Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or Fairy Tail.
Chapter 31: Test (X784)
"It's so hot…" Lucy moaned. "Isn't it supposed to be winter?"
Sprawled across a wooden deck chair, the voluptuous blonde was dressed in a blue patterned bikini and nothing else. Yet, despite her under-dressed state, sweat beaded on her skin constantly, rolling gently off her body. She wasn't alone in her suffering, with Gray similarly slouched on a chair and sweat dripping off his brow. The only difference was that the Ice Make mage was completely nude, much to the visual delight of a gawking Juvia.
"Yea, it's winter, but we're in the tropics, so it's not like the seasons matter as much," Cana replied lethargically, fanning herself vigorously with a small fan. "And besides, the sea creates a convection current around these parts, which cranks up the heat and humidity."
"Ugh, the trials haven't even started and I'm already starting to regret this decision," Lucy complained, squinting at Juvia. "How the heck does she keep cool with all those clothes on?!"
"It's simple. Juvia is only hot for Gray-sama," the lovestruck girl answered confidently.
"Haaaa…it's so hard to reconcile the Juvia I knew from Edolas and the one here," Lisanna grinned, a cool drink in her hand. "That Juvia was so cold to Gray."
"Who is this blasphemous Juvia you speak of?! Did that Juvia escape from an asylum? How can she not acknowledge Gray-sama's hotness?" the blue-haired mage demanded, before she blushed brightly, clutching her heated cheeks. "Or was she engaged in neglect play? Is…is Gray-sama engaging in neglect play with this Juvia?!"
"That girl is off her rocker," Lucy mumbled, to scattered murmurings of agreement.
The sound of vomiting over the side of the ship caused Lucy to look over at Natsu's back, the dragon slayer hunched over the edge of the upper deck. Happy sat beside his partner, more concerned with gawking at an uncomfortable Carla than his travel-sick partner. Wendy seemed quite worried for Natsu's condition, but Makarov had put his foot down and restricted her from healing Natsu, which wouldn't be fair to the other contestants.
Lucy's attention was quickly diverted yet again, as Loke shouted. "I think I see it up ahead!"
The sultry heat momentarily forgotten, the Fairy Tail members bar Natsu rushed towards the bow of the ship, leaning over the railings to get a better look. The lush green top of the island emerged from beneath the horizon, surrounded only by swathes of blue ocean. As the ship sailed closer to their destination, it became immediately obvious that it was no ordinary island, with the verdant forest sitting atop a giant tree. Its gnarled and gently curved trunk held up the soil and forest high in the sky, its roots wrapped around the rocky formation of the main island itself. Waterfalls cascaded off the tall rocks that protruded into the sky, putting the sheer size of the tree into perspective.
"It's said that fairies used to live on the island."
Spinning around, the S-class promotion trial participants squinted at the diminutive figure of Makarov, perched on the railings of the quarterdeck of the ship. He wiped the sweat off his forehead as he adopted a solemn expression. "It's probably how our First Master, Mavis Vermilion, got the inspiration for the guild's name. She lived here before founding Fairy Tail, and rests here to this date."
The Fairy Tail mages all fell silent in respect, before Makarov sighed. "I do wish she came from a different island though. This one is so hot and so hard to get to."
The sombre mood was dispelled instantly as the guild members shot their master scandalised looks. Makarov flashed them a cheeky grin, before he pointed towards Tenrō. "Listen up! I won't explain any of this twice. Does everyone see that smoke rising up from the shore? That marks the starting point for the first stage of these S-class promotion trials!"
"First stage? There's more than one stage?" Levy mused aloud.
"Indeed. Once you head there, you will find six paths ahead of you," Makarov stated, snapping his fingers as a hologram of a map appeared beside him. The participants stared intently at the crude diagram as the Wizard Saint continued his explanation. "Three of the six routes are guarded by the three S-class mages in the guild: Gildarts, Erza and Mirajane. Two of the routes will present obstacles, and one final route will be a free pass. You will move on to the next stage of the exams if you make it to the end of your routes."
"We have a fifty percent chance of fighting an S-class mage?!" Lucy shrieked. "That's insane!"
"Well, this is to test for S-class, so obviously we need to be able to hold our own against a bona fide S-class mage," Lisanna commented.
"Yea, but this feels less tough than previous exams," Cana muttered.
"What do you mean, less tough?! Gildarts could be your opponent!" Lucy pointed out.
Cana shrugged. "Well, in the previous trials, each stage tries to whittle down the number of teams a little, usually by pitting us against each other or limiting the number of objectives attainable. But this time, there's a possibility that everyone can get through the first stage."
"Well spotted, Cana," Makarov praised, a mischievous grin on his lips. "But that could just mean that the tasks are harder this time around and only one team gets through in the end."
"But that would be too easy for the team that gets the free route," Levy reasoned. "Being S-class is more than being lucky."
"Salient points indeed," the wizened man nodded sagely. "But that one team can still be put through the rest of the stages to prove their capabilities. If they fail the next stage, then the participant won't become S-class."
"Heh. This will be a good test of manliness!" Elfman punched his palm.
"Haaaa…I will…beat…all of you…" Natsu waved his fist about slowly, before leaning over the side of the ship once more.
"Say that when you aren't dead on your feet," Gray remarked dryly.
Makarov cleared his throat, catching the attention of his guild members once more. "If there's nothing else, the S-class promotion trials will begin…NOW!"
"Good luck, everyone!" Wendy cheered.
A brief moment of silence settled upon the participants, as they stared at the balding man confusedly. Loke decided to ask the question on everyone's mind. "Er…we're not at the island yet."
"C'mon Juvia!" Cana hollered, as she grabbed the surprised Water user and dived over the side of the ship. The rest of the participants ran over to the edge of the deck, watching as the brunette rode a giant card atop an unnatural wave of water.
"That's cheating!" Lucy screamed.
The Exceed grabbed his partner by the back of his shirt and took off in a flash, flying straight for Tenrō Island. Quickly understanding the situation, the Strauss siblings also jumped into the ocean, Lisanna transforming into a shark as Elfman clung onto her dorsal fin. Lucy whirled around, trying to look for her partner as Levy waved her a cheerful goodbye, hanging on to Gajeel who turned his hands into iron propellers. Meanwhile, Gray formed a giant ice bridge, Loke biding his mistress farewell as they slid across the ocean surface at incredible speed.
