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What Once Went Wrong, Part Two: Games and Festivals

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Volume Twenty: Let the Games Begin

Earthland-2, Fairy Tail Guild Hall, X785: Jellal

"The Grand Magic Games?" Laxus asked, looking up from his drink. Jellal froze for a moment before he realized what his friend had said. Oh, Games, not World. He put aside the renewed pain of Alphonse's funeral, flashing a smile at Natsu when the Dragon Slayer turned a worried look in his direction. Natsu sniffed the air, shrugged, and turned his attention to recent arrival Romeo. Huh?

Romeo nodded. "That's what the announcement says," the boy explained, holding up the poster.

Enno sighed and plucked the sign from Romeo's hand. "You shouldn't be taking things like this off the street, honey."

"But it says it's okay, Mom!" Romeo objected. Enno looked the poster over, Macao striding to her side and reading it with her. "Guilds are supposed to have them so we know how to join! Look, it even has the royal seal!" Several guild members looked up, a few standing to peer at the paper. Minerva, technically a guest as she'd never officially left Sabertooth, watched with interest clear to the Starburst.

Jellal sighed. "Don't we have enough to deal with between taking jobs and hunting Dark Guilds?" He put down his newspaper and raised an eyebrow at Laxus. "Grimoire Heart is still out there with Brain, Daphne, and my brother, and there are reports that Tartaros has crawled out of whatever hole they've been hiding in."

"The winner gets 25 million Jewel?" Macao blurted. Makarov was beside the solid-flame wizard in an instant. "And it looks perfect for us! 'The Games will last five days, each split between sports-like contests of skill and traditional wizard duels.' You get points for winning duels and doing well in the contests, and whoever has the most points on the last day wins."

Erza's eyes gleamed. "Contests of skill, you say?" Jellal chuckled and shrugged. I guess we're going, he decided. Erza wouldn't turn down a contest for a year of free strawberry cake.

"And we get to fight the strongest wizards in Fiore!" Natsu exulted, flames roaring around one fist. "I'm all fired up! When do we go?"

Enno pouted at Macao and snatched back the poster. "According to this, the first annual Games are set for July."

Natsu's flame went out in an instant. "Wait, that's..." He counted the time out on his fingers. "Six months?!" He fell over, eyes swirling. The rest of the guild laughed.

Lucy shook her head. "Valentine's Day is coming up, and he's worried about a wizard tournament? Figures." The summoner turned a sad glance toward Lisanna, though the younger Strauss sister's smile was merry.

As though summoned herself, Mira appeared at Jellal's side. "So, now that you and Erza are together," the Demon noted, her smile as sweet as it was deadly, "are you ready to help me with some matchmaking?"

Jellal groaned and rubbed his forehead. What in Mavis' name is she talking about? he wondered, though he knew better than to enter a straight argument with Mira. "That depends on who you want to match," he replied.

"Oh, just Laxus and Freed, and Gajeel and Levy. This year," she amended, eyes gleaming almost as brightly as Erza's. Jellal gazed across the room at Mira's intended targets. Freed was, predictably, watching Laxus with eyes so obviously adoring it was a wonder they hadn't turned into Juvia-style hearts. Laxus, meanwhile, was deliberately avoiding Freed's gaze. Huh. I don't think that's "ignore him and he'll go away."

Jellal rubbed his chin, then turned his attention to the other pair. Gajeel was playing his guitar, which sounded a fraction less like strangling a chicken than usual, and Levy was watching him in an utterly failed attempt at indifference. Jet and Droy, perfect bellwethers for Levy's mood, had grayed out in despair. Huh. He glanced sidelong at Mira. "We're getting the Dragon Slayers past their guilt, right?" Mirajane's smile broadened, the She-Demon nodding enthusiastically. Her eyes looked closed. "I'm going to enlist Erza."

"Oh! Thank you, Jellal!" Mirajane glomped him briefly. "We'll deal with Natsu and Gray next year. They need more ground work," she whispered. Jellal chuckled, extracted himself from Mira's grip, and strode over to Erza.

His beloved Titania didn't notice him approaching, with her eyes still gleaming and her gaze fixed heavenward. Minerva's attention had turned towards Erza as well, but the young mage radiated gratitude, so Jellal didn't let it worry him. "Still dreaming of victory, love?"

Erza fell over, then leaped to her feet so quickly that Jellal almost thought he'd imagined it. "It won't be just a dream, Jellal. We must train with the ferocity of a thousand wyverns!" She made a fist, and it shook at her side as she turned her gaze westward, toward Crocus. "No guild will stand in our way. We shall conquer every contest the capitol can throw at us!"

Jellal couldn't help a smile. Oh, Erza. He put his hand on hers. "Well, as Lucy pointed out, Valentine's Day is coming up a bit sooner." The gleam in Erza's eyes vanished, her fist dropping to dangle at her side. "Mira asked me to help her pair Laxus with Freed, and Gajeel with Levy. It occurred to me that she's been pretending not to be lonely herself, so I thought I'd enlist you for help during the day."

"Th-the day?" Erza stammered, still not looking at him.

"Well, sure. I was hoping we could save the night for ourselves." Erza stood frozen beside him, and Jellal rubbed the back of his neck. Too bold?

All at once, Erza grabbed his hand and towed him out of the guild hall. The others were so used to it that only a few newer members laughed. "Strawberry cake. Now."

"As you wish," Jellal whispered, smiling as they left. For me, this is living life to the fullest. Thank you for everything, Alphonse. I'll never forget.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Fairy Tail Guild Hall, X785: Erza

"So," Jellal sighed, "you've both decided that you're not worthy of the people you love, never mind that they're in love with you." Erza grinned at the suddenly downward-looking Dragon Slayers. "Which means that, in an effort to needlessly punish yourself, you're punishing them as well. Does that about sum up your decisions?" Thank you, Mira, Titania thought, grateful to her friend for giving Jellal something besides grief and betrayal to focus on.

"You don't know that Shorty lo-uh, likes me," Gajeel muttered, fiddling with the tuning keys on his guitar. Jellal didn't dignify his dodge with a retort, simply crossing his arms.

Laxus snorted. "This is pretty ironic, coming from you," he shot back.

"Wrong Jellal," he grinned, holding out a hand towards Erza. She smirked at Laxus, who huffed and looked away. "Gajeel, you can prove me wrong by just talking to Levy. Laxus, you don't even have that excuse. The whole guild's known how much Freed loves you since before he even liked guys. Either let him off the hook or tell him how you feel."

Gajeel sighed and stood. "Fine. Levy's too smart not to have figured it out anyway." He stomped over to Levy, Jet and Droy on their guard almost immediately. Levy shooed them back, then gestured for Gajeel to continue. Erza couldn't quite hear the conversation over the crowd. Still, when Levy leaped up, threw her arms around Gajeel neck, and kissed him until he fell over with swirling eyes, Erza was able to fill in the blanks.

"This contest is over," Erza noted, her smile growing. "Well, Laxus?" Laxus deflated and glanced over at Freed, who nearly fell out of his seat trying to pretend he hadn't been watching. The Lightning Dragon Slayer practically leaped to his feet, stuck his hands in his pockets so hard he nearly tore through them, and strode over to the rune mage. Bickslow and Evergreen watched, each with a hand gripping the other's shoulder, while Laxus spoke to Freed. The resultant kiss was rather more tender than Levy's surprise assault, but the effect was similar. At least he didn't knock Laxus over, Erza thought, laughing.

Mirajane promptly hugged her and Jellal, pulling both guildmates to her side in one-armed grasps. "That was beautiful! We have to do this more often," Mira insisted.

"Do what, Mirajane?" Lucy asked, striding over towards the trio. Erza blinked at the sight of her friend and partner, who was wearing a blue kimono and a strange wrapping around her head. It cannot seem to decide if it is a bandage or a turban, Titania mused.

Jellal raised an eyebrow at their friend. "What did Natsu do this time?" he asked. Erza sighed, head drooping a fraction. A painfully fair question.

"Wha-oh!" Lucy chuckled and touched the white wrapping. "I needed to make rent after my last job with Natsu, so I ended up taking a job modeling outfits for a shop across town. One of the scarves turned out to be cursed. Gemini was able to free the spirit inside it, but for now they're taking a nap."

Mirajane giggled while Jellal's mouth fell open. "Wait, you mean that's Gemini?" he asked, waving in the direction of the wrapping. It doesn't look like a proper scarf, Erza thought, scowling at the lack of edging or tassels.

Lucy nodded. "They said they were comfortable up there."

"You've really turned into a Fairy Tail wizard," Mira smiled. Lucy laughed. "So, do you have plans for Valentine's Day? Besides dodging Loke, I mean."

Lucy's smile vanished. "Leo's visiting Blue Pegasus again. He's not the problem any more." She glared at her key ring. "Aquarius is really getting pushy about the boyfriend thing. I don't even care about the 'boy' part!" As was quickly becoming her habit, the summoner threw her hands in the air, waving them about. It's as if all the bones just vanish for a bit, like they're noodles. I wonder if it's some kind of magic? Erza guessed. "Sometimes I think Siegrain's going to be the last date I ever–" She turned huge eyes on Jellal and clamped both hands over her mouth. "Oh gods Jellal I'm so sorry I didn't mean to–"

"It's fine," Jellal insisted, one gentle hand resting on her shoulder. "Mavis knows it can't be easy for you, either." Erza nodded. Alphonse would have wanted you to move on. Siegrain has made his choice. You're Fairy Tail wizards, both of you, she thought, eyes flickering from beloved to teammate and back. Never forget it.

Mirajane's eyes glinted with that look, already back after less than five minutes. "Did you have anyone in particular in mind, Lucy?" she asked, hands clasped in faux-innocence. Erza couldn't help a smile of her own.

"I wish," Lucy grumped, dropping onto the bench. "Pretty much everyone I know is taken, crazy, or both. Even if they weren't my brothers, Natsu will be Lisanna's as soon as he goes through puberty," she sighed, eliciting another giggle from Mira, "and I think Gray actually likes Juvia but can't admit it. Erza might as well be married to Jellal – I mean, look at these two," she continued, pointing at Jellal, and Erza's face nearly burst into flames – Lucy likes me?! Mavis and Chronos! – "and even if Karen weren't in the picture, Loke's way too much. Not to mention immortal." Lucy's jaw set as she scanned the room. "Honestly, look at this room, Mira. You, Lisanna and Jellal are probably the only romantics besides me, and..."

All at once, Lucy's eyes widened. She twiddled her fingers in a very Wendy-like manner. "...w-well, even if you weren't out of the league that's out of my league, there's got to be a line out to Crocus to date Mirajane Strauss." Mira's eyes went wider than Lucy's, but the summoner was off and running again, looking away from the former She-Demon. "Look at them! Max's closest relationship is with his broom. I think Nab's dating the job board." Jellal clamped a hand over his mouth to stifle sputtering laughter. "Most of them would rather wreck the hall than leave it for a date. And looking outside the guild's basically impossible now. Anyone who gets involved with one of us might as well be in Fairy Tail as far as the Magic Council and Dark Guilds are concerned." Lucy turned, her brief embarrassment forgotten, until she caught sight of Mira again.

Erza turned half-away, hiding a grin, while Mira smiled at Lucy, her eyes squeezed shut. "I'm sure you'll find someone, Lucy. You're a wonderful Fairy Tail wizard!"

"You know, Mira," Jellal interjected, "Erza and I have plans for the evening. Maybe you could recruit Lucy as your partner in ships for the rest of the day." Erza's grin vanished, and she bit back a groan. Jellal, maybe you shouldn't try to help this time, she thought as loudly as she could.

Lucy pouted. "Come on, Jellal, Mira's got to get ready for her date too," she insisted, then sat up straighter. "Oh! I don't even know who you're going out with for Valentine's Day. Is it a secret admirer or something?" Erza blinked. Zen. She didn't even notice. Maybe Jellal's blunt trauma approach will actually work. Jellal huffed, not quite looking back towards her.

"Oh, I don't have any plans for tonight," Mira insisted, smile growing but eyes squeezing more tightly shut. "The guild hall's open late. Some of them are more romantic than you'd think!" Erza cleared her throat and turned a pointed look at her teammate.

"Wait." Lucy stared in obvious disbelief. "You don't have a date? Tonight? You?"

In for a Jewel, Erza decided. "Mira's renown for her charm is a double-edged sword," Titania explained. "Many are attracted to her, true, but some are unworthy of her, and too many others are intimidated by her reputation. Much like yourself, apparently." She crossed her arms and waited.

Lucy turned from Mira to Erza and back. Several seconds passed. I do believe she's learning to see the loneliness behind Mira's mask of a smile, Erza thought. All at once, Lucy leaped to her feet. "Mirajane! W-w-will you...um, I mean, would you like to..." Mira's eyes opened, meeting Lucy's. Both women froze. Jellal cleared his throat. "Gooutwithme!" Lucy blurted, hands flying to her mouth again. Mirajane gasped. "I mean – oh Mavis, that came out terrible – just, you know, if you'd like, I–"

"Yes!" Mirajane blurted, grabbing Lucy's hand and towing her toward the door. "Lisanna, cover for me?" she called over. Lucy babbled incoherently as she found herself swept up by Hurricane Strauss.

Lisanna nodded, then watched until the two vanished out the door. "WOO-HOO!" the younger Strauss cheered. Erza held up one hand, and Jellal took the cue to high-five her. This contest is over.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Crocus, X785: Ultear

"Yeah!" Natsu cheered, still carrying the trophy overhead. "Fairy Tail is number one!"

"And all Ishgar knows it!" Gajeel joined in, iron club punching several feet into the air.

"You'd think they won the King's Cup themselves," Lucy whispered to Erza.

Ultear chuckled. "Oh, let the boys have their fun." She smirked at Gray, who was still marching with his arms crossed. "It's better than sulking because they didn't get to fight."

"Hmph. At least Natsu got to be backup," Gray huffed. Several of the others laughed.

The cheering crowds were long gone, with most of the spectators pub-crawlers who weren't bothered by night having long since fallen. That's Fairy Tail for you, she thought, grinning at her teammates while she hugged Simon closer.

Laxus was actually smiling for once, the Dragon Slayer exuding pleased triumph while the Thunder Tribe marched beside their leader. Mirajane was still laughing and waving, and even with the thinning crowds and Lucy's hand in hers, spectators still cheered her, occasionally crying out declarations of love. Erza was outright smirking, glancing about them in search of another challenger. Jellal merely chuckled and remained by Titania's side, more happy on her behalf than his own. Five S-Class Fairy Tail wizards teaming up for these games? Even without Dad, this thing wasn't even a contest.

She stumbled to a halt at the guild arguing in front of them, nearly pulling Simon off-balance. "Whoa. Ultear, hon, what's wrong?" he asked.

"Sabertooth," Ultear whispered, eyes locked onto Jiemma Orlando. You. The enormous wizard was towering over a young man in a fancy red outfit. The smaller wizard was down on one knee, hiding his face behind a fancy wide-brimmed hat as he worked to stand. "Their new guild master, to be specific." She gathered Arc Crash magic around her fists, her fury burning hotter than Natsu's flame. "Would you excuse me for a minute, love? I need to have a few words with Master Orlando." Also a few explosions.

"Ultear, this is a really bad idea–" Simon began. The entire Fairy Tail procession stopped when Jiemma fired a blast of raw force at the younger wizard, slamming him back to earth. Sidewalks cracked around them for several feet. The crimson-clad Sabertooth mage twitched, gasping for breath. A blond boy no older than Wendy darted between the titanic guild master and his helpless guildmate, arms outstretched. "I'm right behind you," he amended, the shadows gathering around him. Master Makarov was already as tall as his Sabertooth counterpart and still growing.

"Stop!" someone cried from behind Fairy Tail. Ultear turned, her gasp echoed by a dozen others, as Minerva ran to the head of the group. Jiemma looked up, as did several members of his guild. Minerva bowed to Ultear. "Please, Miss Ultear, let me deal with this."

For just an instant, Ultear was a small child again, locked in a room and waiting for the pain to start again. She shook her head clear. "Minerva, I know you've been training, and you're incredibly strong, but–"

"Please. I have to know." Minerva's trembling was so slight, Ultear almost missed it. The girl didn't even look up.

Jellal touched her shoulder, and Ultear nearly snarled at him before she caught herself. "I don't like it any more than you do," he admitted, "but this has to be why she never left Sabertooth."

Damn it. This is her fight. I have no right to take it from her. Ultear's sigh was explosive. "Don't lose, kid," she commanded. Minerva straightened, almost leaping upright, and hugged both Ultear and Jellal. Then she turned, squaring her shoulders, and marched towards her father.

"Minerva?" Jiemma asked, head cocked just a fraction. "Have you finally seen reason, girl?"

Twin spheres of Territory Magic swirled around her fists, mirroring Ultear's combat stance almost exactly. "You could say that, Father. I challenge you for the seat of Sabertooth Master. Touch Rufus again and I will kill you where you stand." This time, the gasps came from all directions, wizards and bystanders alike.

For a handful of seconds, Jiemma stared at his daughter, blinking. Then he smiled, cold and empty. His smile became a chuckle. The chuckle grew into a laugh. His laughter boomed throughout the night. "At last! Perhaps you've grown into a fraction of my strength after all," he said. Then Jiemma slid into a casual ready stance.

"Territory!" Minerva roared, using one hand to swap places with Rufus. She pulled back her other fist, teeth bared in a snarl as she gathered yet more power around it.

Jiemma snorted. "Pathetic." He held out one palm and fired a blast at his daughter.

Minerva smirked back, punching at the blast. Her sphere caught the energy, then returned it combined with her own power in a single blow. Jiemma fell back, his casual contempt shattered. He slid to a halt several feet away, gaping at his daughter. "Indeed that was," Minerva retorted, combining her smaller Territory orbs into one swirling hemisphere.

"Yeah! Go, Minerva!" Ultear cheered. The rest of Fairy Tail joined in a second later. Sabertooth merely gaped, the blond boy and his raven-haired negative image showing hints of smiles at the results.

Jiemma glared and tore off his shirt. "Impressive," he hissed. "If your showing is good enough, I might even ignore this insult and permit you to return." He fired another, more powerful blast. Minerva returned it the same way she had the first, her silent smile more eloquent than words. Sabertooth's Master had been prepared for this, of course, but even he grunted at the effort of deflecting the blow. Twice more he attempted the same trick, and though Minerva's smile faded as her concentration grew, she parried and riposted against each.

"Why is he doing that?" Ultear asked Jellal in a whisper.

"Jiemma's adding Wave Magic of a sort," the Starburst explained, "trying to disrupt Territory through raw etheric power. Minerva's control is too good, though – look out!"

Another wave of gasps rippled through Crocus as Jiemma leaped with at his daughter with phenomenal speed, fist raised. Minerva's smile grew wider than before. At the last instant, her magic rippled out, and Jiemma found himself smashing the road with his face, while Minerva appeared overhead, her own fist where his had been. She slammed into him with a kidney punch, darting away as he stood. Jiemma snarled, shaking bits of cobblestone out of his hair. "Most impressive," he growled. "I almost regret that I must make you pay for this defiance." Minerva's only response was to shift into a defensive posture, then wave for him to come at her.

With a burst of power from his legs, Jiemma shot towards Minerva like a Jupiter blast. Purple light and swirling shadows exploded against each other. For an instant, the world went dark. When the raven-haired boy restored the light by eating the darkness – magic is weird, Ultear decided – Jiemma was gone. "Yagdo Rigora!" Minerva chanted.

Jellal looked towards the royal castle, Mercurius, for no reason Ultear could discern. "Did anyone feel that?" he whispered, rubbing his chest with one hand. Erza turned a worried look on her love.

That's when they heard the explosion from above. A whistling sound came next. Jiemma's howl of rage followed. Both were cut off by the sudden crash of a hyper-resilient wizard body through concrete. Far below, Jiemma splashed into the sewer, followed by a few chunks of road. All of Sabertooth's collective jaws dropped as one, except for the frog-like Exceed beside the young Shadow wizard. "Ew," Minerva said, her nose wrinkling. Then she teleported Jiemma back to the surface, using her Territory magic to repair most of the sidewalk as well. The young Sabertooth wizard cleared her throat. "Master Makarov, if you would confirm, please?"

Shrinking back to his original size, Makarov walked over, pulled a handkerchief out of somewhere, and used it to pick up Jiemma's still-dripping arm. When he let go, it fell back down with a meaty smack. Master Makarov raised his arm and cried, "Ippon!" Woo-HOO!

Minerva bowed to the diminutive guild master. "Thank you, sir. For everything." She kissed him on top of his head, and Makarov stammered and blushed to more laughter. Then the new Master of Sabertooth turned to her guild. "My father has no doubt told you that power is more important than family. He was a bitter old fool. Family is more important than power for anyone – but for a wizard who hasn't shut away his heart, family is power."

Ultear smiled as Minerva taught her rapt teammates what it meant to be nakama – how a guild could, and should, be a home. "Come on," Laxus called with a wave. "Looks like the kid's got this under control." Ultear nodded, Simon joining her as they headed back for their room. Still, she couldn't help a glance at Jellal, who'd turned his attention back to Mercurius...

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Fairy Tail Guild Hall, X785: Jellal

Let's see. Primary colors, pastels, earth-tones; coarse and fine, mundane and charged. All in proper order. Jellal looked over his many pieces of chalk with a discerning eye, picking a fine-powder green and rolling it between his fingers. Good for wind magic and healing. He slid it into his carrying case, then sent the rest floating to their respective drawers, organized for the year. He then directed his catalog to rest atop the cabinet he reserved for his chalk collection. After a brief wince – the catalog had been a gift from Alphonse – he strode out, double-checked his cottage's stabilization wards, and locked the door. "Meteor," he chanted, racing to the guild hall.

What was that energy? Jellal wondered as he opened the door. The sounds of guild merriment echoed through the enormous hall, but there was a distinct lack of combat. Huh. Erza's team, the Thunder Tribe, and Neo Cult Buster are all out. I guess this counts as "quiet" by Fairy Tail standards. He blinked at the sight of Levy and Meredy at their old reading table. No Jet or Droy? Odd. They've been taking her relationship with Gajeel well so far – oh. He watched as Gajeel and Pantherlily returned from the training field, both warriors grinning. I've been neglecting my own training a little. I still haven't managed Fourth Gear.

The Starburst frowned and headed for the guild library. A month later, and I still can't place it. What was that energy? It reminded me of the Nemesis spell Daphne used on me in the Tower, but it was also clearly different. He glanced at the bar, where Lisanna held down the post single-handedly with her sister's classic aplomb. Huh. Mira and Kinana are both out. Oh, right, it's visiting day – Kina must have gone with Cult Buster to visit the former Prayers. He thought about his own last visit, friendly but fruitless regarding the strange power he'd felt on the Games' last day. He stopped at the door to the library, rubbing his head. Mavis. I need to let it go for at least a day.

"We're back!" Mirajane cheered, bursting through the door with a flourish. Juvia followed with a shy smile. Jellal raised an eyebrow at the sight. Mira and Juvia were on a mission together? He glanced over at Meredy, who grinned back at him. Hm. I think they're up to something.

"Hey, Merry," Gajeel laughed, leaning on the table next to Meredy, "looks like Blue finally noticed."

...definitely up to something. Jellal scowled at the Iron Dragon Slayer and crossed his arms. "And what, precisely, have I noticed?"

"You," Mirajane announced, and Jellal leaped aside when he realized she'd snuck up behind him, "need a team." She smiled with that faux-innocence that fooled everyone who didn't wear the guild mark. "You won't join Team Erza and you won't join Cult Buster, so we've decided to make one for you."

Jellal blinked at the She-Demon. "You put together a team. For me." Mira's smile broadened as she nodded. "And who is this team?"

"Us," Gajeel explained, taking in Mira, Juvia, Meredy, Pantherlily, and himself in a sweeping gesture. "Gee-hee!"

"I may borrow Gajeel and Lily for Shadow Gear missions," Levy added, still reading. Then she popped her head up from the book, eyes wide. "If it's okay, of course!" she blurted.

Oh, for... "That's something you can take up with Gajeel," Jellal huffed, "because it's not going to be my team." He turned towards the door, only to find Mirajane standing in his path with a wide-eyed smile. "Mira, this is sweet, it really is, but no."

"Jellal is investigating mysterious events around the capitol," Juvia pointed out. "Jellal is making a lot of powerful and important people nervous. Juvia is worried about you. Everyone is."

"Fairy Tail has too many enemies already," Mirajane noted, smile vanishing as she clasped her hands, "and you've got more of your own than any of us would like. The Council hates you for being innocent and embarrassing them, and they're afraid of how powerful and brilliant you are."

"Every Dark Guild in Ishgar's scared of you," Gajeel added. "That means they hate your guts. Jerks like that hate bein' scared. Take it from a recovering jerk."

"You've helped guide Gajeel and Juvia into the light, saved Mira's whole family, my home town, and Pantherlily's entire world," Meredy pointed out, standing. "We all owe you, you need us, and there's no way in Grim we're letting you keep going out there alone."

Images of Grimoire Heart attacking his would-be partners turned into a waking nightmare. "Absolutely not," Jellal insisted. "The gods alone know who's behind this. I need to be discreet, and discretion is not one of Fairy Tail's strong suits."

"We're coming with you," Mirajane replied, hands on her hips. Uh-oh, Jellal groaned. "You can lead us, or we can just play the snoopy kids until we need you to rescue us." Her smile returned, but this time Mira didn't bother hiding its cunning edge. "Who knows what might happen while we're in the clutches of–"

Flashes of his would-be teammates held captive in something like the Tower replaced all thought of Grimoire Heart. "Okay! Okay! You win!" Jellal blurted, arms waving Lucy-style in the air. He turned to glare at Mira's co-conspirators – only to find them staring at the She-Demon with round, blank eyes.

"S-scary..." Meredy stammered.

"Juvia agrees," the water mage whispered.

"That's cold, She-Demon," Gajeel muttered. Pantherlily nodded, arms (forepaws?) dangling limp at his sides.

"Wonderful!" Mira clapped her hands together, her smile friendly and warm once more. "All we need now is a name. I was thinking Team Starburst."

"It's better than Team Jellal," Meredy agreed while Jellal sputtered helplessly, "and there's already a 'Crime Sorciere' in our world."

"Mm, mm," Pantherlily joined in, nodding again. "Araña and Azuma are members, at least."

Gajeel shrugged. "As long as we don't haveta wear badges or anything. I ain't puttin' on some silly manga hero target on my chest."

"So who's leading this team, again?" Jellal sighed, head drooping. The others just laughed.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Crocus, X786: Lisanna

"I can't believe we lost," Natsu groaned, face pressed against the bar. Happy was sprawled out beside Natsu's head, their expressions identical. Lisanna giggled.

"I can't believe we lost to Sabertooth," Gray retorted, laying on his back and glaring at the ceiling. "On our hundredth anniversary, no less. They're a bunch of kids, for Zen's sake!" Lucy chuckled, and the Devil Slayer turned his glare on her. Juvia's smile was Natsu-sized. I have to admire her persistence after all this time, Lisanna thought. "It's not funny, Lucy."

"Sure it is," Lucy replied, flopping back to lie down onto the bench. Lisanna shared her smile at the sight of Fairy Tail "celebrating" their loss. Elfman and Simon were having a bizarre weightlifting contest, their respective girlfriends grinning on the planks the boys bench-pressed. (Evergreen couldn't resist the occasional fan-swat to Elfman's head, of course.) Vijeeter and Enno were having their third this-time-for-sure Final Dance Battle of X786. Bickslow, Cana, and Laki drank together, laughing and cheering on the competitors. Erza and Laxus were drinking as well, but they hung their heads, gray shadows seeming to cling to them as they drowned their sorrows. Goodness, they hate losing, Lisanna noted. Master Makarov was already passed out amidst several mugs, and Lisanna draped a small blanket over him as she went past. Reedus, surprising no one, was painting the scene for posterity.

That brought Lisanna's attention to Team Starburst, who were whispering among themselves in a corner. Every once in a while, one of them (usually Meredy) craned their neck to check in on their leader. Jellal was out on the balcony, still staring at Mercurius. What do you sense out there, nii-san? Lisanna wondered, teeth worrying at her lower lip.

The girlfriend-lifting contest apparently at an end, Ultear teleported to her feet and huffed at Gray. "Stop acting like it's the end of the world, frost-butt," she snapped, and Gray fell over, his shirt flying across the room. Juvia quivered. Honestly, Juvia, you have enough of them, Lisanna thought. "You, Natsu, and Gajeel all got to fight. You didn't even lose your duel."

"Yeah, but I came in fourth in that ridiculous race." Gray let his forehead fall to the bartop. "Who rides giant squirrels, anyway?"

"Rufus Lore, apparently," Mira-nee replied with a smile. "I'm more curious about how His Majesty was able to acquire giant squirrels." Lisanna carefully didn't glance at Master Makarov.

Natsu sighed. "Well, if I had to lose, at least it was because of a promise."

"Aye sir," Happy agreed, perking up a little.

Lucy grinned, and Lisanna couldn’t help but join in, remembering Sting's Exceed partner bawling when the Light Dragon Slayer declared the victory Lector's. He's so adorable, the angel-wizard mused, walking over to Natsu. "Aw, that's sweet. Don't worry, though, I'm sure you'll win next year." She kissed him on the cheek.

Natsu blinked, then sat bolt upright. Lisanna yelped and jumped back, Lucy sat up, and both women realized that the Salamander's hair was literally on fire. "Natsu! Your head!" Lucy cried, pointing at the growing flames.

After one brief look at Lisanna, which left the Heaven Soul wizard gasping, Natsu ran for the balcony. "Natsu!" Lisanna cried, and she, Lucy, Gray, Erza, Happy, Mirajane, and Gajeel of all people gave chase. Jellal yelped and darted aside when Natsu leapt onto the balcony railing. The whole crowd chasing him came to a halt when crimson dragon wings tore through his shirt. Salamander leaped into the air, flying across Crocus with the ease of someone who'd been doing it all his life.

For a few seconds, they all stared after the dwindling Natsu, eyes round and jaws dropped. Jellal sighed and held his forehead. "I'll go after him. Meteor." With that, he shot after the transformed Dragon Slayer.

"Not alone, you're not," Lucy promised. "Star Dress: Gemini!" With that, she transformed into the two-toned outfit and chased after the duo through the air. Wait for me! Lisanna worried, transforming into her Heaven Soul and racing to her friend's side. "Are you okay?" Lucy asked.

"Me?" Lisanna yelped, wobbling in the air. "I'm just worried about Natsu!" Lucy shrugged and nodded. In moments they found themselves circling over a rocky outcropping well outside the city. Natsu's hair was no longer on fire, but the flames rippled across his arms and new wings. He'd dug his hands into the ground, body shaking just enough to notice.

Jellal was sitting on a rock across from the Dragon Slayer, hands clasped. "It's okay, Natsu. I don't have anyplace else to be right now. Whenever you're ready to talk about it, I'll be right here." Lucy grimaced while Lisanna gulped. Zen, Natsu, what did I do to you? She glanced around, wondering where Happy was, only to find him circling in a wider arc, Carla holding his paw in hers.

"It doesn't make any sense," Natsu rasped, flames flickering around his lips. "Lisanna and I have been friends just about forever. We hatched Happy together. Fought Phantom Lord and the Oracion Seis. She's nakama. This doesn't make sense!" His roar sent Lucy and Lisanna spiraling back, a plume of fire soaring into the night sky.

"You want her," Jellal said, voice calm and even. "You want to hold her, kiss her, protect her. Maybe, you even feel like you don't want to ever let go." He chuckled. "You had to hit puberty sooner or later." Jellal straightened at the glare Natsu shot at him. "Sorry. It's more than just desire, isn't it? It's a need, like food, like air." Lisanna felt a little like she was on fire herself. Gods, Jellal, even Natsu wouldn't just be that much in love with me all at once–

Natsu's glare vanished, and the Salamander leaped to his feet. "How did you know?" Lisanna nearly fell out of the sky in shock.

"Well, I've been reading a lot about dragon culture, what we know about their life cycle, that sort of thing. Most ancient writers agreed that dragons mate for life. It's something about their magic, the way dragon energy connects them to those they love. More importantly, I've felt something like that need for Erza from the day I met her." Jellal shrugged. "You and Lisanna have been dancing around each other for years. All you needed was a spark."

"But it's like you always say about Erza, she belongs to herself, and I want – I need – no, even those words aren't right! She's mine, I know it like I know my own flame, but she can't be!" Natsu clutched his head in both hands. Lucy and Lisanna gasped in perfect time as they saw trickles of blood from where new claws had scratched him. "I can't hurt her, but it feels like I'm gonna no matter what I do! It doesn't make sense!" Lisanna nearly dove to his side, but some instinct made her hesitate. Let Jellal finish, she told herself.

Jellal sighed and stood. "Love never does," he explained. "Some people say it’s like magic, but I think that's backwards. Love came first, and it doesn't care about rules." He walked over, and Natsu's flames parted to allow the Starburst's hand to rest on the Dragon Slayer's shoulder. "How does your fire burn? What does it burn? Why can it roar through the air with no fuel but your power? Science tells us that fire is a reaction within specific objects due to specific reasons. In magic, fire is a force, an element, and you can scoop it up in your hands and eat it. Why?" Jellal shrugged. "I don't have the slightest idea, and I know a lot about magic."

"What does that have to do with...with..." Natsu waved in the direction of the inn.

"I am free," Jellal said. "I belong to Erza. I belong to Fairy Tail." Natsu straightened, eyes brightening. The wings slowly retracted into his back. "You carve your own path more than anyone I've ever known, but you'd be a Fairy Tail wizard if the guild disappeared from the world. You belong to yourself, and your family, and your team. And Lisanna. Magic is made of contradictions and paradoxes and impossibilities. It learned all that from love, I think." Jellal put a hand on Natsu's shoulder and gave him a gentle shake. "And this is both. I don't think this magic could betray you. If you feel this way, then Lisanna loves you as much as you love her, and she knows she is yours as much as you know you're hers. Trust this, and her."

Natsu's wings had vanished again, his fires extinguished. He rubbed the back of his neck, pouted, and looked away. "I guess...nope, still don't get it." Jellal facefaulted straight into the ground. Lucy and Lisanna giggled, and Natsu looked up and yelped, backpedaling until he tripped over a rock and fell on his back.

Lisanna circled down to land and helped Natsu back up. Lucy soared over to Jellal and gently pulled him aside. "Do you trust me, Natsu?" the Take Over wizard asked.

Natsu blinked. "Of course I do!" he insisted.

With slow, deliberate care, Lisanna put her hands on his cheeks, then kissed Natsu on the lips. For a moment, Natsu seemed frozen, as though paralyzed. Oh gods, I didn't screw this up, did I? Lisanna worried.

Then he threw his arms around her and kissed her back. Lisanna relaxed, holding him and enjoying the moment. When they let go, Natsu looked away, eyes darting in every direction but her. "I, uh, we, wow," he mumbled, rubbing the back of his neck. Then he looked up, his wide smile sheepish. "I didn't do too bad, did I?"

"You did fine," Lisanna replied, then paused. Wait, what would nee-san say? Feeling just a touch wicked, she let her smile take on a Mira-esque twist. "I'm sure we'll both get better with practice."

"Aye SIR!" Happy cheered from above. Carla dope-slapped the tomcat, nearly knocking him out of the air. Again, Lisanna couldn't help a giggle. I don't think I've ever seen Natsu blush before, she realized.

Chapter Text

Earthland-1, Crocus, X791: Ultear

"Something's wrong," Jellal grumbled, staring at Ultear's orb so intently the time mage feared he'd shatter it. "The energies surrounding their Grand Magic Games are not quite the same as those in our universe."

Meredy blinked at their guild master. "Really? I don't sense any difference."

"It's subtle, but distinct," Jellal explained. "More importantly, it's new for them. The added presence wasn't there in 785, but intertwined itself with the Zeref magic in 786." He tapped the crystal with one finger. "Team Starburst has already fought most of the same Dark Guilds we tracked down, and this doesn't feel like Death's Head Caucus. I don't like it."

Ultear nodded. You need more human interaction anyway, she thought, but merely said, "They could use our help, and this might aid our own investigation."

For a moment, Ultear was afraid that Jellal would argue. Fortunately, he nodded after only a brief pause. "Agreed. So long as we're back before Fairy Tail's return, this is a win-win situation."

"Road trip!" Meredy cheered. "No having to hide under cloaks all the time yay!"

"Well, you don't," Jellal explained. "Ultear and I are virtually identical to our counterparts. She would raise too many questions, and most on their world would likely mistake me for Siegrain."

Ultear couldn't help a chuckle as Meredy pouted. "Don't worry, Meredy. I'm skilled with Transformation Magic, and Jellal...we'll think of something."

Chapter Text

Volume Twenty-One: High Stakes

Earthland-2, Crocus, X787: Gray

"So we've gotta compete in preliminaries this year?" Gajeel asked, peering at the rules pamplet Erza was poring over. They'd taken over their usual inn, the Honeybone, and filled the bar from wall to wall with excited wizards. Gray smiled at the memory of his reunion with Pause Lightless – all the stranger for the paper wizard not having changed his bizarre name over the years. He seems really happy in Phoenix Grave. I almost hope we get to fight, weird as that would feel.

"Yes, but each guild is permitted to field two teams in compensation," Erza replied. Master Makarov wilted. Natsu and Lucy stared at him, but Gray only chuckled. He probably wanted to surprise us with that. He looked at Jellal, who was chatting with Ultear about something. He looked completely unconcerned with the Games. That's Jellal for you.

"Looks like were goin' head to head, Salamander," Gajeel quipped, grinning at flame-brain. "You better be ready."

Natsu grinned back. "We're not gonna show you any mercy! I don't hold back in a competition!"

"Mm, mm," Erza agreed with a nod.

"Team Starburst isn't competing," Jellal insisted, and both teams stared at him with round eyes – except for Meredy, whose arm was still in a sling. "We're short a member."

"I-I'm sure Pantherlily can fill in for me," Meredy whispered, eyes fixed on the floor.

