A/N: We're winding this down now. There's about two more chapters left in this arc, and then we get back to the lighthearted Fairy Tail craziness. Next chapter will be a HUGE Jerza moment, just letting you know ahead of time.
XienRue - Well, he did lose to Natsu in the canon, so maybe he should take the test. At the very least, it looks like a formality for Fairy Tail, since nobody joins as an S-ranked mage.
chaoticsouljam – Glad you liked it, even the Gray/Juvia scene!
Ashcroft II – Thanks for the review! I'm glad you like it! (Yes, I did have Can-Can in mind when I wrote that one scene, lol). Which Final Fantasy stories of mine have you read? Another Side? I'm planning to update that, hopefully sometime this weekend. (Writing for FFVII can be a little tiring because I have to attempt to keep a semi-serious tone throughout the whole thing, unlike Fairy Tail where I can just go completely nuts if I get bored.)
Disclaimer: I do not and will never own Fairy Tail.
CHAPTER 7: THE ONE WHO WALKS IN SHADOW
He waited until they were gone, then stepped out of the shadow, turning his head to look disdainfully up at the long flight of stairs that led to the exit. He extended his arm, flexing his fingers. Darkness still clung to his fingertips, twisting around. The barrier into the Archives had been much more difficult to bypass than the museum, and he was still aching slightly from his fight with the young Dragon Slayer. She had a little bite to her, he thought with a small grin, exposing his teeth, but she was young. It was the other two whose powers he wanted to sample, but those would have to wait.
"Are you listening to me?" he spoke into the small ball of darkness that hovered in front of him. "I know you can hear me."
There was a pause, and then a woman's voice answered. "We can hear you, Kavari. Do you have them?"
He smirked, folding his arms as he glanced down the path. "Yeah," he said. "I've got them."
"Good," said the woman. "Proceed as planned, then."
"Just so you know," said Kavari, "This is the last thing I'm doing for you. Once I get this piece, my contract's done, and I'm out. You're on your own."
"Understood," she said. "We'll send your payment to the usual place. As long as you deliver, of course."
"Oh, I'll deliver," said Kavari, grinning. He could feel the little seed he had planted earlier beginning to take root. The little Sky Dragon Slayer wasn't the only one that could affect the human body. "Titania, Jellal Fernandes, and the Sky Maiden are mine. I'll leave the rest of the trash to you."
"We'll handle it," said the woman. "Promptly."
The sphere of darkness vanished, leaving Kavari alone.
The corridor was lit by several small balls of lacrima that flared into light as they approached and blinked out behind them. The effect gave her the feeling of running through nothing, so that she wasn't entirely sure how far they had traveled down the tunnel. Occasionally, she caught glimpses of things stored in alcoves and tucked away in the walls, but they barely stopped to make sure that that wasn't what they were looking for, and Natsu was always one step ahead of her.
She gulped down a breath of air and took off after him. Even after three years, she couldn't keep up with Natsu physically. It was enough that she didn't fall behind. Her eyes narrowed and she watched the pink-haired Dragon Slayer in front of her, one hand around one of her golden keys. Happy flew beside her, concentrating.
"That's far enough," said a feminine voice, a slight hint of mockery laced in her tone. Lucy skidded to a stop, Happy pulling up in the air beside her. In front of her, Natsu straightened up.
She had black hair, tied up in a loose bun, and she was dressed in a light green gown. Her eyes were a deep brown, and for some reason, she had wound ribbons of cloth the same color as her gown around her arms. She stepped forward, frowning at them.
"I'm afraid I can't allow you to interfere," she said. "I'd appreciate it if you turned back now."
"Oh, really?" asked Natsu. "And who are you supposed to be?"
"A princess," replied the woman in a flat tone, watching them with disinterest.
Lucy's mouth fell open at the obvious lie, staring at the woman for a few moments. Natsu fell silent as well, watching her. Seriously? Who would believe something like that?
"Really?" asked Natsu excitedly running forward. "As in the kid of a king? That's so cool!"
Lucy sighed, covering her face with her hand. "Shouldn't have asked…" she muttered to herself. The woman's eyes widened and she stepped back, swatting Natsu away with one gloved hand.
"No, not really, that was a joke!" she said. "What are you, some kind of idiot?"
Natsu landed on the ground, his eyes swirling. Lucy sighed, poking him with her foot as Happy flew downwards to touch him with his paw.
"And he's down!" said the blue cat, raising his hand.
"I'm an actress," said the woman. "In my spare time, anyway. Perhaps you've heard of Maria Sylknight?"
This time, it was Lucy's turn to clasp her hands together, her eyes shining. "The one from Moonlight Magic?" she asked.
Maria smirked. "The very same," she said.
"No way!" squealed Lucy, "I loved that movie! Can I have your autograph?"
"And that's two down," said Happy, sighing as Maria signed a scrap of paper for Lucy.
"Anyway," she said, once Lucy had returned to standing behind Natsu with the piece of paper clutched to her chest. "Get out."
Lucy frowned, her eyes becoming serious again as she put the autographed piece of paper away. Natsu stood up, casually wiping the dirt off the side of his mouth with the back of his hand.