"Lucy, relax!" Mest laughed, as he appeared out of nowhere.
"We're falling behind everyone!" Lucy cried out. "Aren't you concerned at all? This is your promotion trial!"
"Yea, but it isn't a race. It's still down to luck when it comes to what's at the end of the path you take," Mest replied calmly. "Besides, we'll be faster than all of them combined."
"How?! They're all ahead of us already!"
"Have a little faith in me, will you? I'm not that weak you know," the scarred young man grinned, touching Lucy's shoulder. "Here we go!"
Suddenly, Lucy's feet were no longer standing on the creaky wooden deck of the ship, but the soft sands of the beach. The blonde girl gawked at the bonfire crackling in the middle of the small beach, before spinning around to stare out to sea. The ship looked tiny in the distance, and so did her fellow participants, who were still on their way to the island. Lucy regarded Mest with new eyes as he flashed her the thumbs up. "I can teleport. Now, we have a free choice of routes. Which one do you wanna take?"
"I don't know. I know I'm not going to be lucky enough to pick the free route though," the Celestial Spirit mage shook her head.
Mest laughed, and started walking towards the closest path. "Well, you know what they say. Fortune favours the brave. Let's go, partner!"
"Yea!" Lucy cheered.
"What the…someone got here before we did?!" Cana exclaimed, staring at the words floating magically above the entrance to Route 2. "I know no one else overtook us from behind, so…someone knows how to teleport or something?"
"Ah…Juvia hopes we get an easy route," her partner said. "Juvia also hopes Gray-sama gets an easy route…"
"Man, you are really nuts for Gray, aren't ya?" the Card Magic user snorted, extracting three cards from her feathered bag. "Well, we have a little headstart and a few options, so might as well try and see if I can find out what's at the end of each path."
Laying out the cards on the beach sand, Cana touched the middle card and channeled her magic into the items, causing them to glow dimly. Eyes fluttering shut, Cana's mind was assaulted with information. Wincing, she pulled her hand back, gathering the cards into her bag. "It's bad. The island's magic is interfering with my Omniscience spell. I can't make out any definite presences down any of the routes."
"Then what do we do?" Juvia queried.
"Since this is a test of luck…" Cana chuckled, retrieving a six-sided dice from her bag. "Shall we?"
The brunette tossed the dice in front of her, allowing it to fall and nestle itself halfway into the warm sand. Six black indented dots stared up at the duo. Picking up the dice, Cana and Juvia shared nods as they headed for the entrance of Route 6. The route entrances were all caves in the rocky outcrop that surrounded the tiny beach, but the caves were short, the routes opening up into deep rocky valleys quickly. Cana and Juvia jogged lightly along the path, eyes peeled for whatever challenge that may present itself.
Suddenly, their path gave way to a large space, jagged rocks surrounding and enclosing them in. The path they had to take to continue was visible across the clearing, but between them and their objective stood someone who made them freeze in horror.
"Yo," Gildarts grinned. "I guess this must be fate."
"We just had to meet you, didn't we?" Cana groaned loudly. "I knew I shouldn't have opened my big mouth to question Master during the announcement. I totally jinxed myself."
"Don't expect me to go easy on you though," Gildarts warned. "S-class is something that needs to be earned, not given."
"Yea, yea, you said that before already," his daughter grumbled, rummaging in her bag. "Can I at least have time to make a couple of preparations?"
Gildarts scratched his cheek thoughtfully. "Eh, it's not going to make much of a difference anyway, so why not? It'll be nice to have someone your age not being gung-ho about fighting for once."
"Awesome!" the Card Magic mage enthused.
Suddenly, a deluge of water burst through the forests at the top of the valley, a spinning torrent aimed directly at Gildarts' side. Surprised but unfazed, the Fairy Tail Ace simply raised his hand to meet the attack, the water splashing harmlessly against his open palm. Cards flew at him from the other side, stopping in midair before they reached the orange-haired man. A helical blast of wind and fire erupted from the cards, combining into a white-hot inferno that washed over Gildarts. The man grinned as he met the fiery blast with his other hand, the fire splitting into twin streams.
Fire met water, and before long, Gildarts was surrounded in a choking haze of steam. He smirked and waited to see what was in store for him. He didn't have to wait long, as his world suddenly inverted itself. Momentarily startled, Gildarts nearly lost his footing as the ground suddenly disappeared from beneath him. Before he could figure out the limits of the technique, he was forced to confront several scything crescents of water. Rather than panic, he merely let his magic burst out of his pores, the unfocused blast of Crash magic radiating from his body and turning the attack into harmless droplets.
The water splashed against his feet, the wet ground suddenly turning into mud that Gildarts sank into. Before he could extricate himself, the mud rose and engulfed him in a choking embrace. Another uncontrolled blast of magic sent the dirt flying off, but he wasn't given even a second to blink the mud from his eyes as lightning struck from what he perceived as below him. Gildarts tried to nullify the attack with his hands, but the attack hit him from above instead. The Ace gritted his teeth and tried to endure the summoned lightning instead, his magic fortifying his already formidable constitution.
The attack eventually dissipated, and Gildarts could take a breather. His world was still upside down, and it was an utterly strange experience. "This perception inversion is a very good technique, Cana. Did you come up with it yourself?"
"Heh, you like it?" Cana grinned, appearing in front of Gildarts with Juvia half a step behind. She was standing on the upside down ground above his head, grinning upwards (or is that downward?) at his slightly charred form. "I don't have a lot of power, but what I can do with cards is only limited by my creativity. So niichan says, anyway. I figured if I wanted to beat powerhouses like you and him, I gotta bring you guys down to my level first."
"That's good thinking. I also like your strategy," her father smiled proudly. "Too many mages just charge forwards without thinking, or even just hanging back to assess the situation. Were those illusions at the beginning?"
"Yep. Based them off niichan's clone ability," the brunette preened at the praise. "So, how do Juvia and I rate so far?"
"Very good. I'm tempted to let you pass on account of how well you've managed to keep me on the back foot so far, but it's not enough for me," Gildarts shook his head. "As your dad, I can't be around all the time to protect you, and neither can your brother judging by your missing ear. And you're not strong enough to face all the dangers of the world yet. Sometimes, no amount of smarts or creativity is enough to get you out of a sticky situation."
"So let me motivate you a little," the man murmured, clenching his fists. "Let me show you…what you must aim for."