Gajeel whirled on their team leader. "Don't talk like that, Blue!" he roared. "We can't let those jerks in Demon Guard keep us down!"

Even Jellal couldn't help a chuckle at that. "The 'Demon Guard jerks' are going to be in Black Vox for a long time. Cult Buster can always compete." He glanced towards Mercurius. "Besides, we have our own concerns here."

"Oh no you don't," Ultear insisted, her teammates nodding in unison. "For your information, we voted unanimously to investigate the situation here so you wouldn't have to. Starburst is competing."

Laxus nodded and walked over. "I wasn't gonna take one of your teammates' places," he added, slinging an arm around a wide-eyed Jellal's shoulders, "but the Thunder Tribe's only got four members, and besides, Bickslow got hit with a flash-bang spell while we were digging out Succubus Eye with Sabertooth. I'll fill in your empty slot."

Gray's jaw dropped, in almost perfect time with Lucy's. Wendy gulped. Erza and Natsu, on the other hand, both smiled. I don't know which one's crazier! Gray thought, looking over the new Team Starburst while flame-brain laughed. Jellal, Mira, and Laxus on the same team again? Don't either of them remember the first Games? Proving he didn't, Natsu pointed right at the Lightning Dragon Slayer. "Fight me, Laxus!" he demanded. Gray facepalmed.

Laxus' smile at Natsu was friendly. "They're having people vote for match-ups this year. Maybe you could lobby for one."

"All right!" Makarov cried, leaping to his feet. "Let's get out there and claim those 25 mi – I mean, take back the cup, for the pride of Fairy Tail!" The whole guild cheered.

Jellal smirked. That looks weird on him, Gray noted. "Actually, they raised the award to 30 million Jewel, Master," the star mage corrected. Makarov facefaulted into the table he stood on, nearly cracking it in half. Gray couldn't help but laugh at that.

Someone knocked at the bar's front door – they're certainly not Fairy Tail, then, Gray realized – and then Sabertooth's team strode in, along with Minerva, who was once again their guild master. They had a new member, a white-haired girl younger than Wendy. She looks familiar, somehow, Gray thought, then noticed Wally smiling at her. "Greetings, Fairy Tail," Minerva said, bowing. The others waved, except for Rogue, who nodded to Erza and carefully didn't look at Gajeel. Ultear smiled and waved back.

Erza stomped one foot in their direction, summoning a sword and pointing it at Sabertooth. "Orlando! I challenge you to a rematch!" she demanded.

"I am sorry, Lady Erza. Now that I am once again Master of Sabertooth, it would not be proper for me to participate, let alone battle a combatant before the Games," Minerva replied, straightening. Her smile was soft, almost gentle. "If you insist, though, we can duel again afterward."

"I do," Erza retorted, eyes narrowed. "While I am glad that you fought with such passion last year, I must wonder why you were so determined to win." Ultear, strangely, chuckled.

Jellal smiled, and Erza glared at him. Oh, for – Erza, calm down, Gray thought, but wasn't stupid enough to say it aloud. "It is curious. While the Twin Dragons had their own reasons for wanting to defeat Natsu and Gajeel, you seemed to want to win more than anyone who competed last year," the Starburst noted. "Yet I sensed nothing but love and gratitude from you the whole time." That defused Erza's wrath, and she whirled from Jellal back to Minerva, blinking.

Minerva shrugged. "I could not imagine how to thank Fairy Tail for all you'd done, not just for me, but for my guild," she explained. "Even with the destruction that follows some of your wizards, you are the most successful guild in Fiore, maybe all of Ishgar. No mere object would suffice. So I thought to gift you with a goal, instead." Her smile beamed past a single rolling tear. "What could your guild want more than a new challenge to overcome, and a prize to win back?"

Erza's jaw dropped. Then, an instant later, she was hugging Minerva. "That's wonderful!" Titania gushed. Then she leaped back and pointed at Rufus. "Do not underestimate Fairy Tail, Sabertooth. This year, we will triumph!"

"Perhaps," Rufus replied, his eyes flickering from Erza to Jellal and back, "but which Fairy Tail? I have no memory of anything like this." The Devil Slayer groaned as the two teams started bickering, while Erza and Jellal sighed in one voice. That is a really good question, Gray decided.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Crocus, X787: Gajeel

"You're sure you'll be all right," the Iron Dragon Slayer said, looking Merry over. I can still smell that wound, he thought with a grimace. I don't like it.

Meredy, of course, just laughed. "Get moving, Gajeel," she retorted, "or they're going to start the Sky Labyrinth without you."

Gajeel grunted and used Iron Club legs to leap to the Honeybone's shed, where he found the rest of Team Starburst. Jellal was looking over the maze with his usual intensity, while Laxus seemed ready to fall asleep. "Oi, Sparky!" Gajeel barked. "Pay attention!"

"I'm right here, you know," Laxus replied, opening one eye just enough to look at Gajeel. The blond wizard smirked. Why, you... Steel scales covered Gajeel's fist.

"Please, Gajeel," Juvia jumped in, putting her hands on her teammate's arm. "We have to work together." Laxus' smile grew. Gajeel snorted and sighed, unclenching his fist.

Then Jellal glared at Mercurius again, and even Mirajane pouted at him. Gajeel whirled on their leader. "For cryin' out loud, Blue! Cult Buster's on the case, will ya let it go for once?"

"Wendy," Jellal breathed, and all thought of fighting his teammate fled Gajeel's mind. "I'll be right back." He crouched.

"Hey, wait a sec–" Gajeel began, grabbing the back of his blue duster.

"Meteor," Jellal chanted, and the world turned into a blur of indigo as the night sky whirled in the distance. Gajeel screamed and grabbed hold of the duster with both hands. Literally one second later, they landed next to Wendy, who shook where she stood. "Wendy, speak to me."

"Jellal...nii?" Wendy breathed, holding her head. "I feel...weird...Carla?"

Gajeel struggled to his feet, looking around to find Carla rubbing her eyes and blinking. "I'm here, Wendy," the Exceed replied. "You must have scared off that strange creature, Jellal."

"Oi, Princess, I'm standing right here!" Gajeel objected.

Carla grinned up at him and crossed her arms. "You were screaming like Wendy did when she was seven." Jellal clamped his hand over his mouth and shook, turning away. Gajeel felt like he was going to explode from outrage. "Oh, stop being such a boy. We're grateful for your help. Give us a few minutes to recover our magic, and I'll fly Wendy back to the Honeybone."

Gajeel snorted with dragon's fury. "Don't know why you get to wait at the inn while we have to camp out on the storage shed roof," he complained.

Blue shook his head. "Don't worry, you two. I'll carry you back to the Honeybone. Gajeel, grab hold again." Gajeel paled, but obeyed. Don't wanna look like a cowar–

"Meteor." Again, they shot through the air, and Gajeel clamped his jaw shut to keep from screaming again. It's just like Pantherli–

Jellal landed on the balcony where Erza's team was camped. Gajeel went sprawling across the floor, sliding right at Happy. The Exceed yelped and flew to Salamander's shoulder just as Gajeel skidded to a halt at the Dragon Slayer's feet. Natsu started to lean over, then looked up and stared at Wendy, eyes bulging for a moment before narrowing to furious slits. "Wendy!" He ran over Gajeel – literally, planting one foot on the outraged metal mage's back – and rushed to their little sister's side. "Are you okay?"

"Yes, thanks to Jellal-nii," she explained, leaping from Jellal's cradling arms to Lucy's side. "A small monster attacked us."

Carla nodded, and Happy took the moment to dart to her side. "It was draining us of magic. If Jellal had arrived even a second later, we would have been in real danger." Happy's jaw dropped, and he threw his arms around Carla, sniffling. "We're fine, Happy," she insisted, patting his back. Gajeel couldn't hold onto his anger when the Exceed princess smiled.

"I can restore their energy, given a few minutes," Jellal said, "if you–"

Erza grabbed him by that stupid coat and kissed him, hard. Hope they didn't chip any teeth, Gajeel thought, chuckling as he stood. After she let him go, Titania blushed and requipped from her Heart Kreuz pajamas to her basic armor. "You've given enough," she insisted. "I will restore her with my Wind God Armor. Take Gajeel and rejoin your team." Her smile grew an edge sharper than any of her blades. "I won't permit our victory to come at the expense of your kindness, Jellal. Fairy Tail Team A will emerge triumphant in honest battle."

"Good luck with that," Gajeel laughed. "Gee-hee!"

"Watch yourselves," Jellal replied, grimacing as he grabbed Gajeel's own coat. The Dragon Slayer's grin vanished. "Someone isn't feeling as honorable as you. Meteor." Oh crap–

Zip! Back to the roof. Laxus and Mira were floating, lightning gathered around Blondie's feet while Mirajane spread her wings, dark energy flowing beneath them. Juvia had turned the lower half of her body into water. Laxus glared at Jellal. "Well? Are Wendy and Carla okay?"

"Mm, mm," Jellal assured them, and all three relaxed. He let go of Gajeel, who dropped to his hands and knees and managed to not kiss the roof in relief. It was a near thing. "I'm glad I drew those alarm seals around the city. A strange creature was draining their magic."

Laxus's glare turned into a snarl, and he glared at the royal palace. "Someone's attacking Fairy Tail? That's something we can't allow to stand."

"I've already alerted the rest of the guild," Jellal replied. "Master Makarov has Cult Buster and the Thunder Tribe on the case." He smiled and shook his head. "Shadow Gear's helping Cult Buster...and Elfman and Lisanna are with the Thunder Tribe." Laxus's jaw dropped. Mira just smiled, while Juvia laughed.

"I'm sure Elfy and Evergreen will focus on the threat," Mirajane insisted. "For now, at least." Gajeel groaned. Yeah, well, I'm not sure at all.

The clock struck midnight. The shed grew straight up, thrusting them into the air, and a stone staircase formed in front of them. It led to a massive sphere of clockwork paths and staircases, all set around some fantasy land in the center. Jellal waved them onward. "We'll rely on our guild to solve this mystery. For now, the others are counting on us to remind Fiore what we're made of!"

"Aye SIR!" the team cheered. Yeah, let's do this thing! We're gonna win this for Fairy Tail! Gajeel's smile grew. Sticking it to Salamander and his team is just a bonus. Gee-hee!

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, West Woods, X787: Mirajane

"Thank you for meeting us...Fairy Tail." The four figures, cloaked in forest green, removed their hoods. Mira gasped as she recognized them – Azuma (the one who'd addressed them), Araña, Erigor, and Imitatia. Araña waved to Meredy, who beamed back. Mirajane glanced at Imitatia, who had turned an oddly shy look on Lucy.

The Demon rose within Mira, and she darted to Lucy's side. "She's taken," Mirajane growled.

Imitatia squealed and leaped back. "I-it's not like that, I swear! Lucy's my big sister. Sort of..." Lucy gaped while Azuma chuckled. "Master Azuma and Lord Brain created me from a doll she owned as a girl. Brain had intended to use me in one of his elaborate plots, but when he lost his grip on the Prayers, Hades ordered me converted into a battle construct."

"G-Gonzales?" Lucy gasped. Both women burst into tears and threw themselves into a hug. The Demon receded. Aw, how adorable.

Azuma chuckled. "Michelle has been looking forward to this for some time." He nodded to Mirajane. "Though we have not achieved the heights of our counterparts in Earthland One, I assure you that Crime Sorciere has been hard at work fighting Dark Guilds, ensuring that other wizards do not fall into the darkness that claimed us."

"That's wonderful," Mira replied, clasping her hands. I knew they had good hearts.

Gajeel and Natsu narrowed their eyes, sniffing the air. "Yeah, that's great and all," Natsu rumbled, eyeing Erigor warily, "but what are you doing here?"

"The same thing we are," Jellal-1 replied. The gathered Fairy Tail wizards gasped as the more familiar blue cloaks approached, this time bearing the familiar counterparts to Jellal, Ultear, and Meredy. Their hoods were already down. "We have sensed dark energies around our Grand Magic Games for the last six years."

"Though we have never been able to track down the source of this energy," Ultear-1 continued, "we thought to help you, and our Sorciere cousins, unravel the mystery here. In the process, we may learn the truth behind the threat in our own world."

Jellal-2 frowned. "There may be a problem with that. The energies changed last year. I'm not sure how."

"Necromancy," Erigor explained. Everyone except his teammates turned to him in surprise. "Though I do not use its spells myself, shrouding myself in the mystique of the Reaper made me sensitive to death magic. Someone began using necromancy around Crocus last year. They started again during the elimination round." He shook his head. "The problem is, I'm not picking up the magic itself, just its aftereffects. It's weird."

A chill ran through Mirajane. "But why?" she asked, hands clasped. "What is it about the Grand Magic Games that makes them useful to Dark Wizards?"

"I only have a theory," Azuma replied, "but there are two possibilities we've thought of. One, all the magic expended to run the Games could hide a powerful ritual from those not scarred by Malice."

"That sounds bad," Gajeel whispered.

Azuma nodded. "Alas, the other is worse. Part of the way the royal family fuels the lacrima for the Games is by absorbing the expended energies of the contestants. If someone were to tap into that energy, with most of Ishgar's mightiest wizards competing for wealth and glory..."

"There are security measures," Jellal-2 insisted. "I consulted on them last year. Even Daphne and Brain together would have trouble penetrating those defenses, and Grimoire Heart hasn't come near Ishgar for three years."

"Don't underestimate the power of Malice," Araña insisted with a trembling fist. "It starts as a balm, but it becomes a fury, an obsession..."

"It consumes all you were," Jellal-1 finished, hood sliding over his head of its own accord. Their Erza glanced at him, deflating with a sigh. "Right now, that doesn't matter. Whatever evil is taking place here, we will help you put a stop to it."

"Meredy and I can easily disguise ourselves," Ultear-1 explained, transforming into a willowy brunette, "but you have experience with Jellal's resistance to transformation magic. With ours, it extends to illusions as well, I'm afraid. Make-up works for a short while..."

Ultear-1 trailed off as Laxus smiled. Mirajane raised an eyebrow at him. "Do you have something in mind, Laxus?" Mira asked.

"Well," Laxus replied, rubbing his chin, "this isn't the first time Fairy Tail's hidden a member who looks exactly like Jellal, is it?" Mirajane lit up. Oh! Of course!

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Crocus, X787: Laxus

"I'm fighting Jura?" Laxus rumbled. "Damn it, I wanted a shot at Raven Tail!"

"Look at it this way," Mirajane said, turning her sweetest smile at him. "Who else could defeat him?"

"Jellal," Laxus, Gajeel, and Juvia said in unison. Jellal's jaw went slack. Mirajane wept short rivers of tears, and the former Phantom Lord mages tried to console her to no avail. Laxus couldn't help a wan smile. Oh, Mira. Don't ever change.

Outside, the crowd was cheering with wild abandon. In their darkened corridor, it seemed to come from another world. "Those creeps cheated against Gray, Juvia, and Lucy," Laxus rumbled, smile vanishing. "We gotta make them pay."

"Later," Jellal noted. "They shouldn’t be able to interfere with your match, at least. Focus on Jura. Fairy Tail needs a win." He glanced up at where the rest of the guild was cheering Laxus on. "Master Makarov seems to want the money more than usual this year. Doma's been laying on the fines pretty thick. Maybe there's something the Master’s not telling us."

"Hmph." Laxus shrugged off his jacket and handed it to Jellal. Blue's too smart for his own good. I gotta tell Gramps he's starting to figure it out, the lightning mage thought. "Don't worry. I'll be enough." He strode out to find Jura waiting for him. If we win this, though, it won't matter. 30 million Jewels will cover our debt with money to spare. They nodded to one another, then moved into position. Jura prepared himself with Iron Mountain Form, while Laxus kept his own stance loose and flexible.

The gong ran out. Laxus wasted no time, transforming into a thunderbolt and blasting straight at Jura. The Wizard Saint formed a stone wall with amazing speed, forcing Laxus to race around his opponent. Jura directed gauntlets of rock and iron at him, but Laxus was too fast for those. Can't let him ground me, that's probably his plan. Giving up on blitzing the Lamia wizard with pure speed, Laxus flew overhead and raised his arms for a double-handed smash. "Lightning Dragon Jaw!"

"Rock Mountain!" Jura chanted. A stone giant formed over Laxus' target, and his attack struck the elemental warrior instead. The figure exploded, throwing both combatants back.

A wave of weakness struck the lightning wizard as he slid to a halt. What...the... He shook it off, forcing himself to focus on his opponent. In the distance, he caught Jellal and Mira race across the coliseum. Jura stepped back, moving into a defensive posture. "Are you all right, Laxus?"

Laxus snarled at the Lamia wizard. "Don't you dare hold back! I am your opponent." With that, he charged at Jura with all his power and skill. "Lightning Dragon Iron Fist!"

Jura parried the blow with a stone-covered palm. "I believe this unwise, but I will not dishonor so brave a challenger. Rumbling Mount Fuji!" The earth trembled beneath Laxus. What's a Fuji?

The explosion slammed Laxus into the air with a force he'd only felt surpassed once before – and that was by Acnologia itself. Worse, the feeling of weakness hit him again, this time twice as fierce. As the world spun around him and darkness crept in, he cursed his folly. Jura tried to warn me. It was probably him...

...Ivan...Father...damn you to Grim...

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Crocus, X787: Juvia

"No, Gajeel," Jellal insisted.

"Natsu's competing!" Gajeel roared. Juvia shook her head, though she couldn't help a smile. "I ain't gonna let that pass!"

Jellal sighed. "You've developed the same motion sickness that Natsu and Laxus have." Laxus snorted a few sparks. Pantherlily sighed. "Even Wendy's been showing signs of it as she's matured."

"She's more mature than Gajeel already," Pantherlily cut in, grinning. "Gee hee." Juvia hid her smile behind a politely raised hand. Say nothing, the water mage told herself.

Gajeel rounded on the Exceed. "Whose side are you on, anyway?"

"Gajeel, you are not representing this team in a contest titled 'Chariot,' and that's final." Jellal folded his arms. "Erza's probably saying the same thing to Natsu right now."

"I'll compete," Mirajane added. "Don't worry, Jellal, I'll do my best!" Jellal nodded while Gajeel all but threw himself against the wall, arms folded. Juvia sighed. Please behave, Gajeel, the water mage prayed.

"If you want to help, join the teams on patrol for skulduggery," Jellal suggested, fingertips pressed to his forehead. "Raven Tail's clearly up to something." As one, Gajeel and Jellal looked up at the score board:

  1. Sabertooth - 20
  2. Raven Tail - 18
  3. Lamia Scale - 16
  4. Phoenix Grave - 13
  5. Blue Pegasus - 4
  6. Quatro Cerberus - 2
  7. Fairy Tail B - 1
  8. Fairy Tail A - 0

"I gotta say, I wouldn't mind fighting that Phoenix lady," Gajeel admitted, remembering the requip mage's victory. "She looks almost as powerful as Erza, and she smoked Ren like a side of beef."

Laxus chuckled, showing his first smile since the previous day's defeat. "That Dyst guy's not satisfied with copying your look and magic, Jellal. He had to find a hot Requip knight, too," the lightning wizard quipped. Jellal's jaw dropped again, his eyes round and blank. "Relax, Blue. We've got Cult Buster, the Thunder Tribe, Shadow Gear, and half the guild's floaters out there looking for Raven droppings. We'll nail my old man this time, don't you worry."

"I dunno," Gajeel rumbled. "Even with everything I've learned about his 'anti-Fairy-Tail' team, they're dangerous. Besides, this Alexei is trouble. He doesn't trust me, which makes sense, but there's more to it than that. I've never seen his real face." He shook his head. "Even I think that's paranoid."

"I'm more concerned about this Black Snake character," Jellal whispered, eyes locked onto the Raven Tail wizard. "I think we've faced him before, but I can't remember when."

"Is Juvia the only one who sees something familiar about Alexei?" Juvia asked, hands on her hips as she glared at Raven Tail. "He is cold and cruel, like rain that does not water the soil."

"Never thought I'd miss you being crazy over Gray, Juvia," Gajeel muttered.

All at once, Juvia felt as though black clouds had formed over her world. This feeling...it's like the sun going away. Like someone wants to steal it, from all of us. She shook her head, unable to drive the feeling away completely, but Juvia was able to hold it at bay enough to watch the Chariot competition. Jellal got blank-eyes again when he discovered that Natsu was competing, and doing about as well as expected. Looks like young Sting has the same problem, Juvia realized, smiling at Gajeel. The Iron Dragon Slayer scowled and looked away.

Somehow, Bacchus was able to squeak ahead of Mirajane, though the Take Over wizard managed second place with ease. Once the others had finished the race, the score read:

  1. Raven Tail - 24
  2. Sabertooth - 20
  3. Lamia Scale - 19
  4. Phoenix Grave - 17
  5. Quatro Cerberus - 12
  6. Fairy Tail B - 9
  7. Blue Pegasus - 6
  8. Fairy Tail A - 1

Black Snake immediately had to face Sherry afterward, but his sand magic tore apart her combat dolls, and the other guilds watched in helpless fury as he tossed her around with vicious glee. He is prolonging the duel on purpose! Juvia realized, her outrage forming small tempests around her fists. The Raven wizard has won, but is enjoying her suffering –

Lyon darted onto the field, causing Lamia Scale to forfeit. Black Snake hissed at the Ice God Slayer, but Lyon simply planted his fist in his palm. "Try it, snake boy. I'd love to make you a sandwich." Ivan recalled the wizard with a wave, and Raven Tail extended its lead to no one's pleasure but theirs.

"The next match is...Jenny Realight vs. Juvia Lockser!" Juvia gasped. That's me! she realized, racing onto the field. Jenny, on the other hand, walked into the arena as though striding down a model's runway. Is she that confident? Juvia wondered, quickly going over Jellal's files on their potential opponents in her mind. Machina Soul, combined with high-end armor, weapons, sensors, and vehicle systems. Other parts too, but Juvia shouldn't have to worry about those in a duel. The important part is, she's very good at seeming dim and harmless, when she's not either at all.

Jenny leaned over, striking a pose that had over half the audience gawking. "Say, Juvia, you've got some experience with showing off your beauty, right?" the Pegasus wizard asked. "Maybe we could turn this into a pin-up contest instead of some dirty brawl."

"Juvia is not interested in pandering to such interests," she retorted, transforming her hands into liquid. "If Jenny is afraid of an honest duel, she can surrender now."

The model act vanished in an instant as Jenny straightened, spluttering. "What – afraid – Take Over: Machina Soul!" she chanted, transforming into a beautiful robot-woman clad in red, white, and black. "Let's see if a fairy's wings are any match for the Pegasus!"

The gong rang out. "Water Slicer!" Juvia chanted, her arcs flashing out at Realight.

"Repulsor!" Jenny countered, bursts of force slicing out from her palms. Jenny's magic disrupted Water Slicer, even sending reverberations through Juvia that made her water form dizzy. She cannot truly harm Juvia, the water mage realized, but Jenny could still win the duel. Juvia must not lose! Team Starlight – and Gray-sama – are counting on me!

With a surge of speed, Juvia swirled around the Blue Pegasus wizard, becoming a quivering sphere. "Water Lock!"

Jenny chuckled, even underwater. "Do machines need to breathe, Juvia? Smart Burst!" The pouch-like squares on her hips released pulses that caused Water Lock to vibrate in irregular ways, threatening to burst the sphere.

Adapt, counter, stay on the offensive, she told herself, remembering Laxus' advice. Swirling off the cunning Take Over wizard, Juvia drew on her frustration at Raven Tail's cowardly attacks. "Any machine can be shut down. Sierra!" In a boiling wave, Juvia charged at Jenny, striking her with searing fury.

Jenny yelped and rocketed away, using force vents on her back and boots to retreat. Sierra was enough to keep up, but Realight's mobility made her difficult to hit. This is acceptable. She's on the defensive. That is where Juvia wants her. With that, the water wizard slashed out with liquid claws, grazing Jenny enough to throw her off balance.

"Don't underestimate a Blue Pegasus wizard. Unibeam!" Jenny chanted, and a ray of tremendous might erupted from the X across her midriff. The blast knocked Juvia out of the air, and she barely dodged the follow-up strafe by flowing in an irregular stream of flying liquid. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed one of Jellal's coliseum wards block a magic-draining spell.

I must end this quickly! Juvia decided, gathering all her magic for one decisive blow. Jenny's strange Unibeam spell swept across the arena, closing in on Juvia. She slid to a halt and threw out her hand. "Water Nebula!" she commanded.

Each combatant was struck by the other's spell at the same time. Unibeam sent Juvia flying across the arena as Water Nebula threw Jenny into the air. It was disorienting, being reduced to thousands of droplets, but it wasn't the first time Juvia had been forced to reform herself from an attack like that. I never thought I would be glad we fought Homunculus Soul.

With a supreme effort, the water mage took form and stood on quivering legs. Jenny fell to earth, her Take Over vanishing. For a moment, Juvia panted, watching her foe. Then Jenny extended one arm and summoned a small white flag. "You win," she admitted, letting her arm fall back down. Juvia let out a shameless squee, leaping for joy.

Gajeel, ever more considerate than he pretended, had a tall bottle of cold water for Juvia upon her return. She gulped it down with greedy abandon. "That's showin' 'em, Sunshine. Gee hee!" Juvia dimpled at the treasured nickname. "Was she tough?"

"Indeed," Juvia replied, collapsing into a chair Mirajane had somehow conjured. "Juvia would never have suspected that Jenny was so powerful if Jellal-dono hadn't prepared us."

Mirajane nodded. "That was an impressive victory, Juvia. Jenny is a powerful Take Over wizard. Machina Soul is a rare art, and with Hibiki helping her find the best equipment to absorb, she's quickly become one of Ishgar's secret weapons."

"Not so secret, anymore," Laxus pointed out. "Hey, did anyone catch who's fighting next? I think they announced–" Jellal shot past his team, coming to a shuddering halt at the railing. Laxus laughed. "Okay, so, Erza. Who's she fighting?"

"Bacchus," Jellal whispered. Juvia gulped in time with Gajeel, while Mira sweat-dropped. Laxus just laughed. "After Orga fried Warcry, he joined Quatro Cerberus' team."

"We know, Blue," Laxus sighed. "Relax. The Drunk Falcon may be sniffing after Erza, but he doesn't have Ichiya immunity. She'll crush him."

"Of course," Bacchus called out, and Juvia realized they'd missed some banter, "if you don't think you can handle me, I'll let your boyfriend fight for ya. As long as I get the same conditions as Perfume Nose, that is."

Jellal gripped the railing so tightly he shattered it in two places. Erza glared and waited until the gong rang out. "Requip!" she chanted. Bacchus tossed aside an empty bottle – oh no, he drank the whole thing! Juvia realized – and charged at her. Erza merely stood there, wearing...a short blue dress?

Titania shot into the air, flying overhead faster than Juvia could follow. "Is she really..." Jellal muttered, tracing her flight pattern with his gaze. Bacchus leaped at her, palms spinning towards the magic knight. Just as he was about to reach Erza, she darted at him with a fierce, barefoot dive. They tumbled earthward in a tangle of slaps and kicks, landing in the middle of an expanding golden glow. "...Mavis and Chronos, she is."

Just as Juvia's curiosity was about to overwhelm her patience, seven Cosmic Magic seals burst to life above them. "Be judged by the Seven Stars," Erza roared, leaping back, "Grand Chariot!" The spell's full, legendary fury descended on the Ace of Quatro Cerberus. For several seconds, the overwhelming light blinded the audience.

At last, the explosive spell faded, and Erza Requipped into her Black Wing Armor, blade at the ready. "The situation with Ichiya was a matter of honor. I fight my own battles, Drunken Turkey,” she quipped.

Bacchus staggered towards her. "Wild," he chuckled, racing at her in a stuttering rush.

Their fight lasted a few more minutes, Erza soaring over the field to take the occasional slash at Bacchus, while he leaped at her to try another palm blast. Then, after Bacchus’ latest leap ended with him rolling and propping himself up on one knee, Erza landed behind him, once more in the blue Celestial Armor.

Bacchus struggled to his feet, turned, and gaped at Titania. "Wiiild..." he rasped, taking one step towards her. Then he fell flat on his face. The Drunk Falcon burped, flopped onto his back, and passed out. Erza switched back to her day armor as the audience roared a cheer. She winked at a now-blushing Jellal, then returned to a storm of hugs from her team.

Laxus laughed again. "Grand Chariot nailed him," he explained. "Erza was just waiting for him to drop."

"That was a lot more than waiting," Gajeel muttered, grimacing at the arena.

The last duel was between the youngest member of Sabertooth, Sorano’s sister Yukino, and Pause Lightless, the paper wizard of Phoenix Grave. "Go, Yukino!" Lucy shouted, hands cupped around her mouth. "Show him our Celestial pride!" Yukino trembled, then nodded, eyes locked onto her opponent.

Gray scowled at Lucy, then leaned over the railing. "Don’t give her an inch, Pause! Let Fiore see what you’ve got!" Pause grinned and gave Gray a thumbs-up. That’s right, Mr. Pause is Gray-sama’s pen-pal, Juvia remembered. For the last time that day, the gong rang out.

A ripple of white lashed out at Yukino, but the summoner leaped aside and pulled out a golden key. Juvia gasped while Gajeel and Laxus stared, but Mirajane and Jellal merely smiled. Two giant fish, one white and one black, swam through the air at Pause. One slammed onto the paper trail, while the other tried to slap the Phoenix mage with its tail.

Pause blocked the attack with a wall of pages. Yukino pulled out a second golden key, and everyone gaped as she summoned a second Zodiac spirit, Libra. "That’s right, all twelve keys are here. I wonder if that’s important," Jellal whispered. Pause, meanwhile, created a giant paper fisherman, complete with net. The crowd roared its approval.

For the next ten minutes, the battle raged. Yukino sent her Zodiac spirits at Pause with the cool command of a chess master, while Pause countered with origami constructs that were never the same twice. "What a battle!" Chapati cried, and Juvia realized with a start she’d been tuning him out until that moment. "These two youngsters may be giving us the most exciting showdown of this year’s Games!"

Libra’s Gravity Change slammed into a literal freight train of paper, the ensuing eruption throwing both wizards back. Pause gulped in air, recalling the paper to his book. There, it whirled and shifted, scraps swirling around the tome. Yukino wavered, eyes locked onto the Phoenix wizard. "You are truly skilled, Sir Pause," she said, and put the two golden keys away. Libra and Pisces vanished. "I almost regret this. To give any less than my all, however, would dishonor you, Sabertooth, and my sister."

Pause grinned back at her. "Don’t you dare hold back, Sabertooth. I sure won’t. Legend of Magic Kings!" He held up his grimoire, and from it erupted a dragon of folded paper, wings spreading wide. The massive beast roared at the heavens.

Yukino nodded and pulled out a golden key. Jellal gaped, jaw dropping. "Juvin? Why is she using one of the spirits she just released?" Juvia asked.

"She’s not," Jellal whispered. "Mavis and Chronos. She found it...somehow, she really found..."

"Open, Gate of the Snake Charmer. Ophiuchus." The skies darkened, and both Pause and his origami dragon stared open-mouthed at the titanic half-machine serpent filling the arena. Its coils rippled in curving waves, hinting at its need to compress itself just to fit in the coliseum. "Ragnarok Storm."

Pause pointed up at the gigantic creature, his command lost to the serpent’s roar, and his spell-beast flew valiantly at its foe. Ophiuchus bit it in half, then slammed the ground nine times with its coils. The entire coliseum rocked in spite of safeguards equal to those protecting the Magic Council. "In some constructions of the zodiac," Jellal explained in a whisper, still staring with wide eyes, "there is a thirteenth, hidden constellation. Occult. Arcane. The world serpent. Ophiuchus. It’s not supposed to be a true sign, but Yukino’s holding the proof in her hand."

Darkness consumed the coliseum for a moment, and when it passed, Yukino was standing there next to a statuesque warrior maiden covered in scales and steel. Pause wobbled, dropped his book, and fell. Gajeel chuckled. "I hope Cobra’s not watchin'. Kina'll get jealous. Gee hee!"

The crowd went wild. Juvia smiled. I feel bad for Gray-sama, she thought, but Miss Yukino earned that victory.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Crocus, X787: Cana

"Relax, sis. I’ve got you covered." Cana pulled Ultear-1 closer, her most mischievous grin spread across her face. The guild’s patron was tall, thin, and raven-haired, but Cana still felt a sister wrapped in her arm. I have got to get some drinks into this woman. She is way too uptight.

Ultear-1 sighed. "You do realize I’m not your sister, even considering my counterpart?" she explained. "The Gildarts of my world is not my father."

"Pfft." Cana dismissed the older Ultear’s argument with a wave of her hand. "Gray’s my brother, so figure that one out."

"The adopted son of the mother of your half-sister by your father," Ultear-1 rattled off without missing a beat. Cana crossed her arms and pouted, but Ul-1 just smiled. "Which, I suppose, proves your point."

Huh? Cana wondered. Wait, never mind, I’ll take it. She grinned again. "Exactly. You're a Crash Sister, like it or not. So why are you moping almost as bad as Jellal?"

"I am not moping," Ul-1 insisted. "Admittedly, I'm doing something largely unknown to Fairy Tail, called thinking, regarding the mystery here." She glanced at the guild's Jellal, who'd been pulled away from Mercurius-staring to celebrate the guild's victories alongside the rest of the two teams. "Though I must admit to being curious about our counterparts. I must admit to some surprise that there has been little relationship advancement given the circumstances."

Cana blinked, then laughed. "Hey, Erza, Ultear, Ul-one here hasn't seen your rocks!"

"Please don't cal – did you say rocks?" Ul-1 blurted. Wow. I guess they really haven't been watching us as much since Tenrou.

Ultear teleported to Cana's side, while Erza beamed a tipsy smile and leaped over, right hand extended. The gleaming miniature triptych of ruby, diamond, and sapphire left Ul-1 with a gasp and a smile. Ultear showed off a similar engagement ring with two diamonds set in a dusky titanium steel band. "How did we miss this?" Ul-1 asked, running one finger along Erza's gemstones.

"You were probably only watching for danger and stuff that might go wrong," Ultear replied, and Ul-1 nodded. "Well, there you go. The boys' proposals went without a hitch, so Erza and I are probably the two happiest ladies in Ishgar."

"Earthland," Erza corrected, her smile fierce even as her eyes glistened.

Cana gripped her forehead. "It's not a contest, Erza." She threw a lopsided grin Ul-1's way. "Blue – our Jellal – did it up right, with a play, a trip to the bakery, a moonlight gondola trip, and a picnic on the tallest hill outside Magnolia. Got down on one knee and everything."

"The whole guild came out to watch, of course," Erza chuckled. "I was afraid Jellal would faint on the spot."

Ultear smirked at her counterpart. "Simon proposed to me under much...naughtier circumstances. That way, we had some privacy." Her smile vanished as Ul-1 hid her expression beneath her hood. "Hey, none of that," Ultear insisted.

"Gray made S-Class in 785, and hasn't let any of us forget it since," Cana jumped in, and her sister flashed her a grateful nod. "Kagura succeeded last year. Natsu was really happy for them, but now he's so serious about making S-Class this year he's actually paying attention in Jellal's classes."

"I'm glad," Ul-1 replied, her face still covered in the shadow of her hood. "You should know that the S-Class contestants from our world's X784 should be emerging from Fairy Sphere soon. This may be the last time we're able to intercede."

"Maybe you could just, I dunno, stick around?" Cana asked. "It doesn't seem like your world appreciates you, and we'd be happy to have you."

Ul-1 chuckled. "That's very kind of you, but I still have people to help, Meredy loves our world, and Jellal – our Jellal – would never leave his Erza behind."

"Does...does she understand?" Erza asked, her own smile vanishing. She fiddled with her engagement ring, slowly turning it on her finger. "What happened with Jellal? And you?"

"No. I only emerged from the darkness on the very day they disappeared," Ul-1 explained. "Gray saved me from all my pain and blindness, and all I could do was watch as Tenrou vanished. It took two months more to plan Jellal's escape." She looked over at 'Mystogan,' who watched Crocus from the balcony. "His light has guided me ever since, even while he condemns himself as beyond redemption. I owe him more than I could possibly repay. I promise you, explaining the truth of 'his' evil will be the first thing I say to Fairy Tail."

"Nope, getting depressing again," Ultear interjected, wrapping arms around her sisters' shoulders. Ul-1 slumped in Cana's implacable hug. Cana just laughed. "Being professional will probably help. What's next?"

Ul-1 sighed. "None of us have been able to trace the death magic. At the moment, there is little more that we can do other than to continue our search pattern." She stood, rubbing her eyes. "It's been hard getting a lock on anything with my wizardry. There's a lot of Time Magic beneath the city."

"What, now?" Lucy asked, bounding over. Mirajane strolled after her, holding two glasses of wine and chuckling.

That elicited another smile from Ul-1. "Define 'now' when it comes to Time. The magical effects are ongoing, whatever they are. The point is, I can't look through the time stream to find the culprit. It's like trying to find a firefly in a fireworks display."

Mirajane laughed and handed Lucy one of the wine glasses. "Then I suppose we'll just have to do our best. Right?"

Before Ul-1 could respond, the rest of the guild cheered. "AYE SIR!" Ul-1 just shook her head. That's Fairy Tail for you, Cana thought with a laugh.

Chapter Text

Volume Twenty-Two: Low Blows

Earthland-2, Crocus, X787: Erza

"Oi, Erza, did anyone on your side know what 'Pandemonium' means?" Laxus asked as the contestants gathered. Jellal's wards glittered around the battlefield for all to see.

"Carla explained it. 'Abode of demons.' It's exciting, wouldn't you agree?" Erza replied, watching the gray towers rise from the arena floor with a gleam in her eyes. The citadel filled nearly the whole stadium, leaving just enough room for the contestants to gather before the entrance.

Ultear? Is something wrong? Erza blinked. "Jellal?" she whispered, looking over to Team B's gathering point.