"And if we don't?" asked Lucy.
Maria took a step back. "Then I'll have to fight you," she said.
"Heh," said Natsu, spreading his legs slightly. He grinned at her, baring his fangs. "Sounds like fun." Flames flared up, curling around his hands. Maria frowned at him, raising one hand.
"Don't underestimate me," she said.
At once, the cloth wrapped around her arms moved, unwinding and narrowing into a point as it shot at Natsu. Natsu jumped to the side, the cloth striking the ground below where he had just been standing and forming a crack in the stone. The Dragon Slayer spun around, kicking at the cloth with one flaming foot. He struck it, but the cloth didn't burn, instead turning and wrapping around his leg. Maria jerked her hand in a sharp motion to the side, throwing Natsu's body against the wall headfirst. He hit it with a thud, cracking the stone slightly.
Lucy took a step back, her fingers curling inward slightly as she tightened her grip on the key in her hand. "Cloth Magic…" she said.
"Well, you didn't think my flawless wardrobe came about by accident, did you?" asked Maria with a smirk, her fingers brushing the underside of her chin.
"Ha…not bad," said Natsu as the dust cleared, stepping out of the small pile of stones and rubbing at his head. He grinned, and the flames around him intensified, creeping up his arms and legs and spinning in spirals around him. From where she stood, Lucy could feel the heat. "Guess I better get serious."
"I suppose I should follow suit as well," said Maria. She extended her hands, two magic circles forming on either side of her. "What's a cast without a few supporting characters, after all? Summon Support: Cloth Doubles!" The ribbons of cloth unwound themselves from her arms completely, hovering in the air for a moment before forming into two mummy-like entities. The spell complete, the two doubles ran forward, rushing towards Natsu.
He barely spared them a glance, propelling himself into the air with two bursts of fire from his legs. "Lucy!" he said, before spinning around and aiming a kick at Maria. The actress raised her arms over her face to block the kick, the fabric of her long gloves fanning out and forming a round shield in front of her.
"Alright!" said Lucy, nodding at Natsu as the two doubles approached her. She straightened up, slashing the gold key in front of her. "Open! Gate of the Lion! Leo!"
The two doubles raised their hands to punch at her at the same time. A flash of light appeared in front of her suddenly, and the two punches crashed against one black-suited arm, the light behind it throwing them off. The light dimmed away, revealing Loke standing in front of her, between her and the doubles. His eyes narrowed.
"Are these two what you want me to fight, Lucy?" he asked.
"Please," said Lucy, nodding. "And help Natsu as well!"
"Understood," said Loke, nodding. Circles of light formed around his hands as the ring on his finger began to glow. He sprang forward, punching at one of the doubles. As it attempted to block his punch, the second double moved around him, pulling its hand back. He turned his head to look at it, the punch moving closer towards him.
A whip coiled around the second cloth double, dragging it to the ground. Lucy tugged on her whip, meeting Loke's eyes for a moment. He nodded at her in thanks, then continued to fight the doubles. The three of them exchanged blows, Loke easily dodging and blocking their movements. Lucy pulled her whip back and watched him, her eyes drifting back and forth as she tracked the movements of the lion spirit.
"Karyuu no Tekken!" shouted Natsu from across the room, slamming his flaming fist into the cloth manipulator. At the same time, Maria raised her hands towards him, the cloth of her gloves shooting out and forming into blades as they slashed at him. His attack hit her full on, sending her flying back with a shout of pain. At the same time, her cloth blades slashed at him, grazing his sides and cutting through his vest and skin. He rushed at her, undeterred, and pulled back his fist again as she fell. Maria smirked at him suddenly, angling herself so that her head was below him. She grabbed onto his scarf and tugged.
Natsu looked down, meeting her eyes for just a moment before the scarf around his neck tightened, cutting off his breathing. She moved her hand and the scarf twisted around, throwing Natsu down onto the ground.
She landed on the ground after him, breathing hard as she crouched down and clutched at her chest. Her eyes flicked over towards where Loke was battling the doubles. "A Stellar Spirit Mage?" she asked with a grin as Lucy met her eyes. "There's an easy way to deal with someone like you."
She straightened up, raising her hand. "To defeat the spirit, take out the owner!" she said. The two cloth doubles suddenly dissolved back into ribbons, bladed tips forming at the edge of the ribbons and rushing at Lucy from all sides. Loke's eyes widened and he turned towards her. Natsu lifted his head.
Lucy's eyes widened as she saw the seven bladed ribbons rushing towards her. She threw her arms up in front of her face in a vain attempt to protect herself.
"NATSU!" she shouted, before she even realized what she was saying. Arms suddenly snatched her up, moving her out of the way. Lucy opened her eyes, seeing the familiar black fabric of Loke's suit around her.
The world in front of her burst into flames.
A wall of fire formed in front of her, from the floor to the ceiling. Natsu stood in the center of it, breathing heavily. Her eyes widened as Loke set her down, her heart beating quickly in her chest. Loke frowned down at her.