In response, Cana started to move. Gildarts paused in his tracks, prepared to counter whatever the brunette could come up with using extreme force to prove his point. But he certainly didn't expect her to rip her bikini top off.
Normally, girls stripping for him voluntarily would be a delightful and welcome treat, but the orange-haired man could only scream internally as he squeezed his eyes shut to keep the sight of his topless daughter out of his head. Taking advantage of his momentary distraction, a mud golem burst into existence in front of him, roaring triumphantly as it tried to grab the S-class mage.
Gildarts raised his arm to blast it away with Crash, but only enabled the golem enough time to swallow him up from behind instead. Cursing the weird nature of the inversion spell, the Crash mage blew the mud off of him again, only to see his world had abruptly returned to normal. But Cana and Juvia were no longer standing in front of him. Whirling around, he spotted their backs disappearing down the path he was meant to impede, realising belatedly that the duo had been standing behind him all along, his perception of their positions inverted as well.
He chuckled resignedly and let his daughter go, sitting unceremoniously down on the muddy ground. "Tricky girl. But I guess I don't have much of a right to be telling her what to do anyway."
Staring up at the cloudless blue sky, Gildarts smiled wistfully. "Cornelia…our daughter's really grown up, hasn't she? You'll be so proud of her."
Natsu burst into the clearing like a bat out of hell, Happy hovering just behind him. Face set in determined lines, he was ready to yell out his challenge to Erza or whoever he was fighting when he realised that the place was empty.
"Huh? Did we get the free route?" Natsu pondered aloud, as Happy heaved a sigh of relief.
Then, an intricate rune appeared in the middle of the clearing, glowing a bright blue. Natsu and Happy tensed, fists clenched and ready for whatever may come. Slowly, the ground bulged, two lumps of soil and dirt growing unequally. The magic-imbued earth slowly gained definition, forming a human and a cat-like torso, before gaining more vibrant colours and turning into facsimiles of people. Natsu gaped as he stared at the blue Exceed standing beside the pink-haired man across of them, before turning to his partner.
"Happy…when did we get brothers?" the fire-breathing mage asked in befuddlement.
"Natsu…that's the obstacle," Happy pointed out helpfully.
"Oh! So we must fight our long-lost family!" Natsu grinned, sliding into a battle stance, which his copy immediately followed suit. "I'm so pumped!"
"Er…Natsu…those are not our brothers…" the talking cat said matter-of-factly. "They appeared from the ground because of some weird rune thing, like what Freed uses. This is probably a spell."
"Okay?" the pink-haired man shrugged, nonplussed. "Spell or sibling, I'm still going to beat them and become S-class!"
Happy could only sigh as his reckless partner charged into battle with a loud, exuberant cry. His doppelgänger did the same, with the false Happy also staying behind like the real one. The actions of the clones mirrored the real individuals as the two Natsus smashed their flaming fists against each other, a minor shockwave sweeping the clearing from the impact. Grin widening, Natsu began to fire punches at his clone, who matched him blow for blow. Fire swarmed around the two combatants, but could do no harm to either of them. First to break off from the clash, the real Natsu panted lightly, his face split by a wide grin. His counterpart was in similar high spirits, although Happy was inclined to believe that it was merely copying Natsu's expressions.
"He's not Erza, but he's pretty good!" Natsu remarked excitedly.
"Natsu, maybe we should think about how to break the spell rather than fight your copy?" Happy suggested intelligently.
"But I don't know how to break runes?" the pink-haired dragon slayer scratched the top of his head. "That sort of trick is Freed or Levy's thing. I'm best at punching people up, you know that!"
At least he knows his strengths and weaknesses… his Exceed partner sighed in resignation. "Maybe we can break the spell by destroying the clones?"
"Yea! That's my— woah!"
Natsu grabbed Happy and strafed to his left as his copy came charging forth, fire spewing from his feet for propulsion. The ground shattered as a fiery fist crashed into the packed dirt, flames spreading from the point of impact. The real Natsu lurched into attack, using fire to propel him forward as well. His doppelgänger read his roundhouse punch and knocked his fist aside, throwing a counter punch at his jaw. The fire-breathing mage ducked, a cone of flames erupting from his elbow as he slammed his burning fist into his copy's stomach. The clone spun clumsily out of the way, putting both hands together to hammerfist Natsu on the back of his head. Natsu contorted his body, throwing his arm out to block his opposite by the wrists. Riding the momentum, the Fairy Tail mage swung his other fist up in a blazing uppercut.
His facsimile tilted his head back, knuckles brushing against the tip of his nose. Opening his mouth, the doppelgänger slurped up the fire coating Natsu's hand, before unleashing a Fire Dragon's Roar in the original's face. The fearsome attack was every bit equal to anything Natsu could produce, and the real Dragon Slayer had to dig his heels into the ground as the fiery blast blew him backwards. Gathering his wits, Natsu also consumed the focused blaze, replenishing the energy he had depleted. Before he could eat the entire conflagration, his clone burst through the fires while ablaze, his head crashing into hastily raised arms. The flying headbutt blew through the loose defence, sending Natsu careening backwards even further.
Slightly on the backfoot, Natsu snarled as his frustrations manifested in the now white-hot flames cloaking his body. Dashing at the clone, the pink-haired man cocked his fist backwards, ready to punch. But before he reached his adversary, he prematurely threw the punch, a spiralling white inferno roaring forwards. The hotter fires remained harmless against his equally fireproof opponent, the doppelgänger pitching forwards. Spinning on his heels with his arms spread wide open, Natsu's eyes widened in alarm as the fires gathered in his facsimile's fists grew into a massive torrent of flames that smashed into Natsu with concussive force, catapulting the real Fairy Tail mage into the smouldering forests behind.
Happy gawked at the scene, rubbing his eyes with his tiny paws to make sure he wasn't seeing things. "That…that was Natsu's Crimson Lotus: Exploding Flame Blade!"
Before he could fly off to retrieve his partner however, the forest exploded into a fiery hell as a white blaze swept through the trees like they were mere kindling. The Fire Dragon Slayer burst through the burning forests with vengeance, fists impacting his copy's chest with bone-crunching force. The clone raised his arm to block Natsu's followup kick, but the force was so strong it sent the doppelgänger tumbling head over heels sideways. The pink-haired mage pirouetted, planting a spinning kick square in his counterpart's face and unleashing a blast of fire that separated the two. As his opponent stumbled around for his footing, Natsu launched himself into the air, defiant eyes glaring down at his lookalike as his fists lit up.