That's...not right... Ultear's thoughts filtered through Jellal's. Erza realized an instant later that both had been the counterparts from Earthland-1. ...Pandemonium was supposed to descend from above, and it's too big, Ultear-1 explained.

Ultear, we've never seen this game before, Jellal-1 replied.

You're thought-leaking, Erza sent, and both visitors' minds echoed with alarm. I think I'm the only one who heard you, because I'm an Erza, but you have to be careful.

Only three people heard you – Erza, Ultear, and myself – Jellal-2 added, but she's right. If anyone else catches your thoughts, it could become a serious problem. Our Lahar isn't much better than yours.

I will not ask how you know that. Focus on the game, Ul-1 replied, voice cool with her iron control renewed. We will watch for interference.

"The rules of this game are simple, kabo," Mato explained, the little mascot doing a pirouette. "You will all enter the dark temple, where our magically-created monsters dwell." Examples appeared on a screen behind him, and even the little ones were metal hounds the size of tigers. Erza smiled again. This looks like fun! While she assessed their opponents, Mato showed them the numbers of each class of "demon" there would be among the thousand filling the haunted temple: 500 D-Class, 300 C-Class, 150 B-Class, 45 A-Class, and 5 S-Class, each exponentially stronger than the last.

Appropriately, they were worth variable numbers of points: one for Ds, five for Cs, ten for Bs, 20 for As, and 100 for the as-yet unseen S-Class monsters. "However! Be aware that even one S-Class monster is intended to be a match for a Wizard Saint!" Jura's expression became serious. Indeed. It seems as though the winner will be determined to a large degree by which of us can destroy the most S-Class monsters. All the same, we cannot neglect the smaller ones, lest a single point make the difference.

"You will all enter at the same time, kabo," Mato explained. "While you are not allowed to directly attack or restrain one another, you are permitted to use magic in an indirect manner to hinder opponents – distraction, obscuring, that sort of thing." Erza nodded. That adds a further strategic element while preventing the contest from becoming a simple brawl. Mato pointed at the temple. "Also, the only thing that matters for scoring is who delivers the final blow. All other damage is meaningless for purposes of the game, kabo."

"So kill-stealing is legal? Hmph," Laxus snorted. Erza chuckled. That's Laxus for you.

"Entirely, kabo," Mato grinned. "Finally, in the event of a tie, the mage who has defeated the most of the highest-class of monster will rank higher, or if that is the same, to the one who lasted longest."

"What if there is a tie between those who overcome Pandemonium?" Erza asked.

Mato gaped at her, his pumpkin-jaw dropping farther than humanly possible. "'Overcome?' I-it's designed so that all of you together could not defeat the whole temple, kabo!" He cleared his throat while most of the audience gaped. Laxus laughed while Jura smiled. "I suppose we would have to come up with another tie-breaker..." he shook his head, pushing the jaw back into place. "Ready?"

"Requip!" she and Kodi shouted as one. Erza switched to her Flight Armor, while Phoenix Grave's Coordinator swapped to Veronica Bunkworks' Silver Angel Armor. Erza smiled. Good choice. Force, resilience, mobility. It tells me, however, that you mean to rely on resilience more than speed at the outset.

The gong rang. All eight contestants charged in. Raven Tail's Obra managed to defeat a single D-Class monster before being knocked out by another one. A small teleportation circle extracted him. A small revenge, but a satisfying one all the same, Erza thought, flying into the largest knot of monsters she could find and Requipping into Heaven's Wheel. "Blumenblatt!" she chanted, and her blades flashed out. Laxus and Orga used their lightning speed to claim a few of her targets, but with over 70 D and C kills, she'd taken an early lead. In the distance, the crowd roared. The points will be useful, she noted, watching a damaged B-Class surge towards her, but the information is what's important. I now have a model for how they scale. She easily avoided the attack, switching to Black Wing and cutting it in half. In the distance, Cerberus' Nobarly fell to a B-Class monster, vanishing a moment later.

C-Class are fire element. B-Class are water element. A-Class are brawlers wielding raw strength. She Requipped back into Flight Armor, risking Perdition's weight for her weapon. Laxus can't recharge off of any of them, and the S-Class monsters are still hiding – probably in those ridiculous eye bodies. She charged into the crowd attacking Jura, using her speed to drive Perdition through several of his foes. Jura is my true opponent here. I must not allow him to use the temple itself to claim the highest score.

To his credit, Jura laughed. "You honor me, Titania!" he shouted above the din. "Though you should beware of inspiring your guildmate overmuch. I think he's taken your strategy as a challenge!" Erza Requipped into her Fire Empress Armor and darted through a pack of C-Class, then switched to Sea Empress for a trio of B-Class kills, then to Adamantine to tank an A-Class punch and let the creature destroy itself against her. He's right. Laxus is accelerating. Hibiki, in spite of all his caution, fell to an A-Class behemoth and disappeared. Only five of us now. I must draw out an S-Class monster, determine if they wield earth or lightning.

"Requip!" Erza switched to her Crimson Sakura blades, abandoning armor for the moment, and slashed at one of the eyes. It became a titanic horned beast with three eyeslits in its helmet, with the original eye in the torso. Ah. More than brute force, it wields raw magical power. Still, no Earth Magic, and no Lightning Magic. She smiled, swapping to Purgatory and Perdition. This contest is over.

The monstrosity was incredibly strong, but Erza was able to bring it low with three strikes to the central eye. The crowd's cheer was almost deafening, even through the walls and the din. If I can destroy a second S-Class monster, I will surely emerge victorious. She Requipped to her Giant Armor, leaping towards another A-Class opponent.

As she reached it, a wave of rippling purple energy surged through Pandemonium. De-Malevo pulsed in her hand, its holy might coming to life. That's not possible! Erza gasped, though she didn't hesitate to through the spear through the monster's chest. It exploded in a surge of the same dark power that had infected the temple. These monsters weren't truly evil before. They were merely simulacra. What has happened?

"Alert, all contestants," Kodi reported, a small orb appearing by Erza's helmet. "My Phoenix Reaper Armor has detected genuine demonic energy. Pandemonium has been possessed."

"Do not alert the audience," Jura commanded. "I am contacting the judges and Rune Knights at this very moment."

"Saint Jura, they're trying to get out of the temple," Orga warned.

Laxus laughed, blasting through another several monsters, including the entire remaining pool of D-Class. "Then the game is still on! The stakes are just higher."

Erza could hear Kodi grit her teeth. "This is unwise. Lives are at risk," the Coordinator insisted. Pride welled in Titania's chest. Such is Jellal's inspiration.

"Our guilds are helping the Rune Knights construct a barrier to protect the innocent," Jura assured her, "with abundant seals created by some of the greatest wizards alive. If the crowd learns the truth now, they could stampede, costing those lives. We will defend them best by continuing the contest."

"Mm, mm," Erza interjected. "Come, sister. Let us show our friends and foes the strength of our hearts!"

Another S-Class monster sprang at her, this one three times stronger than the last. They get stronger as each previous one is defeated? Erza wondered. No...this is the Malice's doing –

Runes bled from its mouth. Runes of shadow, and the color of dried blood. For just an instant, Erza froze, the memory of Jellal's agony swallowing all. Then Kodi was there, in Magno-Armor clearly inspired by her compatriot Cannon, between Erza and the Nemesis beast. "Tank Pulse!" she ordered, and the arm-length beam gun fired a blast right through the monster's torso-eye. "Head in the game, Titania."

This is truly shame! Erza scolded herself, holding out her arms. A rival has come to my rescue. I will not dishonor her effort! "Requip!" Titania roared, donning Armadura Fairy. Its twin blades radiated silvery light. She lashed out at it, destroying the arm it used to shield itself.

Behind her, Coordinator screamed. No! Erza whirled around to find the Nemesis runes crushing and strangling the Phoenix Grave wizard. Kodi made herself vulnerable in my defense – I must protect her! "Fairy Pulse!" Titania clapped the swords together, ringing them like bells. Her silver light flashed through the chamber, driving back the demon spell.

Kodi collapsed, magic spent, barely conscious. No magic spirited her away. The S-Class monster roared, then crouched to charge. "No! Fairy Storm!" Erza chanted, flying right at the beast. It charged at her, its lost arm replaced with a lash of dark magic. Somewhere, she felt her Jellal shudder with fury and terror.

She spun her blades in a whirlwind of destructive wrath. The monster screeched and exploded, the spells both artificial and demonic shattering in the face of her fury. A Rune Knight – Doranbolt, Erza recognized – appeared, scooped up Kodi, and vanished, all so quickly Erza nearly missed it. With a smile of relief, she charged through Pandemonium, smashing through walls if it was the quickest way to reach her foes. Where are the other S-Class monsters? Erza wondered, slashing through three As and seven Bs. If one of them corners any of the others –

Pandemonium flickered, became translucent, and vanished. Orga was holding up a fist, Laxus stomped to the sound of thunder, and Jura smiled over hands clapped together at his chest. Erza smiled in relief. I shouldn't have underestimated them. They already defeated the other three.

"Four wizards triumphed over Pandemonium!" Chapati cheered, and the crowd was completely berserk. "Four! And Phoenix Grave's Kodi nearly made it as well!"

"What a generation we're seeing," Yajima added, barely audible over the ongoing roar of the crowd. "Truly, we live in an age of heroes."

"Mm," Lahar demurred. Erza could picture him glaring at the battlefield, glasses glinting.

Mato waddled out, looking dazed. "L-Laxus got one more A-Class enemy than Orga, breaking the tie for third place," he muttered.

Laxus gaped at the pumpkin-man, then at Jura. "Tie? Third?!" he yelped, then at the score.

Jura chuckled. "You needn't worry, Dreyar," the Wizard Saint replied. "A Fairy Tail wizard won this contest, after all." After a moment, Erza realized that one word rose above the rest of the din:

"Titania! Titania! TITANIA!" Erza smiled, Requipped back to her casual armor, and raised a Heart Kreuz sword. The crowd's roar redoubled, but a faint blush grew along the bridge of her nose when she realized she could just make out Jellal's voice, cheering loudest of all.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Crocus, X787: Jellal

"Here we are at the final match of the day!" Chapati cheered. Jellal smiled at the scoreboard. Poor Eve never had a chance against Rufus, he thought, smile slipping at the memory evocation of Ichiya in a bubble bath, Chase handled that Cerberus spinner with ease, and Wendy, well...

"That kid Sherria was tough," Gajeel smirked, "but she was no match for our Sky Dragon Slayer. Gee hee!" Jellal's smile returned, stronger than before. You've become a good big brother, Gajeel.

"She seems a bit young for the Grand Magic Games, doesn't she?" Juvia asked, watching as Wendy helped the young Lamia wizard back to her team. Both girls had broad smiles on their faces.

Mirajane patted Juvia on the shoulder. "She's a Devil Slayer, like Jellal...was?" Mira blinked at him. "Was that like the way Natsu was able to use God Slayer magic by eating Zancrow's fire?"

Jellal nodded. "I may not have known what I was, but my mother's heritage let me copy Devil Slayer magic by harmonizing between Gray and Wendy, all those years ago." He smiled. "I'm glad someone has carried on the Sky Devil Slayer legacy, no matter what guild they're in. And even happier that she and Wendy found friends in each other." Sometimes, it feels like Wendy's growing up too fast.

"On Earthland-1," Mystogan whispered, approaching from behind, "Sherria is a Sky God Slayer." They all turned to look at their disguised protector. Even through the mask, Jellal could see his concern. "Perhaps it is some sort of balance. Either that world's Jellal does not share your legacy, or it remains inaccessible to him. Sherria-One might fill that need." He glared at the arena. "Do not forget what happened during Pandemonium." Jellal nodded, double-checking his wards. How did they get through those, anyway? No magic should have –

"From Fairy Tail B Team," Chapati called out, "the Shield of Fiore, Miracle of Magnolia – Jellal Fernandes!" The crowd roared in delight. Jellal blushed. That settles it. Team Starburst was a terrible idea for a name. At least being called "Starburst" isn't embarrassing! He strode out, tossing aside his duster and summoning the Meteor Armor Erza had helped Jellal design. Telekinesis called forth the pieces from his coat, and they flew onto his body in seconds. One day, I will learn Requip Magic, he swore, not for the first time.

"From Raven Tail – the mysterious Alexei!" The wizard knight strode into the arena, cape billowing behind him. Note to self – wrap that thing around his helmet, Jellal thought, glaring. "Lahar, how have the judges determined his eligibility to participate?"

"The Rune Knights are aware of his identity," the captain replied, his voice low and tight, "and while we do not approve, the royal family permitted it to remain a secret. Apparently, he intends to reveal himself to the Shield of Fiore in this very duel."

"Oh! How exciting!" Chapati cheered.

Alexei chuckled. "They have no idea," he said, crossing his arms.

Jellal frowned. I can't make it out through the distortion, but his voice seems familiar somehow. The Starburst opened his chalk case and pulled out two pieces, one white and one black. "Then reveal yourself. No cheating will save you this time, Raven Tail."

"Oh, Fernandes," Alexei retorted, "I wouldn't have it any other way. Indeed, I warned Ivan that if he intervened, I would deal with him myself." Jellal stared in surprise. He warned his guild master? Just who is –

Alexei removed his helmet. Nearly everyone in the audience gasped, but the most visceral reactions were from Gajeel, Juvia, and the Phoenix Grave substitute, Totomaru. Lyon, Sherry, and Yuka came close, though, the Wave mage actually baring his teeth. Of course, Jellal thought. They were all in his guild once. The Starburst forced himself to maintain control, lest he shatter the chalk in his hand.

Jose Porla leered at him with a sadistic grin. "For three years, I have rebuilt my network. Phantom Lord was disbanded, but some of my wizards remained loyal. Even if the Magic Council forbade me from serving as a guild master, I could still join another guild, help it grow." His armor hummed with power Jellal could feel as much as hear. "As for this duel, Raven Tail exists to bring low the fairies. You will fall, 'Shield of Fiore,' and I promise that your precious Titania will be next!" Jellal's eyes widened.

The gong rang out. Jose's helmet snapped back into place, the faceplate becoming clear so Jellal could see Jose's smirk, and both of his gauntlets became fists. "Grim Titan!" he chanted, and his Reaper Shade took form around him. He's using it like my Meteor – an enhancement, not a summoning. Jets roared from the villain's boots, and the former Phantom flew at the Starburst.

"Meteor Wave," Jellal chanted, dodging. I have to take him seriously. If he's been training to fight me for three years –

A magic seal erupted beneath Jellal, following him on the ground no matter his speed or evasion. "Starfall!" Jose howled. His laughter echoed through the burst of gravity and Darkness Magic that slammed Jellal to earth. "I will crush you, fairy brat!" He leaped at the Starburst, scythe poised overhead.

"W-Wave Seal," Jellal gasped, a wall of anti-magic force blocking both Starfall and the scythe. He designed that trap specifically to bypass Meteor Wave. The scythe bit into the Wave Seal, tearing at it. Lacrima inside Porla's armor flared, its might rivaling Armadura Fairy's. I have to get unconventional. He's going to be ready for all my usual tricks. Again, Jellal shot into the air, his chalk writing Rune circles behind Porla. His attempt to grab the cape with telekinesis failed against an impenetrable series of wards.

"Phantom Eraser!" Jose laughed. A black rectangle shot from his cape, shattering the two pieces of chalk to dust. "Did you really think I wouldn't prepare for your schoolyard weaponry, brat?"

"Starburst," Jellal replied, opening fire on Porla, but sparing one arc for the eraser. Jose laughed, swatting aside the blasts with a sweep of his palm. However, he appeared to miss the destruction of his eraser. Or doesn't care. Jellal began directing the chalk dust with telekinesis, subtly creating a double circle at the arena's edge. "Cosmic Fireworks." Meanwhile, Jellal obscured his aerial pattern with bursts of light, working on drawing Grand Chariot.

As he'd expected, Porla saw right through the effort above him. "A charlatan's gambit!" he laughed, holding out his arms. A Shade Magic seal appeared over his chest, and a massive jet of Starfall magic lanced out, curving up to slash at where Jellal would have had to fly to finish the Chariot spell. It then roared towards him in a literally howling wave, ghostly faces screaming within the dark column of power.

I need more time, Jellal thought, darting back to the arena. "Censure of Earth!" the Starburst chanted, and the ground opened up beneath Porla. He yelped and activated his boot rockets, but Jellal wasn't done. The maw surged up to swallow the former Phantom, and Porla's Starfall spell collapsed as he darted higher to avoid being captured.

"The high ground is mine, charlatan!" Jose howled. "Grim Hunters!" A barrage of screaming ghostly heads flew down at him, each gaping mouth hungering for ether.

"Cosmic Storm," Jellal shot back, the two spells crashing into each other. That armor doesn't just protect him and grant him strength – it sustains his magic reserves. The Starburst was already struggling for breath, his Cosmic Storm barely cancelling Porla's spell. And I must admit, to his credit, that he has truly gotten stronger. He grimaced. Sadly, I think he's also grown more evil. That magic –

"GRAND OBLIVION!" Porla screamed, a vast emptiness forming over his head. The power was several times that of Grim Oblivion, its foul energy leaving even the audience recoiling in horror.

Jellal's eyes widened. Uh-oh. Have to risk it. "Second Gear," he chanted, darting back into the air.

Porla laughed, and small paper men shot from his cape like chaff. One of Ivan's tricks? Oh – of course. If I fly through those too quickly, I'll slice myself to ribbons. Fourth Gear might be fast enough to dodge them entirely, if I could pull it off... he reached for power beyond Third Gear. Nothing. Yeah, didn't think so. Time to try one of my world-brother's tricks. Jellal performed an elaborate mudra, teal circles of astrological symbols forming around him. "Hermetic Formula Ten: Reversion!"

Grand Oblivion flew at him, and Jellal raced backwards, casting another Wave Seal for good measure. The cruel spell smashed through the Formula and Wave Seal. It was weakened enough that Meteor Wave blunted much of the blow, but it was still enough to throw Jellal into the coliseum wall. Ow... He pulled himself from the crater, wobbling even in mid-air. Porla laughed. "You see? I am ready for all your tricks. Try Sema on me. Please."

"Formula Eyes," Jellal chanted, runes flowing in an infinity loop before him like a mask. Gods, he really does have a counter for Sema, Jellal realized, picking up the strange gravity lacrima hidden under the cape, along with several more horrors designed just for him. His double-circle was only half-complete. I have to think of something, fast. Winning won't be enough for him, and there's still the evil that infected Pandemoni–

"You bore me," Porla sighed, then snarled a smile at him. "Shinigami Scythe!" A second reaper formed in front of the old Phantom, and it raced at Jellal as Jose laughed again.

"Cosmic Wave!" Jellal chanted, desperate enough to try a remix on the fly. It didn't work as well as he'd hoped, but the spell damaged the false death god enough for Jellal to sweep past its weapon. He destroyed it with a kick to the chest and a punch through its head, only a bit depleted from the effort. The crowd cheered. "Pleiades!"

The seven stars flew at Porla, who sneered and swept at them with his own scythe. Your first miscalculation, Jellal thought, directing the spell around Jose's defense and battering him from all sides. "This is for Laxus! Lightning Stars!" As Porla tumbled earthward, the nine electric blades hit him in a wave of shocking slashes.

"M-my armor is insulated, fool!" Jose insisted, in spite of his twitching. "Howling Horror!" An eyeless Tower hound took form from the Shade Magic, but this one was the size of an elephant. It bayed in perfect mimicry of his childhood terrors and charged.

Jellal's eyes narrowed as he mastered himself. I'm not a child any more, Porla! Starburst raged. "This is for Juvia! Castigation of Water!" The Starburst gritted his teeth as he pulled fluid from his flesh as well as the air around them, slashing the hound to ribbons with a foaming variation of his teammate's Water Scythe. Porla yelped and dodged, a few of his toys falling out of the cape as Jellal sliced through it. A dagger? Mavis, a Curse Dagger. Lovely. It slowed down the chalk circle a bit, but Jellal used his telekinesis to toss the dagger into a trash bin outside the wall.

"Suffer, Starburst!" Jose's confidence was wavering, sweat beading on his brow as he gritted his teeth. "Grim Horseman: War!" A massive figure of a man appeared on a literal night-mare, the horse's eyes glowing deep crimson and fire drooling from its mouth. The warrior's axe likewise burned with a purple flame.

"This is for Gray! Frost Wind!" Jellal held out his hand, and a winter gale blasted the demonic war-ghost. It charged at him, weakening as it rushed through the spell, but Jellal knew immediately that it would reach him. So he flew under the horse, punching through it from below with the hand Mystogan had given him. Beast and rider shattered from the force of his blow.

"No no no – you will fall! FALL, DAMN YOU!" He spun his hands in a wide circle, creating symbols in the wake of his fingers' passing. "REVELATION ZERO!"

Another storm of howling faces surged at him, this set red and angry. This must be his best, Jellal thought. If I can get through this, I win. He traced his own circle in the air. "Hexagram Formula 59: Dispersal!" He smiled as the ghosts disintegrated –

– to reveal Erza, her face a mask of horror, flying at him in her Black Wing Armor –

Jellal knew it wasn't her. The real Erza shouted for him to fight, to win, while this false thing shot at him. Even so, he froze for a crucial second. As the sword bit into his Meteor Armor, flinging him into the wall for the second time that battle, the impostor smiled in cruel triumph just before vanishing. Ow. That was stupidity beyond forgiveness. He slid to the ground, his twin circle still incomplete, and fell to his knees. It took all he had not to fall over. Porla was laughing again, more Shade Magic gathering around his hands. No. I won't fall to him, not like this–

"Jellal!" Erza shouted, and Jellal heard her even above the din. He blinked – she was blurry for a moment – but then the world came into focus. She was pointing at the sky. All of Fairy Tail joined her in their guild's salute. When he rose on shaking legs, turning and gaping in awe, he saw that Phoenix Grave was doing the same. As was Sabertooth. So were Lamia Scale, and Blue Pegasus, and Quatro Cerberus. The whole audience followed, in a chaotic, rippling mass.

"Bah!" Porla roared at them all. "This is the end! I will show you the paper tiger your hero really is, and your fantasy will die!"

"It's not fantasy," Jellal snarled back, his magic returning in a surge as though he'd just stepped into the arena. "It's Fairy Tail. This is for Lucy. Urano Metria!"

Porla screamed. "Impossible! You don't know that spell – no one could cast it by themselves – IMPOSSIBLE!" he wailed.

In spite of all Porla's denials, the spell took form around Jellal and battered the Raven wizard, hammering him all across the sky, smashing him to earth, and beating him into the ground. "Huh. I didn't even need to get clever," Jellal quipped as he completed his twin circles of chalk.

Porla staggered to his feet, held upright by his armor's power. "Wrong," he gasped. "Die. Grim Nemesis."

Those shadows with blood-colored runes, all too familiar by then, didn't even faze Jellal. "I suppose I was wrong, at that. Judgement of Heaven!" The double-circle came to life around them, and Jose's Shade Magic shattered before the light they cast. Porla wailed in terror, but it was too late. "You wanted a rematch? Be careful what you wish for! Fixed Light of Heaven, guide us to victory! POLARIS!"

Jellal's star, born of a scarlet spark, shone blue and bright over Crocus. Jose could do nothing but scream one last time as Polaris exploded into him, erupting in a column of divine justice. The villain collapsed, eyes blank and mouth hanging open, cape burned to ash and armor groaning in ruin. The victory bell rang out, the roar of the crowd somehow more deafening than ever. He smiled, swayed, and began to fall over.

Erza was there before he was halfway to earth, pulling him to her breast. Her armored breast. With a resounding clang. "You were wonderful, Jellal!" he heard, even through his ringing ears. Oh, Erza.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Mercurius, X787: Ultear

"You want us to stop?" Jellal blurted, eyes bulging. Ultear could hear Cult Buster rumbling behind her in a frustrated wave. An hour ago, he was laughing, Ultear thought, teeth bared.

"Please," Princess Hisui replied. The young princess looked as small and frail as she had the day Jellal rescued her from Minister Caine – a sight Ultear hadn't seen in over four years. She'd grown so confident – what happened? Captain Arcadios' hand rested on his sword hilt, though it was not a warning – yet.

Jellal took a long, deep breath, then let it go. "With respect, Your Highness, someone is using Death Magic on a scale we've never seen. Fairy Tail, which has multiple survivors of abuse from Dark Wizards, has no experience with a threat of this magnitude. And you want us to stop investigating it?"

"We have an investigation of our own underway," Arcadios replied, eyes narrowing a fraction. "Your work has been invaluable, but our agents have entered a delicate phase. The Fiore Royal Family thanks you for your efforts. Those efforts will now cease."

"No," Natsu replied, fire flickering around him. Hisui gasped. Arcadios hissed in a breath, taking a step forward. Two dozen guards did the same. Then Natsu yawned and stretched. Everyone gaped, Ultear included, most of them seeming bleached out as well. "I don't care about all this 'evil mastermind' stuff. You want us to stay out of that? Sure, let the Rune Knights embarrass themselves again." Arcadios' men stared with round, blank eyes. "Someone's attacking Fairy Tail. We can't let that pass."

Hisui blinked, then giggled behind one hand. "Your Highness!" Arcadios blurted. "This is no laughing matter."

"I believe we can manage a compromise," Hisui said, placing a small, delicate hand over the knight's. With what appeared to be tremendous effort, Arcadios removed his hand from his sword. "Perform all the security work you wish at the Grand Magic Games. Protect your family. That is as it should be, and we cannot stop Fairy Tail regardless." Her smile vanished as she turned a cool gaze on the Fire Dragon Slayer. "You will do that, and no more."

"Sure thing, Princess!" Natsu agreed, his smile broad as ever. "See, Jellal? That was eas– EEK!" Ultear gaped in disbelief as Jellal turned a glare of Erza-like fury on the hapless Salamander, eyes blazing like twin gold stars. "J-Jellal?"

After a moment of watching Natsu quiver like a mouse between two cats, Jellal turned that roaring wrath on Arcadios. "For now, I will defer to Princess Hisui's judgement. If I find that someone has led her astray, Captain, that traitor will wish the Wolf Knights had torn him asunder."

Arcadios glared back, not showing the least sign of intimidation. "The Wolf Knights are a myth, a ridiculous conspiracy theory invented by Fiore's enemies."

"Of course they are." Jellal swept around, long coat swirling behind him, and strode off as though he were the guild master. Fairy Tail followed him as though they believed it, Ultear included. "We should return to the Honeybone. There is much to discuss."

"Master Makarov should have been here," Erza muttered as they left the palace.

The still-injured Meredy snorted. "Master Makarov is drunk off his – backside, back at the inn."

"Then let's go back too!" Natsu cheered, Jellal's rage already forgotten. "I wanna surf the booze barrels again!"

"You got motion sick after ten seconds!" Gajeel roared.

Jellal whirled on them, a column of sapphire light roaring around him. "Is this a joke to you?" he whispered. Natsu and Gajeel leaped into each other's arms, eyes enormous and misty as they quivered. "Malice incarnate coils beneath the city, one of the guilds in the Games has given itself to evil, and you–"

Erza gripped his shoulder, her lips set in a grim line. "Jellal. I know what you are thinking of – who you are thinking of. Have faith in Fairy Tail." Cana looked away. Ultear bit her lip. Gods. Shou...Alphonse... After a moment, the column of magic fury receded, and Jellal looked away.

Bickslow wandered over, looking more serious than Ultear had ever seen him. Even through his helmet, Ultear could tell that he was looking at Cana. She looked up at him and smiled. Yeah, Jellal's been defused, so we're good for now– Ultear gaped as Cana took Bicks' hand. "Cana! Have you been holding out on your big sis?!" Ultear blurted. Cana leaped back, smile wobbling, while Bicks laughed and let his tongue flop out. The guild's laughter returned. "Okay, I'm going to need a full report in the morning."

"Ultear!" Cana grunted, crossing her arms. Then she gasped as Bickslow led her off, taking her hand again. "Bicks, what the Grim?"

"She said in the morning, hot stuff," Bickslow pointed out. "We've still got some night to enjoy." Ultear barely caught him adding, "and some watch-babies to set up." The space mage chuckled and turned to see "Mystogan" conferring with Jellal, the Crime Sorciere guilds of two worlds gathered behind him. Right. We have allies who aren't in Fairy Tail.

Ultear nodded, laughing outright when she caught Natsu and Gajeel crying tears of relief. She looked towards the coliseum and shook a fist at it. "It doesn't matter if you're Tartaros, Grimoire Heart, or even the Alvarez Empire. It doesn't even matter if you've gotten to the Royal Family, you creeps. We're Fairy Tail. This thing isn't over. Not by a long shot!"

"Mm, mm," Mavis agreed, nodding. Ultear smiled at the blonde girl.

Then she blinked. Mavis? Mavis Vermillion? Ultear waved her hand though the image. "Oh. I'm just hallucinating."

Mavis pouted at Ultear. "You are not!" she insisted, folding her arms.

"First Master?!" Laxus blurted. The whole guild stared for several seconds.

"EHHHH?!" they all gasped.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Crocus, X787: Lucy

"Nightmare?" Lucy asked, frowning at the coliseum.

"Mm, mm," First Master Mavis replied, nodding. Lucy stared at her, but the other members of Team Erza just gazed into the arena, as though they'd been chatting with Master Mavis their whole lives. "My calculations indicate that they will use the adaptive lacrima systems to draw forth the greatest fears of the participants." Lucy turned to Master Makarov, who was sitting on the balcony wall looking at the rest of Team A, eyes narrow.

Lucy walked over to Erza, where she, Gray, and Natsu were conferring – by which she meant arguing. "Ai-YAH!" Natsu howled. "I wanna fight!"

"Your nightmare's probably a roller coaster," Gray objected. "Mine'll be Deliora, and I'm a Devil Slayer." Lucy bit her lip, remembering waking up to hear Natsu whimpering Igneel's name in his sleep. I'm not so sure about that, Lucy thought, for either of you.

"You've both had chances," Erza pointed out. "We will ask Lucy and Wendy first."

Natsu huffed. "You don't wanna do this, do you, Luce?" he asked. "We know you're brave and all, but this is probably gonna be weird."

"Actually, Natsu..." Lucy squeezed her hands together until her knuckles turned white. Igneel and Phantom Lord. Grandine and Cait Shelter. Gray's village and the "Cold Emperor." The Tower of Heaven and Shou. Sometimes I wonder if they move on too much. She looked at Erza, jaw quivering. "Let me do this! Let me face Nightmare for Fairy Tail! Please!" She bowed.

Natsu gasped. Gray huffed. "Man...we can't turn her down, look at that," the ice wizard sighed.

"Yeah, I know," Natsu grumbled. "Lucy. Get out there and win, all right?"

Erza chuckled. "Or at least take second place." Lucy shot upright, scowling at Titania. Gee, thanks for the confidence – WHAT?!

She turned to the arena to find Jellal – the man who had more nightmares than anyone she knew – striding without hesitation to the center of the arena. Her jaw stopped quivering; to the contrary, it felt set in concrete. "No. I will win. I refuse to let him face any more nightmares than I can help."

Erza gasped. "Oh, Lucy!" she cried. Lucy smiled – then Erza caught the Celestial Spirit mage in her arms and hugged her tight. *CLANG.* Ow...

-FT- -FT- -FT-

"Welcome, everyone, to the fourth day of the Grand Magic Games!" Chapati announced. Lucy scanned her opponents as the commentators explained the standings and the basics of the upcoming contest, Nightmare. Jellal. Dyst. Yukino. Rocker. Jenny. Sherry. Her eyes narrowed at Raven Tail's contestant. Flare.

The flame-haired wizard flashed her the creepy smile from before. "Blondie," she whispered.

"Touch Asuka again," Lucy whispered back, palming Cancer's key, "and I'll shave you bald, understand?" Strangely, Flare just nodded and walked away, her back to her guild as well as Lucy. Grimacing, the summoner turned to the scoreboard.

Sabertooth 44

Fairy Tail B 35

Raven Tail 34

Fairy Tail A 31

Phoenix Grave 30

Lamia Scale 27

Quatro Cerberus 13

Blue Pegasus 8

I've got to score well here, she thought, then turned to face the grim-looking Starburst. "Hey, Jellal? Are you all right?"

"Maybe," he replied, and Lucy huffed, looking away herself. "Mato's here."

"Indeed, kabo." The mascot waddled over. "The rules for Nightmare are simple. Like Pandemonium, the goal is to destroy as many monsters and score as many points as possible. There are a few differences, though. One: all monsters are worth a single point each, regardless of type or strength. After all, we'll be drawing them from your dreams, so it would be hard to rank them, kabo."

He cleared his throat while the contestants glanced at the rising battlefield, a tower as tall as Pandemonium's peak taking form on the opposite side of the arena from them. "Two: You are not permitted to use magic to hinder one another, except in the Red Zone at the center of the Coliseum. In there, you can even fight, and defeated wizards are removed from the arena." Mato coughed. "We've double-checked the teleportation lacrima, kabo. There shouldn't be any more 'errors.'" Dyst nodded, looking grim. That's right, his friend Kodi got left behind when Pandemonium was hit by the demon curse.

"Three: There is a special rule that overrides the point system, kabo." He pointed at the jet-black tower in the distance, a Grim mockery of Mercurius' peak covered in gargoyles and chains. "Nightmare will create a Terror Master in the Dark Tower, which can become the greatest fear of any who confronts it. If a wizard is able to defeat it, they end the game and automatically take first place!" The arena began to glow. "Yipe! We'll tell you about the tiebreaker system if you need it. Kabo!" With that, one of the teleportation spells snatched the little mascot away, and they were faced with a riot of twisted houses, dungeon walls, burned villages, and monstrous howls.

"Brace yourselves," Jellal said, striding to the front of the group. Oh, no, Lucy thought, there's no way I'm going to let you –

The entire coliseum flared with a sickly green light. In an instant, it was filled with all sorts of horrors. Giant warriors tromped through a suddenly-massive village, leaving Flare recoiling. Demons from Galuna soared and stomped around a roaring Deliora. Sherry wept, shaking. A cackling anti-Dyst hovered over the Red Zone, his arms literally covered in blood, while the real Dyst paled at the sight, swaying in place. Brain laughed, waving at a half-machine Hibiki to lead the rest of the similarly-converted Blue Pegasus to advance. "It's not real, it's not real, it's not real," Jenny breathed, fist shaking. Lucy turned to encourage them, only to find a nine-foot-tall version of her father advancing, glaring at her in disapproval, followed by Phantom Lord kidnappers. It's like Jenny said. Not real. Still, it was an effort to maintain control.

"Where are they," Jellal muttered, glancing at Yukino. Then the sickly green darkened, and a second wave washed over the battlefield. All the human-like figures, including the giants and demons, were instantly dressed in strange uniforms, joined by hundreds of too-tall soldiers in the same outfits. Their tops were loose maroon jackets almost like short kimonos, while their pants were blue and wide. Underneath it all was a black body stocking that even covered their hair. Most striking, however, were the round white masks with black bat-like symbols on them, covering the top half of their faces. Only Deliora's face was not covered by his mask, which rested over one eye like a patch. A wave of dark clouds rolled overhead, leaving the entire coliseum in shadow. "Oh," Jellal gasped, eyes widening. "Oh, Grim. I think I miscalculated."

Next came the giant dogs, without eyes or fur, and hands in place of paws. They swarmed around the converted nightmare-figures, snarling and snapping towards them. Worst of all, though, was the small army of enormous floating corpses, dangling in the air like broken puppets. Shou and Alphonse were among them, the latter's head stitched back onto his body. The zombies wore the same masks as the others, but their mouths were half-rotted, opening impossibly wide, with blood-red magic seals appearing before them. "Open, Gate of the Scales! Libra!" Yukino screamed.

"We have to do this together!" Jellal snapped. "Yukino, you've already summoned Libra, have her create a high-grav suppression zone in front of us." He turned to Flare. "Corona, you and Sherry swing left. Sherry, you're on defense, use your Rock Doll to block. Flare, burn as many of those things out of the sky as you can." He turned to Dyst and Jenny. "You two swing right, same plan as the Raven and Lamia wizards – Dyst blocks, Jenny shoots." He looked at Rocker and Lucy. "Lucy, summon Leo and Virgo. We're going to need them. Rocker, you and Virgo will tunnel underneath and start hitting these horrors from below. Leo and I will go above, rain celestial wrath on them and keep their focus on us. Everyone ready?"

Rocker snorted. "Great plan – except for the part where you win." His whirling magic formed around his legs. Jellal gaped at the Cerberus mage. "It's just a game, Mr. Miracle, and I'm playin' for keeps! WILD!" He shot out, flying into a pack of soldiers, sending a dozen of them flying. For a moment, Lucy thought he might be right. Tear them apart! she raged, the need for points forgotten. Jellal quivered beside her, fists clenched.

Then the floating zombies fired a volley of beams at Rocker from the seals over their mouths, slamming him to earth. Slavering hounds leaped for him, jaws dropping open.

"Meteor!" Jellal snapped, darting to Rocker's side. He destroyed the monster dogs and zombie cannons with an enormous Starburst volley, then pulled Rocker back behind Libra's gravity field. "Solid Seal!" he chanted, creating a wall that deflected the monsters' next attack. "Still think it's just a game, Rocker?" Jellal snapped, glaring at the Cerberus wizard.

"Wild..." Rocker gasped.

Lucy pulled out her Leo and Virgo keys. "Is this like Pandemonium, Jellal?" she asked, trembling as the snarling horde grew among the ruins. "Did Nemesis corrupt the contest?"

"No," Jellal grunted, scowling, "at least, not yet. This is my fault." He glared at the growing apocalypse between them and the Dark Tower. "I didn't want any of my teammates facing their nightmares. They all feel more guilt than they ought, for mistakes long since forgiven. I figured I'd already beaten my fears. I forgot the final lesson of the S-Class trials – the trauma never leaves you, even if you've become strong enough to bear it. That Tower was six years of my life...how could I have been so stupid? So blind?"

Don't panic, Lucy told herself. It was decidedly easier said than done. "You didn't forget anything, Jellal," she insisted. "That's why you're trying to get us to do this together!"