"You called for Natsu…" he said, sounding almost hurt.
Her eyes widened as she realized this, looking up at the pink-haired Dragon Slayer that was standing between her and the cloth mage. The flames curled around him, surrounding him. It was just like that time. The time he had gotten between her and Gajeel. The time she had jumped off a tower knowing that he would be there and that he would catch her.
Why did she call for him?
The wall of flames faded away, revealing a few new cuts on Natsu's body from the cloth blades. He ignored them, the flames from the wall returning to his hands. His fist clenched, and he took a deep breath. He was angry, Lucy realized, just as he had been when he saved her from Gajeel.
"Karyuu no…" he began, bringing both his hands together. "…KOUEN!"
He jumped into the air, a huge fireball forming over the palms of his hands. He threw the ball of fire at her, the flames roaring and bathing the surrounding area in crimson light. Maria cursed, and Lucy saw her call up the cloth to protect herself before the light from the flames became too bright and she couldn't see anything at all.
The roaring flames died down in a rush, leaving the chamber empty again. Natsu stood there breathing heavily, his hand still outstretched in front of her. Lucy looked up at him from the ground, eyes wide. The heat was still coming off him in waves, even though there were no more visible flames as he stared across the room at the woman who was slumped against the wall, a weak magic circle shimmering in the air in front of her. The circle wavered, then broke.
"I see…" said Maria with a small smirk, taking a deep breath. She reached up and grabbed a stone that jutted out from the rock wall above her, using it to pull herself up. "So that's the power of the Salamander…"
Natsu's eyes narrowed. "You're finished," he said. "Don't even think about trying anything."
Her smirk widened and she looked up. "But why bother with me when you have much bigger issues?" she asked.
"Like what?" asked Loke, pulling her back towards him protectively.
"I was only the first act," she said. "The plot only thickens from here. I wonder if Titania Erza is really as good as they say."
Lucy's eyes widened.
"Erza!" she said.
"Tch, you're not scaring me!" said Natsu. "Erza's strong enough to handle ten of you!"
"Oh, I know," said Maria with a grin, leaning her head back. "That's what I'm counting on." The darkness around her seemed to twist for an instant, blurring her vision. Natsu raised his head and sniffed, scowling.
"Something stinks," she heard him say.
"Lucy," muttered Loke, lowering his head so that it was closer to her ear. "I have a bad feeling about this."
"It's time for her to take the stage, our leading lady, the lovely ERZA SCARLET!" she shouted.
A blast of cold air flooded the tunnels, the temperature around them dropping several degrees as the lights went out.
Jellal felt the change before he saw it. The magic whispered against his skin, sending a shiver of power down his spine and giving him goose bumps. The sphere of light that hovered in the air in front of them shimmered for a moment, as if it was uncertain. They were walking down their respective pathway, Erza in the lead with Wendy beside her, and himself walking a few paces behind them. Charle flew just over his left shoulder.
"Wendy! Watch out!"
In a flash, Erza's hand moved, a sword appearing in it. Jellal moved before he could think, reaching forward and grabbing Wendy by the back of her dress. He yanked her backwards roughly, pulling her out of the way of Erza's downward slash. Wendy let out a yelp of surprise, the sword passing an inch from her front.
Erza stared straight ahead of her with the sword in her hand, her eyes shadowed by her scarlet hair. Jellal's hand shook, his grip on the young teenager's dress tightening. The knight slashed at him, and he jumped back, pushing Wendy aside and barely avoiding the blow. Wendy's eyes widened. "Erza-san…?" she asked.
"Erza!" called Jellal, sharply.
"Why are you doing this?" asked Charle.
Darkness clung to Erza like a shroud, surrounding her. As Erza turned to face them fully, Jellal saw it, a glowing red mark on the left side of her abdomen. It pulsed with power, the darkness seeping from it.
When Erza looked up, her eyes were a dull brown, unfeeling.
Gray stopped suddenly, thrusting an arm out in front of Juvia to stop her as well. She stopped, looking up at him.
"Gray?" she asked, frowning.
He didn't answer, his eyes fixed on the path in front of him.
"Perceptive, aren't you?" asked Kavari, stepping out of the darkness. "I thought only the Dragon Slayers would notice me."
Gray smirked slightly. "It wasn't too hard to notice," he said. "One of the exhibit's shadows was pointing in the wrong direction."
"Impressive," said Kavari, nodding. "It's a shame I have to stop you here."
The darkness encircled him, as white mist began to surround Gray.
Happy: Natsu! Something's seriously wrong with Erza!
Natsu: Eh? Why?
Happy: She attacked Jellal!
Natsu: That's normal!
Happy: She also attacked Wendy-chan!
Natsu: ...You're right! That is weird!
Happy: Quick! We have to go save Charle!
Natsu: …You mean Wendy, right?
Happy: CHARLE! *already gone*
Next time, on Unconditional—"Chapter 8: My Words Will Reach You"!
"Can you hear me?"
 Karyuu no Tekken – Iron Fist of the Fire Dragon (canon)
 Karyuu no Kouen – Brilliant Flame of the Fire Dragon (canon)