"This is a real Crimson Lotus: Exploding Flame Blade!" he thundered.
Taking a spinning dive, Natsu bellowed as he crashed into his wide-eyed clone like a flaming meteor. The ground buckled, cracked and cratered as a dome of white fire exploded out from the epicentre. Both Happys sweated profusely as they soared as far away from the attack as possible. The world itself seemed to turn white for a second, the intensity and brilliance of the attack outshining the sun. Then, as Happy's vision adjusted, he clapped his hands on his ears and winced as a sonic boom slammed into his diminutive body, rattling his bones and shaking his teeth. White noise filled his ears as Happy flapped his singed wings slowly, the sounds of nature conspicuously absent. Inching back towards ground zero, Happy saw only one Natsu in the deep bowl he had carved in the earth, a blackened, seared crater covered in ash and soot. His own clone was also absent.
"Natsu?" Happy ventured quietly, his own voice tinny to his deafened ears.
The bruised and singed man swivelled his head, flashing a proud grin at his partner. "I kicked his ass."
"You did," Happy returned the radiant smile, wobbling a little as he flew over. "Sorry I couldn't help!"
"I wouldn't be here without ya, Happy," Natsu folded his arms. "C'mon, let's be the first team to finish this stage!"
"Yea, let's go!"
Lucy hesitantly reached out, squeezing her eyes near shut as she poked the orange energy with a finger. The thin plane of energy rippled gently and nothing else, leaving Lucy to heave a huge sigh of relief. She stepped back from the barrier, craning her neck to see its full reach. The thick plane of energy stretched high into the sky, beyond where Lucy could feasibly reach, although it was possible that Happy could carry Natsu to such a height. It would be useless though, as the barrier curved away from them to form a huge dome, preventing any attempts to just bypass it. Unless someone could find where the path continued past the dome, flying around the barrier would prove a fruitless exercise.
"Hmm. The barrier extends deep into the sides of the valley," Mest remarked, tapping the steep walls of the valley they were standing in. "It's quite the piece of rune work."
"Say that when we're not the ones who have to get past it," Lucy moaned, giving the barrier the stink eye before reaching for her keys. "Open the Gate of the Maiden, Virgo!"
A petite, pink-haired maid appeared in a flash of light, already on one knee as she knelt before Lucy. The chains clamped to her wrists clanged as she put her palm above her heart and bowed. "Your wish is my command, hime."
"Virgo, see if you can find a way through to the other side of this barrier from underground," the blonde mage ordered.
"As you wish," the Celestial Spirit nodded emphatically.
She stood up, and the ground seemed to just give way beneath her feet as she sunk into the earth. Mest and Lucy stared at the man-sized hole impatiently as they awaited Virgo's news. After a short minute, the pink-haired maid returned, her face an impassive mask. "Hime, the barrier stretches away from us."
"So it's probably a complete sphere then," Mest deduced.
"Should I be punished, hime?" Virgo deadpanned, a light blush dusting her cheeks.
"No. No, you shouldn't," Lucy shook her head slowly as she chided her perverted companion. "Thanks for your help."
"It's my pleasure, hime."
Lucy sighed, turning to the candidate for S-class. "So what do we do now? I'm not familiar enough with runes to break them. That's more of Levy's thing."
"What do you think is the goal of this stage of the trials?" Mest asked the blonde.
"Other than make our lives difficult?" the mage replied dryly. "Well, we can see that there's an element of luck involved. You don't want to end up fighting Gildarts or Erza. But if you beat them, you can still pass. So I guess there's an element of strength involved as well? The power to defeat S-class enemies."
"So if this stage is all about power and luck, why don't we just do things the old-fashioned Fairy Tail way?" the teleporter grinned mischievously. "I don't even see any visible runes on the barrier for someone to modify, and since it's a sphere, it's probably a central rune we can't reach without getting past the barrier. In that case, isn't our only option to overpower it?"
"Damn it! If I could summon Loke, this would be much easier," the voluptuous woman grumbled, cursing at her wayward Celestial Spirit under her breath. "Do you have any super powerful S-class attacks to get through this barrier?"
"Nope, sadly. I'm not like Natsu and the other guys with those super spells of theirs," Mest answered a little forlornly.
"Hey, don't get down! We might still get through this," Lucy smiled comfortingly, patting the slightly distraught man on his shoulder. "I can't summon Loke to help, and Aquarius will just drown us in this valley, but I've been itching to really see what some of my new Celestial Spirits can do in battle. Watch this. Open the Gate of the Scorpion, Scorpio!"
In a burst of smoke and magic, another Celestial Spirit appeared. Tall and tan, Scorpio towered over his summoner, his huge scorpion tail bobbing behind his back dangerously. With a head of red and white hair, and wearing a gold-trimmed red collar, a large belt that held up a waist cloth but no shirt, he cut a sharp juxtaposition from Virgo. The Celestial Spirit raised his hand in his trademark gesture, middle and fourth fingers folded back for his index and little fingers to mimic the claws of a scorpion. "Lucy, we are at your service."
"Hey Scorpio! Erm, we need to take down this barrier in front of us. Will your Sand Buster be strong enough to do that?" Lucy requested earnestly.
"We are not familiar with the strength of this barrier, Lucy. It will be hard for me to gauge unless I try," Scorpio shook his head.
"If I may interject, hime?" Virgo interrupted. "The barrier will likely stand up against the blunt power of Scorpio's Sand Buster, but if he focuses the sand into a narrower width, it may have the penetrating power to pierce the barrier."
"Hmm, yes, that is doable," the shirtless Celestial Spirit nodded. "We shall be happy to give it a go with your permission, Lucy."
"Then please stand back for your own safety," Scorpio warned.
The red and white haired summon crouched on all fours, the gun barrel at the end of his tail aimed squarely at its large, unmissable target. Face scrunched in concentration, he dug his hands and feet into the ground to withstand the recoil as his tail spat out a spinning torrent of sand. The sand collided uselessly with the barrier, eliciting a fearsome frown on Scorpio's sharp features. Gritting his teeth, he narrowed the blast further, until it was no thicker than a finger. The laser-esque blast caused the barrier to shimmer and flash erratically, before spidery cracks spread out from the point of impact. He wore an exhilarated grin on his face as the sand finally punched through the barrier, causing the entire magical structure to shatter in a brilliant show of light.