"Right," Dyst said, striding over. His telekinesis had formed a buttress at the edge of Jellal's Solid Seal. "Your nightmare ate all of ours, so you know the enemy best. We'll follow you through it."

"Wait," Sherry gasped, eyes still locked on the uniformed Deliora. "Maybe the Games committee has things under control? Please?"

"No," Jenny said, her body armored in red and silver metal. "Jellal is right. I can feel the machinery of the coliseum straining under the weight of those horrors. The nightmares he's experienced..." She looked at the Shield of Fiore, straightening to attention. "...they've overwhelmed the projector systems. The engineers couldn't imagine anything like it. We have to dismantle this terror, and that means following the Starburst."

"If Blondie's following him," Flare said, "so will I." Lucy blinked. What the heck?

Jellal nodded. "Okay. Everyone ready, then?"

"Yeah!" they cheered. With that, they charged. Rocker and Virgo went low, Jellal and Leo went high, and the two flanking teams pressed forward. Though scores continued to climb, no one seemed to notice. Lucy stayed by Yukino, Fleuve in hand. Her fellow Celestial Spirit Mage kept Ophiuchus' key gripped tightly.

Occasionally, one of the huge Tower soldiers would manage to come after a summoner, but a quick lash would deal with the simulated villain. "What is Jellal-dono waiting for," Yukino whispered, sweat beading on her forehead. Lucy blinked. Good question –

Deliora roared and stomped towards them. Lucy could almost feel Gray straining to hold himself back. "Now, Yukino!" Jellal called, firing a Starburst at the pseudo-demon for emphasis. "The 13th Sign!"

"Close, Gate of the Scales! Open, Gate of the Snake Charmer – Ophiuchus!" Yukino chanted, and the enormous heaven-serpent coiled around the vicious demon-giant. The titans grappled with such force that they shook the coliseum, smashing lesser nightmares beneath them. Yukino poured all her might into the summoning, and Lucy couldn't help but feel awed by the girl, no taller than Wendy had been when Lucy first met her. She's bringing so much of Ophiuchus' power into this plane, Lucy realized. Amazing!

In the end, neither could withstand the other's wrath. Deliora slammed the clockwork serpent's head into the ground, but Ophiuchus had clamped its jaw onto the demon's arm. The very blow that banished the Zodiac Spirit tore Deliora's arm off, causing the construct to fall apart as well. "That's it!" Jellal cried. "Now's our chance! Press for the–"

Yukino sighed and fell. "Jellal!" Lucy cried, catching the young summoner. Jellal raced to their side, unleashing a Cosmic Storm on a flank of flying zombies that got too close. "Why isn't she vanishing? Mato said–"

"No," Yukino breathed, struggling to stand. "I can...still fight..." She drew Pisces' key. "Open, Gate of the...uh." Her eyes rolled back, and the arena's magic transported her back to Sabertooth.

Jellal bowed his head for a moment, exhaling. Then he helped Lucy stand. "She made an opening for us. Let's not waste it!" the Starburst cried. Lucy nodded. "Lucy, swap Virgo for Aries. We're going to make straight for the Dark Tower. She'll help protect our flying wedge."

"That means going through the Red Zone," Lucy pointed out, the united force driving the cultists into the wrecked town center, but she obeyed, tuning out Aries’ usual apology.

Jellal nodded. "I'll trust them." He glanced from Flare to Lucy. "I understand if you want me to send you to the right, though."

"No, I'm good," Lucy insisted, whipping a beam zombie out of the sky for emphasis. "Let's beat these things!"

At last, Jellal's dawn-bright smile returned. "Without fail." He turned to face the dwindling enemy force. "Now! Let's show the world that there's no room in it for dark Malice!"

"YEAH!" the world roared back. That wasn't just us, Lucy realized, looking out at the crowd. The whole stadium was on its feet, cheering for them all. Wow. They don't even care about the competition any more. This is us against evil – and the whole world really is on our side! Lucy reached into her pouch. I can do this. What Yukino did with Ophiuchus was like calling three spirits at once – I won't do any less! She pulled Capricorn's key. "Open, Gate of the Goat!"

"At your commaaand, Lucy-sama," the loyal spirit said, taking form.

Lucy glared at the nightmare villains. "Jellal wants us working the center," she explained, "so we're going right up the middle! Ready?"

"Of course." Capricorn nodded, and with the fiercest battle cry she could muster, Lucy led them through the heart of the Red Zone, smashing through the pack of soldiers, guard dogs, and zombies blocking their way.

A column of flame roared behind them, and Lucy leaped aside – only to find Flare's burning braids protecting her flank. "Sorry," she muttered.

"Not for helping me, I hope!" Lucy blurted. Flare smiled again, but this time it seemed less creepy. That almost made the summoner miss a squad of zombies fly in to ambush the Raven wizard. "Flare, behind you!" Lucy flung her whip back to return Flare's favor.

Rocker got there first, tearing through them in a whirling explosion of power. "Drilling Rock, baby!" he cried, charging through. "My soul is always wild!"

"What does that even mean?" Lucy gasped, literally lashing out at a quartet of hounds. Trying not to see any symbolism there, she thought, pressing forward in spite of wanting to leap right out of her skin. When she turned back to check on the duo, Rocker had been blocked from going underground again by a knot of soldiers armed with beam staves. He couldn't evade in time, and their magic converged on him in a vicious conflagration.

"Split-Top!" Flare gasped, blowing up half the soldiers with a burning whiplash.

"We're here!" Lucy joined in, catching the rest in Fleuve and tossing them into the sky.

Rocker slammed into the ground, teeth clenched as he twitched. "Damn...guess I wasn't...wild enough." The arena's magic spirited him away, and Lucy bowed her head, exhaling in relief.

She blinked in alarm at the glowing crimson earth. Red Zone! Lucy realized, looking up at Flare. The Phantom wizard – no, Raven, Lucy reminded herself – was standing between Lucy and the soldiers coming at them from the rear. "Sorry...about the girl," Flare explained, glaring at the cultist constructs. "I'll stay here. You help the blue prince. He needs you."

"You're going to fight them alone?" Lucy blurted, looking at the never-ending legion. They were all so big – soldiers, hounds, and zombies alike. Flare didn't even look concerned, let alone afraid.

"No," Sherry jumped in, literally as well as figuratively. She landed at Flare's side, two Rock Dolls flanking the women. "She won't." The Lamia Scale wizard smiled at Lucy. "She's not the only one who needs to prove that her love is stronger than her shame."

Lucy blinked. "That was three years ago!" she pointed out.

"They were eleven years ago for Jellal," Sherry retorted, waving at the Tower villains. "Some things, you never forget. Now go."

"And Blondie," Flare added, "thanks."

Lucy nodded to them, then ran to the Starburst while Flare and Sherry held back an army of towering horrors. "Jellal!" she called. "Why are they all so big?"

"They're the nightmares of a child," he reminded her, casting a blazing explosion that annihilated the last foot soldiers between them and the Tower. "I grew up free, but they're always giants in my dreams. This is why we have to work together. Evacuation won't help a corpse." Lucy gulped while Jellal glared at the gothic double-doors. "Come on."

Nightmare Dyst descended, distinct from the soldiers in his garb. He'd pushed back the mask to wear it like a hat, while his outfit was unique, black with silver trim. "Leaving so soon, Fernandes?" he mocked, hands outstretched. Several tons of rubble swirled into place behind him. "A Phoenix always rises from the ash. You should know that better than most."

The real Dyst plowed into him, his own pile of rubble formed into a phoenix shape as he drove back the copycat. "Go, sir! I'll handle this second-rate knock-off."

"Knock-off? I'm the original, and you know it. Just like your hero back there is just a monster rescued from his own hate," Nightmare Dyst retorted. Hundreds of bricks, beams, nails, and concrete chunks flew at the Fairy Tail pair. Jellal threw up a Solid Seal. Lucy almost threw up, but settled for a scream, diving for cover.

Dyst's phoenix broke apart, blocking every last attack by his doppelganger. "We are not you," Phoenix Grave's ace hissed. "Some of us went astray in other worlds, but that is not who we have chosen to be in this one. You're a coward too afraid of dying to live, and I am a Phoenix Grave wizard!"

Nightmare Dyst snarled and glared. "Then why am I still your nightmare?" he demanded.

"Because I've never been able to confront you before," Dyst smiled. "I know this is awful for you, Master Jellal, but for the rest of us, it's a gift – the chance to face our fears. It's what you do." His smile vanished as hero and horror glared at one another. "The Tower is yours. Finish this. We'll handle the small fry."

"SMALL FRY?" Nightmare Dyst howled, and they threw themselves at each other with all their magic and ferocity.

For a moment, Jellal quivered. Caught between helping and stopping this, huh? Lucy thought. Then he nodded. "Thank you, Dyst. You never owed me anything, but if you feel that you did, then we're even now." He waved to Lucy. "Let's go. This game needs to end."

"Mm, mm," Lucy agreed, and they charged up the spiraling keep. All that stood in their way were, as Dyst had put it, "small fry," and it wasn't long before they were at the top. Lucy rushed in, Jellal a single step behind her.

A man in a brown business suit sat in a throne on the far end of the room, his head hidden by shadow. An oval table covered in rust-stained ritual tools and paperwork sat before him. The rest of the room looked like the Tower of Heaven's creepy, rough-hewn interior. Between the Fairy Tail wizards and this man, however, stood a Nightmare Jellal.

This Jellal was dressed much like the real thing, except his long coat was a hoodie rather than a duster, and it had a yellow wing-shaped symbol on the left side. He smirked at the pair with twisted confidence. That is so not Jellal, Lucy decided, drawing her Aries and Gemini keys. "Ah, Jellal Two. Jellal-too? The Jellal he made because of me," Nightmare Jellal decided, stepping between them and the man in the suit. "It's good to meet you at last."

"Siegrain," Jellal sighed, holding out his right hand. A golden Cosmic Magic seal burst to life beneath his palm. "We've met, I assure you."

Nightmare Jellal wagged one finger "no" at the real thing. "Your brother is the child of Nemesis. I am the Nemesis." Nemesis leered at them, eyes glinting in the eerie light. "The Jellal who made you wanted freedom so badly, but let morality shackle him. I set him free, and how did he repay me? By dragging us both into that accursed lacrima as soon as scales-for-brains knocked me loose a little." He clasped his hands and looked to the ceiling, a mock-guilty frown forming under too-wide eyes. "'Oh, Erza, what have I done, please forgive me, let me save you'–" he glared at the duo, fury incarnate, "–'and throw away the freedom Nemesis gave me.' Pathetic." His right eye rolled back, then returned as the strange "Z" rune she'd heard Erza describe in Siegrain. "So I'm here to give you the chance he threw away." Nightmare Nemesis held out one hand. "True freedom is within you. All you have to do is claim it."

"True Cosmic Magic," Jellal chanted, and Lucy realized that the bright golden seal had hidden a fierce blue fireball, "SUPERNOVA!" Nemesis gasped as a great sapphire sun formed in front of the Starburst.

For a fraction of a second, the world was blue light and roaring flame. Except for the color, it's like watching Natsu cut loose, Lucy thought. Then the explosion faded, and nothing was left of Nemesis, not even scattering motes of ether. "You should have come all the way in, or just stayed out," Jellal said, glaring at the emptiness where Nemesis had been. "Using Supernova to erase this scrap of you was like swatting a gnat with Starburst." He glared at the man in the throne. "You're next. Father."

The man stood and strode into the light. Lucy and Jellal gasped, Lucy recoiling at the sight of Jude Heartfilia, her father, glaring at the Shield of Fiore with a malevolence she'd only seen in Dark Wizards. "Father? Yes. Yours? Hardly. She crossed the threshold first. Not everything is about you, arrogant boy." He turned that same glare on Lucy, a storm of Jewel notes swirling behind him. The bills were the sickly green of the summoning light, with howling Shade faces stamped on them in place of King Toma's features. "Now, Lucy. I've been patient with you, waited while you worked this foolishness out of your system. If your uselessness has taught you nothing after all these years, however, I must clearly intervene." Lucy shuddered, tears forming in her eyes.

"Useless? Lucy?" Jellal laughed. "Not that we needed proof in here, but the real Mr. Heartfilia has far too good an intelligence network to believe a slander like that. Lucy?" She looked at him, and his smile slipped. One fist trembled with Natsu-like fury at his side. "Do you need to face him yourself, or can I help?"

"Face me, herself?" Lucy whirled back on the horror as Jose's voice came from her father's lips. The villain's mustache replaced her father's. The Shade faces on the Jewel bills began to moan, coming to twisted, dark life on the paper. "A foot soldier like her won't stand against me for ten seconds."

Lucy swapped Aries for Scorpio in her hand. "Keep talking, you evil lie. You're not my father!"

"True," Ivan's voice replied, "but you haven't had much luck with fathers, have you?" He had her father's mustache again, but Ivan's beard grew from his chin. The Jewel notes tore themselves to become paper dolls, the Shade faces serving as heads. "You know you're no match for us, Lucy-chan. Just hide behind a Shield, like you always do."

Her tears escaped, trickling down her cheeks. "I'm so sorry, Jellal," she whispered. "I do have to face him alone. Watch my back?"

"Always," Jellal rasped, turning toward the door. A zombie floated through. Jellal obliterated it.

"You'll beg him to save you soon enough," Brain said, the beard vanishing but the Body Link lines forming on her father's face. "There is only room for one god in the manor of your birth. All for the glory of Heartfilia!" He laughed in Brain's cruel, awful voice.

Lucy took in a breath, gathered her courage, exhaled. "I'm standing right here," she retorted, "whenever you're ready." Behind her, Jellal destroyed more Tower nightmares.

"Ready?" Hades' voice intoned, and that monster's thin wizard beard rippled from her father's face while the Brain lines vanished. Nemesis runes formed on the paper money dolls. "You won't be ready for me in a hundred years, girl."

Lucy recoiled again, her breath becoming quick and shallow. "Be judged by the Seven Stars," Jellal chanted behind her, "Grand Chariot!" The wrath of heaven rained down on the Tower armies advancing on them. The Starburst didn't move, not even responding to that voice. He's trusting me...this is his real nightmare, having to stay back and let a sister fight a monster without him...

She shook her head, then held up both keys. "That was your last mistake, Nightmare. Hades already lost, to a 'girl of glass!' Open, Gates of the Scorpion and Twins!!"

"We are!" Scorpio cheered as he appeared. Gemi and Mini danced over his shoulder.

"Gemini! Take my form!" she ordered. "Scorpio, stall for a few seconds."

Gemini transformed into a Lucy while Scorpio darted between the original and Nightmare Jude. "Sand Buster!" he chanted, his desert tornado howling at the mockery.

"Jewel Torrent!" her father's voice commanded, Hades' beard vanishing. The money dolls flew at her, clashing with Sand Buster. "Carve her silly spirit to ribbons – what?"

Lucy smirked as Gemini-Lucy donned her Aquarius Star Dress and created a whirlpool around her. "Gemini knows what the person they become is thinking – I don't have to give them orders!" She drew Aquarius' key and plunged it into the vortex. "Open, Gate of the Water Bearer – Aquarius!"

Her old friend appeared, only looking somewhat grumpy. "You'd better have a good reason for...Scorpio? Darling, what's going on here?" Aquarius asked, glaring at Nightmare Jude.

"Weird simulation thing, making fear images," Scorpio explained. "Remember Anna's second quest, back during the Festival?"

"Oh." Aquarius' smile made Lucy shudder, even here. "So we don't even have to hold back a little." She pulled back her urn. "You want a Torrent, little man? I'll give you one!" With a crash of waves, Aquarius' magic surged into Scorpio's. The mix of sea and sand tore through the money storm.

"Th-this isn't over!" Nightmare Jude blurted, thrusting out his arms, palms facing them. "Jewel Bomb!" The bills gathered into a sphere, a haunted Shade face forming in the green glow.

"Oh, it's over," Lucy shot back, releasing Gemini. That left her with enough energy for one more spell. "Star Dress: Cancer!" Nightmare Jude screamed as Lucy sliced through his money bomb with her scissor swords, landed on his altar-desk-thing, and pointed both blades at his face. Then she smirked and snipped his mustache off. "You lose. Now turn off, you messed-up machine!"

Nightmare Jude vanished. So did the altar-desk, Aquarius, and Scorpio. Then the walls and ceiling disappeared, leaving them at the top of the tower. Lucy gasped, then leaped with joy. "We did it!" she cheered.

The tower vanished while she was still in mid-jump. "Eh?" Lucy looked down, hanging in the air for just an instant. Then she shrieked and fell –

– for five feet, before Jellal caught her hand. "That's no way to celebrate your victory," he quipped. Lucy blinked – my victory? she wondered – then saw the scoreboard. Ten points for Fairy Tail A. Eight points for Fairy Tail B. The crowd was cheering a name – mine, Lucy realized. Jellal flew her to the arena floor, where her team promptly buried her in a hug, then lifted her onto Natsu's and Gray's shoulders.

"What a performance!" Chapati cried. "Rising from that terrible defeat on her first day, Lucy Heartfilia smashes the Nightmare contest! The crowd has gone completely wild!"

"That's showin' 'em, Luce!" Natsu cheered, punching skyward.

"You were amazing, Miss Lucy!" Wendy agreed, nodding.

"No one messes with our Zodiac Princess!" Gray chimed in. Zodiac Princess, Lucy thought, smiling as they tossed her into the air again. I think I like that.

Erza smiled and waved the growing crowd aside. "That's enough, boys," she replied. "Put her back down, there's someone who wants to see her." Lucy blinked. Who?

As though by magic, the crowd parted, allowing her father to walk up to her. He was wearing a silver-gray suit and had grown a short beard that (mercifully) didn't look anything like the ones Nightmare had put on him, but otherwise, he hadn't changed. Silly, you just saw him six months ago, Lucy thought, but the lump in her throat wouldn't come apart. "Lucy," he whispered. "Am I really your nightmare?"

Lucy blinked. Huh? Oh! She chuckled. "The man who hired Phantom Lord was my nightmare. You haven't been him for a long time, Father." She ran up and hugged him.

Father shuddered, then put his arms around her. "I won't lie to you, Lucy. This isn't the life I wanted for you, fighting dark wizards, always in danger. Layla told me once that you give children roots to grow and wings to fly away, but I..." he sniffed. "Never believe you are useless, Lucy. Live with all your might, and walk with pride down the path you believe in." Lucy couldn't hold the tears in any longer. Oh...Daddy...!

"You worthless traitor!" Ivan roared. Lucy gasped and pulled back. Raven Tail's guild master towered over the still-smiling Flare Corona, his fist trembling and sheathed in dark magic. "That Fairy Tail brat was right in front of you – and you protected her! And sixth place? That was the best you could do? How dare you betray your guild!"

"Oh. That," Flare replied, tilting her head the other way. One of her braids swept across her guild mark. It transformed from the Raven Tail symbol to a beautiful sunburst wave. "I quit, Axe Beard." She walked away from Ivan, waving goodbye without a second glance. Ivan snarled something Lucy couldn't make out and held out his hand, where dozens of his paper dolls swirled.

Lucy darted in between the redhead and the Master's son. "Try it," she snapped. "You saw how well paper magic did up there." Both Fairy Tail teams gathered behind her.

"Attack my daughter," Jude added, striding to stand beside her, "and I'll hire every guild in Fiore to bring you to justice – starting with Fairy Tail."

For a moment, Ivan trembled, the rest of his own team gathering behind him. Would he really? Lucy wondered. Then, with a snarl, he swept around and stormed off, cape swirling in his wake.

Flare had stopped and turned, eyes wide as she stared at Lucy. "Blondie..." she whispered.

Lucy grinned at her. "You're not so bad, Flare," she admitted. "Where will you go now?"

Flare's smile vanished. "I...don't know. There's nowhere left..."

"You could always join another guild," Jellal pointed out, turning on the smile that kept five children sane through years of Grim. "Fairy Tail is always looking for talented wizards, for example."

"Blue Prince?" she whispered. Jellal facefaulted hard enough to leave a small crater in the arena. Their nakama laughed. Lucy started to cry again, tears flowing past a smile wide as Natsu's. This guild...I really was Lucky Lucy, all along!

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Crocus, X787: Gajeel

"I better get to fight this time," the Iron Dragon Slayer rumbled. "Dammit, even the Salamander got a turn today!" He whirled on Laxus and grabbed his shoulder. "Did you see that ridiculous performance? He and the Ice Princess couldn't even beat two kids! They're barely Wendy's age!"

"Easy, Rivets," Laxus sighed, waving Freed back. Juvia glared at her fellow Phantom defector. "It was just a tie. Besides, those Sabertooth Dragon Slayers have Fairy Tail hearts."

"Gramps needs us to win this thing!" Gajeel growled. "Besides, this ain't just about winning, it's about our pride. Those two morons could've won if they'd fought Sabertooth more than each other!"

Mirajane giggled, and Gajeel's fury drained away. "That's a bit of an exaggeration, don't you think?" she asked, her smile as implacable as Blue's. "They worked quite well together, for the most part. If they hadn't, Sting and Rogue would have been victorious. That Unison Raid...they are two souls that are also one." She flashed her smile at Lucy, who blushed from Team A's balcony. "Even among those who know the joy of love, it's a rare sort of unity."

"It's amazing that Natsu and Gray could even stand after that," Jellal added, chuckling. "Several of us had to reinforce the stadium to keep it intact. That Flash Fang...at full strength, I truly believe that it could kill a dragon."

"Is no one else going to discuss the other battles?" Juvia asked, the rain woman smiling at the celebrating Phoenix Grave team. "Juvia is so proud of Totomaru-san!"

"Did you know that he was their substitute, Juvia?" Jellal asked.

Juvia nodded, still smiling. "To face the Ice God Slayer and triumph – he joined the right guild after all." Gajeel grinned and shook his head. They can't all join Fairy Tail, Sunshine.

"I think Dyst had a little to do with the outcome," Jellal chuckled. "I know Yuka's rarely challenged by guild missions, but he really has to learn that Wave isn't instant victory magic."

"Shoutin' 'for Kodi' just before kickin' their butts had ta earn him some points with the girlfriend, too," Gajeel noted, flashing his sharpest grin. "Gee hee!"

"How about Blue Pegasus and Quatro Cerberus?" Mirajane asked, smile growing. "Does anyone want to talk about their battle?"

"No," the other four B-team wizards said as one. Mavis, She-Demon, I'm still tryin' to pretend I didn't see any of it! Gajeel shuddered, remembering Ichiya's victory in spite of his best efforts.

"This is it – the final duel of the Grand Magic Games!" Chapati cried, to a wave of roars from the crowd.

"It might be the ultimate grudge match of the Games as well," Yajima added. Gajeel perked up. We're fightin' Raven Tail again! Pick me pick me pick–

"Representing Fairy Tail B Team, Gajeel and Juvia!" Chapati announced.

Gajeel jumped into the air, fist pumped high. "YEAH! Let's tear those Raven punks up, Sunshine!" Juvia smiled so wide she dimpled. They strode out onto the arena to cheers Gajeel never imagined. Dunno if I deserve them yet, he thought, but this is a chance to work on that.

"And representing Raven Tail, Alexei – I mean, Jose Porla–" Chapati continued, and Gajeel froze, "and who? Um...ah! Sky King Aria!" Juvia gasped as Master Jose, still in recently-repaired golden armor, strutted onto the battlefield, followed by their old teammate. "It seems that Aria is Raven Tail’s substitute team member." Aria was still wearing his blindfold. He had changed his look in one way, though – his hat and coat were now Raven Tail purple, and his stole was the hunter green of his old outfit. That aside, he seemed very much the same.

Right down to the damn crying, Gajeel sighed, as Aria burst into tears. "Former comrades must now do battle," he wept. "It's sad!"

"Quit yer bawlin', Aria," Gajeel growled. "No one thinks you mean it."

Juvia turned her fiercest pout on the Dragon Slayer. "Gajeel! You know that Aria really is sensitive deep down!" she insisted.

"I agree with Gajeel," Jose sighed. "It's maddening, Aria." He smirked at the two former Phantom Lord wizards. "No one should be sad at the downfall of these traitorous weaklings." Gajeel snarled, but he couldn't hide the way his guts twisted inside – not from himself. Shadow Gear – Levy – I ain't ever gonna make up for–

"Gajeel!" Levy shouted. Gajeel looked up, eyes wide, to find Shorty flashing him the Fairy Tail salute. Jet and Fishtail were right behind her doing the same thing. Gajeel didn't even have to check to know the rest of them had their arms in the air. Like a buncha geeks, he thought, ignoring the lump in his throat.

"Juvia!" Gray cried, and Juvia got heart-eyes at the sight of him saluting them. Still wrapped in bandages after his fight with the Twin Dragons, he locked eyes with her. "You're a Fairy Tail wizard, got it?"

Juvia floated an inch in the air. Gajeel sighed. She's literally floating, he grumbled, hearing the bubbles rippling through her liquid body. "Yes, Gray-sama!" she cheered.

The mallet guy rang the gong. "Let's go, Sunshine! You can flirt with Ice Boy later. Gee hee!" Gajeel rushed Jose. Can't let that creep near her, he thought, sticking out his arm. "Steel Dragon Sword!" he roared, his screaming chainsaw blade coming to life. His metal scales came to life and rippled across his body.

"I-it's not like that!" Gray blurted. Natsu laughed.

"Steel? That was always just a nickname, whelp," Jose mocked, his own arm held out to the side. Wrong, Jose. Solid Script: Carbon makes Gajeel a steely boy. Gee hee! Shade magic gathered in Porla's palm. Aw crap, here it comes. Gajeel braced himself, then leaped, using his Dragon Club leg-spring trick to race at his old boss. "Dead Wave!"

Gajeel tanked it, the phantom magic tearing through him as though his scales weren't there. He ignored the pain, the fear, and most of the guilt, concentrating on slicing Porla into Phantom Ham. Jose laughed and used his new boot-things to fly out of the way. "Too slow, Redfox," he mocked.

Juvia screamed, splattering across the arena. Aria was widening an Airspace that swirled and howled like Midnight's Spiral Pain. "Even water cannot escape the wind," Aria wept. "It's sad."

"Juvia is not beaten yet!" she gasped, forcing herself to reform back to back with her partner. "Gajeel, we cannot use our old tactics, and Aria will hear anything we discuss now," she pointed out. "I suggest our most recent battle with the Death's Head Caucus."

"Huh?" Gajeel blinked. I rushed the sword witch, while Juvia went after owl boy – then we swapped at the last second. Then Juvia used Water Lock on Icky while I ate the rocket pack. Delicious, but how does that... He sniffed, taking in the scent of Jose's new armor. Titanium, iron, aluminum – and is that a dash of vanadium? Yum! He nodded. "Got it. Gee hee!" He leaped at Aria, while Juvia snaked across the arena floor at Jose.

"Foolish girl, now you're mine!" Jose laughed. "Grim Chains!" Ghostly shackles lashed out at her.

Aria shook his head, the tears streaming from his blindfold in ever-greater torrents. "Even an Iron Dragon must breathe. It's sad! Metsu!" His magic-draining power lashed out for Gajeel.

"Now!" the Fairy Tail wizards shouted as one. Juvia exploded skyward while Gajeel plunged back to earth. Aria's Metsu sliced under the water woman, while Gajeel ate the Grim Chains. Blue was right. Cross-training with Sabertooth was a great idea.

"You ate Shade Magic?!" Jose yelped, backpedaling. "Are you a monster?"

"You should know. Gee hee!" Juvia surrounded Aria, becoming her own Water Lock. Airspace pounded her from within, making the sphere bulge erratically. She's having a tough time, but I gotta trust her. Gajeel rushed Jose again, his sword switching back to his clawed hand. "Iron Shadow Dragon ROAR!"

"Phantom Lock!" Jose chanted. Huh? Great, new spell, Gajeel snarled, leaping at the ex-Master all the same. A hemisphere of Shade Magic appeared around them. "Now, boy, you will suffer!"

Gajeel landed on Jose, claws tearing into his armor. It's not much more than a scratch, he realized. Gotta hang on! "Can't be worse than listening to you monologue." He tried to pull himself into wrestling range, but the Phantom Lock was tearing at him, pulling him upward. Oh. Trap. Great. He lengthened his claws and dug in, slamming leg Clubs into the ground. "You ain't gettin' rid of me that easy!"

Jose smiled. "Grim Scythe." The Phantom weapon took form in Porla's hands, and he slashed at Gajeel. If I let go now, it's over, the Dragon Slayer realized, and held on. The blade passed right through his scales. Gajeel howled in agony, his body exploding with pain, his soul screaming in guilt and sorrow. "Beg, Black Steel," Jose mocked, raising the weapon high. "Surrender and beg for mercy, and maybe you won't 'accidentally' die in battle!"

"I hate ta say it, but Natsu's got more natural talent than me," Gajeel admitted. I wanted to save this for a Dark Wizard, the Dragon Slayer thought, but I think Porla qualifies. Jose looked over his shoulder, one eyebrow raised. "Here’s the thing. I'm smarter than he is, and I've been on a team with Brother Blue for two years now. Karma Demon: Meteor Iron!"

An aura of midnight blue roared to life around Gajeel. Shadow gave way to cosmic might, the Dragon Slayer's body surging with a glory he'd never imagined. Whoa. This is amazing. Jose yelped, slashing at Gajeel again. The Grim Scythe shattered against the Team Starburst spell. "What – how – impossible! Impossible!"

"What's that line from Blue’s princess book? Oh, yeah. 'You keep usin' that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.' Hold still, creep!" Gajeel snarled. With the raging power at his command, the Dragon Slayer tore free of Phantom Lock's grip and bit deep into Jose's armor. Porla screamed and fired blast after blast of Shade Magic into Gajeel, but he was able to withstand it. Oh, man, this is good stuff, he thought, tearing with growing hunger into the armor plating. None of that crystal crap, either – not enough time to replace it, I guess.

Jose screamed. "Grim Titan!" Porla wailed. The Phantom aura enveloped Gajeel's opponent. Not gonna try three elements at once, he decided, grabbing as much of the remaining armor as he could and leaping away.

Phantom Lock crashed into him, but between Meteor Iron and his latest meal, Gajeel smashed through it. That was almost easy. Gee hee! He devoured the remaining metal in his hands with messy gusto as the sunlight returned. "Now that I've eaten, I feel re-energized," Gajeel grinned.

"DON'T COPY ME!" Natsu cried from above.

Jose's eyes bulged to ridiculous proportions as he stumbled back, nearly tripping over his own feet as he rushed to retreat. "H-Howling Horror!" he chanted, and one of those creepy Tower of Heaven hounds charged at Gajeel.

"Heaven Steel Dragon Roar!" Gajeel bellowed, destroying the monster and smashing Jose across the arena. Given the moment to breathe, he checked on his partner's fight. Aria was already down, still crying even helpless on his back, but Juvia was on her hands and knees, panting, and bruised across half her body.

"She'll never see the sun again!" Jose howled, motes of phantom force gathering around his hands. "Blind Reaper!" The motes became tiny darts, flying at the water woman.

"NO!" Gray screamed, and Team A's whole balcony froze solid.

I hear ya, Gajeel thought, leaping between Jose and Juvia. It was Levy's turn to scream, and that twisted Gajeel's insides worse than ever. "That was a mistake, old man. Karma Demon: Starmetal Spiral!" He smashed through Porla's needle blast – stealing that Nullpudding freak's style? Weak, Jose, he thought – and into Porla himself. Gajeel stopped his drilling before he could rip the creep in half, but the blow threw Jose into the wall again. This time, he went down, and aside from the occasional twitch, stayed there.

The Games people rang their bell. "What a finish!" Chapati cheered. "They might be Fairy Tail's B Team, but today they proved they're second to none! Fairy Tail is tied with Sabertooth for the lead!" The scoreboard flashed above them:

  • 1: Fairy Tail B - 53
  • 1: Sabertooth - 53
  • 3: Phoenix Grave - 46
  • 3: Fairy Tail A - 46
  • 5: Raven Tail - 36
  • 6: Lamia Scale - 28
  • 7: Blue Pegasus - 21
  • 8: Quatro Cerberus - 13

Gajeel walked over to Juvia, unable to keep from crying just a little as the cheering echoed higher than ever. He held out his hand, she took it, and he helped her up. She didn't let go, though, pulling his arm up with hers to hold them high in victory. I like bein' one of the good guys, Gajeel decided, frozen in place even as Mirajane threw herself into hugging them both. Jellal and Laxus were right behind her, and Fairy Tail poured out afterward, practically claiming the arena. Somehow, Levy managed to slip through the crowd, throw her arms around Gajeel's neck, and kiss him to within an inch of his life. I really, really like bein' one of the good guys.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Crocus, X787: Laxus

"What'd you say, Gajeel?!" Natsu roared. Lisanna pulled at his arm, to no avail.

Gajeel loomed over Natsu and smirked. "I said we're the 'A Team' now, Third Place Salamander. Gee hee!" Levy tugged on the back of Gajeel's shirt. I'm not even sure he feels it, Laxus mused, chuckling.

"I'll show you who's third place, metal head!" Natsu wailed.

"Like you can count, flame brain," Gajeel laughed. Gray sighed and facepalmed. Good luck with 'em, Fullbuster.

Erza darted over, grabbing both guys by the scruff of the neck and hauling them into the air. "That is quite enough," Titania ordered, glaring at both shuddering Dragon Slayers. "The last day of the Grand Magic Games is always a final free-for-all. Nothing is certain. Save it for our rivals."

"Aye sir," they both replied, subdued. Fairy Tail laughed.

"Eh, let 'em be, Erza," Laxus said, smiling. They've earned it. He didn't flinch at Titania's stern glare. "We've got a day off tomorrow. Sure, you're gonna drag Jellal off," he grinned, watching the mighty Erza Scarlet turn into a blushing mess, "but Natsu and Gajeel think with their knuckles. Let the kids play." Now, what they’ll be playing once Levy and Lisanna get through with ‘em...

"Is that right, Gajeel?" Levy demanded, stepping in front of Gajeel with a pout and hands on her hips. The mighty Steel Dragon Slayer gulped. Rivets'd probably rather be facing Titania, Laxus chuckled.

"Natsu," Lisanna whispered, putting a single delicate hand on his chest. Natsu turned, mouth half-open to respond. He froze like that, going red from the neck up like a thermometer.

Before Laxus knew it, Erza was in front of him, bowing. "Magnificent strategy, Laxus. This contest is over." The lightning wizard grinned as the younger Slayers’ ladies lured them away.

"Of course!" a tipsy Freed joined in, sword raised in salute. "Laxus' cunning is unparalleled!"

"Oi, oi," Laxus objected, eyes darting at the dancing First Master, "Mavis is right there." If she starts crying again, Gramps is gonna lose his mind.

When Erza turned toward Laxus with a razor-slash grin and a gleam in her eyes, Laxus felt a grave chill. "Maybe it's your turn to keep your own master occupied, Freed."

"With pleasure, Titania," Freed replied, sliding up to the Lightning Dragon Slayer. Laxus swallowed. Oh, Mavis, even like this he's gorgeous. "So, Laxus, sir. Do I need...to keep you...out of...trouble..." Freed trailed off, his eyes rolling back.

"Uh, Freed?" Laxus' eyes widened as Freed rested his head on Laxus' chest. "Freed this really isn't the place or time–" Freed's snore was gentle, almost delicate. "Oh, come on," Laxus sighed.

Erza pouted. "I am truly sorry, Laxus," she replied. "I didn't realize he had indulged so much."

With care and precision, Laxus draped Freed onto one of the Honeybone's couches. "It's fine, Red. The Thunder Tribe had a long day. Go kidnap Jellal. I'm gonna grab some fresh air." Erza blinked, then her razor smile returned, and she went blueberry hunting.

Laxus strode out of the inn and wandered aimlessly through the streets of Crocus. Man, this is humiliating. Everyone's giving it their all, and what am I doin'? Losing a fight I should've won because I was too proud to admit I got stabbed in the back, then coming in third – and even that was only thanks to a tiebreaker – in a contest that had my magic written all over it. He scowled at the coliseum towering in the distance. I gotta get it together. I'm a Fairy Tail wizard! He slammed his foot into a bench and shook his fist at the arena. "You hear me, punks? I'm a Fairy Tail wizard! In two days, you're all gonna know what that means!"

"Tsk, tsk," Ivan chuckled. Laxus whirled around to find his old man striding towards him. Ivan's creepy team was right behind him – Nullpudding, Obra, Black Snake, a heavily bandaged Jose Porla, and Aria all strode with him. Another mage, a weirdo with a monocle who was bent sideways like his whole body was Flare Corona's neck, trailed behind. "Shouting at the wind? You're too young to be as senile as that dry fossil, Laxus my boy."

Laxus snorted. "That's some big talk, Fifth Place Raven," he retorted, folding his arms. Ivan's smirk vanished. "You can't even keep one girl from walkin' out on you."

The smirk returned. "Oh, can't I?" Ivan hissed, snapping his fingers. "Sol, educate my son, would you?" Laxus straightened, eyes widening. Sol, the earth wizard? No. Even Ivan wouldn't–

"Oui," Sol replied, gesturing upward with two fingers. The cobblestones formed a column beside the Raven mage. The front of the column opened to reveal Flare's face, her eyes shaking and her jaw quivering. Zen help me. I guess he would. Damn it, geezer...

"Male...Blondie..." she whispered. Laxus paled. That's what she thinks I am? "I still...want to join...Fairy Tail..."

"Non, non, non," Sol sneered. "With these three 'nons,' I–" Laxus clenched his fist, and lightning crashed beside the creep. He squealed, hugging the Flare column as he shook. "Non!" Sol wailed.

"I'm gonna make this real simple for you idiots," Laxus snarled. "You're gonna let Corona there go, then drop out of the Games and leave Crocus. Or, I can fry every last one of you sadistic wastes of skin, and turn what's left over to the Rune Knights." He tossed his coat aside. "Any questions?"

