past this. Above all, I know you will heed my words, because you will do anything in your power to keep their best interests at heart, no matter the cost, no matter how much it may hurt you yourself."

Roubaul sniffled, eyes red and teary. "I never intended to hurt any of you three, but alas... history has repeated itself, and once again, I've torn my family apart with my actions. So please... forgive an old man for what he's done. Not now perhaps, but in time. Promise me this."

Carla hesitantly opened her mouth to reply, but could not find the words. He could already see the conflicting emotions on her face, but he couldn't afford to waste any more time; Naruto needed him now.

"I truly am sorry, Carla."

"W-Wait—"

With that, Roubaul vanished.


Side Note: As always, the next chapter will take a while.

Also, I've published a new story. If you're bored and are interested in Persona/Suzumiya Haruhi crossovers, why not Zoidberg?

Progression: I get a lot shtick for Naruto's limited variety of techniques, which is understandable. Readers want new abilities, but IMO, it feels redundant "at the moment" (emphasis). Why come up with another close-range technique when he has an insanely powerful one in Rasengan? I wanted to cover his mid-long range deficit with a mild C-rank wind technique since throwing a Rasenshuriken is overkill, but people mistake that for him being stuck in a rut, which isn't my intention. My intention is to show that he's more efficient and smarter when it comes to wielding his strength. There's some decent variety with each fight scene. Gimme credit for that. At the very least, something new will come into play soon-ish.

Ugh, I know I'm gonna get creamed for giving an opinion. What am I thinking... this is the internet.


Next Chapter: These Threads that Bind