Lucy whooped as Scorpio got back onto his feet. "Great job! Thanks, Scorpio!"
"It's my pleasure, Lucy," the Celestial Spirit grinned. "Should we stay with you?"
"No, it's fine! I think we can manage it from here. Thanks again, Scorpio, Virgo!" the blonde mage pumped her fist.
"By your leave, hime."
The two Celestial Spirits vanished in a burst of light, as Lucy turned to the man who sought her out as his partner. "Well, shall we go?"
"You have a great relationship with your Spirits. Especially since they are new to your service," the teleporter praised.
Lucy blushed. "Well, I just think of them as my friends, you know?"
"Heh, I was right to pick you as my partner after all," Mest remarked.
Lucy's cheeks grew redder as she soaked up the compliments, before jerking her head at the path ahead of them. "C'mon, mister S-class wannabe. You might get disqualified if you take too long."
As the Celestial Spirit mage began her sprint down the road ahead, Mest's lips curled into an amused smirk.
Lucy and Mest walked out of the extensive cave system in their route, shielding their sensitive eyes from the sun that shone brightly overhead. As their eyes adjusted from the darkness of the caves to the light of the forest, they could see several pairs already lounging around. The blonde spluttered. "What?! How did you guys get here so quickly?! We were the first to the beach!"
Cana looked surprised. "Oh, so it's you guys who made it to the beach first! Juvia and I were wondering, since no one overtook us on the sea. How did you do it?"
Ï'm not giving away my secrets to my competition," Mest retorted with a challenging smile.
"Fair enough," the brunette returned the grin. "So, what route did you guys hit?"
"We got an obstacle. It was this huge orange spherical barrier that completely blocked us off," Lucy explained. Cana looked thoughtful as she digested this information, so Lucy turned to Loke and Gray, with Juvia hiding behind some massive fern leaves to stare longingly at the latter.
"We got the free route," Loke grinned, giving the sweaty Gray beside him a high-five.
"Lucky for you guys," the buxom blonde grumbled. "Natsu?"
"We got some weird obstacle that created clones of us," Happy raised his tiny paws to answer for his partner. "They copied everything we could do, but Natsu beat it in the end."
"Man, that sounds tough," Lucy shivered, wondering what it would be like to fight herself. That's seriously creepy. She turned to Cana once more, the woman's attention back with the group. "Wait, if Gray and Loke got the free route, and Natsu and Happy got an obstacle like Mest and I, that means you fought someone right?"
"Heh, our Lucy is a pretty smart girl, eh?" Cana smirked proudly and flashed the victory sign. "Juvia and I got Gildarts on our route."
"WHAT?! You beat Gildarts?!" Lucy screamed shrilly, her eyes wide in incredulity.
The scantily-dressed woman laughed uproariously. "Nah, I just tricked the old man a little! He wasn't fighting us with anywhere near his full strength anyway, so I just took advantage and sneaked off while he was distracted. He let us go, so I guess it's a pass!"
"What did you do to distract Gildarts?" Gray queried.
"I took off my top to flash him," the Card Magic user grinned impishly.
"Oh, god, that's disgusting, Cana!" Lucy screeched. "Isn't he your dad?!"
"Hey, it worked, and precisely because he's my dad. He didn't wanna look at his own daughter naked, so he closed his eyes and we ran like hell," the brunette recounted her encounter proudly. "I predicted that reaction from him, so it's not like I actually flashed my dad. I'm not a prude like you, Lucy-chan, but I have certain lines I won't cross."
"I'm not a prude!" the blonde shouted. "I'm just…saving myself for my boyfriend, that's all!"
"I've seen you naked before," Natsu piped up.
"Me too," Gray nodded.
Lucy wailed in misery as Cana burst into laughter and Juvia began to mutter incoherently under her breath, her eyes glowing like fiery pits of hell. That was the scene Makarov strolled into, his eyes surveying the gathered guild members of Fairy Tail.
"Hmm…is that all of you?" Makarov stroked his goatee.
"Well, we're still missing Levy and Gajeel, and Lisanna and Elfman," Loke pointed out. "But given the routes left, they must have met with Mira and Erza, so…"
Their venerable guild master sighed noisily, as the rest of the pairs bowed their head in silence for their fallen comrades. Shaking his head, Makarov cleared his throat to gather everyone's attention. "Well, I doubt those two pairs will be joining us any time soon. Let me congratulate all of you for successfully completing the first stage of the S-class Promotion Trials. You have all taken the first step to becoming S-class. The next stage of the trials, your next task, is to find the grave of Mavis Vermillion, our First Master. She is buried somewhere on Tenrō Island, and all of you have one day to find her grave."
"Wait, so we're supposed to comb this entire island to find her?" Cana grumbled aloud. "How about a clue?"
"I've given you all the information you need," the old man replied dismissively. "I'll be waiting for you at her grave. The task begins now! Good luck!"
Lucy watched as the rest of the participants dashed off into the surrounding jungle, leaving only Makarov, Mest and herself behind. The guild master of Fairy Tail gave them both a jaunty wave and wink, before wandering off into the foliage as well. The blonde girl contemplated having one of her Spirits follow the wizened man to where the grave might be, but Mest shook his head once the wizened man had left and she voiced her suggestion aloud.
"The old man is too wily. He'll catch on. And Celestial Spirit mages can't keep a lot of Spirits active at one time, right?" Mest reasoned. "Let's save our energy for when we need it. There's definitely a way to find the First's grave without cheating, or there'll be no point to this trial."
"Alright," Lucy agreed grudgingly, put out at the lost opportunity to prove her smarts and ability. "But Master didn't give us anything to work on at all!"
"He said he gave us everything we needed," the Teleport mage reminded his partner.
Lucy groaned loudly. "Yea, but he didn't say anything except for what we needed to do, and the time limit. That's not helpful at all!"
"Maybe he hid some clues in his words? I doubt the point is to charge around the island trying to find a lone grave by luck," Mest scratched the back of his head.
"Hmm, that's possible. But he didn't say anything that sounded out of the ordinary, and I didn't pay that much attention," Lucy blushed in mild embarrassment. "All I heard was that we finished the first stage, we gotta find the First Master's grave, and we have one day to do so."
"He didn't say much more than that, did he?" Mest grunted, folding his arms. "I caught some stuff about taking the next step to S-class, but that's all."