"Just one, my boy," Ivan replied, his leering grin spreading. "Do you think I'm a complete fool? No one can see us. Your blue-haired freak of a friend might have warded away my illusions in the arena, but out here, no one has the slightest idea that Raven Tail is taking on the town." He pointed at an image of Laxus, still stomping his foot on the bench. While the real Laxus watched, the illusion of him turned into lightning and shot out toward the coliseum. "You see? Now, let's have a nice, polite conversation, shall we?"

Laxus snorted. "You are a complete fool, but you have a hostage, so I'll let you mouth off for now," he conceded, eyes crackling with his power. Until I can get someone else in, or the redhead out.

"Such a good boy," Ivan mocked. His smirk vanished, replaced by a fierce line of lips pressed together, and dagger-narrow eyes. "Lumen Histoire."

Uh... Laxus blinked. "What?"

"Come now, my boy, there's no need to play dumb," Ivan said, the rest of his guild moving in a step. "Lumen Histoire. You must know where it is."

"I don't even know what it is," Laxus explained with a shrug. "It doesn't really matter. I wouldn't tell you even if I did know something." He raised an eyebrow at his father, who ground his teeth. "Why do you care so much, anyway? Was this thing worth being thrown out of Fairy Tail? Grim, I was as stupid as you once, and nothing could be worth that."

"No. You must know," Ivan replied, fists trembling. "That pathetic geezer wouldn't have hidden his precious secret from you, not when he could use it to justify kicking me out."

"He's telling the truth," Jose drawled, standing beside Ivan, Shade Magic gathering around one hand. "That empty head of his is filled with nothing but confusion and contempt. The phantoms can feel it."

Ivan whirled on the former Phantom Master, mouth falling open. "That can’t be! It’s what all this has been for! Lumen Histoire – it is unlimited magic, unlimited darkness! With it, I can prove what Fairy Tail really is, and become the supreme wizard of Earthland!" The old man missed the sideways glare Jose turned on him, but Laxus didn’t. "I’ll finally show that lying geezer what I’m capable of!"

With a sigh, Laxus concentrated on the tiny core of magic within him. You’re gonna make me do it, aren’t you, old man? he thought. "Dragon Force," Laxus chanted. His chest swelled, muscles bulging, scales covering his skin. "Mom's death wasn't anyone's fault," he continued, cracking his neck as the small fry stared in awe. That's it, look at me, not your hostage, he thought. "Gramps wasn’t the one who talked Yomiko into breaking through Time. Our sins are our own, old man." He stepped into an attack stance, fists out and ready to strike. "I doubt you’re interested, but Fairy Tail would still let you back in if you asked to be forgiven."

Ivan ground his teeth so hard, one of them cracked, a flake of enamel shooting through the air. "That fossil would forgive me? Me? Mata was the only woman – the only person – who ever saw Ivan instead of a Dreyar, and Makarov let her die before risking Fairy Tail’s secret to save her." He trembled, the dark power in his shikigami rippling with his fury. "I’m going to destroy his whole guild! I’ll give Heartfilia and Titania to Porla while the last Fernandes dies screaming. Tear the magic from Salamander and the She-Demon to leave them helpless weaklings. Shatter the wills of Redfox and Lockser until they’re Element Four again. I’ll slaughter Ur in front of her daughter and son, then force them to fight to the death!" Spittle sprayed from Ivan’s lips, and the old madman shook like a tree in a hurricane. Porla started to laugh, his previous anger forgotten. "He’ll watch it all with his eyelids in his lap after I cut them off with my shikigami! So if you don’t know, I’ll rip out that lacrima in you and use it to kill Fairy Tail wizards until he tells me!"

In an instant, Ivan regained control, smoothing out his clothes and brushing back his hair with one hand. Porla and Black Snake were grinning with a sick glee to mirror his father’s. Obra stood there, expression unchanged. Laxus’ heart broke, for his father, and for himself. Gods forgive me. Dad really is broken. And me...I was almost that crazy. The Dragon Slayer's eyes flickered to Nullpudding, Aria, and Sol. None of them were smiling, looking at the others with growing uncertainty. Flare struggled in her stone prison. "Or...you could cooperate. If you don’t know, find out. You’ve spent the last two and a half years getting back into the old man’s good graces, haven’t you? Help your dear father out, my boy."

I will not cry. I will not show this wreck of a man weakness. Laxus called on the lightning, and it surged around him in a furious wreath. "Gramps is right. You really are out of your mind." His father summoned his stupid paper dolls. Porla pulled in his ghost-heads. Black Snake did his weird copied-sand-thing. When Laxus turned into lightning, they all froze. Jellal would probably complain, he thought, blasting through Porla first, that they’re still moving and I’m just fast. Screw it, don’t care. He came around for Black Snake.

He bounced off something and flipped back to human form out of reflex. The Snake smirked at him, surrounded in a familiar blue aura. "Meteor Wave," he explained, laughing as he charged at Laxus.

In spite of all the threats his old man had spit out of the hate that replaced his heart, it was seeing that foul copycat using a power sacred to Fairy Tail that left Laxus seeing red. "You’re no Starburst. Lightning Dragon Iron Fist!" He slammed his knuckles into the slippery creep’s jaw in spite of Meteor's speed, and Black Snake went flying.

Sol gasped and pointed up. Flare’s prison shot to the top of the Honeybone. "Non non non! Roche Concerto!” he cried, firing a barrage of stones at Laxus. Seriously? the Dragon Slayer wondered, rushing through the attack with only a few bruises.

Still, you got Flare off the field, so I’ll go easy on you. Laxus opened his hand. "This is for Mira and Elfman," he replied, firing a simple thunderbolt into the earth wizard. The blast slammed Sol into a nearby building, where he collapsed in a heap of twitching lumps. Ew. Oops. He's more of a wimp than I thought.

"Zero!" Aria chanted, not wasting time on threats or panic. He’d even taken his blindfold off, revealing eyes with X pupils.

Huh. Weird. Laxus held up his hands. "This is for Gramps. Lightning Halberd!" he chanted, forming the spear and throwing it through the gathering Air Magic. The halberd shattered the spell and sent Aria flying, though the air wizard was strong enough to make Laxus work for it.

"Obra! Take his magic!" Ivan ordered, pointing at Laxus. The shikigami dolls flew at Laxus, but other than the need to shield his eyes, they were easy to ignore in Dragon Force. Obra flew at him, body limp as his magic flared within.

Laxus smirked. "Ah. The little guy’s the real wizard. This is for Lucy. Raging Bolt!" Lightning shot down on the puppet from a clear sky, shattering it and sending the strange little spud inside flying. "Oh, and for me."

"N-Nullpudding, what are you waiting for? Attack!" Ivan wailed, trying to form a shikigami bomb. The spiky guy hesitated, then leaped at Laxus, needles growing along his arms.

"This is for Gray and Juvia. Lightning Shatter-Fist!" He punched the air, and an electric fist three times the size of the original slammed into Spiky. Nullpudding flew right into Sol, who yelped again before passing out a second time.

"You shouldn’t underestimate a Wizard Saint," Porla snarled. "Dead Blades!"

Even Laxus couldn’t tank the twin swords that had knocked Blue out of the sky without knowing he’d been hit. All the same, the only thing the youngest Dreyar really felt was rage. "This is for Erza and Jellal and – screw it, this is for Fairy Tail. ROARING THUNDER!"

For an instant, Porla vanished in an explosion of golden lightning. Laxus snarled a grin when the glow faded and the jerk was on his back, out cold. "M-my elite squad! My Wizard Saint!" Ivan babbled. Pretty sure even I couldn’t have taken Porla in two shots if he hadn’t fought Jellal and Gajeel, one day after the other, Laxus thought, turning to face Ivan, but I don’t have to tell the old man that. Ivan’s paper men had nearly completed the doll bomb, but eyes wide with terror told the Fairy Tail wizard that they both knew he wouldn't make it. "Wait! Wait!" Ivan begged. "I wouldn’t have really done all that, I was just trying to scare you into cooperating! You don’t really want to hit me, do you? I’m your father! You can’t attack me, we’re family!"

"Fairy Tail is my family," Laxus rumbled, striding towards his father with only one thought. You’re gonna pay. The lightning built around him with a power even he’d rarely felt. "Lightning Dragon Roar!" He obliterated the doll bomb with ease, driving his father back with the same blow. Oh, no. You don’t get off easy, old man.

"Ungrateful wretch! You’d be nothing without me!" Ivan lashed out with the last of his paper dolls, still enough to form a storm of bladed whips. "Begone!"

"You begone!" Laxus rushed through the storm, fists poised overhead. "I destroy my family’s enemies! Lightning Dragon Jaw!" The blow slammed Ivan into the ground, forming a massive crater and shattering the illusion around them.

"There!" Ultear called. In an instant, Cult Buster and both Crime Sorciere teams were on top of Raven Tail, vines and webs wrapping them up. It was almost unnecessary.

"You!" Araña gasped, gripping Black Snake’s collar. "What are you doing with Raven Tail?"

The weirdo glared at the spider wizard. "Simple. I’m not a traitor. Obra!" Snakey shouted. Araña’s web vanished, and Black Snake followed a moment later. Nuts. Mini-Obra must've bailed while I was frying the rest of 'em.

Azuma grunted. "Daphne’s top agent. He handles lesser guilds for her."

"Who are you calling lesser," Ivan groaned, twitching in his crater.

Erigor floated over the old man. "You, you idiot," the Wind Reaper snarled. The rest of Fairy Tail was rushing out, gaping at the mess Laxus had made of the rival guild.

"W-we were working for a Dark Guild?" Aria gasped, struggling to his feet. "No...that’s too sad. That’s too sad!" he cried, falling to his knees and weeping fountains of tears. Oh, for...

Simon gasped, looking at Ultear with wide eyes. "The scorpion guy. Just before we fought Phantom Lord back in '84, remember? He was a mimic – copied our magic and everything!"

Ultear’s gasp echoed Simon’s. "He had the same build, the same black jumpsuit – Mavis, he just swapped the mask for those derpy shorts." Laxus blinked while she facepalmed. Derpy? he wondered. "How could we have missed it?"

All four native Crime Sorciere mages looked up at the sound of metal boots on the march. "The city guard," Azuma replied. "We should vanish."

"Take care, nee-san," Imitatia added to Lucy, giving her a quick hug. Then Ul-1 did a thing, and all seven independent mages disappeared.

"Did you take out all of them by yourself, Laxus-chan?" Millianna asked, poking at the whimpering Porla. She wrapped him in her cat-tube and tore away the vines.

"Mm, mm," Flare said, nodding. Then she used her hair to lower herself to street level. "Male Blondie was alone, and he beat them all. Monocle had my hair in rock scrunchies, but I could still see it."

Wally tipped his hat to the lightning mage. "Now that’s dandy."

"That’s our Laxus!" Bicks and Ever cheered. Bicks had even brought out Freed on his babies, in spite of Freed still being asleep. Laxus couldn’t help a smile at the sight. Watching the rest of Raven Tail being manacled didn’t hurt.

Aria and Sol looked away, frowning and meekly holding out their wrists as the Rune Knights arrested them. That...that could have been me. That could have been my Thunder Tribe! He glared at Ivan. Never again. I swear it, Gramps– His eyes went round at the sight of his grandfather exhorting further details from Flare. "Oi, leave the skinny hair girl alone, geezer," Laxus called. "She’s too young for you."

"Laxus." Ivan turned a wobbling gaze on his son. Laxus shot back with a cool gaze. "One day, you will learn the truth. I don’t know everything about Lumen Histoire, but I know this much – it is Fairy Tail’s darkness. One day, you will see them for what they really are."

"Yeah, well, all you’re gonna see for a while is the inside of a cell. Gee hee!" Gajeel smirked at Ivan. When the mad guild master leaped for Gajeel, only to be yanked back by the guards, even Laxus couldn’t help a laugh. I see Fairy Tail for what it is, Father. Home.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Crocus, X787: Natsu

"Whaaa?!” Natsu howled.

"At the suggestion of the Magic Games committee," Mato explained, "we’re requesting that Fairy Tail combine its teams into a single group for the final day."

"That’s a load of crap!" Natsu roared. Mato yelped and leaped back. A dozen guards stepped between the little mascot and the Dragon Slayer. "We fought hard for our spot in the Games!"

"With the a-arrest of Raven Tail," Mato stammered, "there are an uneven number of participating teams, kabo." He gathered his wits and smoothed out his costume. Natsu growled – until Erza grabbed his collar from behind. Eep! Natsu quailed, backing off. "The committee thought it best to balance out the teams under the circumstances."

"I don’t understand," Lucy replied, smelling of sour frustration and worry. "I thought the last day was one big free-for-all. If we still had single duels ahead, I’d understand, but this – it’s not fair!"

Erza sighed, letting Natsu go. Whew, Salamander thought. "Not you too, Lucy. This request must come from the royal family itself," Erza explained.

"So what?" Gray cut in, arms crossed and shirt missing. Natsu snickered, but Ice Princess ignored him. "I can’t believe I’m saying this, but flame-brain’s right. This stinks of a fix."

"I disagree," Jellal said, and Natsu snorted twin jets of smoke. Jellal's on Erza's side. Who’d believe it? Natsu grumped, pouting. "Frankly, I’m appalled that the Games haven’t been called on account of evil, but apparently the show must go on." He tugged at his collar. "If the committee is asking us to do this, and not forcing it on us, I imagine that there will be some mitigating factors."

Mato wiped his pumpkin forehead. How does a mask sweat?! Natsu wondered. "Correct, kabo. At first, the referees thought your team should receive the lower of the two point totals." Even Erza grumbled at that. "However! We consulted with all five remaining teams, and they agreed that it would be unfair, kabo. So you’ll receive half of your combined total, rounded up."

Natsu blinked. How many is... he wondered, starting to count on his fingers. "Fifty, Salamander," Gajeel rumbled. Mato snapped his fingers, revealing the final day four count:

Sabertooth 53

Fairy Tail 50

Phoenix Grave 46

Lamia Scale 28

Blue Pegasus 21

Quatro Cerberus 13

"Also," Mato continued before Natsu could get in metal-head’s face, "you can choose any five guild members for your team, except for Master Makarov, kabo." Natsu sighed. I guess that’s fair. He couldn’t play before, he can’t play now. Mato pointed at the sky. Why’s he doing the Fairy Tail salute – wait, his thumb’s not out, Natsu realized. "The Royal Family has one more request in that regard, kabo. Princess Hisui in particular would like to see the Shield of Fiore participate in the final round!"

"Agreed!" Erza blurted. Jellal’s eyes went round and blank, and the whole rest of the guild laughed except for Mirajane and Lucy. Even Wendy’s giggling a little, Natsu realized between laughs, while Mira patted Jellal’s back in sympathy. "This contest is over."

"Not even a little!" Jellal objected.

Makarov whirled around and pointed at the Starburst. "Jellal! You’re fighting, and that’s that!" Jellal bowed his head in defeat, to more laughter.

"Mercurius, and all of us in the Grand Magic Games, thank you for your support, kabo." Mato bowed to them. "Enjoy the rest of your day off, kabo. I have it on good authority that King Toma himself is rooting for you!" He left with a wave and another "kabo," leaving Fairy Tail looking at the clock, every last one of them with a sweat drop in place.

"It’s already ten at night," Lisanna pointed out.

Erza leaped on to the table in the center of the room, summoning a sword and pointing it high. "Then we have to choose our team immediately!" she demanded.

"If there are no objections, I have some input on the matter," Azuma said, forming halfway out of the wooden floor. Erza yelped and leaped back, right into Jellal’s arms. Natsu snickered. Oh, yeah, she was so scared, the Dragon Slayer thought, as the mighty Titania and Starburst blushed at each other. "My apologies, but I have a report."

"Mm, mm," Erza replied. When Jellal moved to put her down, she wrapped her arms around his neck in a death grip. Natsu took a quick sniff in their direction. He can breathe, the Salamander decided.

Azuma completed his arrival in the common room and cleared his throat. "In the last year, Dark Guilds subordinate to Tartaros began disappearing. While we have dealt with some, and Legal Guilds with others, there are several that are simply unaccounted for. Worse, some of the wizards captured disappeared from custody." What merriment remained faded away as Fairy Tail gave Azuma the attention he’d earned. "All those who vanished showed signs of mutation before their escape...or kidnapping."

"I take it you’ve found some connection to events here?" Ultear asked, the rest of Cult Buster nodding in unison. Azuma paused, then reached into his cloak and pulled out the torn remains of a shirt. "Succubus Eye?" she asked, eyes locked onto the symbol.

Azuma nodded. "We found it yesterday while investigating the infection of Pandemonium. It could be a coincidence. Succubus Eye has a grudge against both Sabertooth and Fairy Tail. According to our intelligence, they’ve targeted Master Minerva, the Twin Dragons, and your Thunder Tribe for conversion."

Half the guild gasped. Natsu snarled, hungering to beat the snot out of someone. Lisanna put a torch in his hand, which he devoured in seconds. "Fanks, Rizanna," he muttered between bites.

"Don’t talk with your mouth full," Lisanna chuckled, "and you’re welcome."

"Define ‘conversion,’ please," Jellal whispered. That’s his "quiet fury" mode, Natsu recognized. Jellal only does that when he’s really pissed. Erza slipped from Starburst’s arms to stand beside him, holding his hand.

"Etherious mutation and brainwashing," Azuma explained. Jellal’s eyes burned with sun-flame. In spite of the grave situation, Natsu’s mouth watered. "They seek revenge, and mages of such power would make terrible weapons."

Laxus snorted. "Succubus Eye had exactly one mage who could give us trouble," he replied, "and we thrashed him." For some reason, Bickslow and Evergreen flinched, Bicks’ fingers running along the grill of his helmet, while Ever wrapped her arms around her chest. Cana and Elfman stepped closer to them. "I’m not worried about those small fry."

"Tartaros," Azuma reminded him. "The Oracion Seis have redeemed themselves, and Grimoire Heart fled from Ishgar itself. When Team Starburst defeated Demon Guard, the only rival Tartaros had for control of the continent’s Dark Guilds fell." He looked towards the palace. "Still, Ultear the First senses inexplicable Time Magic in the city, and Tartaros’ guilds have never shown an interest in that before. Time manipulation was always Grimoire's purview. The return of the dragons, and the Darkness."

"'Return of the dragons?'" Natsu asked. "That was Daphne's whole thing, right?" Jellal shivered, and Erza put an arm around him.

"Yes," Azuma agreed. "She never showed an interest in time travel herself, however. She wanted to prove their presence in the modern day, then aid their return to glory. Master Hades believed that she wouldn't care about specifics, once everyone who mocked her was in a dragon’s belly."

"Black Snake," Jellal whispered. "He was Black Scorpion of Blue Skull, wasn’t he?"

Azuma nodded, turning a grim look out the window. "This could be their plan as easily as Tartaros'. All he would have to do is get close enough to Miss Ultear to copy her magic, and he could bring Grimoire Heart into Mercurius itself."

"So," Gray sighed, "the short version is, we need Devil Slayers and Dragon Slayers, just in case." Azuma nodded. Gray glared at the ceiling. "Ai-yah. We’ve got four Dragon Slayers, but only one of me. I’ll stay behind."

"Me too," Mirajane added with a fierce nod. "I can handle demons."

Juvia looked glum, her scents spiking too erratically for Natsu to follow. "J-Juvia wants to support Gray-sama," she said.

"Hey, we can’t all drop out," Lucy interjected. "We’re going to need powerful wizards to win this thing."

Erza nodded. "So far, we have Jellal, Lucy, and myself," she said, and Lucy gasped, jumping back. "We require two more."

"Me?" Lucy blurted. "I’m not in the top five – I’m not even in the top ten. I’m just part of Team Erza." Natsu fought off a facepalm. Oh, for – way to Jellal it, Luce.

Jellal laughed. "Says the woman who tore down Nightmare."

"Jellal is right," Master Mavis said, floating through the bar to smile at Natsu’s partner. "Juvia will be strongest at Gray’s side, and you command more sacred power than anyone I’ve ever known." Lucy gulped.

"Well, if Luce is in, then I’m in!" Natsu announced, striding up and dropping an arm over her shoulders. "And if dragons show up, I’ll fight them too. I’m all fired up!"

Laxus smiled. "There’s a challenge I can’t turn down. I’ll make five."

"What?" Gajeel demanded. "You guys can’t just decide that!"

"You should back up Shadow Gear," Mavis said, and Natsu laughed when Gajeel’s mouth clanked shut. "Wendy, you and Carla stay with the Thunder Tribe until Laxus is done. Is everyone ready?"

"AYE SIR!"

-FT- -FT- -FT-

"He’s down!" Chapati screamed, shaking Yajima by his shirt. "Jura is down! Laxus defeats Jura! Five points for Fairy Tail, and they retake the lead!"

Natsu grinned at his opponent. Sting grinned back, the Light Drive scales shining across his skin. "Looks like we’re in first again, Sting." The kid’s light shone even more brightly with the arrival of nightfall.

"Not for long," Sting replied. "White Dragon Claw!" The blast ripped through the wall beside Natsu, the Fire Dragon Slayer dodging by less than an inch.

"Sorry, Sting. I ain’t losin’ to you again." He grinned at the fire Sting had lit. Natsu scooped it up with one hand and devoured it. Sting’s eyes went round and blank. "Now that I’ve eaten, I feel re-energized."

"Say it, say it, please say it," Sting blurted, suddenly looking very much like the child he was.

Oh, now I gotta, Natsu thought, his smile growing. He pounded his fists together. "I’m all fired up!" Sting squeed. "Blazing Iron Fist!"

Sting darted out of the way, but Natsu was fast enough to singe the Sabertooth mage’s shirt. "That was awesome! Holy Ray!" The enormous beam hammered at Natsu, who was only able to dodge part of it. He smashed into someone’s attic, then chuckled. That kid’s something. Sting leaped overhead, power shining around him. "Come on, you gotta go into Lightning-Flame form – you know you can’t win without it!"

Even if I could, I have to honor Sting’s spirit. Natsu pounded the floor. "Lightning Fire Dragon Mode!" he chanted, Laxus’ gift surging through him. He shot at Sting, and even in mid-air, both Dragon Slayers became a blur of fists, neither giving an inch. "I gotta tell you, though, you made a mistake."

"What’s that?" Sting asked, firing a Light Dragon Roar at Natsu.

The Salamander blocked it with a lightning-flame fist. "I’m worth one point, you’re five, and I’m not going to lose to you twice."

Sting’s eyes widened. "Wh-what makes you think I’m the captain?"

Natsu laughed. "Besides duh, of course you are? You just told me. Well, your scent did." Natsu tapped his nose. Sting growled and raced at the Salamander, fist shining silver-white. With a kick to the air, Natsu roared back at him. "Crimson Lotus: Exploding Lightning Blade!"

"Holy Nova!" Sting cried.

The two spells crashed into each other, obliterating the city block below. Natsu felt Sting’s Light Magic pound every scale on his body. After ten seconds of this, they both landed, legs shaking. Sting’s so much fun to fight! Natsu exulted, letting the lightning go. "Cuh...come on," he breathed, panting. "I’m all fired up."

Sting’s smile was thin and gentle. "Sorry, Natsu. Maybe...next year." He fell back, smiling at the stars. "Zen, Master Makarov must really need that money."

"Hey, Master Minerva wanted to give us a challenge." Natsu wobbled over and offered the young Dragon Slayer a hand. "Let’s fight again next year, okay?"

"Definitely," Sting promised, hand quivering as he grasped Natsu’s. Helping the kid up proved harder than Natsu thought, and they ended up having to lean on each other. Chapati gushed again in the distance. "Wait, is the game over?" Sting looked with bleary eyes at the nearest screen. "Rufus, Orga, and Dyst are still on the field. Neither Lucy nor Laxus was your captain, so we could still win. Shouldn’t you be fighting someone else?"

Nope. We have a Fairy Tactician, Natsu thought, but instead of saying that, he pointed up. Sting gasped as he saw an enormous Grand Chariot light the darkness, raining cosmic might down on a few dozen buildings. When it faded, Jellal shone in the sky, looking like a star himself. The victory bell rang in the distance. "What an amazing finish!" Chapati cheered, all of Crocus joining in. "It was back and forth through the entire day, but they’ve retaken their crown as the Fiore’s number one guild! Fairy Tail!" Natsu cheered as well, then helped Sting towards the healing tent.

The cheers stopped like a doused candle. A smell like grave soil filled the air, wafting – from above? Both smiles vanished as a rippling darkness blocked out the stars. With a second to adjust, Natsu could make out a coastline above them. It was as though someone had taken a globe the size of the city and crushed it into a cube. Then a new, massive screen appeared, displaying a man with long black hair tied in a pony tail. He wore a fancy black suit with white accents, held a book like it was his own kid, and sat in a creepy throne decorated with freaky faces. The new guy laid the book to one side, then applauded. "Bravo! Bravo! Encore!" he exclaimed.

Then three creatures slammed into Jellal from the flying cube. "Natsu, what–?" Sting gasped.

"The game’s over," Natsu replied, snarling as one of Ultear’s gateways opened up in front of them. "The war's begun."

Chapter Text

Volume Twenty-Three: Wrath of the Fairy Queen

Earthland-2, Cube, X787: Jellal

what... Jellal groaned. He tried to move, tried to focus. Neither worked. Everything hurt. where...

"Ah, you’ve come back to us." The voice was a woman’s, unfamiliar, husky. Sadistic. Ow. I didn’t think everything could literally hurt, and I’ve been tortured by professionals. His eyelids felt made of lead, but somehow he found the strength to open them.

A horned woman who put Jellal in mind of Mirajane’s evil twin smiled at him in an all too familiar way. The Tower torturers. Zalty. Brain. Porla. He twitched, and even that sent new shocks of agony through him. Siegrain. This isn’t just sadism. She lives on suffering the way we live on air. She grabbed his jaw, and every place her ridged claws dug into his flesh felt like a tooth exploding. "Welcome to Tartaros. By the by, those chains seal your magic. All of your parlor tricks are as bound as your arms and legs. Do I have your attention, handsome?" she asked.

Jellal managed to turn his attention to his predicament. His wrists were manacled above his head, ankles to the ground, and he was dressed solely in his boxers. Several tentacles wrapped around his arms and ribs, draining his strength alongside his ethernano. His feet scraped against a rough stone floor, and even that hurt. "Fuh – for all the good it will do you," he rasped. At least my throat doesn’t feel the way it did in the Room. He managed to meet her eyes, gleaming above that smile of cruelty. "I am a Fairy Tail wizard. Pain will get you nothing from me."

The woman laughed. "You beautiful, deluded thing. I am Kyouka, leader of the Nine Demon Gates and Goddess of the Slave Planet."

That last title was enough for Jellal to find the strength to glare. "Charmed," he snarled. Kyouka smirked and drew one claw across his abdomen. The cut was shallow, but felt like being gutted alive. Don't scream, he ordered himself, jaw trembling as he fought the agony. "I've been...tortured before," he hissed. "Not...creative."

"Foolish boy. My Enhancement Curse has increased your sensitivity a hundredfold." Kyouka leaned over and blew on his neck. The pain in his chest vanished, replaced by ecstasy almost as unbearable. His wounds only made it worse. "You were very naughty to Torafuzar and Ezel, but I can make the suffering end." Her smile widened into a crescent slash, and she punched Jellal in the cut she'd opened.

Though he gasped from the torment, the Starburst still didn't scream. His entire body went limp, powerless in the grip of the chains and Kyouka's monster pet. Jellal couldn't even shake his head in refusal. Burning, aching, throbbing, choking...it's every form of suffering all at once. He tried to catalogue the different forms of pain as a distraction. "You can use...Curse Magic?" he asked.

Kyouka laughed again. "Brainless whelp. We use curses the way you pathetic humans use magic. The difference is, our curses draw power solely from negative emotions. Greed, envy, hatred, wrath, they all make us stronger than any of your disgusting mortal kind."

Even blinking hurt, but it was weak enough pain that he could ignore it in the storm of anguish tearing at him. Can – can I get her to give me information? Jellal wondered. "The One Magic," he gasped, managing to shudder. "Hades wants–"

Her slap felt like it broke his jaw, though she hadn't left more than a bruise. "We are the malice beneath the depths of your magic, boy," the self-styled Goddess replied, grabbing his hair. When she pulled him up to face her, it was like his scalp being torn away, but it wouldn't stop. "Our curses are as far beyond magic as a diamond is beyond coal."

"Diamonds begin life as coal," Jellal noted, immediately regretting it when she slashed his chest. Don't scream don't scream don't scream! She laughed – again – while he panted out his agony. "You were created by Zeref, weren't you? A human mage."

"Lord Zeref became immortal, transcending humanity to become a demon-god." Kyouka replied, releasing Jellal's hair. The moment's relief made the rest of the pain bearable for an instant. "All Etherious have but one purpose – to rejoin Him. To do that, we need something from you."

Jellal tried to laugh, but all that came out was a choked whimper. "No."

Kyouka snarled, then plunged her claws into the cut she'd already made. Jellal screamed, all resistance forgotten. "Siegrain," she said, removing her talons from his body and pressing her hand on the wound. It sealed. "I Enhanced your healing. Even death is no escape from Cube." Jellal licked his lips and tried to speak, but only a sob came out. "Tell me where your brother is, and the pain will end."

Wait, what? Even unrelenting misery couldn't stanch Jellal's grief or curiosity. "Siegrain? Why?"

"Face," she whispered. Jellal's eyes widened. "Ah, you know what it is."

"Your curses move through ether at lower frequencies than the darkest human magic," the Starburst gasped. "That's why my Wave Magic didn't work on you. Face will break Ishgar's wizards, and then you – never." Even Kyouka's torture receded at the thought of the horror Tartaros would unleash. "I'd endure this forever before I betray humanity."

"Hm? Oh, that," Kyouka retorted, activating a lacrima screen with a dismissive wave.

The Shield of Fiore thought he could not imagine more pain, until he saw the earth around Mercurius torn apart by giant skeletons that ravaged everything in their path. The horror of it grew tenfold when the "camera" pulled back to show several of the skeletons flying on bony wings that shouldn't have been able to lift a mouse. "Did you know that a dragon graveyard – perhaps the dragon graveyard – lies beneath Crocus? Daphne did. Power to ravage the world right in front of her, and all she did with it was take samples. His Majesty had more imagination." She grabbed his face, and his cheeks burned as though slashed open. "Mankind is beaten. This is your last day. We need Face for something else."

Jellal gathered his tattered courage. "No."

"Insolent mortal!" Kyouka turned one claw into a whip, then slashed at him again and again. Jellal's screams tore from his throat, the star mage powerless to stop them. "You will be the last of your kind, suffering for all eternity! Your brother is the final seal on Face!" She snapped, and a second screen came to life, displaying the smoking ruins of the Council building. Jellal gaped and wept. "Where is Siegrain? Tell me!"

"I'm a Fairy Tail wizard," the Starburst grunted. "You'll find 'eternity' shorter than you imagined when my guild comes for me."

Kyouka whipped him in the chest, setting his wounds aflame with agony. Then she stepped back, looking him over with a mechanic's eye. "Hm. Yes. A Fairy Tail wizard." She touched the screen displaying Era's ruins, and the image flickered to show another demon-woman. "Seilah!"

"Yes, my Goddess," the younger woman replied, placing her hand over her heart and dropping to one knee. If that's where a demon's heart is. If a demon even has a heart.

"Bring me a Fairy Tail wizard. I don't care which." That drove Jellal to leap at Kyouka, pain forgotten for an instant. The chains and tentacles were less forgiving, and the demon's monster slammed Jellal back into the wall. Yet again, Kyouka laughed. What have I done?

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Crocus, X787: Erza

"Perdition Claw: Abbadon!" Titania chanted, slamming her blade into the corpse's titanic jaw. The skeletal beast flew back, flipping over in the air before righting itself. I've damaged it, but much of its dragon's might remains, she analyzed. "Purgatory Wrath!" She leaped at the monster, Perdition raised high.

The giant skeleton swung its tail around, and Erza had to pivot to parry. Fortunately, Purgatory Wrath worked just as well on a tail as any other body part, and she shattered the whip of bone. It stared at the broken remnant of its tail, eye holes going wide. How does a skull sweat drop? Erza wondered, swapping Purgatory for Giant as she landed on a lacrima-vision shop. I must ask Mira later. Jellal would overthink it.

"Sky Dragon – Roar!" Wendy chanted, her howling storm throwing the dragon-corpse to earth. Carla flew Erza's teammate to her side. "Erza, are you all right?"

No, Erza screamed in her mind, Jellal's pain howling in her thoughts. "I will manage. Is Dragon Slayer magic effective against these undead things?"

"Yes," Carla replied. "The difference isn't as great as I would have expected, but Wendy's magic is as effective as your weaponry with less power." Titania nodded. It is fortunate that Carla has been refining her magic. Without Jellal...

"Erza, you're crying!" Wendy gasped. The Knight wiped a disobedient tear from her cheek. "What's happened?"

"We'll take care of these things," Carla added, looking up at the giant cube. "Go save him."

It felt like tearing out her own heart, but Erza shook her head. "Not yet. There are thousands of innocents in danger. Jellal would never forgive himself if they were harmed because we put him before them." She raised De-Malevo high. "Together! Power to Repel Evil!" Erza chanted, throwing the sacred lance. Its jets roared to life, flying straight for the creature's spine.

"Ile Arms! Ile Vernier!" Wendy sang out. De-Malevo glowed pale green with her Enchantment Magic. "Sky Dragon Wind Wave!" A whirlwind taller than any of the nearby buildings followed the lance, and both attacks struck the dragon as one.

The whole monster shattered like glass. For a moment, Erza thought she heard a whisper of thanks, but there were too many shouts in the battle's din to truly tell. "That's one." In spite of her self, the Fairy Queen grimaced. "With too many more yet to slay. What magic is this?"

"Not magic," the gentle voice of a young woman replied, "but the Curse of Necromancy." Erza turned to find a purple-haired lady approaching them, an open book cradled lovingly in hand. Were it not for her horns, she thought, I could mistake her for a friend of Levy's. The demon closed her book, then locked eyes with Erza in a cool gaze. "Erza Scarlet. You are his favorite."

Rage burned away all other thought. Without incantation or consideration, Erza Requipped into Armadura Fairy. "Jellal! Where is he?"

"You will see him soon. Macro." A force gripped Erza from within, sapping the strength from her arms and commanding her legs to follow the demon woman. Even clad in Armadura Fairy, with Jellal's wards inscribed within, it took all Titania's willpower to hold herself still. Trying to attack is too risky, Erza thought, shaking. She could turn me on my nakama. Gods, help me!

"Erza!" Wendy gasped. "Sky Dragon Wing Strike!" Storms sprang to life around the Dragon Slayer's arms, and she slammed them into the demon.

"Begone." Seilah held out her hand, and dozens of books shot through Wendy's magic to batter the Dragon Slayer. Wendy flew back, Carla racing to catch her. "You." She glared at Erza. "Obey. Kyouka will be angry." Erza trembled, knowing the name through her Starburst the moment she heard it. She's the one who's torturing Jellal! Erza took a step forward, raising her swords. "No. Put those away."

Lisanna appeared from above, her Heaven Soul shining like a sun in the night. "Get away from her!" she cried. "Angel Explosion!" Sacred light erupted around the demon, and Erza was free.

"Fairy Burst!" Titania chanted, and the two spells sent the demon flying.

A male demon landed beside the woman, a leonine beast-man carried by a whirlwind. "Seilah. This is no time for games."

"No!" Elfman charged into them both in full Beast Mode. He sent them sprawling. "It's time for a man!"

"Tempester, capture the knight," Seilah replied, eyes narrowing at the sight of Elfman. "This one looks useful. Macro." Her Curse pulsed out again, and Erza could feel it even through Lisanna's cleansing light. Elfman snarled and twitched.

Then he roared at the sky, and Lisanna flinched. Oh, no, Erza worried, leaping beside the youngest Strauss. Has she taken control of Elfman, in spite of all Jellal's precautions? Elfman leaped into the air, and Seilah smiled...

...until she realized Elfman was coming down towards her. The demon's eyes widened. "Obey!" she demanded, flinging dozens of books at the Beast. Elfman didn't even slow down, crashing into Seilah and throwing her down the street.

"A man will not surrender control twice," Elfman replied, stomping the earth. The road cracked beneath his talons. "Not when a Fairy Tail wizard has spent five years writing freedom into that man's spirit!" Erza smiled – Jellal is protecting us all even now – and turned on Tempester.

"Boom," the demon chanted, and an explosion drove them all back. Wendy and Carla nearly went flying, but Erza Requipped to Adamantine and caught Wendy's hand, while Wendy pulled Carla into a one-armed hug. This fight will be a formidable one–

Ice flashed across the battlefield, and both demons froze solid. "Wendy! Erza!" Gray, wrapped in his Zero Flesh, flew to their side. "Is everyone all right?"

Without the distraction of battle, the thought of Jellal's captivity returned. "We are unharmed," Erza reported, eyes tight with grief, "but Jellal remains a prisoner of Tartaros. We must clear the civilians from the city, then rescue him."

"But–" Wendy blurted.

"Erza's right, damn it," Gray snarled. "As long as that thing's just floating there looking stupid, we've got to focus on the folks who can't fight. It's what he would want."

In cruel answer to Erza's prayers, a beam of indigo force lanced out from the cube, smashing into the grounds outside the gates of Mercurius. The others all gasped. "Eclipse!" Lisanna blurted.

"What?" Erza asked.

Lisanna pressed her hand against her forehead, eyes squeezed shut. "It's what the Grand Magic Games were for. It was some kind of anti-Zeref weapon, but they needed Lucy and Yukino to get it working, and now–"

"Let me guess," Gray spat. "It was out by the palace." Lisanna nodded.

"That's not manly!" Elfman objected.

"Wait. Where are Lucy and Yukino?" Erza asked.

Lisanna looked away from the palace. "Arcadios picked them up as soon as the attack started. They were still recovering from their double knockout."