Lucy shook her head. "I think Master congratulated us on 'taking the first step', not 'taking the next step'."
"Could that be the clue? Taking the first step?" the S-class aspirant remarked.
"That doesn't mean much on its own," Lucy pondered aloud, tapping her cheek thoughtfully. "But Master mentioned the word 'first' quite a bit. And we only have one day to find the grave…could that be it? But that seems so far-fetched…"
The blonde pointed at the glowing sigil hovering above the exit of Route 1. "Well, he said 'first' a couple of times, and when you mentioned that 'taking the first step' might be a clue, I thought, maybe the grave is along Route 1?"
"Well, it beats just wandering around, having no idea where to go," Mest grinned. "Let's go."
Nodding in agreement, the duo walked briskly towards the exit of Route 1, sighing in relief as they walked out of the humid air outside into the cooler, albeit stale air of the caverns. They set a slow pace as they walked through the winding but straightforward path, eyes peeled for any signs of a grave or even a clue. But nothing remarkable stood out, and their small, magical source of light was not helping either. More than once, flickering shadows cast by simple rock formations aroused their interest, but proved nothing more than a mirage.
"You know, I'm starting to think this wasn't such a good idea," Lucy sighed in disappointment. "I mean, if it was along one of these routes, wouldn't that confer a greater advantage to the team that came through this route?"
Mest hummed. "While that may be the case, the grave, or the path to the grave, or even clues may be hidden by spells until the first stage is over. The Master may seem like an annoying pervert most of the time, but he's a Wizard Saint you know? He's probably forgotten more about magic than we'll ever learn in our lifetimes."
"Yea, that's true. Although the barrier we got past was pretty easy to break," the buxom blonde grinned proudly.
"Well, he might have tried to make things easier for whoever took that path. And given the size of that barrier, it's probably more complex than anything I could come up with," the Teleport mage replied with an embarrassed laugh. "I'm not the smartest guy around, unfortunately."
"Hey, everyone's got their specialties, right? It's not like Natsu's a genius or anything," Lucy consoled her partner. "And you are considered strong enough to participate in these trials. It means you have the potential to be S-class!"
The scarred man smiled gratefully at the Celestial Spirit mage. "Heh. Thanks for the pep talk. I definitely made the right choice picking you to be my partner."
Lucy blushed lightly at the compliment. "Y-Yea, you better get promoted at the end of this! I won't stand for this partnership being an unsuccessful one!"
Mest flashed her a quick thumbs-up, the vigour returning back to the duo as they intensified their search once again. But the caves yielded no rewards, and they soon found themselves walking out into the bright sunlight once more. The caverns had given way to a large grassy clearing, with scattered potholes and craters marring the ground. It was clear that a battle had taken place here, but there was no sign of either the participants nor the S-class mage who tested them.
"Wow, am I glad we didn't meet one of the S-class mages," Lucy shivered involuntarily, surveying the damage wrought on the landscape. "I hope the teams that didn't make it weren't too hurt."
"I'm sure Erza and Mira would have held back a little," Mest smiled weakly, before pausing. "Do you feel that?"
"There's some spell in use here. Feels like a basic illusion spell," the man mumbled, walking towards the centre of the glade. He held his open hand out, blue magic dancing between his fingers. "Here goes nothing. Dispel!"
An invisible pane shattered, refracting the sunlight bearing down on them briefly. Lucy gaped as a chain of gibberish appeared in thin air, hovering in the centre of the clearing like the glowing signs that identifed the different routes. Mest grimaced as he tried to read the text that read, 'Zye esainzc uw a olulsvrj digiy sebmtj wdxn khz joiao wzvp', but only twisted his tongue in knots.
"That doesn't tell us anything," the S-class aspirant grumbled, staring at the string of letters without comprehension. "Is it in some foreign language?"
"No, I think the clue has been scrambled," his blonde partner deduced. "Probably by some sort of code or cipher."
"Cipher, eh?" the scarred man wondered aloud. "I think it's unlikely for the cipher to be too difficult, since it should be possible to crack within the short time limit we have. I'm guessing it's probably just a matter of replacing each letter with another letter using some sort of algorithm. What I want to figure out is why there's a bolded word in the sentence."
"Maybe it's to help us?" Lucy hazarded a guess.
"Five letters…" Mest murmured. "The word 'first' is also five letters, right? Do they correspond?"
"You think so?" his teammate cocked a disbelieving eyebrow.
"Well, it's the only idea I have," Mest shrugged, before suddenly tensing and looking out into the distance.
Lucy grasped at her keys anxiously, readying herself for a fight as she regarded her partner's odd behaviour. "What's wrong, Mest?"
The man grinned joyously, before his lips settled into a satisfied smirk. "Nothing to worry about. Just a touch of paranoia. C'mon, let's try and break this code and find the First Master's grave!"
As Lucy moaned about not having pen and paper to scribble down notes, Mest chuckled under his breath. What an unexpected surprise to find him here. This is turning out to be a great idea!
The sweltering heat was oppressive even for Natsu, as he trudged through the dense jungle with Happy hovering above his shoulder. The flora and fauna were all gargantuan compared to what they would find on mainland Fiore, and it was proving more than a little challenging to find a single grave on the large island that was Tenrō. Natsu was sorely tempted to just blaze his way through the foliage, but he didn't think Makarov would be pleased about that particular decision. He wasn't sure how long he could control himself before he went nuclear on nature around him though; he was the Fire Dragon Slayer, but heat and humidity he could not eat.
"Happy, got any ideas?" Natsu asked, kicking a stubborn fern frond out of his path.
The blue talking cat shrugged, looking quite clueless. "Nope!"
"This island is way too big," the pink-haired mage grumbled. "The old man sure likes to make our lives difficult."
"Maybe we should try and think of where Master's grave might be?" Happy suggested. "We only have one day to find it after all."
"That's a great idea!" Natsu grinned, slightly reinvigorated.
But before the two could put their heads together to think of a plan rather than just haphazardly wandering around the place as they had been doing for the past hour or so, a strange, foreboding feeling washed over them. Frightened animals, big and small, fled away hastily, while plants seemed to shrink away from the source of the foulness. The ill intent was gone in the next moment, but the sickly feeling it induced in the duo lingered. Happy placed a tiny paw over his muzzle to hold back from retching as Natsu wiped the cold sweat off his rapidly paling face. It was a feeling unlike anything he had ever felt; not even Nirvana had induced such a grotesque sensation.
"What…what was that?" the Fire Dragon Slayer mumbled, swallowing thickly.
"I don't think that's a part of the test," Happy gulped, trying to wash away the sour taste in the back of his throat.
Natsu took a deep breath to steel himself. "Maybe we should check it out, just in case?"
Happy shook his head. "I don't know, Natsu. It feels…strange. Dangerous. Maybe we shouldn't."
"What if it's something bad that wants to harm Fairy Tail?" the dragon slayer reasoned, wetting his dry lips. "C'mon, Happy. Let's go check it out. S-class mages can't be scared of anything."
"Yea," the Exceed mumbled, slapping his cheeks to gather some courage. "Yea, let's go see what it is."
Far more cautiously than his usual modus operandi, Natsu crept towards the source of their unease, Happy flying closely behind. The forest seemed to grow quieter the closer they got, the scent of decay growing stronger in return. The pink-haired mage wrinkled his nose as he tried to tune out of the smell, his Exceed companion covering his nose with his paws instead. Then, the dense foliage suddenly gave way to a circle of death, wilted plants and dead animals scattered within an uneven clearing. In the middle stood a young, black-haired man, dressed in a white toga and red and tan robes beneath. His features were forlorn as he surveyed the devastation surrounding him, before he looked up in surprise at Natsu's arrival.
"Who are you?" Natsu demanded, sliding into a fighting stance.
"A man with a curse," the person replied cryptically, tear streaks visible on his cheeks. "Death follows in my wake. You should stay away from me."
"What are you doing on Tenrō Island?" the dragon slayer narrowed his eyes, desperately trying to hide the tremor in his voice. "This is Fairy Tail's holy land, and you're not a member of the guild."
"I'm just a passerby, trying to catch up with an old friend," the man sighed wistfully.
His dark eyes suddenly widened, as a corona of dark, sickly magic sprung up around him. The stranger gritted his teeth, the black aura wavering as he tried to keep it from bursting out immediately. "Get out of the way!"
Heeding the man's advice, Natsu and Happy turned tail and ran. And not a moment too soon, as a wave of dark, corrosive energy spread from the man. Happy gasped, observing as the energy killed any living creature it came into contact with, collapsing where they stood. Plants browned and wilted, no longer verdant and vibrant. This wave was evidently bigger than the last, and destroyed even more of the jungle than earlier. The Fire Dragon Slayer grimaced as he felt the remnants of the foul energy wave pass through his body, eliciting a shudder up his spine.
Turning around, the duo surveyed the damage wrought by the mysterious individual. Gritting his teeth, Natsu readied himself to fight the unknown man, only for the trespasser to shake his head. "Don't. I can't control the pulses, and you'll die before you know it."
"I can't just let you run around our holy ground killing everything," the fire-breathing mage blustered.
"You can't kill me at your current level. There's only one person who can kill me right now, and it's not you. Leave, before you die needlessly and ignominiously," the black-haired man ordered, a touch of steel entering his soft-spoken voice.
Happy noted the subtle tremble in his partner's fists, the sweat gathering on his brow. "Natsu?"
Black energy wafted off the pale man once more, but it seemed to be responding more to his will than it previously did. He stared Natsu dead in the eye. "Run, before I kill you."
As the wall of rippling black magic surged towards them, Natsu and Happy fled.
The bridge of the airship was quiet, the air filled only with the sound of the engine's low, deep thrum. A crystal orb rolled smoothly between Ultear's hands as she focused her mind far away from her physical location. She stood in front of a mildly impatient Hades, who was seated in the captain's chair in a languid position. The rest of the the Seven Kin were absent from the impromptu meeting, having little capacity to aid in the search of their target.
"Master," Ultear straightened, the orb in her hands nestling in her palm as she turn to bow to her teacher and guild master. "I've triangulated his location."
Hades thrummed his fingers on the armrest. "Are we certain this time?"
"Yes. The signal was distorted by some shielding magic, but there's no mistaking it. Zeref's powers are active once more," the woman smiled satisfactorily, the orb seemingly taking a life of its own as she began to play with it absentmindedly once more.
The bearded man couldn't help a similar smile curving his lips. "And where is our target currently?"
"In the middle of the ocean, presumably on an island," Ultear threw the orb into the air lazily, the crystal ball stopping into the midair to display an image of the tropical island.
"What a coincidence," Hades chuckled deeply, as he drank in the sight of the gigantic tree that stood in the middle of the island. "It's been quite a while since I've been back to Tenrō Island. Fate seems to have conspired to grant me an opportunity for another visit. And for him to be there…perhaps he is even searching for his other half?"
"His other half?" Ultear echoed bemusedly.
The dark mage smirked. "That's a story for another age, my dear. Now, what of Uzumaki?"
The Arc of Time wielder creased her brow at the name, but quickly smoothed her features out. "He's inland, somewhere deep in Fiore. There's no way he can reach Zeref before we can."
"Let's not be too hasty in that assumption, child," Hades chided gently, waving the empty sleeve that once held his right arm. "He took my arm off, sealed the Devil Heart away from me and your powers from you. Given his teleportation skills, I wouldn't say he can't reach Zeref before we can. Given his propensity for interfering with everyone's plans, I wouldn't put it past him to get in our way. Vigilance is the better part of valour."
"As you say, master," Ultear demurred.
The airship lurched as it made a sharp turn, Ultear shooting the Grimoire Heart leader a quick glare as she momentarily lost her footing. Hades ignored the minor insubordination, meeting the purple-haired woman's indignant stare with his own imposing gaze. "We should arrive at our destination in a short while. Inform Caprico to prepare for the guild's disembarkment, and tell the rest of the Kin and Bluenote not to play around if they encounter resistance. I don't have any more patience for failure. Zeref is the priority."
Zilévo stood from his macabre throne, casting his glance around the room to observe his gathered subordinates. His thick gold necklace clinked as he ambled slowly down from the dais his throne sat upon. The red and black-haired man sighed theatrically as he stopped before Kyōka, raising a hand laden with heavy rings to her face. He stroked her clothed cheek with a clawed finger, smirking superiorly as she averted her eyes from his inhuman crimson orbs.
"It's unfortunate that we are seeking a confrontation with Naruto's former guild with only five Demons," the man purred, grabbing Kyōka's chin as he pulled her face closer to his. "Perhaps we should have all worked harder to gather the Books of Zeref."