"I bet they were," Gray snarled, turning his attention to the frozen demons. "Ice Devil RAGE!" he roared, shattering them both. "We've got to hurry. That death freak is raising dragon bodies faster than we can put them down."

"Then we must move," Erza ordered, leading them forward. They found a knot of dragon-man skeletons, and Titania unleashed Heaven's Wheel on them. "Keep fighting until we find the monster behind this."

Lisanna looked around them, grimacing at the sight of half-collapsed shops and burning homes. "Do you know which demon is doing this?" she asked.

Gray pointed skyward, at the largest of the dragon corpses. This one had bony scales that made it seem almost whole. As they watched, all horrified except for the Devil Slayer, bone hatchlings fell from holes in its armor. "Her name was Motherglare," Gray explained, glaring at the pair. "The necromancer is called Keyes. Most of his power goes into making these." He froze a squad of the skeletal hatchlings before they could approach. "I almost had him, but then the demon with the four arms attacked me."

Erza gasped. "Ezel? But Jellal already destroyed him!"

"They weren't kidding about being immortal," Gray complained, shaking his head. "I think I can finish them off with the right Devil Slayer magic – that's what it's for – but until one of us figures out the trick, we're in a bad spot." He glared up at Cube. "That's probably why they wanted Jellal. Not sure why he's still alive, though."

"They're questioning him," Erza explained, and they all looked at her with sympathetic horror even as they ran. "I know, Mavis help me, but we have to contain this, even with that demon cannon above us. Keep fighting." She turned to face another dragon corpse flying at them, this one bulky and broad with a massive jaw.

"Mmm, you women look tasty," it said, stroking the air beneath its chin as though it had a beard. "And a popsicle on the side! I never thought a male would look appetizing." It snorted at the sight of Elfman, though, disgust clear even with empty eye sockets. "You, on the other hand, stink of sweat and leather."

"That's manly sweat!" Elfman roared, leaping up and hammering at its skull with a clasped-hand overhead smash. The dragon laughed.

"Gravity Change!" Its laughter turned into a yelp as Kagura drove Defender through its skull, splitting the entire body in half right down the spine. The monster crashed to earth, Elfman driven through its forehead by his increased weight. "Now!"

Erza's heart welled with pride as Millianna's tubes pinned its legs and wings to the ground, Simon's shadows devoured it from below, and Wally's 64 Frames attack shattered the beast from within. "Ten of Coins! King of Cups! The World! Enhancement!" Cana chanted. "Now, Ultear!"

"Arc Crash: Annihilation!" Ultear appeared from a Space Arc gate above the dragon, her magic smashing the skeleton into Simon's devouring shadows. Kagura flew up beside her and stabbed down, gravity increasing in the beast's center to drag the broken pieces further in. Wally teleported to Elfman's side and pulled him out of the way.

Just like that, it was over, and the monster was gone. Cult Buster's mages released their spells as one, Cana and Millianna high-fiving each other. Simon leaned on his knees, panting. Ultear teleported to his side and kissed his cheek. "Ha! Who needs Dragon Slayers?" she cheered.

Lightning split the sky, and powder drifted down towards them. Laxus briefly coalesced into human form, nodded at the gathered wizards, and exploded through the heavens once more to shatter another dragon corpse. The Thunder Tribe followed him, holding off demon soldiers that tried to attack the S-Class wizard from behind. "We do," Cana and Elfman said as one, smiling as they watched Bickslow and Evergreen plow through small fry.

"This is dandy and all," Wally cut in, eyes hidden by his hat, "but we still have to rescue nii-san."

"Civilians first," Erza insisted again, slapping an errant tear on her cheek.

Ultear sobered on the spot. "Don't worry, Erza, this isn't just personal. Cana and Simon used their Shadow Card ritual to figure out the demons' immortality."

Gray stared, jaw going slack. "How?"

"We thought it would just point us in the right direction," Simon explained.

Cana's grin was as cold and sharp as Gray's claws. "Except they use a machine in the heart of that giant cube to rebuild themselves. The 'Grim Core.' It's all done with mirrors."

"Requip!" Erza switched back to Armadura Fairy. "Then we must destroy Tartaros' headquarters immediately, to extinguish their power and rescue our family!"

"AYE SIR!" the two teams roared in reply, and flew towards Hell to save a wizard of Heaven.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Mercurius, X787: Juvia

"Water Cyclone!" Juvia chanted, tossing aside demon soldiers and bone hatchlings. Their commander, a strange dragon corpse whose wings were also its arms, dug into the ground, fighting her spell.

"Gee hee." Gajeel crouched, bracing himself by turning his arms and legs into spikes and shooting them into the earth. "Karma Demon: Starmetal Dragon Spiral Roar!" An eruption like an exploding meteor ripped through the bat-like dragon, tearing it to scraps. "And stay down, ya walkin' leftover!"

"Psyche Blades!" Meredy tossed out a literal handful of swords at their foes, her magic devastating their ranks even one-handed. "Mavis, I hate this! My arm should be better by now."

"Easy, Merry," Gajeel replied, leaping over and watching her back with a volley of kunai. "The broom witch says it'll heal, Wendy just can't do it because stupid Demon Guard." Juvia nodded, then glanced at where Mirajane stood over Lucy and Yukino. Her eyes burned with fire to shame the depths of Grim. Juvia understands now why Mira-san is so feared, she thought, watching her wait for another horde to rush her. They were led by one of the smaller dragon corpses, though it still dwarfed the hatchlings.

"Soul Extinctor: Inferno!" Mira howled, fists punching out from her sides. The entire horde burned to ash, dragon and all. The instant they were gone, the fire around Mira's eyes banked, and she dropped to her knees, stroking Lucy's cheek. "Please...Lucy, please..." Juvia swallowed. Ex-Love-Rival has been unconscious since we found her. She glanced at the royal family and their captain of the guard. They were still conferring with Neo-Mystogan. If Lucy does not wake up soon, there may be no consoling Mirajane, or stopping her.

At last, Lucy groaned and stirred. Mirajane's smile lit the night. "Ow," Ex-Love-Rival complained, holding her head. "Did we win?"

Mirajane threw her arms around the spirit mage, pulling her to sit upright with a hug. "Yes, love. Yes we did."

"Oh. Good." Lucy twitched, then let Mira help her stand. Her eyes went saucer-wide. "Mirajane? Why is everything on fire?"

"Not everything," Mira replied, pointing at the upper towers of the palace. A single drop of sweat rolled down Lucy's cheek. "We are in a bad spot, though. Tartaros is attacking, and one of them is animating dragon bodies from a massive graveyard beneath the city."

"Z-zombie dragons?" Lucy stammered, swallowing. Then she looked around, blinking. "Wait, why am I at the palace?" She gaped at Yukino, still unconscious on the ground. "Wait, why is Yukino at the palace?!"

"Eclipse," Hisui explained, striding toward them.

Arcadios ran toward her. "Your Highness!" He stopped at a single raised hand from her. "Your Highness, I implore you–"

"I will not allow you to accept the blame for my foolishness a moment longer," Hisui insisted. "Originally, it was a plan to kill Zeref. We needed the twelve original Zodiac Keys, and the wizards to turn them. You and Miss Yukino were perfect, Lady Heartfilia," the princess continued while Lucy blushed, "so when Tartaros appeared, we were going to use the Gate to destroy Cube instead. We were too late." Hisui turned a mournful look on a massive pile of metal shards. Poor Hisui-hime, Juvia mourned. So much work, destroyed in an instant.

"Pure Maginium," Arcadios said, picking up one of the smaller pieces. "Shattered by Tartaros."

Gajeel raced to Arcadios' side, stopping with enough suddenness to wobble like a pole in a storm. "Mavis, that smells delicious," he breathed. "Since it's already broken and all, do ya mind if I, y'know, have a bite?" Arcadios whirled and glared at the Dragon Slayer, who just grinned back. "Gee hee!"

"Sir Arcadios," Hisui whispered. "We can no longer use it. If it will help a Fairy Tail wizard protect Fiore, then let him have it."

Arcadios sighed and handed Gajeel the shard. He bit into the metal with zeal – only for his teeth to bounce off with a resounding clang. "Mavis on a stick!" he blurted. "This stuff's insane!" He managed to gnaw off a mostly-broken flake and swallow it. The Iron Dragon Slayer gasped, his whole body erupting with indigo power. "Gods." He reeled, nearly falling over before regaining his footing. "This metal is amazing. It makes platinum taste like dirt." He stared at the ruins of the Eclipse Gate. "Tartaros was able to one-shot that thing?"

King Toma walked over, nodding with solemn resolve. "Lord Mystogan. I grant you a conditional pardon for the Oracion Seis, excepting Brain." He looked up at the circling monstrosity, still raining down hatchling soldiers. "If they acquit themselves as you claim, their pardon will be complete."

"I will accept full responsibility for their actions," 'Mystogan' replied, turning to the rest of Team Starburst. "Can you manage here in my absence?"

Mirajane nodded, still holding Lucy in one arm. "Go. We need every wizard willing to face these monsters." Mystogan nodded back, then vanished in a flash of Meteor. Juvia forced herself not to cheer. At last! Wally will reunite with his brother – Yukino with her sister – Kinana and Cobra can finally – Juvin! Mira turned to the rest of Team Starburst and took in a breath.

The massive lizard-shark who'd attacked Jellal dropped in the middle of them. "You have made your last mistake," it said, body swelling. "Tenchi Kaimei!" A massive wave of brackish, toxic water erupted from it in all directions.

Juvia rushed into it without hesitation. The others – they'll all drown! she worried, plunging into the poisonous curse. "Water Jigsaw!" she chanted, containing both the curse and the demon in her whirling body.

To Juvia's surprise, Torafuzar merely swam through the whirling maelstrom she'd become. "You are one of his nakama. You'll do. Drink the Seas!" Holes opened in his body, pulling in his curse – and Juvia!

She couldn't make out the cries of horror from her teammates amid the roar of waves, but their tone was enough. Then she was trapped in the monster, and everything was dark and wet and cold. Juvia couldn't even move. When the demon tried its curse again, however, there was something Juvia could do. Water Lock! she commanded, and all the vile fluid was as trapped within the villain as she was.

For a few minutes, all was chaos in spite of her helpless blindness. She could tell there was more shouting, and made out the demon's name – Torafuzar – as he (apparently) raced to return to the cube. Which was named Cube. Were Juvia not so worried, it might be amusing.

Eventually, the leaping, running, and spellcasting subsided. Torafuzar stomped along, even his footsteps sounding unhappy. There was more talking, and Juvia felt sure that the raised voices meant an argument. A vicious snapping sound ended the debate, and they were moving again. After another minute of this, the demon stopped again and tapped on his metal chest. "Come out, or we will start removing your commander's limbs," he ordered. Torafuzar's Water Curse relented enough to permit Juvia to peer out of one opening.

She immediately wished she hadn't. Jellal was chained to a wall, a tentacled monster out of a horror manga shocking him. His chest was nearly as thorough a mass of slashes as his back, and his right eye was swollen mostly shut. Another demon laughed, this one clearly feminine. Juvia immediately obeyed Torafuzar, dropping to her feet next to her captor. The monster's electric assault stopped the moment she took form.

The demon woman slapped manacles over Juvia's wrists as soon as they had solidified. Magic-sealing cuffs! Juvia realized, pulling at them in momentary terror. "Excellent work, Torafuzar. I knew I could count on you."

"Jackal and Ezel died again," Torafuzar reported. Out of the corner of one eye, Juvia could tell he was dragging something behind him, like a large sack. "That fire wizard is a menace."

"Natsu," Jellal chuckled, then spasmed again even without further torture. "Menace is his middle name." He took in a shuddering breath. "Hee. Natsu Menace Dragneel. Sounds right."

"He is delirious, Lady Kyouka," Torafuzar rumbled.

Kyouka grabbed Juvia's hair and dragged her over to the Starburst. Juvia nearly missed his gasp of horror through her own. "This will get his attention. Consider what you have suffered, delicious one." She licked her lips. Jellal's good eye bulged wide, both irises shrinking nearly to nothing, as he turned to face Juvia. "Your water woman, now...she looks downright tender. I wonder how much experience she has with pain."

"I'll tell you!" Jellal cried, crashing against his chains. "Gods, please, I'll tell you where he is, you win!" he begged.

"Jellal-dono, don't," Juvia said, but from the wild look in his eyes, she couldn't even be sure he'd heard her. "Do not give them anyth–" the water mage froze when Kyouka sliced the clothes away from her left thigh.

"I'll start with her guild mark, I think," the torturer drawled, smirking. "Thighs can be so sensitive. Perhaps I'll only increase that sensitivity tenfold." Kyouka's hand glowed, and suddenly every sensation Juvia felt was magnified. The light burned her eyes. She could hear Jellal's heart pound. The scent of salt and blood filled the air. "I am going to ask you again, and if you do not answer me as accurately as possible, I will slice the rain woman's leg apart by layers while you watch. We will repeat this process until you cooperate. Do you understand?" Jellal nodded desperately. "Good. Where – is – Siegrain?"

"Vistarion," Jellal gasped. "He's in Vistarion. Sieg still lives in the Grimoire Heart airship. It docks on the edge of the city at a tower reserved for Hades and his guild."

"What?" Kyouka whispered. I – I think she's going to torture me anyway, Juvia feared, trembling in the demon's grip. "You mean to tell me you endured all that suffering to protect a man who's on the other side of the world!"

"I was stalling for time," Jellal whispered. "You couldn't kill me while I still had information. If you were torturing me, you weren't torturing anyone else." He collapsed, held up only by the chains on his wrists. "Please. Do what you want with me. I told you what you want to know. Spare Juvia, I beg you."

Kyouka glared at the broken Starburst. Juvia wept, pointlessly fighting her chains. "Seam?" the demon asked.

Torafuzar threw the sack into the room – only it was the former Council chairman, Crawford Seam. His head was facing backwards, eyes frozen open. "He was uncooperative, my lady."

"I don't believe this," Kyouka snarled. "Take this bloated garbage to Franmalth, see if he can extract the soul. If that doesn't work, try Keyes. I know he's busy, but we need this weak fool's Super Archive." Torafuzar sighed, nodded, and threw the ex-chairman's body over one shoulder. "Oh, and take the girl to a cell. If this pretty boy is telling the truth, we can't dispose of her yet." Torafuzar nodded again, this time with conviction.

"No. Jellal-dono," Juvia sobbed, fighting Kyouka's grip.

Torafuzar grunted. "Your sacrifice protected your teammates, if only during my escape," he said, wrapping one massive hand around her waist. Did he get larger? Juvia wondered. Mavis, I think he did. He was stooped over to fit in the hallway outside Jellal's cell. "You will be imprisoned with honor. You could even join us, if you are willing to be transformed."

"Never," Juvia snarled, thrashing.

Jellal smiled, and somehow it was a brief ray of sunlight in the deepest Hell. "It's going to be all right, Juvia."

Kyouka laughed, one of her claws growing into a whip. "Oh, my beautiful toy, I assure you it isn't." She cracked the whip, and Jellal convulsed even though it didn't touch him. "Your friend won't suffer, but I'm afraid I'll get bored waiting for confirmation on your brother. I have to occupy myself with something!"

Her laughter was almost as cruel as her talons. Juvia struggled all the harder, but trapped in their chains, she wasn't a water woman – just a desperate one. "Monster! Leave him alone! Jellal!"

Tearing sounds echoed from below them. Kyouka gasped, looked down, then glared at Torafuzar. "Go. Take them and find Franmalth! Only Face matters!"

"Yes, my lady!" Torafuzar bounded away, moving with astonishing speed for a creature his size. For an instant, Juvia felt the rainstorm of old pouring in to drown her –

– then, just before she lost sight of Jellal's cell, Erza erupted from the floor. Right behind her were Wendy, Carla, and –

Gray-sama!

The rain went away.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Cube, X787: Gray

Gray froze. Even in the horrifying circumstances, the irony didn't escape him.

A demon woman was between Erza and Jellal, a whip dangling from her index finger. Jellal was a mass of slashes, bruises, and agony. He looks...ruined. For just an instant, he was a child again, staring in awe at a girl and boy who’d survived Grim itself.

Erza screamed. She raised her Fairy Wing swords, then slashed through the demon so quickly Gray could only tell it happened because the woman came apart in three pieces. The tentacle monster croaked and reached for her, only to be sliced into chunks in the blink of an eye. Jellal's chains were next, shattering before either demon had finished falling to the floor.

Before Jellal could drop three inches, Erza Requipped into her nurse outfit and caught him. "Jellal! Oh, Mavis, I should have – Jellal!" she cried.

"e...erza?" Jellal breathed. Somehow, the Starburst chuckled. "at least the hallucinations have improved."

"No," she insisted, taking his natural hand and guiding it to her hair. The moment his fingers reached her locks, the focus returned to his gaze. "I am here, my love."

"oh thank mavis," he sobbed, eyes closing. "i couldn't take much more." His good eye opened again. "juvia," he whispered, and Gray's insides seized up. "they took juvia to find someone named franmalth–"

Gray didn't hear anything else Jellal said, because he was screaming and tearing through Cube and everything in his path froze and shattered. No! NO! She was supposed to be safe, damn it! That was the whole point! Some of the foot soldiers were joined by a squadron of winged hunters and a quintet of giant robot things. Gray demolished them all without slowing. "Juvia," he breathed, panting, as he skidded to a halt in a large chamber with an Archive console. Several screens flickered with data; none of them had any information about Juvia, so they were useless.

"So," Torafuzar said, leaping at Gray, "you’re the Devil Slayer." His fin-like arm blade lashed out at the wizard. Gray parried it was an ice shield, but the demon was able to crack it even through his Slayer magic. "Impressive, but insufficient."

"Where’s Juvia?" Gray howled, slashing back with his Zero Claws. Torafuzar grunted and slid back, the attack carving grooves in his armor. My claws didn’t penetrate it, though–

"Don’t worry about Juvia, Gray-sama," the water mage shouted, "focus on your enemy!" In spite of her words, Gray’s eyes flickered to the sound of her voice. Juvia had been hung by her ankles over the pit behind the lacrima screens, far enough up that he hadn’t noticed her at first. Magic-sealing cuffs, Gray realized, heart pounding. If she falls, her water magic won’t save her!

"You should listen to your woman!" Torafuzar snarled, hurling a titanic fist at Gray.

"Zero Palm," Gray chanted, stopping Torafuzar’s attack with a palm block so cold it could shatter steel. Even then, the blow pushed Gray back several inches, and Torafuzar’s only injuries were a handful of cracks along his knuckles. The demon still looked at the damage with a gasp. "She’s..." Gray breathed, but the reflexive denial wouldn’t form. I have to save her, he snarled at himself, and even Natsu isn’t stupid enough to not see this. I won’t be able to hide it any more.

Torafuzar looked from Gray to Juvia and back. "Ah." The demon nodded. "You meant to protect those you love with distance. It will not work against Tartaros. Though we do not have the feelings of mortals, the Grim King knows of them. If this woman is meaningful to you, then the others will use her as a shield or a weapon." Juvia gasped.

Gray blinked. "Not you?" he asked.

"It would be undignified. Even against a Devil Slayer, I will fight with a demon’s strength! Black Wave!" The demon held out his arms, and water that looked and smelled of the foulest poisons rushed towards him.

"Ice Geyser!" Gray’s counterattack froze the entire wave and struck at Torafuzar, forcing him back. "A demon using water against an Ice Devil Slayer? Walk away while you can. You have honor – I would let you leave."

The wall of ice shattered, and Torafuzar burst at him with speed his bulk should have limited. He was covered in even greater armor than before, seeming made of adamantine. "Die," the demon snapped, spinning himself like Gajeel’s chain-sword.

"Ice Devil Rage!" Gray roared, freezing the monster in mid-whirl. He paused a moment to ensure the demon wasn’t moving, then spread his wings and shot up towards Juvia. Gray gasped as she realized that something – or someone – was pulling her up. "Dammit, Juvia, why didn’t you say something!"

"Juvia was worried about – eek!" She vanished over the edge of a hole in Cube, the night sky clear above them. Gray flew up after her, to stare at an impossible sight.

Silver Fullbuster, his father, was holding onto Juvia by her waist. He was clad in fur-lined armor, with the inscription "Absolute Zerø" over his chest. "Look at this," he drawled, smirking as his eyes flickered up and down the water mage. Juvia shivered. "You’ve got good taste in women, boy. This one smells like she’d do anything for–"

"Cold Excalibur!" Gray howled, the sword forming in his hand as he leaped at the fake. He darted aside, snarling through clenched teeth, when "Silver" held Juvia up between them. Torafuzar warned me, Gray realized. "Fight me, coward!" He clapped fist to palm, a dozen Ice-Make spells at the ready.

"In a moment," the corpse said, growing talons of ice and pointing them at Juvia’s throat. Gray held very, very still. "Juvia Lockser. Water Magic prodigy. Orphan. Wanderer. Phantom Lord elite. Fairy Tail wizard. It feels right, fighting by the side of a Fernandes, doesn’t it?"

Juvia stared at the false Silver with a gasp. "Do – do you know something about Juvia?"

"The Locksers were a branch of Alvarez nobility," the thing with his father’s face explained. "They had a saying on the continent: 'blue hair, blue blood.' Before Jellal’s grandfather was overthrown, your family was the right hand of theirs. The ability to go anywhere, capture anyone, survive nearly anything, it was perfect. In a desert empire especially, where water is life, the power to make rain and become fluid nears that of a god." He pulled her face close to his, smile growing as it sharpened. "It was a pleasure helping the Balam Alliance overthrow them, all those years ago. And now here you are, in love with this brat." Juvia trembled, glaring at ‘Silver’ with fury rivaling Gray’s.

"Who are you?" Gray demanded, frost rippling from his fists. "You sure as Grim aren’t my father. Talk!"

"Much better to show you. Walk up to me, and look in my eyes. Then we’ll finish our little feud." The demon’s smile vanished. "Try anything, and I’ll slice your pretty stalker’s throat." That made Juvia flinch and look away. I don’t have a choice, Gray decided, obeying with a cautious gait. That doesn’t mean I have to be stupid about it. Devil Slayer magic gathered around his claws, just in case. Then he got close enough to see what the demon meant, and froze.

Silver’s real face – his living face – screamed from inside one eye, fists pounding on it from the inside as though it were a window. Mika, his mother, did the same in the other. Gray stumbled back, shaking like a leaf. "That’s – how – what did you do?"

With a laugh, the demon tossed Juvia aside. Gray banished his Zero Flesh and caught her, immediately freezing and shattering her manacles. "That look! Oh, man, I’ve wanted to see that look on your face for six years now." As one, Gray and Juvia gaped. No. No, it can’t be, Gray thought, knowing that it damn well could. "Keyes is a necromancer, remember? That’s how we’re winning this war." He waved at the heavens, still lousy with dragon corpses flying around them. Atop the largest, fire magic clashed with a darkness they could make out even against the night sky. Natsu. Figures, Gray realized. "We’ve gathered thousands of corpses over the years, experimenting on them for all sorts of reasons. After we found out about you, though, Devil Slayer..." Deliora spread his stolen arms and laughed. "...we had to create a weapon against you, and one demon knew you best! No Crash man to save you now, boy!"

"Zero Destruction Bow!" Gray screamed, summoning the weapon and firing in the same moment. Deliora laughed and pulled the arrow out of his body – then ate it, just as Gray would have. "Demons have human magic now?"

"Your father," Deliora smirked, tapping the words on his armor. "We tricked him into thinking he could destroy us. Master Mard Geer helped him learn Ice Devil Slayer magic. Once that was done, well, there was only one candidate to Take Over his undead body." Gray snarled again, reclaiming his Zero Flesh. "Oi oi, don’t get righteous with me. Your Mirajane does the same thing to us."

Wait. He said Take Over. That means he has its weaknesses with its strengths. Gray planted his fist in his palm. "You think you’ve already won, don’t you, Deliora?" the Devil Slayer asked. Juvia had already turned into a stream, rippling behind the demon. "Just because you’re an Ice Slayer, I can’t hurt you. How confident are you of that?" Before he could answer, Gray leapt at him. "Ice Devil Claw!"

"Ice Devil Claw!" Deliora chanted back, parrying Gray’s magic with his own. Silver’s face gaped in disbelief as Gray smiled his fury. "Don’t get cocky, boy. My power matches yours!"

"Yeah," Gray retorted, smile growing. "There’s just one problem."

Juvia took form behind the demon and held out one hand. "Water Lock!" she chanted, surrounding Deliora’s head.

"I'm not alone." Gray kept his focus on neutralizing Deliora’s Ice Magic. The demon tried to respond, but only choked garbles echoed out. "What’s that? You’re a corpse, so you don’t need to breathe? Yeah, we thought of that too. Now, Juvia!"

"Water Slicer!" With expert aim, Juvia’s slashes tore at the corpse’s limbs, never threatening to scratch her nakama. "You will never hurt Gray-sama again!"

"Take Over Magic is powerful, but it has one drawback," Gray explained, smile sharpening. "You don’t just get your victim’s strengths, but also his weaknesses! And right now, as strong as my father was, you don’t have the body of Deliora – you’re a human being, and can be killed like one!"

Deliora erupted from Silver’s body, and even with all his Devil Slayer might, Gray found himself scrambling to avoid being literally crushed underfoot. "Fool boy! I can simply abandon that form if it suits me. Now die!"

"Did I say one drawback?" Gray snarled, slamming fist to palm. "Sorry, I lied. Zero Excalibur!" His Zero Flesh returned, ice wings erupting from his back and throwing Gray at his personal nightmare. The Devil Slayer slashed Deliora from gut to skull with the Devil Slayer sword, its frigid magic slicing past the monster’s back. Without my father’s body, you have no defense against my Ice Magic!

Deliora had just enough time to scream before falling to either side of the Devil Slayer. Gray landed by Juvia’s side as the demon exploded into a black cloud of death. Nice try, Deliora, Gray thought, banishing Zero Excalibur and holding out one palm behind him, but I know this trick too. He froze the entire cloud of anti-magic particles, which fell like a snowfall of stars. He stood, made sure the demon was gone, then gathered his courage and turned to face the water mage.

Her eyes were enormous pulsing hearts. Oh Mavis. I’d rather fight Deliora again. He spared a glance for where Deliora had been. Which I’ll probably do soon anyway, with the Grim Core still active. "Juvia, I..."

"Juvia understands," she said, holding his hand. In an instant, she controlled herself. "This is not the time to discuss our feelings. Fairy Tail needs us." Gray nodded, taking a moment to breathe. Yeah. We're gonna have to talk later, but for now–

The familiar howl of a flame-brained idiot fell towards them. Gray sighed and looked up. Natsu was screaming and pounding on Motherglare's corpse, while the necromancer guy fell beside them. The part that caught Gray off-guard, though, was the ex-Raven lady with the fire hair riding behind Natsu – and she had a flaming dragon skull between her braids! "Go back to Grim! Motherglare!" Natsu shouted, his fires devouring the enormous dragon's bone scales.

They crashed into Cube, Motherglare breaking into over a dozen pieces as she landed. The dark power faded from her eye sockets, and Natsu roared at the sky. Flare smiled at him, hands twisting at her waist. "Thank you...Cherry Blossom cousin..."

"You miserable boy," Keyes said, his robes inhabited by a twisting black fog. A skeletal hand trembled as it gestured at the broken dragon body. "Motherglare was my masterpiece. Look what you've done to her."

"That's why living dragon friends are better than dead dragon puppets!" Natsu replied, face split by one of his huge smiles. "You lose."

"Fool," Keyes replied. "There are thousands of corpses in Cube, and your Dragon Slayer magic isn't suited to killing a demon."

Gray cleared his throat. Keyes yelped and whirled on the Devil Slayer, some horrid Curse no doubt at the ready. "Freeze," Gray chanted, and Keyes became an icy statue of himself on the spot. Juvia lashed out and shattered the necromancer. "Oi, Natsu, what's with the flaming skull and this 'Cherry Blossom cousin' thing?"

Natsu blinked, then laughed. "Oh, that! Turns out that Flare learned her magic from my uncle here!" He pointed a thumb at the blazing dragon face. It spread, turning into a small dragon made almost entirely of flame. Gray gaped in spite of himself.

"Atlas Flame is the guardian of my village," Flare explained, still contorting herself in her odd manner. I guess that wasn't a Raven thing, Gray decided. "Cherry Blossom was able to find parts of him in the dragon graveyard. Grape Gate, Mystogan, and the jet-haired willow were able to restore him."

Gray blinked. "Grape Gate is our Ultear, and 'Jet Willow' is the other Ultear, right?" he asked.

"Yep!" Natsu laughed. "They did a lot of smart magic stuff, and Atlas is better now! Cool, huh?"

"Juvia is sure that 'cool' is not the right word, Natsu," Juvia replied, looking up at the fire dragon. Atlas was devouring every flicker of flame in sight, which Natsu and Flare were providing in as much volume as they could manage.

"I was on the verge of death ever since the Dragon King Festival," Atlas Flame explained, "saved only by King Igneel's power. Even then, I was only able to burn as an eternal flame, fed by a village of giants. With the power of your allies combined, I am now restored, and can do battle against my violated brothers and sisters." His neck curved to regard the broken Motherglare, bowing his head a fraction. "Though I am myself wield only a remnant of my former might."

"We'll take all the help we can get," Gray replied. "For now, our priority is the Grim Core."

"The what?" Natsu asked, blinking in his vacuous manner.

"It's how they keep coming back, even after we blow them up," Gray explained. "Once we take it out, they're as mortal as the rest of us." He looked down at the artificial Hell beneath them. And I lose Mom and Dad again. He scowled. Tch. They're prisoners of a literal demon necromancer. This is just setting them free.

Juvia took his hand in hers. That wasn't as bad as I expected. Flare nodded. Atlas clawed and stomped Cube's earth. Natsu punched his palm with a burning fist. "Now we're talking. I'm all fired up!" Gray shook his head as he created a slide back down to the control room. Of course you are.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Cube, X787: Ultear

"Nii...san..." Millianna wept, hands clasped over her mouth. I can't blame her, Ultear thought, trembling with fury at the sight of Jellal's countless indignities. When I find the demon who did this to him, I'm going to Disassemble her one millimeter at a time!

All manner of demon soldiers and war machines were prone or shattered around them. The roof was torn away, exposing the battle in the sky and the stars above them. Every once in a while, Jellal breathed in the starlight. Erza, Cana, and Simon used their magic to swirl wind around him whenever he had the strength to feed on it. In spite of everything, Jellal worked through the Grim Archive, trying to work out the map and the Cube's systems. "I'll be fine, Milli," he insisted, shudders of pain belying his confidence. Above, eruptions of ice and fire assured Ultear that backup had arrived. Gray. Natsu. I should have known you two would be wreaking havoc.

A spiraling ice slide descended from above. Gray, Juvia, Flare, and Natsu came sliding down this construction, a comparatively small dragon following. It was covered in flames, and kept a discreet distance from the slide. Gray and Juvia landed more or less on their feet, rushing to Erza and Jellal. Flare stumbled, joining Wally to watch one of the corridor entrances. Natsu landed on his stomach, cheeks swelled and eyes swirling. "It isn't a vehicle, Natsu!" Gray complained. Natsu just grunted and struggled to his feet.

"Is that a...living dragon?" Cana breathed. Someone had to ask. Natsu nodded, recovering from his brief motion sickness spell. "He's on our side, right?"

"Igneel is my friend and king," the dragon explained. "I will fight alongside his son." Natsu, predictably, grinned. Then he blinked, sniffing the air. Natsu turned toward Jellal and froze.

"We know, Natsu," Ultear snapped, immediately regretting her tone, "but there's no time. As soon as Jellal gets through their Archive defenses, I'm sending him to Porlyusica."

"I can still fight," Jellal whispered, eyes narrowing. His hands were a blur, sheathed in miniature Meteor fields.

"Jellal, please," Erza begged. The Starburst clenched his teeth and kept working.

"Looking for the Grim Core?" Gray asked, striding over. Juvia joined him, holding his hand. Wait, he's not pulling away. Ultear glanced from Juvia, who was still blushing even though her smile had vanished at the sight of Jellal, to Gray. Her brother had one icy wing curled around her back, shielding her. He caught Ultear staring, and looked away. "Tch."

"I get it, Gray, later," Ultear conceded. "I'm using my magic to look for it too. This place is a mess of twisted ethernano and Curse defenses."

"They're wards," Jellal added, glaring at some particularly recalcitrant Archive defense. "Tartaros may call them something else in their arrogance, but they're wards." His good eye widened. "Got it. Here, three floors directly above Cube's exact center." With a few more taps on the screens, Jellal was able to display a path from the control room to the Grim Core. "It has considerable defenses. Some are automatic. Others are controlled by the Core technician. She has few combat abilities of her own, but is extremely intelligent. Assume she'll protect the Core with great skill."

"We'll be careful," Ultear promised, opening a gateway to the tent where the healers had gathered. Sherria was there with the forest witch, protected by Lamia Scale's Games team and a small Fairy Tail force led by Master Makarov himself. "Time for you to rest."

"I am a Fairy Tail wizard," Jellal hissed, buckling in mid-turn. Erza caught him before he could fall. "Gods...I will not be weak now. I refuse."

"Pretending never to be weak is not strength, my love," Erza whispered. "You taught me that." Jellal squeezed his eyes shut, fighting to stand for a moment more. Finally, he collapsed, admitting defeat with a fierce nod. Simon used his shadows to carry Jellal through the gate, where the assembled wizards stared in horror before rushing him to a cot.

After a moment's hesitation, Ultear let the gateway snap shut. That was harder than I would have liked, but we have work to – someone's coming, she realized, echoes of a conversation approaching. "Keyes' control is broken! How much will that cost us? How much? How much?" a high-pitched voice whined.

"Calm yourself, Franmalth," a woman's deep voice replied. Erza stiffened, Requipping from her Wind God Armor to Purgatory without a word. "Lamy is restoring him even now, this time with a proper Etherious form. Soon, the wizards will be dead, and this world will belong to Zeref."

"I wouldn't be too sure of that, Kyouka." Ultear clamped her jaw shut to avoid gasping. Siegrain? With her? She wasn't alone; Gray and Natsu had both clenched up, shuddering, and Erza trembled, Perdition quivering in her hand with palpable fury. "Even if you knew where Zeref is, in the unlikely event I agree to help you, Face will block his power as completely as any other's." Erza stopped shaking, and she shared a wide-eyed stare with Ultear. What the Grim? Did they trick Siegrain into coming, or does he know what they're doing here?

"Weak," Jiemma snarled. Crash magic snarled around Ultear's fists before she could stop herself. This just keeps getting better, doesn't it? The former Sabertooth Master snorted. "All of this, weakness. You can rebuild yourselves at the cost of a few moments' pain. Make your bodies strong, and annihilate your enemies with raw power."

"It's just the four of 'em," Natsu whispered, a low growl rumbling in the back of his throat. "Well, and some of those foot soldier things, but who cares?"

"Gray, you lead with Zero Touch," Erza ordered. "Simon, follow up with Dark Moment. Then we hit them. Ultear, you take Jiemma. Natsu, Siegrain. Gray, Franmalth. The rest of you, deal with the soldiers." She glared and raised Perdition. "Kyouka is mine." They all nodded.

The four emerged from the corridor, gaping as they spotted the Fairy Tail wizards. "You!" Siegrain gaped.

"Zero Touch!" Gray chanted, fingers brushing the floor. The sheen of ice covered them all.

"Dark Moment!" Simon added, swallowing them in darkness his telepathy let the Fairy Tail wizards see through.

With a roar, Siegrain shattered the ice, dispelled the darkness, and slammed into Titania. "Erza!" Ultear gasped, several other cries in time with hers.

"Stick to the plan!" she ordered. "Natsu, destroy Kyouka! Now move!"

They moved.

Franmalth sneered at the onrushing group until he realized the Devil Slayer was attacking him, at which pointed he screamed and fled. Inability to absorb Gray's magic confirmed, Ultear noted, howling as she shot at Jiemma. Kyouka slashed at Natsu, who surrounded himself in flame and barreled fist-first into the sadist. The others flowed past – quite literally in the case of Juvia and Simon – tearing through the small army behind the Tartaros aces. Ultear's fist slammed into Jiemma's suddenly-outstretched palm, his speed matching hers. "Alone at last," Ultear hissed, her vast power roaring into his.

Jiemma parried that vast power with little more than a glare. His arms were made of dark bands of demon metal, while a black sunburst circle surro0unded the place where his heart had been. The long, pointed ears seemed almost an afterthought. "So you have found strength," he said, unmoved even as the combination of Crash and Arc of Space cracked the universe around them. "Good. At least this will be interesting." He pushed out at her fist.

The explosion threw her back into the far wall, where Ultear smashed into the devil stone. Ow. She pulled herself out, only to find Jiemma charging at her. "Redistribution!" she chanted, only to feel his Curse resist her Arc of Space. Oh crap! In desperation, she teleported out of the way of his onrushing fist.

The entire wall exploded behind where she'd been as Ultear appeared by the Tartaros Archive screens. Jiemma thrust himself back through the air, landing in front of the corridor where the rest of the battle raged. "Weakness!" he snarled, glaring at her. "Your cowardly magic is weak, and I have overcome it!"

Ultear cut down her brief panic, letting her outrage return to take its place. "I'm a coward? You're the one who sold his soul! Ice Crash: Empyrean Rose!" Her parents' magic united once more, lashing out to shatter her opponent.

Jiemma set himself in a low, braced stance, then punched the oncoming spell with all his might. Though even he found his arm covered in frost, the demon metal cracked, Empyrean Rose shattered against the force of his counter-stroke. Uh-oh. Ultear scowled and slid back. "Weak! Weak! I have no need for guilds, students, allies – I need none of it!" He fired another blast of raw, overwhelming power, and it took all Ultear's power and skill to warp it around her. More walls shattered around them. "Distractions, all of them! They hold strength back with their whining demands. WEAK!" He unleashed an explosion in all directions around them, and the entire room disintegrated.