"Master…" Kyōka swallowed heavily, meeting his intense gaze briefly. "We wield more than enough power to crush those weak little insects."
"I'm glad to see you have such confidence in your abilities, Kyōka," the Tartaros leader smiled maliciously. "But I can't help but feel annoyed that I wouldn't be able to show off nine Demons to Naruto if he arrives to save the day. It is an important part of my plan to kill him, you know?"
"Surely what is most important is to have all nine present when you are actually about to kill him?" Silver interjected in an uninterested drawl. "It doesn't matter if all we're that going to do this time is to kill a few of his former guild's members and capture his girlfriend for shits and giggles."
Zilévo hissed in anger as he pushed Kyōka aside and strode up to the armoured man with a bestial snarl on his lips. Wild, crimson energy flared from the pores of his skin, the guild master a veritable walking storm of power. "Are you questioning my authority?"
"Wouldn't dream of it, Zilévo-sama," Silver bowed mockingly, placing his right fist above his left breastplate.
The energy dissipated into the air as Zilévo sneered at the insolent subordinate. "Do not test me further, Silver, or you will find yourself in an unpleasant state of dismemberment."
Silver inclined his head in assent, his guild master snorting in derision and strolling back to Kyōka. "More and more, I wonder about this particular mission you have suggested, Kyōka. It seems quite the haphazard plan, even if the objectives sound quite tantalising."
"Master, you understand him more than anyone else. He is the sort to be intensely beholden to the safety and well-being of those whom he cares for," the helmeted woman answered shakily. "We have killed his pet fox, but for the message to sink in, for him to truly suffer, he must endure as much loss in as short a period of time as possible, lest he has time to recover from the turmoil you have wrought upon him."
"Yes, yes, I got that. Why do you think this mission was sanctioned in the first place?" Zilévo snapped. "I merely chafe at the idea that I cannot present my best image to Naruto if he shows up. The creation of Tartaros, the gathering of the Books of Zeref…they are all steps towards that final sight I want him to witness before he dies at my hands. I want him to suffer and despair as my little Demons murder and rape his pathetic precious people before I crush him with the power he once wielded."
"A worthy goal," Keyes murmured.
"Worthy? HAH!" Zilévo snorted in amusement as he turned to address the skeletal man. "A boot-licker needs to be less conspicuous than that, Keyes. My goal to crush and destroy Uzumaki Naruto is selfish and worthless to all but me. I might get around to conquering the world afterwards, but there's nothing grand or worthy about my main ambitions. It is purely for personal satisfaction."
"My apologies, Zilévo-sama."
The red and black-haired man scoffed at the deferential tone of the necromancer, before stalking away. "I tire of your nonsense. Inform me when the preparations have been made."
Tension drained out of Kyōka as the heavy footsteps of their master faded with distance. The voluptuous Etherious narrowed her eyes at Keyes, who looked remarkably unruffled by the entire episode. "For your sake, you had better be correct about his presence there."
"Have I ever led us astray?" the helmeted creature retorted. "Now, let us not dally. Our true master awaits."
Naruto's eyes snapped open, biting back a curse. Sighing, he unfolded his legs from the lotus position he had been holding, returning proper blood circulation back to his stiff limbs. His yellow toad eyes bled away to reveal the cerulean beneath. Jellal walked into his field of vision a moment later, carrying a glass of water in his hand. He handed the drink to Naruto silently, the blond gulping down half the glass of cool, refreshing liquid at one go.
"Any luck?" the outlaw asked.
"No. Sennin Mōdo was never meant to track over such distances," the former Wizard Saint responded, frustration bleeding into his voice. "They wisely stayed above water where I don't have any Hiraishin seals. And now, Ultear's signature is just gone. Vanished."
"Can't you get a lock on any other members of Grimoire Heart?" the blue-haired man queried.
"I'm not that familiar with their energy signatures. At least I've encountered Ultear several times when she was on the Magic Council and after," Naruto grunted, clambering up to his feet. "At such distances, I need to be more than a passing familiarity with the person's energy."
"So we have no way of keeping an eye on their movements now?" Jellal enquired.
"No," Naruto remarked tiredly. "The only thing we can do now is wait."
Author's Notes: Well, that took a while. Real life happened. Also, Fairy Tail is losing my interest chapter by chapter. I mean, the way Erza defeated those Historias in chapter 482? It's so bad I was really tempted to quit reading Fairy Tail then and there.
But I guess I'm no better, since the response to last chapter wasn't great. As some reviewers rightly pointed out, it was pretty rushed, with what seemed like 2-3 chapters of content in one chapter. I planned for it to be three major scenes in three separate chapters a long time ago, but it didn't fit with my timeline and I didn't have suitable filler to pad out the chapters. Plus, I wanted to get it out before my holiday trip and then school. So that's totally my bad. Quality should be paramount, and I forgot that in my rush to update. I'm disappointed in myself, and I don't blame readers for feeling the same. Sorry!
This is pretty much just a building chapter, which must be boring especially given how last chapter ended. The next chapter should be more explosive.
If anyone is wondering why Mest isn't acting stupid like he did in canon, or why he never announced himself as Mystogan's disciple, it's because he's targeted Lucy instead of Wendy. So the Mystogan thing wouldn't play well, and frankly, there's no point in acting weird in the first place. And since he's now partnering Lucy, she became one of my main points of reference for the scenes involving the S-class trials.
As for the clue, it's legit. I used a Vigenère cipher, because in canon, Lucy had to make several leaps of logic to figure out where to find Mavis' grave. It wasn't a test of intelligence so much as a test of 'how nonsensical can my logic be'. I know my version of the 2nd stage still relies on leaps of logic, but at least they are more plausible than the ones portrayed in canon. I belatedly realised it might be too complicated to crack for non-cryptanalysts without any hints, but it doesn't really affect the plot, so I didn't bother changing the cipher for a simpler one. Internet cookies if you are bored enough to guess the key and crack the code.
I hope it's clear that Zeref isn't Natsu's brother here. While I think it was a good idea in canon (despite its terrible execution), it wouldn't work as well for La Tormenta, a story where the main protagonist is not Natsu but Naruto. And Natsu ran from Zeref because he's less boneheaded and headstrong as before. Zeref's powers induced a sense of unease that built up over time, while in canon it was Gildarts' overwhelming power that taught him fear.