Ultear dodged with a teleport, then formed an Arc Shield to deflect the wave of destruction. Mavis, how powerful has he gotten? She didn't even risk returning at first, peering at him through a scrying disc. Jiemma floated in the opening he'd formed, nothing around him but a stone shaft running nearly the length of Cube. For an instant, the flashback to her captivity almost overwhelmed her.

An idea took the place of the trauma, and Ultear smiled. She put her fingers to her temple. Oi, Simon, are you and Kagura smashing goons into your Dark Space?

She could feel Simon blink at her. Um, yeah, why?

When I give you the signal, dump them all out over me. Before he could panic at the request, she teleported again, appearing above Jiemma in the enormous opening. "Hey, Jimmy, up here!" she called, and the demon convert looked up, gaping in shocked fury. "All that power's useless when your skull's as empty as your heart!" She winked at him. Jiemma howled. Jets of magic power roared from his feet, and he shot at her like one of those rocket things from the Flash Rogers manga. "Arc Crash: Demolition!" Now, Simon!

In spite of his fear for her, Simon obeyed, an opening into darkness dumping hundreds of goons into the shaft overhead. At the same time, her demolition spell shattered the walls above them, while her Arc pulled in the tons of rubble Jiemma had already created. "What?!" Jiemma yelped, cutting off his propulsion spell – but not his momentum.

Ultear teleported above the entire mass, fist raised. "All-Crush," she chanted, suffusing the descending column of demon stuff with her might as she punched at it.

The last thing Ultear heard before it all exploded in the depths of Grim was Jiemma's scream of fury. Her grin was sharp and cold. In the end, the only thing that was weak was you. Goodbye, Jiemma. You won't be missed.

Strange tendrils the color of raw meat lashed out at her. At first, she teleported out of the way, but more of the stuff surged from cracks between the stones. One caught her foot, and Ultear's Arc of Space refused to detach her from it, and it surged across her body –

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Cube, X787: Erza

"Dark Mass!" Siegrain snarled, and the all-too-familiar runed shadows lashed out at Erza.

Fury consumed Titania. Perdition lashed out, the blade's might burning the foul magic to nothing. That done, Erza spun the sword in her hands to reverse her grip. Siegrain glared at her, then rushed at her with Meteor. "Perdition Roar: ARMAGEDDON!" Erza cried, slashing up at him just as he came into range. The blow sent Siegrain whirling into the roof, which he crashed through without slowing. "Requip!" Summoning Armadura Fairy, Erza leaped to fly after him.

"Be judged by the Seven Stars – Grand Chariot!" Siegrain pointed at her with the familiar gesture, the cosmic force gathering above them.

Erza smiled. "Requip!" she chanted. A wispy blue robe with gold trim replaced the might of Armadura Fairy. Siegrain laughed as the Seven Star Sword descended on her, its might crashing into her now-exposed body. Instead of hammering her back into Cube, however, the magic surged into her Celestial Armor's golden accessories. Thank you, my love, she thought, smile growing as Siegrain's laughter vanished. He stared, jaw dropping, as Erza glowed with astral might. "Meteor!"

Siegrain darted away while Erza gave chase, Meteor's might equaling Heart Kreuz's greatest creations. This duel has been too long in coming, Siegrain, she thought, burning to repay the living mockery of her beloved. "You steal even Jellal's magic now, Scarlet?" Siegrain snapped, firing a Starburst volley at her.

Though he'd done something to prevent Erza from absorbing the spell, she pushed through the attack, summoning her basic Heart Kreuz swords and slashing at him with them. "You never have been able to distinguish what is stolen from what is given, Siegrain!" she retorted, throwing herself at him with abandon.

Siegrain's own Meteor spell protected him from her swords' cutting edges, but the force of her blows drove him back. "You're still a fraud, Titania!" he cried, arms crossed over his head. "You're nothing without him! Altairis!" He threw the spell that had killed Shou at her, the air itself dying in its wake.

"Requip!" Erza switched to the Morning Star Armor, pouring her magic into its light and crossing the Photon Slicer swords before her. The murder-spell broke against her radiance, though even Erza's power could only blunt its ferocity. Gods. No wonder Shou couldn't withstand that, she thought, gritting her teeth as the terrible emptiness tore at her. "Jellal saved me, in every way one person can another," she replied, slashing through the sorcerous darkness and demolishing it. "Yet if I were nothing without him today, I could not be a Fairy Tail wizard! Photon Slicer!"

Curving arcs of light blasted into Siegrain. He grunted and darted back. Together, they emerged from Cube, the night sky marred by slowly falling dragon skeletons. "In moments, you'll be nothing at all. Black Hole!" He summoned the all-consuming sphere, sliding back to keep it between them.

"Requip," Erza chanted, switching to her Black Wing Armor. The strength of its wings was just enough to keep the spell from consuming her. Gods, this...power... Titania could only circle the dead star while Siegrain laughed. I could Requip back to my Celestial Armor, but if I can't use it to absorb this Black Hole, that will be my last mistake. Perdition is not fast enough, Wind God is not powerful enough – only one option now. She began to circle the Black Hole with ever-greater speed, using its pull to slingshot herself around it faster and faster.

"That will not save you, Scarlet. At last, you are mine! True Heavenly Body Magic: Sema!" Siegrain chanted, swinging his arms around for the beckoning ritual. The skies rumbled above them, even the sluggish dragon-corpses soaring to avoid the oncoming doom. This will require perfect timing, Erza decided, analysis racing through her mind as she circled the Black Hole.

"Requip!"she chanted, switching back to Armadura Fairy and pivoting towards the void spell. It pulled her in, the momentum she'd built up causing her to spiral towards the Black Hole with incredible force. "Fairy Storm!" She slashed through the deadly spell, shattering it and flying straight at Siegrain.

The younger Fernandes yelped, but didn't have the time to begin a spell before Erza slammed into him, sending them both sprawling. When they skidded to a halt, Titania leaped over her barely-upright foe and kicked him towards Sema. They were at the edge of the blast radius, but even that was enough to toss them both back, Cube itself rocking from the blow. "You...I hate you. So much." Siegrain fell to one knee, reeling from the blows he'd taken.

"I do not hate you, Siegrain," Erza replied, Requipping to her basic armor, "but I cannot permit any enemy of Fairy Tail to threaten our guild. Yield."

She blinked as Siegrain began to laugh again. He stood, legs quivering and one eye twitching. "You miserable parasite. Did you think I was idle, while Jellal forged you into a passable weapon? Etherious!" He held his arms high, and Erza gasped as Jellal's brother transformed into something more – and less – than human. Wings like those of Mira's original Satan Soul erupted from Siegrain's back. Small razor-sharp claws grew from his fingers. Twin horns sprouted from his brow, blue and curving like a ram's. His entire body radiated an aura of the same dark magic that Erza had first seen trying to consume Jellal back in the Tower. Though his wounds remained, his shaking stopped, and his movement displayed no sign of pain or weakness. "What you saw on Tenrou was mere prologue to what I have become. Behold, the might of Nemesis! I am power itself!"

She flew at Siegrain, knocking him back with a simple punch. He gaped at Erza while she regarded him with cool resolve, gauntlet still held before her. "My fist is crying, Siegrain," she sighed. "This fight is meaningless. I cannot condone your participation in Grimoire Heart's crimes, but at least I can understand it – devotion to your guild, the ambition to understand and master the oldest magics, these are things I can comprehend." Erza shook her head as Siegrain continued to stare, unmoving. "Whatever malice you have embraced, you would not ally with Tartaros if you knew what they had done to Jellal. That, at least, is no inversion of him. Cease this foolishness."

"...you're insane," Siegrain whispered, blinking as he rubbed his jaw. "Utterly, completely, stark raving." He shook his head. "I'm done with your delusions. You have no idea how Jellal hated himself while the Cult tortured him in your place, parasite!" Erza gasped, eyes painfully wide, while Siegrain drew an inverted star before him with a series of gold-bright slashes in the air. Jellal...Siegrain...oh, gods, forgive me... An enormous rust-colored magic seal appeared before him. "Just die. Abyss Break!"

Reality itself cracked around them. Erza's calm did much the same. He casts this forbidden spell, yet calls me mad? Titania wondered, stepping back as even Cube shuddered beneath the ruinous might of the element-destroyer. The land beneath them ground to powder and fell up, one minuscule layer at a time. Water rippled and evaporated. Air hissed and boiled. Fires burned in the nothing left in the spell's wake, dying even as they were born. Siegrain didn't laugh again, but his eyes shone with a madman's joy.

No. I cannot fall to this. I refuse! Erza gathered every scrap of magic she had, drawing on the very last motes of ethernano within her. "Requip!" she commanded, and her magic obeyed. Her Nakagami Armor took form around her, its magic-twisting halberd shielding her from Abyss Break's assault on existence. "This is the end, Siegrain."

"Indeed!" Siegrain widened his stance, pressing at reality all the more fiercely with the monstrous spell. "Show me, Titania. Show me the Fairy Tail wizard you claim to be!"

"Nakagami Starlight!" Erza slashed at Abyss Break, aiming her magic at the heart of the spell. Even with the power of the deadliest armor ever forged by man, the infamous sorcery resisted. The enchantment that could cut through anything clashed with the curse that could destroy anything. Titania gritted her teeth and poured all her will, her devotion, her faith in family, everything went into this one last stroke. She felt Siegrain do the same, the storm of destruction annihilating everything between them.

At last, both spells collapsed, and what remained of Nakagami Starlight lashed out at the demon that had been Jellal's brother. Siegrain screamed and flew back, skidding to a halt at Cube's edge. Thank Mavis. Before she could collapse, Erza Requipped back to her basic armor again. She strode towards the prone Siegrain, who quivered and curled up, gasping for breath. "This contest is over," she insisted, barely hiding how much effort went into staying upright. "Yet even now, my fist is crying." The Grimoire wizard twitched and coiled himself more tightly. "See for yourself, if you will not listen to me. You have Archive magic. Do you not dare use it?"

"They would never," Siegrain gasped, shaking his head. "They wouldn't dare..." Erza placed a hand on her sword hilt. Is he really going to force this to end in blood? she wondered. Then, at last, he summoned an Archive screen. Even after all that had happened, Erza felt ill at the sight of Jellal screaming in agony, knees threatening to buckle beneath her. I should never had hesitated, she thought, in spite of how many lives that hesitation had saved. Meanwhile, Siegrain's eyes widened, his fingers brushing the screen in broken disbelief. "Jellal..."

Somewhere, somehow, he found the strength to sit up. Siegrain threw his head back and screamed at the heavens. They didn't answer. "I know," Erza whispered. "We must stop them."

At last, his howl faded to nothing. "Congratulations, Scarlet," he said at last, voice hoarse and ragged. "There is finally one I hate more than you."

"If you feel anger, draw on it," Erza replied, "but hate has always been your weakness. Do not give into it now." She held out her hand. For a moment, he stared at Erza's offered help as though it were the deadliest viper. Then, with a shrug, Siegrain took it, and she helped him to stand. "Come. We must find a way to stop Face."

Siegrain glared at the demon realm beneath them. "Their main Archive hub is gone," he said, "but they'll have a backup. Let's – Zen!"

A substance like meat brought back to life lashed at them both, binding their legs, crawling up their bodies, wrapping around their heads –

Chapter Text

Volume Twenty-Four: War is Grim

Earthland-2, Crocus, X787: Jellal

"Mister Jellal? Jellal, please wake up," Sherria whispered.

The Starburst opened his eyes. His body ached with distant memory of pain. Dragon corpses rose back to the skies with sluggish determination. Exhausted wizards struggled to stop them, spells wavering in the air. The world felt strangely, blessedly numb, as though Jellal was swaddled in cotton. Midnight – Beth – stood over him, one hand held out at an uncertain angle as she warped wind and starlight to Jellal's lips. Hunger roared through him, and for a handful of seconds he ate with the ravenous need of a starving man. "Easy," Beth encouraged. "Easy. We're not going to run out of stars." There was a roar behind her, and Midnight half-turned. She grimaced and made a fist with her free hand, and bones smashed into one another. "Undead. I can affect undead."

"What?" Jellal breathed, sitting up. He kept eating in between breaths. "No. Keyes was down."

"He got back up," Cobra drawled, bracing himself. "Poison Dragon Roar!" Sorcerous acid stained dragon bones purple, and some bubbled away to nothing as Jellal watched.

Angel flew over and nodded. "Tartaros has recovered, at least in part. Look up," she clarified. "Shamsiel!" The massive cherub filled the nearby block with light, shattering Cobra's targets and cracking others.

Standing on shaking legs, Jellal obeyed, and immediately wished he hadn't. Cube had become a monster nearly the size of Crocus itself. Its mouth could swallow Mercurius. Its legs dwarfed the largest dragon-corpses. It had twin land masses in place of eyes. Grim, Jellal thought, taking in a shuddering, disbelieving breath. It truly is...Plutogrim. The Living Hell.

With a sound-cracking snap, Racer appeared below Angel, glaring up at Plutogrim. "Never thought I would say this, but Fairy Tail might have gone there too fast. According to Hoteye – Richard – the whole inside is filled with demon goop. Trapped them in stasis."

"No," Jellal gasped. With a burst of will, he forced his mind to dart out, seeking his friends, his family. He relaxed a fraction when he realized they were all alive, but they'd all just – stopped, frozen as completely as any of Gray's targets. Wait, that's it! Gray! Gray, come in!

Jellal? Zen, am I glad to hear you, Gray replied, and even through the psychic bond Jellal could feel the cold radiating from the Devil Slayer. Yeah, my magic protected me, but I'm damn near buried down here. Also, I'm in the middle of a bunch of nakama. I've gotta go slow, or I could shatter someone.

Grim– Jellal began, then shuddered.

I know, Gray agreed. I don't think I'm the only one free, though. I hear fighting above me.

Thanks. I'll check, Jellal replied. Good luck. His mind cast out and up, probing, searching –

"I have to do this myself!" Lucy cried, her whip lashing out at Jackal's explosive skin.

"Lucy!" Jellal cried. "Meteor!" He shot into the air, ignoring the cries of alarm he left behind. He flew above Grim until he could sense the Celestial magic within the city-demon. There! He darted in through Grim's mouth, smashing through wizard-free corridors of pulsing muscle. At last, he found a river of bile, where Leo and Virgo fought Torafuzar and a bunny-eared demon in a lab coat.

An explosion of fire and water was fading as he arrived, Jackal slamming into a wall while Lucy bounced off the river in a sphere of water. Ah. Star Dress: Aquarius, Jellal realized. Lucy righted herself on a wooden plank she used to surf the river of slime. "Where are my friends?" she demanded.

"They're all right," Jellal insisted, firing a Starburst volley at Jackal. That drove the wounded demon through the wall, where he fell away and beyond sight. "Captured by that muscle-slime, but in stasis and unharmed."

"Jellal!" Lucy leaned on her knees, somehow managing to surf with that posture as she smiled. "Thank goodness!"

"They won't be unharmed for long, hottie," Bunny-ears replied, chuckling at him in a truly disturbing manner. "Alegria will suck the life out of them one inch at a time. By morning, there won't be anything left of them but demon husks!"

Jella'ls eyes widened. "Cosmic Storm!" he roared, smashing the lab bunny into another wall. The current carried them away from her an instant later.

Torafuzar snarled and leaped at Jellal. "No matter your strength or courage, Kyouka's magic has left its mark. Fall, boy!"

"Regulus Impact!" Leo chanted, knocking the shark-demon back into the river. Jellal flew to Lucy's side and nodded to his old friend. "Protect Lucy!" the Zodiac King demanded.

"What?!" Lucy cried, miniature tsunamis whirling around her fists. "Loke, they tortured Jellal! I'm the one who should protect him!"

"Midnight and Sherria fed me cosmic energy," Jellal insisted, holding up one hand and gathering a tiny scarlet star. "I'll be enough. Our family needs us. We'll do this together." I'm sorry, Erza, but Lucy and I are all that's left. We have to fight!

"Jellal..." Lucy glanced at him, looked away for a moment, then nodded. "Mm. Let's show Tartaros what it means to hurt Fairy Tail!" Jellal smiled. We can handle Torafuzar. The real question is, how do we deal with this Alegria? I've never seen a spell so vast or powerful, except... his mind flickered to Tenrou Island, and Acnologia. This time, we can't even run.

"My, my." Jellal's eyes bulged at the sound of that voice, trembling as he turned. Kyouka flew towards them, closing with each passing second. Jackal laughed as he rode a raft of books behind her. "You are a naughty boy, Jellal." The demon queen's body had changed, with her mask having become a horned helmet of some sort, her claws doubled in length, and though she wore less, her body was covered in dragon-hard scales that glowed a venomous green. "I'm going to enjoy punishing you." A memory of agony shuddered through Jellal, and it took all his willpower not to fly as far and fast as he could, away from that monster.

"Open, Gate of the Water Bearer!" Lucy chanted. "Aquarius!" The Celestial Spirit appeared by Lucy's side, seeming to glare at everything.

"Lucy! You've got to switch out of your Star Dress, or send one of us back!" Leo insisted. "It's too much, even for you!"

"Listen to him, you foolish girl," Aquarius grumped, tidal waves crashing in her jar. "If you don't stop–" She'll die, Jellal realized. Lucy will fight until there's nothing left. She is truly sister to Erza, as made of courage as Titania. My fear...means nothing, against that. I must set it aside, deal with it later.

"Send Virgo." Jellal ordered, slowing his retreat. Kyouka approached all the faster, her mad smile glinting in the cavern's eerie light. "Fight Jackal with Aquarius and Torafuzar with Leo. I'll handle Kyouka."

"Jellal!" Lucy objected.

"As I said, I'll be enough." With that, he flew at Kyouka, Polaris at the ready.

Kyouka laughed, and his vision blurred. What? He darted around the demon, beginning the process of forming the five Seals around her. I haven't had to do this to target Polaris since the Beast King, he thought, but this is no time for pride. He focused, but the blur of the world darkened around him. "Just as I can enhance your pathetic senses, boy, I can take them away." Jellal's eyes widened again, but it did him no good – endless darkness swallowed the world. His precious scarlet star vanished with it. "Soon, all you will have left is pain!" His blood was like ice beneath his skin as a hurricane of terror churned his innards.

Magic! Jellal thought, casting Wave out in desperation, pouring what it found into his eyes. The demons were holes in the spell, easy to detect, while Lucy and her spirits were bright stars in the darkness. In the void, they shine. His hearing dimmed next, the last sound he heard Kyouka's sadistic laughter. He wove the Wave magic into his ears then, maintaining his equilibrium. The magic was a grid of sapphire light in the dark, a song of hope against the silence. It radiated what he needed to see, reverberated with what he needed to hear. I can do this. I can still win. He trembled all the same while Kyouka circled him, the demon more a shark than her comrade. Rob. Shou. Alphonse. Please, give me strength.

"No! Jellal! Star Dress: TAURUS!" Torafuzar and Leo slammed into the wall beside Lucy in their struggle, and she whirled on them in divine fury. "Earth Wave!" She slammed her whip into the wall, and it exploded, sending the shark-man flying again. Leo gaped as the nigh-invulnerable demon crashed into the ceiling, falling with swirling eyes.

"You're too late, pathetic girl," Kyouka sneered, raising one claw. "You will watch, your strength fading by inches, as I butcher your hope before you!" She swung her talons at Jellal.

"Seal," Jellal replied, parrying the blow with a shielded palm. All the combatants paused and gaped. "I owe you an apology, Kyouka. You were right. Demons aren't mages. If you were, you would know why this contest is over."

"Impossible! DIE!" Kyouka swung again and again, slashing at his seal. Each blow was stronger than the last, but Jellal's seal held. "Your senses are gone! No one can speak or even stand like this, let alone fight!"

"It's a sense," Jellal explained, smile growing. "Magic begins as a sense. Your Curses are just tools, aren't they? You absorb hate and cruelty and despair, then turn them into power, but you don't feel them. You don't let them in." The scarlet star came back to life in his hand. "That much cruelty would probably destroy even a demon, if you did." The Wave grid shrank, and he lost track of the others, but Kyouka was as clear in the sapphire field as if it were noon on a Magnolia street.

"Miserable human!" Kyouka howled, her assault redoubling. "My power grows by the second! You will fall, magic trick or no!"

"This is not a trick," Jellal replied, then grimaced. Oh. You poor, sad thing. He shook his head. "That's all you are, really. You're just an ethernano machine, powered by the foulest energies, following your instructions to the end." His sorrow vanished in the memory of all his nakama had suffered at Kyouka's hands. "But you hurt Fairy Tail, and that is unforgivable!"

"Your forgiveness is nothing!" Kyouka screamed. "You are nothing!"

"I – AM – MAGIC!" Jellal roared back. "Fixed light of Heaven, guide us to victory! Polaris!"

The scarlet star gave life to a sapphire storm, Cosmic might rivaling Sema itself. Jellal threw it at the demon, consuming her in divine star-fire. Kyouka screamed once more, then vanished. Jellal's senses returned. Whew. That took a lot of energy, but I should have enough left to–

"Destroy my key." Jellal and Lucy both gaped at Aquarius' words as she drove back the advancing Jackal. "I don't know if our bond is strong enough, but we've been together a long time, so it should pass muster."

"Pass muster for what?" Jellal cried, blasting Jackal again and flying to Lucy's side.

"Th-the Celestial Spirit King," Lucy stammered. "Aquarius says I can summon him – if I sacrifice a golden key. If I sacrifice..." she closed her eyes and shuddered. "...one of my friends..."

"I won't die," Aquarius explained, gritting her teeth against Jackal's assault. More books flew at them, and Jellal held them off – barely. A scream of abject fury followed the explosion. Seilah, he realized. "We just won't be able to see each other again."

"I couldn't bear that..." Lucy sobbed.

"It would be a relief for me," Aquarius retorted, trembling around a smile as she fought by Jellal's side. The demons pushed through their defense. "Maybe you've gotten stronger, but I hated being pawned off to a crybaby like some hand-me-down."

"Aquarius," Jellal whispered. Both women turned to look at him, mouths falling open a fraction. "Is this really what you want? Destroying your key...for you, would it be sacrifice, or freedom?"

Aquarius glared at him, vein throbbing on her forehead. "I-it doesn't matter! There's no other way!"

"There's one," Jellal replied, "but my heart must be clear. I won't abide a slave's chains, not on anyone, not ever. Not if Heaven itself would fall without them."

"Do you think this child could hold me prisoner?!" Aquarius demanded, then blinked. "Stop this, boy! We're out of time!"

"Please, Aquarius! If there's another way – please!" Lucy cried.

"Tell me. Now. What is Lucy to you? Owner, or friend?" Jellal whispered.

"Neither!" Aquarius blurted, shaking her head. "Stupid, binary humans, always seeing switches in an infinite sea of life! Lucy is an obligation, but one I endured!"

Jellal gasped. Oh. He sighed, and managed a smile. "My mother died in front of me when I was five," he replied, and the other two froze in place. "The last thing she said to me was, 'smile.' Can you imagine? Dying, watching monsters enslave her only child, she kept fighting for my happiness, even with her last breath. But when the light vanished from her eyes, I felt nothing, until I met Millianna. Will you do that to Lucy?"

"DAMN YOU!" Aquarius sobbed, and her waves became an crashing ocean. Jackal spluttered, barely withstanding them. "I was never supposed to be a mother! How dare you endanger Lucy like this?!"

"A-Aquarius..." Lucy gasped, staring at the spirit with saucer-wide eyes.

Jellal nodded. There. Only one thing left. He held out his left hand to Lucy and made his smile real. "One question, just one more. Lucy, do you trust me?"

Her own smile made his look like a candle before a star. "Of course I do! You're a Fairy Tail wizard!" She took his hand, and Heaven glowed where they touched. The demons charged, thinking they'd won.

They were wrong.

"Heaven Drive," Jellal chanted. The wings returned to him, and he was free.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Cube, X787: Lucy

Mavis! Lucy gasped, watching Cube blur around them as a Meteor field the size of a wagon smashed them free of Plutogrim. She could feel where their nakama were, like a golden drawing of an infinitely-complex constellation that was nonetheless simplicity itself to fly through.

Most of all, though, she could feel Jellal, shining like a living star, given to Earthland by Heaven itself. Scars ran through him, from innumerable cuts across his flesh that he counted meaningless to deep gashes in his soul where agony and captivity had carved through his joy and passion. Instead of crippling them, though, his scars made his love shine all the brighter. Smile, she realized. Smile in the face of evil, in the face of despair. Smile, and you create hope. Smile for those trapped by evil and despair, and you become hope. Kyouka had nearly broken him again, but the moment Jellal had found the strength to smile, he'd won.

And all that strength and hope poured into Lucy, freely, without fear or reservation. He offered it all, to a colleague, a friend, a woman who'd become Erza's sister...but most of all, to a Fairy Tail wizard. Well. There's only one thing to do, now.

She opened herself to Jellal then, and saw herself through his eyes. Lucy shone like a goddess in that sight, the Zodiac Princess adored by the spirits of the stars. She watched herself blossom from an uncertain, desperate girl into a champion of Heaven and Earthland. She saw herself train for her first S-Class trial, adventure with him when their two teams united, gain the strength to summon a Star Dress for every key she owned. You will surpass me, she felt him think again and again, glowing with joy and pride every time.

I don't want to, she realized, because if I did, that means I'm not giving anything back.

Their bond rippled for a moment, that tiny dissonance reverberating in the Celestial power uniting them. Then it passed. It doesn't matter. We are one right now, and Fairy Tail wizards should always surpass themselves.

In an instant, the plan was there, and the plan was theirs, and they didn't so much start casting the spell as let it come to life through them. So that's why he needed his right arm free...

"Survey the Heavens, Open the Heavens..." Lucy whispered.

Though each wizard spoke with their own voice, their magics and spells were one. Jellal chanted, "Gather to me..."

"...all the stars, far and wide...." Lucy continued. Curses crashed into the sapphire aura around them, and burned to nothing in the sacred light.

Jellal closed his eyes and opened himself to Heaven. "...O River of Light..."

"...show me thy appearance..." Lucy said.

Jellal chanted, "...guided by the Fairies..."

"...shining bright." Lucy noted the demonic screams around them. They can't touch Heaven.

Jellal's right arm glowed with the power they summoned. "Sunlight!"

"Oh Tetrabiblos," Lucy chanted, while Leo and Aquarius tore through their assailants.

Jellal trembled as the spell took form. "Moonlight!"

"I am the ruler of the stars." Lucy shuddered as Heaven poured into them.

Jellal cried, "Starlight!"

"Aspect become complete..." Lucy breathed.

Jellal's eyes opened again, shining with golden light. "...shine down..."

"...open thy terrible gate..." Lucy chanted, her very words driving the demons back.

Jellal glared at Plutogrim. "...in order to erase..."

"...oh 88 Stars of Heaven..." Lucy commanded, and the stars circled to obey.

Jellal's arm cast out a fairy ring to encircle Hell itself. "...the fangs of evil!"

At last, their voices became one, echoing with the roar of Heaven's fury: "UNISON RAID! SHINE! URANO METRIA FAIRY GLITTER!"

Fairy Glitter erupted from above, crashing through Cube's Grim Core, while Urano Metria smashed into Plutogrim from every side. The 88 stars burned through the Living Hell with Heaven's fury, and the holes they left burst to life with Fairy Glitter's light. Each spell suffused the other, strengthening it, guiding it, pouring down on the Demon Guild with divine judgement the Nine Gates thought would never find them.

Alegria withered and died. The fairy light liberated and restored their family. Golden fury shattered the Grim Core. The stars hammered Plutogrim's broken remains, forcing it down over the bare mountain peaks outside Crocus.

Trust me, he says, Lucy thought, and she couldn't help but smile. They floated back down to the ruin that had literally been Grim incarnate, Leo and Aquarius flying alongside them. "Do you think Tartaros will get the hint?" she asked, looking at Jellal.

He shook his head. "They're obsessed." Jellal smiled back. "It's probably just as well. Can you imagine robbing that many nakama of fights they were looking forward to? I'd be more afraid of Natsu than Kyouka." Lucy couldn't help but laugh.

"You...miserable...small fry," Jackal wheezed, stumbling towards her. Seilah staggered after him, eyes wide and pupils shrunken as she glared at Jellal. "Don't think this will save you. There's no way you hit the Grim Core!"

Lucy turned her smile on the sadistic demon, her eyes glinting with the gathered starlight. "Unless Jellal used Fairy Glitter to aim right at it!" Jackal stopped, jaw trembling. "What's the matter, coward? Can't fight when your life is on the line?" Lucy swapped the Taurus Dress for Virgo's. "Welcome to mortality!"

"You..." Seilah whispered, tears trickling down a blank, frozen face. "...you killed Kyouka..." She moved like a puppet with not enough strings, every step jerky and half-limp.

Tempester landed beside them in a whirling windstorm. Torafuzar leaped through the air to land by their side. Lucy's smile vanished. "Be wary," the fish-demon ordered. "Until Master Mard can rebuild Grim's Core, we are vulnerable."

"Yep!" Lucy agreed, pressing one foot against the ground. It trembled at her touch and magic, despite how little energy she had left. "So who wants to die first?" Leo landed beside her, while Aquarius' waves crashed above them. Don't see me bluffing don't see me bluffing don't see me –

Jellal trembled as he forced himself into a ready stance. "Lucy. We need to fall back. The guild is free. We're outnumbered–"

"You have no idea." Silver strode towards them, his smile thin and sharp. Keyes floated behind the walking corpse, his body transformed as the others had been. His checkerboard mantle had been replaced by one of dark metal scales, his helmet's crest had been replaced with bone-white bull's horns, and his staff had been replaced by a spear with a sharp, gleaming black stone for a tip. Some kind of volcanic rock, I think, Lucy guessed, taking a reluctant step back. It's not going to matter unless we live through this. Guys, now would be a really good time to –

An inferno erupted through the ground between wizards and demons. Natsu leaped up through it to land in front of Lucy, fist punching his palm. Gajeel sprang through after him, his legs transforming from iron pillars back to normal (aside from the glittering star-metal scales). Gray and Juvia rose up on a pillar of pale blue ice, her water and his frost swirling around them both. An Armadura-clad Erza exploded from the hole, landing in front of Jellal. "Woo-hoo!" Lucy cheered.

"You are beaten," Erza hissed, glowing with a ferocity to rival the white-hot flames surrounding Lucy's favorite Dragon Slayer. "Siegrain commanded the Face projectors to self-destruct. Your plan has failed." Jellal let out a shuddering gasp. I know how he feels. Who can tell what side he's on today? Lucy wondered, while Erza continued. "Your flying Hell has fallen, most of your comrades are beaten, and your resurrection machine is so much glass and steel."

"Surprisingly delicious steel," Gajeel amended, smiling and licking his lips. "Gee hee!"

Erza pointed one of her swords at the demons. "Yet we will spare you, "she whispered, "if you yield. Now."

"Foolish fairies." Mard Geer strode toward them, still cradling the Book of END as though it were a beloved infant. His smile seemed undiminished by Fairy Tail's victories. "There will be no mercy. No barter. No quarter. You will fall, and either be reborn as demons yourselves, or die."

"Zero Excalibur!" Gray roared, leaping at the demon guild master. Both sides threw themselves at each other, all pretense of negotiation abandoned.

"Star Dress: Aquarius!" Lucy chanted. Jellal's right. We need to stay back. If this thing's getting ugly, though, I'm going to be ready!

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Cube Ruins, X787: Natsu

"Boom," Tempester chanted. The explosion threw Natsu, Gajeel, and Juvia back. Gray and Erza pushed forward, Devil Slayer magic and Titania's pure strength getting them through. Ai-yah, Natsu grumbled, glaring at the ice princess. This is embarrassing.

Jackal leaped over the stunned trio of Fairy Tail wizards, laughing as he fell toward Lucy and Jellal. "Die, human!" the demon laughed. Fire trailed behind him, so Natsu did the obvious thing, inhaling it.

"You first," Lucy whispered, thrusting forward both her hands. "Torrent!" The blast of water slammed Jackal through the air, and he screamed, bits of him disintegrating into ether as he flew over the whole of Plutogrim. Lucy looked away. "Maybe...I wasn't bluffing, after all."

Natsu grinned. "You really need to stop messing with our Zodiac Princess. Gee hee!"

"DON'T COPY ME!" Gajeel roared.

"You did it first," Natsu laughed back. "Fight me, Tempester! I'm all fired up!" He pretended to ignore the exhausted Lucy dropping to her knees behind him, Jellal stumbling to her side.  This is definitely "important enough" to go monster for, he decided, chanting, "Take Over: Dragon Soul!" Red scales rippled across his skin, claws grew from his fingers and toes, and wings burst from his back. Natsu was grateful for all of the training Mirajane and Lisanna had helped him with, as he kept the dragon-rage in check.

"Keyes is the priority!" Erza ordered. "All other foes are secondary. Fairy Star!" She slashed an X in the air, which flew at the necromancer.

Mard Geer's vines raced out to block it, exploding where Erza's attack had struck them. "Did you think it would be so simple?"

"Actually," Gray hissed, "it will be. Zero Wave!" He punched out with both palms, one above the other, to freeze them all. Hey, don't hog the whole fight! Natsu grumped.

Silver leaped in the way, deflecting Gray's ice with his own. "Oi oi," he sneered. "I am your opponent."

"Rumble," Tempester chanted, calling a cyclone down on Natsu.

"Flame Elbow," Natsu retorted, incinerating the storm with a single blow. Tempester blinked at him, circling warily. Natsu grinned at him. "My fire can burn anything!"

"Move." Boulders levitated around them, raining down on the Dragon Slayer.

Natsu laughed. "Fire Dragon Claw!" he cried, leaping and kicking through the rocks to plant his foot in Tempester's face. "You don't listen too well, do ya?"

"Boom." The explosion threw Natsu back toward the ground – but away from Keyes.

Nuts. He's too smart for that. Oh well, this is – what's it called? – a target-rich environment. Natsu grinned and flew at Silver. "Sword Horn!" he chanted, slamming into the walking dead guy head-first. They burst into flames, Silver howling while Natsu laughed again.

"Fight your own battles! Freeze," Silver ordered, and a coat of ice swallowed Natsu whole. Oh no you don't, the Dragon Slayer thought, more grateful than ever for all his fights with Gray. Crimson Lotus: Phoenix Blade! Natsu's entire body burst into flames, melting his prison. He leaped into the air, rocketing towards Keyes.

"Bolt," Tempester said, lightning raining down on Natsu. It was an effort – the electricity tasted greasy and stale – but the Dragon Slayer was able to inhale it, even as the blast forced him back towards Tempester. "What? That's not your element."

"It is now," Natsu retorted, grinning again. "Lightning-Flame Dragon Mode!" Demon and Dragon Slayer slammed into each other, falling to Cube's remains. The thin gap between Natsu's scales glowed Laxus-yellow.

"Sink," Tempester snarled, and the ground turned to liquid beneath them.

"Yipe! Dragon Jump!" Natsu cried, blasting free of the trap.

Tempester followed him, taking a swing with his whirlwind-covered fist. "That's not a real spell," he complained, racing after the Dragon Slayer. Together, they ducked past a battle of swords and books flying at each other, flew around the clash of ice waves, fought through shadow-clad skeletons struggling against a human sea, and dodged a starmetal roar crashing into black waves of death. All the while, Mard Geer watched and laughed, occasionally helping his guild with slashing thorns or tangle vines.

"Silver is the second priority," Erza ordered, driving through the hardcover barrage towards a weeping Seilah. "Defeat him, and the others are no match for Devil Slayers!"

"He's Deliora, not Silver," Gray snapped, forcing his way towards his father's body. Natsu's grin vanished. I can smell his tears, Salamander realized. "Without that stolen body, he's defenseless against me."

"Ha!" Silver barked, while Natsu and Tempester traded a flurry of super-fast blows. "This form has been upgraded since your water woman damaged it. Like Siegrain and Jiemma, it has been converted – and my Devil Slayer magic still protects it!"

"Not your magic, thief!" Gray howled, charging at Deliora. Twin ice greatswords clashed.

Juvia surged through the battle, racing at Keyes. "No matter what the cost," she gasped, clouds forming overhead, "Juvia will...Juvia will protect Fairy Tail!" Keyes merely laughed, evading her and sending skeletal servants at the nearly-spent Lucy and Jellal. Lucy barely held them off. Jellal was in even worse shape, only able to fight a single skeleton at a time.

Then the four-armed Ezel fell towards them, flying straight at the heart of the battle. Great, Natsu scowled, barely evading a combined attack by Tempester and Mard Geer's vines. I like a good fight as much as the next Fairy Tail wizard, but this is... he paused, sniffing the air. That slowed Salamander long enough to get him punched by Tempester, but he was able to roll with it. "You guys are in trouble now!" Natsu cheered.

"He's lost his mind," Torafuzar commented, parrying Gajeel's arm blade with his own. He summoned his black wave, but Juvia absorbed it.

Deliora-Silver snorted. "You imply he had one to begin with – what?!"

At the last second, a gust of wind pivoted Ezel into Mard Geer, sending the demon guild master sprawling. Natsu had just enough time to realize that Ezel's eyes were blank and sightless before Wendy leaped overhead, swallowing Tempester's whirlwinds and shattering the skeletons threatening Lucy and Jellal. "Now, Natsu-san!"

Tempester had just enough time to gape while Natsu inhaled and dropped below his target. "Lightning-Flame – DRAGON ROAR!" The blast took the top off one of the nearby mountains, and when the light faded, Tempester was gone.

Wendy slid back to Jellal and Lucy, healing magic washing over them both. "We will protect Jellal and Lucy," she said, storms swirling around her arms. "We?" Oh! Carla darted to her side, growing into a cat-woman about Lucy's height. Happy, who'd used the same Exceed magic to reach Romeo's height, joined Natsu. The two old friends grinned at each other. "Stop Tartaros!"

"You cannot," Keyes mocked. "My legions will cut down your friends. No matter what Siegrain does, once he is dead, I can still activate Face. Humanity's fate is to be bone for my Curse!" He pointed at the exhausted celestial wizards, and a host of corpses marched on them. Natsu snarled and breathed in, only to find that his Lightning-Flame Roar had left him nearly spent himself.

Keyes' laughter, however, was cut off by the first drops of rain. "Drip, drip," the storm whispered. "Juvia is a water woman."

"What are you doing?" Keyes howled, thrashing in the air. The drizzle turned into a downpour within moments, but the rain vanished from everyone it touched, not even leaving puddles on the ground. Instead, it streamed towards the necromancer from every direction, soaking past his defenses, into every part of the demon-ghost. "What are you doing?!"

"Protecting Fairy Tail!" Juvia cried, her water form swirling around the ashen demon. "WATER CYCLONE!"

The eruption of power, combined with Torafuzar's fluid Curse and Keyes' shadowy smoke-body, made it seem as though the darkness itself had become a living storm. Mard Geer snarled and shot his vines at Juvia in a wave, but even battling Silver, Gray was able to freeze about half of them.

Another slash of darkness cut through the air, slicing the other half of the Underworld King's attack into salad, and Sitri-form Mirajane landed beside Wendy. "You hurt Jellal," she whispered. "You hurt my Lucy!" she howled, her Evil Spark roaring around her.

Juvia fell, her magic spent. Somehow, Jellal had enough power left to catch her with telekinesis, carrying her to their side. Keyes' helmet and spear clattered to the ground, the rest of him gone without a trace. Cheers from Crocus nearly drowned out Juvia's broken sobs. Natsu snarled at Mard Geer, but was too spent to do much else. Happy protected him, his claws large enough to slash through the foot soldiers. "I'm a Fairy Tail wizard too!" his best friend declared. "Aera Spiral!" A miniature whirlwind formed around them, protecting the duo and feeding Wendy. You show 'em, Happy! Natsu cheered, overjoyed to see his partner's years of training pay off.

"No," the demon king whispered, eyes wide. "This cannot be. I have waited four hundred years to awaken END, to fulfill Zeref's dream. It will not end like this!" he roared.

"Yes it will!" Mirajane howled, flying at Seilah. "Erza, I have the book demon!"

"Requip!" Erza swapped to her Purgatory Armor, flying at Silver. The stolen body was already fading away in wisps, Deliora beginning to emerge from the corpse. "Gray!"

As Deliora parried Perdition with an ice-covered claw, Gray turned on Mard Geer. "All this for your Zen-damned book? Ice-Make: Lance!" The flurry of frozen spears lashed out at the demon king, who recoiled from the blows. One lance shot at the book, but the villain managed to cover it with his arm, only allowing one corner to be sliced by the magic.

Natsu gasped, clutching his left shoulder. He stared at the wound, seeming to have come from nowhere. It's like I was stabbed... he blinked at the sight and smell of frozen blood. His entire left arm became human again. ...it's...cold...

The entire battle came to a halt. Everyone – human, Exceed, and demon – stared at Natsu. "Oh. Oh, gods," Jellal blurted. "Of course. Not 'end.' E.N.D." The Starburst looked down. "They're not classical demons. They're constructs based on demons, made of etheric energy."

"What's that got to do with Natsu?" Lucy cried.

"Etherious...Natsu...Dragneel..." Jellal whispered.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Cube Ruins, X787: Gray

"Oh crap!" Gray blurted. "Natsu, are you all right?"

Natsu clutched at his wound and stumbled back, snarling as he retreated towards Mira and Wendy. "Yeah. I'll be okay." He stared at the book. "But – this means I'm–"

"Still a flame-brained idiot!" Gray snarled, freezing another wave of demon vines. "Get it together, Natsu! You're a Fairy Tail wizard!"

"No," Mard whispered. "NO!" he howled, arm tightening around his book.

Natsu blinked, then smiled that stupid, moon-sized smile of his. "Yep! Oi, Gajeel, stop playing with that Torafuzar guy already!"

"I hate it when he's right," Gajeel snarled. "Karma Demon: Starmetal Spiral!" The Dragon Slayer transformed into his Starmetal form even as he flew at Torafuzar, spinning himself into a living sword-drill. Torafuzar snarled and held out his arms, the black waters rising around him again, but Gajeel tore through poison wave and diamond etherious alike. Torafuzar fell back, then down.

"DEMON EYES!" Seilah screamed. Pale blue light formed around her arms and wings, and eyes opened in the palms of her hands. The eyes glared at Jellal and Lucy, twin magic circles flowing around Seilah's fingers. She fired a beam of force at them – one so overwhelming, even Gray's magic couldn't freeze it. Crap!

Mirajane darted into the beam's path. "Sitri Spark," Mira hissed back. A roaring jet of fire and lightning slammed into the Demon Eyes beam. Neither spell was entirely stopped by the other, and both demon-touched women flew back. Natsu swallowed the remnants of Sitri Spark and used the gathered power to burn Seilah's demon books to ash, but Mira wasn't done. "Take Over: Etherious Soul!" she howled, and Seilah's body warped and flowed toward the She-Demon.

"No! I will avenge–" Seilah gasped, then froze. For an instant, Mirajane's magic seemed to have no power over the etherious demon, as Seilah floated there staring at the She-Demon. Then the creature relaxed, closed her eyes, and swirled into Mira. "Mistress Kyouka," she breathed, and was gone.

"Don't touch my Lucy," Mirajane said, smirking at Mard Geer.

"Etherious," the Demon King snarled, armor swirling around his slender frame. Wings sprouted from his back, one curving around his body to protect the Book of E.N.D. "Die. Grim Wall!" A maze of thorned vines tougher than steel tore through the ruins of Plutogrim, cutting Gray off from the others. He heard yelps and gasps as the others fought to defend themselves.

"Ice Devil Rage!" Gray roared, striking back at the murderous spell. I don't dare attack Geer as long as he has that damned book, he thought with a grimace, but I can still protect my friends! He slammed his fist into his palm. "Ice-Make: Rampart!" The familiar wall erupted behind him, cutting the rest of the battle off from the twin duos of Gray and Erza against Deliora and Mard Geer. "Erza, as long as he's holding that book, Natsu's in danger."

Titania turned a fierce glare on the Underworld King even as she parried one of Deliora's massive claws. "Wait!" Mard Geer blurted, and Gray stopped halfway between spells. "None of us want to harm the Book of END. Let me place it upon my throne, and we will finish this battle without endangering it. Agreed?"

Gray scowled, but turned to Erza, one eyebrow raised. Deliora pulled back his free hand for another claw swipe, but stopped at a glare from Tartaros' master. Erza looked from Mard Geer to Gray, then back. "Agreed. Move the book to safety, and we will finish this contest as befits warriors." "Contest?" For the love of Mavis, Erza.

Still, Mard Geer nodded in response to her offer, one vine snatching the large tome and pulling it to safety nearly a hundred feet away. "Thank you, Titania. For that, I shall grant you both a swift death." He raised one hand, and the vines swirled around him like a storm.

"Funny. I was thinking the same thing," Gray snarled. "Freeze." Frost rimed Erza's blades as the cold shattered the vines around him.

Mard Geer laughed. "Prison Flower!" His spell flew at Gray, a massive purple bulb surrounded by more thorned vines. Gray froze and shattered the vines; when Franmalth erupted from the flower and leaped at Erza, he did the same to the gelatinous demon. Hmph. Underestimating me cost you everything, you smug little jerk. The ice wizard spared a glance for Erza. She darted around Deliora, slashing the huge demon's arms and chest with her Crimson Blossoms. The Underworld King's laughter stopped in a heartbeat, eyes bulging, and he shot into the sky.

"Zero Destruction Bow," Gray chanted, summoning the weapon and firing his arrow in one smooth motion. Mard Geer tried to dodge, but Gray anticipated his evasion by the twitch of his wings. The arrow drove the demon back, but still he flew.

"No mortal can overcome the Absolute Demon, not even a Devil Slayer! Dea Yggdrasil!" Cupping his hands together, the demon summoned a swirling vortex of blinding light. The vortex sprouted a massive, whirling column of vines, the whole mass howling towards Gray.

"Zen, you're pissing me off," Gray grumbled. "Zero Excalibur." The deadly blade formed in his hands, and he slashed at the attack, reducing it to frozen powder. He then threw the sword at Mard Geer, but the "absolute demon" punched the weapon, shattering it. Great. I guess he didn't get to be king of the demons because of his big throne. How am I going to stop this guy?

"Die," the demon king hissed. "Die!" He punched out a palm, and wailing darkness that looked identical to Jose Porla's Shades flew around Gray in all directions. It's much more powerful than Jose's, though – like comparing Natsu's fire to Macao's. The Devil Slayer braced himself, the cold swirling around him like a storm. "MEMENTO MORI!"

Oh crap! The spell roared around Gray, paralyzing him, devouring him, erasing him. Wait – it's demon power. Maybe – even though it's not ice – I can eat this stuff, like Natsu and Gajeel can. With nothing left to lose, he closed his eyes, bit at the darkness and consumed it.

For the first time in twelve years, Gray felt cold. His very bones went numb. Yet the power howled through him, even as the Devil Slayer felt like he would shatter from it. Become the power. Be one with it. I'm afraid of turning into the enemy...but that's okay. Fear is not evil. Gray hammered the darkness with a frozen uppercut. "Zero Flesh!" he chanted, and Memento Mori shattered. As the ice became one with his skin, Gray opened his eyes again. Mard Geer was still standing there, metal jaw dropping at the sight of him. Concentrate all that power, everything I've fought to become. Not the bow. Not the sword. Me. That's how I win. Gray flew at the Underworld King. "Zero Destruction Fist!"

"You cannot possibly–" Mard Geer began, his own fist punching back at Gray's. The Devil Slayer never learned what it was he couldn't possibly do, because his fist shattered the demon's. The cold raced up the guild master's arm, across his chest, through his body. All that remained was a statue of ice, gaping in disbelief at him.

"Hmph." Gray punched the demon with his other fist, and the monster shattered into shards of ice.

For a moment, all that remained was the head of the Underworld King. "The Book of END," he gasped. "Protect it."

Gray clapped fist to palm, and a hand of ice brought the book to him. "I will." For a moment, Mard Geer smiled. Then he vanished completely.

Deliora's head fell beside Gray. The face of his nightmares stared in terror at the sky while the rest of his body disintegrated. Titania landed by Gray's side, nodding to the Devil Slayer. "Thanks, Erza," he said, nodding back.

"You did not want to finish him yourself?" she asked, sheathing her swords and requipping into her day armor.

Gray turned to watch Deliora's head turn to mist. He froze the dust, just to be safe. "Yeah, but...." He blinked at the emptiness where his personal demon had been, and permitted himself a tiny smile. "It didn't matter. I outgrew him. This was they day I trained for my whole life, and I won. I even survived." He shrugged and turned toward Crocus, smile growing at the sounds of cheering rising from the city. "I'm not sure what I'll do now. I'm not even sure it matters. Maybe...being a Fairy Tail wizard will finally be enough."

Erza smiled back at him. "I'm sure Juvia will be happy to help."

With a gasp, Gray turned to where Mard Geer's wall of thorns had been. Mirajane was hugging Lucy with fierce abandon, Natsu and Gajeel were sitting on the ground and grinning at each other, Jellal was lying on his back while Wendy and the Exceeds tended to him, and Juvia...was nowhere to be seen. Well. This is going to be fun. He scowled. "Go check on Blue. Your Blue. I'll find Juvia." Erza nodded and strode over to the Starburst, while Gray tracked Juvia by scent. That's grief. Did she lose someone?

After about a minute, Gray found Juvia sitting on a broken column, hugging her legs to her chest. She sniffled, then looked up and around when one of Gray's boots crunched some rubble. Her eyes were wide, shining with unshed tears. "Gray-sama..." she whispered.

"Oi, oi, what happened to you?" Gray asked. "We just won. Didn't you want to have this talk?"

Juvia looked away, eyes fixed on the Grim ruin below them. "Juvia betrayed Gray-sama." Gray blinked. Huh? She let out a choked sob. "It was the only way to save Fairy Tail, but...Gray saw it. Juvia destroyed the necromancer."

Huh? Gray shook his head, walked around Juvia to face her, and crossed his arms. "Even for you, Juvia, that doesn't make any sense. Even I was having trouble taking down that monster." He shuddered. Mom...Dad... Realization struck with the force of Alegria. Oh! He crouched down to face her. "Juvia, you did what I couldn't."

"Juvia killed Gray-sama's parents!" she wailed. "Juvia...Juvia doesn't deserve Gray-sama's love."

You've been hanging around Jellal too long, Gray sighed. With all the patience he could muster, he guided Juvia into a more natural sitting position, then locked eyes with her. She trembled. "Juvia, my parents died thirteen years ago. You didn't hurt them. You set them free." He held her hands in his. "You saved them." Juvia gasped. "You saved them when I couldn't. Thank you."

"Oh...Gray-sama..." She threw her arms around him and sobbed. Yeah. I think...we can just do this for a minute...he let her cry, maybe shedding a few tears himself. Mom...Dad...

His own tears stopped before hers. Gray blinked. She...she made the rain go away.

Oh.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Cube Ruins, X787: Erza

"This was certainly a tournament for the record books," Jellal quipped, smiling.

For the first time, seeing that sun-bright smile brought Erza no comfort. "Jellal Fernandes," she half-growled, shaking even as she planted her fists on her hips, "don't you dare."

"Don't what, mock the devil?" he chuckled. "That's pretty much all I can dare at the moment, and I intend to. I'd dance on their grave if I could." Jellal patted the bit of floor he was resting on as Wendy tended to his injuries. "This is taking a while. Then again, I don't think I've ever pushed myself this hard, and I saved a whole universe once."

Erza dropped to her knees, grasping the air above his chest. His clothes, torn away. His body ravaged and tormented. His mind violated. Yet somehow he saved us all, again. And he treats it like nothing! She shuddered. "Don't you dare take this lightly! They took you, chained you, tortured you – do you have any idea how scared I was for you?"

Jellal's smile vanished. Even through Wendy's ministrations, he convulsed in pain – or, perhaps, the memory of it. "I'm sorry, Erza. I didn't mean to worry you."

"That is not the point!" Erza howled, shaking her arms above them. "I thought you had stopped treating your life as insignificant! How can you–"

"I have, Erza. I promise," Jellal blurted, reaching for her hand, barely able to move his.

Somehow, Erza glared and quivered at the same time, eyes burning even while her lips trembled. "Then why are you acting like this was nothing?" she demanded.

"That's not it. I didn't break," Jellal replied.

Erza stopped, both glare and quiver vanishing. What? She blinked. "Of course you didn't," she replied, leaning closer. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"It was Hell. I was a prisoner in the cruelest Grim depths. I never gave in. At least not to the pain or fear." He let his attention flicker to the stars above, shining in the night sky. "I couldn't let them do that to Juvia, but...Erza, have you ever felt what life is like for our counterparts?"

"Is this about Earthland-One?" Erza asked, holding her forehead in one hand. "Gods, Jellal, what is enough for you to realize you are strong enough?"

"This was. If Kyouka and all her agony couldn't destroy my spirit, nothing can. I can finally accept my will." At last, his fingers brushed hers. "Can you, at last, accept your worth?"

"Wh-what?" Erza stammered, eyes wide. Is he trying to comfort me? Even now? Oh, Jellal...

"To reiterate: I was helpless, in the Grim depths of Hell, literally. You found me. Saved me. Carried me out. Is that enough?" he asked, his eyes meeting hers.

Shame tore through her. "But – but I waited. We fought Tartaros in the streets of Crocus when we should have–" Erza objected.

"You were doing exactly what you should have done," Jellal retorted, "exactly what I would have asked had I known what was at stake. How many lives did your 'waiting' save, Erza?"

"Thousands," Carla replied, then cleared her throat. "There are others who need Wendy's help. If you would excuse us. Wendy, Happy, let's go." Wendy nodded.

Happy grinned. "Aye!" he agreed, following the others.

Jellal smiled. "I'm free, thanks to you. My hero."

Unable to help herself a moment longer, Erza kissed him. And you are mine, she thought, now and forever.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Crocus, X787: Jellal

"You're what?" Jellal winced as half the guild erupted, staring in shock at Master Makarov.

Makarov turned half-away from the guild members. Former guild members? Jellal wondered, as the old master sighed. "You heard me, brats. I'm disbanding Fairy Tail."

Jellal glanced around, his only emotion utter disbelief at the devastation writ across the postures and expressions of his nakama – eyes downward, heads lowered, shoulders slumped. Only Natsu and Ur stood out – Natsu glared at the diminutive master, while Ur watched the rest of the guild with a curiosity that seemed detached. I don't believe this. The Starburst wove through his guild mates, stood in front of Master Makarov, and crossed his arms. "No," he said.

"This isn't a joke, boy," Makarov retorted, eyes narrowing a fraction. Jellal took a quick look around; even out here on the city's edge, the few locals had the good sense to clear the streets.

"Good. I'm not laughing." Jellal tried to guess the master's purpose, to no avail. He has to be trying to protect us, but this makes no sense. He took in a breath, let it go. "If you don't want to be guild master, fine. Someone else can take the job. Fairy Tail's not going anywhere."

"What Tartaros has done – it's the end of an era." Makarov looked away. "You must find your own paths now."

"Don't lecture me on what Tartaros did!" Jellal snarled, arms unfolding as he clenched his fists. "I still have the scars. I'm not giving up on Fairy Tail. Why are you?"

Makarov's eyes widened, and he turned on Jellal with a ferocity even the Starburst had rarely seen. "You know nothing, boy," he whispered.

"If I don't, then it's only because you don't have the courage to tell us," Jellal snapped.

Erza gasped. "Jellal..."

"No, Erza. Not even for you." Jellal took in a long breath, devouring the light of the stars. "Fine. You've disbanded Fairy Tail. I'm re-banding it." Laxus chuckled. "That means you're not the guild master now. We're not your responsibility."

"And who will take my place?" Makarov demanded, eyes glittering with golden fury. "You?"

"If necessary," Jellal said, letting a flicker of Meteor fill him. All I can manage right now, but no need to advertise it. He didn't budge. Natsu strode to his side, arms crossed. "There will always be the lost, the forgotten, the ones the world casts out. As long as I draw breath, Fairy Tail will be their home, their family. You taught me that. Master Makarov."

Gray walked to Jellal's side opposite Natsu, nodding. Lucy joined Natsu a moment later. Gajeel and Juvia were a second behind. Simon, Ultear, and Macao were the last ones he could make out before the guild was too solid a mass behind him to make out one person from another. Laxus shook his head. "Come on, Gramps. You knew better than this," he said. Erza worked her way to Jellal, slipped her hand in his. Jellal turned to smile at her – only to freeze at the tears trickling from her natural eye. What?

"Looks like you're Fourth Master now, Jellal," Natsu grinned. Jellal bit back a groan.

"Not necessarily," Ur said, walking over between Jellal and Makarov. "You're worried about the kids. I don't blame you. Well, I'm no little girl. Why don't you tell me what's going on?"

Makarov's fury vanished in an eyeblink. He sighed, deflated an inch, and turned his back to the others. "The guild's spirit will tell the Fourth Master all they need to know. I have things to do." He strode back towards Crocus.

Erza let Jellal's hand go and took a step towards the old man, but Natsu of all people stopped her with a hand on her arm. "Whatever it is, he's gotta do it himself."

"He doesn't have to leave the guild," Erza whispered.

"He already has," Ur sighed.

Ultear swallowed. "Mom..."

Ur smiled at her daughter. "It's all right, Ultear. We'll bring him home when he's ready." She turned her attention to the gathered guild. "And Fairy Tail will be fine. I've been dealing with half the Council's nonsense already anyway." She chuckled at Jellal. "For a second there, though, I really thought you kids would let his ridiculous idea pass. I have to be honest, Jellal, after everything you've been through, I didn't think even the Shield of Fiore was up to that."

Me either, Jellal thought, but immediately knew better. "It's because of what Tartaros did to me that I was able to...do that," he admitted. He chuckled, barely keeping it from becoming a sob. "He's not the first former Fairy Tail Master I've stood up to."

"Oi oi," Laxus interjected, "Gramps was wrong, but he's not Master Hades."

"I know," Jellal agreed, the strength in his voice fading. "He was more my father than Hades could ever be. I just...I had to do it. The world needs Fairy Tail." He looked back over at Ur, head cocked a fraction to one side. "What was that about the Council? Are you offering to help me?"

Ur sighed, holding her forehead in the fingertips of one hand. "Jellal, you're in no condition to take on guild master duties. Even before what happened today, you were preparing for a wedding, taking charge of guild security, and working on our anti-Daphne lacrima projects. I'll be Fourth."

Jellal took a breath to defend his fitness, processed Ur's words, and stopped. She didn't want this any more than I did, he thought, but simply responded with, "Are you sure?"

"Jellal, sweetie, I've been bracing myself for the day Mak didn't wake up for over ten years." She lowered her head, closed her eyes, and smiled. "Besides, if there's one thing I have in common with that dirty old man, it's discovering I have a whole guild's worth of children. I blame Gildarts." Ultear and Cana both chuckled. Even Gray smiled.

"Well then. Congratulations, and condolences, Fourth Master," Jellal agreed.

"AYE SIR!" the guild roared, pointing toward the sky. Jellal didn't join them, letting the others stream towards Master Ur with offers of help. The spirit of the First Master joined them, but even that couldn't pull Jellal's attention away from the more immediate problem. That still doesn't explain what happened to Master Makarov. What in the name of the gods could have convinced him that disbanding the guild wasn't madness? He turned back towards the cart that held their luggage, only for his weakness to stab at him and leave him stumbling.

Once more, it was Erza to the rescue, catching him before he even lost his footing. "Jellal, be careful," she whispered.

"Sorry," he muttered, feeling like a fool. Wait, what happened to Erza's voice? He turned to thank her, only to find Erza looking away. "What's wrong, love?" he asked, taking her hand.

She still didn't look at him. "I should have been the first to stand by you," Erza breathed, shuddering. "After all you've done, everything we've been through together – Mavis, just today–"

"Stop," Jellal demanded, and Erza turned to face him at last, eyes wide. "Master Makarov was as much your father as mine. Mavis and Chronos, you're probably his favorite daughter, and he's always struggled not to play favorites."

"But that doesn't excuse–" Erza began again.

"Yes, it does," Jellal insisted. "I forced everyone in the guild to make an impossible choice. I don't think there's a single member who remembers when he wasn't the guild master." He sighed. "I just hope we made the right choice."

"Of course we did," Erza insisted, smiling at last. "Fairy Tail is our family. And as wonderful a guild master as you would be," she continued, making Jellal gulp, "Master Ur's right. You're going to be busy the next several months...if you'll still have me."

"'If?' Do I look brain-dead to you?" Jellal quipped, smile growing. "To have and to hold, for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and health, to love and cherish –" he kissed her on the cheek – "and death can go hang, because I want to do all that in this world and the next."

Erza's lower lip quivered for a moment. "Oh, Jellal!" She half-tackled him into the cart, kissing Jellal to within an inch of his life. Again. Oh, Erza. Well, I knew the job was dangerous when I took it.

Chapter Text

Volume Twenty-Five: Shields Will Shatter

Earthland-1, Worth Woodsea, X791: Jellal

"Where is he going?" Meredy asked, pouting at the crystal ball.

Ultear rubbed her chin, watching Master Makarov vanish into the crowds of Crocus. "I...have no idea," she admitted.

"Zeref," Jellal replied, desperate to stamp down the fear rippling through him. "He's gone to look for Zeref. Given what we've learned about the Dark Wizard's – condition – it makes a certain amount of sense. I would guess that Master Makarov was attempting to separate Fairy Tail to make it harder to target them all at once."

Meredy huffed and glared at the small guild's master. "Figures you'd think of something like that. You'd better not do that to us."

We'd get picked off one by one, Jellal thought, but merely smiled at Meredy. "Of course not. We're all any of us have."

"Good," Meredy retorted, returning her attention to the sphere. "So what do we do now?"

"We wait," Jellal sighed. "It's not an ideal plan, but until we learn more, there is little we can do to help. Our world still needs us."

"We can't wait too long, though," Ultear pointed out, the crystal changing scenes to the ocean of Earthland-1. "The island will return in less than a month. We have to decide whether to intervene in 787, or move things forward to the endgame."

I don't like either option, Jellal thought, grimacing. "Move ahead," he decided. "We will remain out of their lives while they are happy. Only when we can determine what enemy they face can we intervene properly."

Ultear and Meredy looked at each other. Meredy shrugged. "As you say," Ultear whispered, then waved her hand over the sphere.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Fairy Tail Guild Hall, X788: Meredy

"WE'RE BACK!" Natsu roared, kicking the doors open as he carried a wooden chest as big as he was overhead.

"Aye SIR!" Happy cheered beside him.

"A little louder, kid," Laxus drawled. "I don't think they heard you in Bellum." The hall erupted in laughter. Juvia hid her amusement behind both hands. Meredy permitted herself a giggle. Three...two...one...

"Laxus? FIGHT ME!" Natsu leaped at the Lightning Dragon Slayer, tossing the chest behind him. Erza caught it one-handed and sighed. Laxus chuckled and drove Natsu into the floor with an overhand chop. The ensuing laughter halted instantly when Natsu leaped to his feet. "Ha! I've gotten stronger!" With that, he threw a blazing punch at Laxus.

Laxus stopped it with a single palm. "Way to go, Natsu," he replied, smiling back. "So have I." With that, he punched Natsu right back out of the hall, Gray dropping to the ground to avoid joining his teammate in the street. Happy yelped and flew after the fire wizard.

"You shouldn't fight Male Blondie, Cherry Blossom," Flare shouted, to more laughter.

"Don't just sit there, go get him," Meredy urged Juvia, while the water mage stared at the suddenly-shirtless Gray. "He'll be glad to see you."

"Juvia knows," her best friend replied, "but Juvia still goes too far sometimes. Gray-sama worries about Juvia's self-esteem." Meredy smiled. Then she groaned as Juvia looked skyward, heart-eyes pulsing. "Gray-sama is so wonderful – Juvin!"

"Oi oi," Gray said, strolling over with his shirt slung over one shoulder, "everything all right over here?" He glanced at Erza, who delivered the chest to Master Ur. Fourth Master nodded, then stared wide-eyed at whatever lay inside it once Erza kicked the chest open.

"Yes, Gray-s-san," Juvia replied, neck twitching, then nodded. "Juvia and Meredy were just discussing the guild's intelligence efforts."

Gray snorted. "Fairy Tail intelligence. A year ago, I would've called that an oxymoron."

I'm not asking, Meredy decided. I'll just hit the library later. She raised an eyebrow at the Devil Slayer. "Actually, we've put our efforts on hold. Cana and Ultear both had visions. 'Help is coming, soon.' We've been focusing on helping Jellal and Levy with their gear and enchantments." She grinned at him. "And enchanted gear, because Jellal and Levy. Poor Erza and Gajeel. They've kind of become 'genius-lover' buddies, comforting each other when Team Blue gets too big-brain, y'know?"

"I hadn't noticed," Gray retorted, one eyebrow arched, then pulled his shirt back on. Sarcasm. Yay. He turned to look at his mother and the chest she was sorting through. "We brought back some lacrima for them. High quality stuff, too."

Juvia's heart-eyes faded. "Was it that Gapri person? Juvia remembers he escaped with some crystals when we brought Minister Caine to justice."

Gray blinked, smiled, and nodded. "Yep. He'd done something with all the Stellanium, but the lacrima was still intact. He also stopped fighting when he found out Caine betrayed Stella." He looked around, stopping at the sight of Beth with the Buchanan brothers. "Where's Cobra? He's probably gonna want to know we caught the guy."

"Erik is on a date," Juvia explained.

Gray chuckled and shook his head. "About time. I know what it's like to be afraid of what's inside you, but now that we know there are dragons in all the old-school Dragon Slayers, it's not like that Animus guy's going to be a big deal."

"I'm as big a shipper as anyone in Fairy Tail," Meredy replied, grimacing, "but 'a dragon inside you' is anybody's idea of a big deal!" Juvia giggled. Gray sighed.

The doors slammed open. Meredy turned, expecting Natsu to come back in. What she hadn't expected was that he'd be propping up a redhead who looked like Erza's long lost sister. One of her arms was around his shoulders, while the other held a staff with something akin to spotted antlers atop it. "Get Wendy!" Natsu roared.

Meredy leaped to her feet, but Ultear and Simon had already vanished with twin pops. They reappeared at Natsu's side with the Sky Dragon Slayer, both mages levitating the woman over to one of the tables. Simon created a blanket of shadow, Ultear formed a bubble of space to hold the antler-staff, and Wendy followed them with calm resolve, her hands glowing teal the moment the newcomer was still. Gods, she's grown in the last year, Meredy thought, noting that the healer was taller than Natsu. Meredy was oblivious to her own recent growth spurt while she scanned the woman with her Psyche Sight.

What she saw left her stumbling back, hands flying to her mouth. Wounds that burned in the ether, across her astral body, biting into her very spirit, all raged in Meredy's magic vision. Mavis, who did this to her? How could anyone even survive it?

"Guild – master," the woman demanded, gripping Wendy's arm. "Bring me... your guild master."

"I'm here," Ur replied, grabbing the woman's arm. "Let Wendy go. Now." The redhead obeyed, collapsing against Simon's shadow-blanket, as Wendy redoubled her efforts. "Thank you. Why are you here?"

"Hades." The entire guild went silent. "Usurped Alvarez. Uses the magic and face of our emperor. Commands power beyond your imagining. Must stop him."

"Of course," Erza replied, already beside Meredy. "For now, you must rest."

The woman's eyes widened. "Er...za?"

"Fernandes," she replied, holding up her left hand to show off her star-gold wedding ring.

"Someone get Jellal," Wendy grunted, her hands glowing more brightly as sweat beaded along her forehead. "She's not stabilizing."

"On it," Ultear replied, vanishing.

Meredy bit her lip. "M-maybe I can help." She concentrated, forming the Psyche Link band around her wrist.

"No," Ur ordered, and Meredy was so surprised, her spell collapsed. "It's too dangerous. Let Jellal try first." Erza swallowed, making fists of both gauntlets.

Ultear appeared with the Starburst a moment later. "Mavis," Jellal breathed, and immediately began drawing runes in the air with his green and red chalk. "Wendy?"

"Ether burn," she replied, shuddering. "Shadow flame. Never seen anything like it."

"I have," Jellal whispered, and both pieces of chalk doubled in speed. "Pull back from fighting it, just keep her stable for now. I have an idea."

"Jellal, I am just keeping her stable," Wendy groaned.

Jellal paled. "Oh." The chalk pieces redoubled in speed yet again, runes forming faster than Meredy could make them out. The Starburst directed them with one hand, his other joining Wendy's efforts as it glowed pale blue. Whoa, wait a minute boss–

All at once, every rune over the stranger rolled itself impossibly thin, the micro-needles joining together to make larger ones, then they all plunged into the woman. "Jellal!" Meredy blurted.

"Calm, girl," the newcomer replied, and Meredy felt foolish in an instant. "Etheric acupuncture. And astral acupuncture. Combined...with rune work? I thought Ishgar too backwards for such complex spellcraft." Wendy seemed to relax, though her hands were still glowing. Meredy scowled an instant after Ur did. Gee, thanks, lady.

"I've been studying Alvarish techniques," Jellal explained, running his hand over the needles. Meredy joined in, calling on her Psyche Sight again. Amazing. The needles are pulling the toxic flames out of her system and realigning her ethernano. Mavis, I think she's going to be all right! She looked up to find both healers beginning to relax. "Also, a few dark wizards from Ishgar developed similar processes, though with rather different intent." He leaned closer. "Formula Eyes," he chanted, the runes swirling above his nose. Jellal gasped. "Wendy, do you see this?"

"A Dragon Seed," Wendy replied, "just like Animus said, except this one's...sprouted."

'But she's human," Erza objected.

"I look like the woman I was," the woman said. "Zeref was able to restore my human appearance." A few wizards behind them gasped. "Inside, however, I am not remotely human. I eat magic; nothing else has any taste. I have neither the need of, nor capacity for, sleep. My sense of touch is nearly non-existent – the last thing I felt was an erupting volcano, and that was as a warm shower. My sense of smell is more acute than any human's sight, but nothing smells 'good' or 'bad,' any more than shades of gray have scents."

"We'll see about that," the Starburst muttered. Then he smiled, and in a stronger voice, he continued, "My name's Jellal. What's yours?"

"Irene," she said, her smile twisted and humorless. "I thank you for your efforts, boy, but Zeref himself could not help me."

"I have my doubts what efforts 'Zeref himself' could attempt, given the strange doom he's under," Jellal retorted, "but all I can offer is my best."

"He never gives anything less," Erza added, practically glowing as she smiled.

Irene snorted. "Yet you do not even know of Ankhseram's Contradictory Curse," she sneered.

Meredy blinked. Like half the guild, she only had one word to say to that: "What?"

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Magnolia, X788: Ultear

"I don't trust her," Ultear insisted, crossing her arms. "Where did she come from? How does she know Erza? Why is someone indebted to Zeref acting like an ally? We have too many questions, and not nearly enough answers."

"Irene explained the Contradictory Curse," Jellal replied. He was sitting in one corner of his lab rubbing his forehead. "She told us about the Empire's impending attack. She found Master Makarov and Ombre Histoire. She even gave us intelligence on this 'Spriggan 12,' her own comrades. What more do you want?"

"To believe her," Ultear shot back, looking away from her friend. At least he keeps this place clean, Ultear noted, glancing around the room. It was three work benches and lacrima screens, one on each wall aside from the entry, with a circle in the middle of the room for construction. All three benches were covered in lacrima, pieces of armor, staff parts, magic firearms, and Archive projectors. A few bits of chalk were scattered among the chunks of gear.

"She's telling the truth," Erza said. The other S-Class wizards looked at her in surprise. "I don't know how I know. I just...do."

"That's good enough for me," Jellal agreed. Kagura nodded as well.

"Of course it is," Ultear drawled. Chances he'll consider the possibility she's wrong: minus ten thousand.

"Oi, oi," Laxus said, bouncing upright from the table he'd been leaning against, "it's not like we've got defectors lining up to help, here. She says she knows where Gramps is, so we send a team to rescue him – and a second team to watch their backs, just in case."

"We should prepare to send further reinforcements as well," Kagura added, thumb running along Defender's hilt. "This is an empire so dreaded, Ishgar built Etherion and Face to stop it. We must be ready for anything."

Jellal nodded. "Agreed. Once we're on our way, we tell the Magic Council what's going on, so Ishgar's ready. As long as they have Master Makarov, though, this is Fairy Tail business."

"You are such a Fairy Tail wizard," Ultear's voice echoed above them, chuckling.

"Nee-san?" Ultear called, looking around.

"We apologize both for the intrusion and our long absence," Jellal-1 replied, "but there was little we could do until we knew more."

"You could have come to my wedding," Erza grumped, folding her arms and looking away.

Ultear-1 sniffed. "Do you want to torture him?" she snapped. Erza gasped and turned her attention upward again, eyes wide, but nee-san wasn't done. "We will come through to help when the time comes. No one is bothering to ward us out any longer. However, this will be the last time we can intervene. Our Fairy Tail is about to return from their time shield, and we must be there to watch over them."

"That's okay, sweetie," Ur said, smiling. "We're pretty sure this is where we confront all the demons of our pasts. The ones we still have, anyway."

"We're also pretty sure we got most of the actual demons," Gray added, "but we wouldn't mind help with the rest."

"Our greatest concern is Acnologia," Jellal-1 continued. "With Zeref encased in Ombre Histoire – I hesitate to say 'imprisoned' when he seems content to have his curse sealed away – you appear to have options in combating the Alvarez Empire. The Apocalypse Dragon is another matter."

"Yeah," Meredy-1 joined in, "have any of you come up with an idea for dealing with him?"

"I've been working on a Take Over," Mirajane suggested, "but with that monster's power, it's a long shot at best."

"Porlyusica gave Wendy a spell for calling on dragon spirits," their Jellal added. "If Irene's information is correct, then the majority of Acnologia's power comes from the dragons he's consumed. If we can adapt the spell with Dragon Cry, then free those souls, Fairy Tail can defeat him."

"Starburst did the math," Laxus added, spreading a pale blush across Jellal's cheeks. "You've got one, you should know how that works."

"We'll work with that, then," Ultear-1 agreed. "Make whatever preparations you must, then take this when you go." A crystal ball descended from the ceiling. "As long as that is with you, so are we. Good luck, Fairy Tail."

"Aye sir!" they replied. Ultear grinned. We're going to stomp these Alvarez jerks!

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Magnolia, X788: Wendy

"Her ethernano should be properly aligned," Jellal grumbled, fingers racing across an Archive screen he'd summoned over their patient. "It doesn't make sense. Wendy?"

"It's Enchantment beyond your understanding," Irene explained, closing her eyes. "I...appreciate your kindness, but it is not enough."

"Enchantment..." Wendy looked over her Archive screen. "It's an anomaly."

"I'm sorry, what?" Jellal asked.

"The Dragon Seed. It's an anomaly. It's become part of her, but look." She tapped a few readings on the screen, and Jellal's lit up to match her notations. "The human is still there. It's just dormant, as though it's become the seed, replaced by the Dragon Slayer Enchantment. If I can increase my Anomaly Resistance spell to an Ile-Raise, and you can maintain her magic alignment, we should be able to restore her human nature." Irene gasped.

"Of course," Jellal replied, fingers flying across his Archive screen. "That would revert the Dragon Seed to it's original state! Even better, since Irene is an Enchantress herself, she could switch forms any time she wants. Brilliant, Wendy!"

"Brace yourself, Miss Irene," Wendy warned, then concentrated. "Jellal." The Starburst nodded, pouring all his power and craft into maintaining the etheric pattern they'd aligned within the Dragon Slayer. I have to be strong. Wendy shook her head. No. I am strong! I am the daughter of Grandine. I am the Sky Dragon Slayer. I am a Fairy Tail wizard, and Miss Irene is our friend! She commanded the magic to come forth, took a long, deep gulp of air, and chanted, "Anomaly Resistance Enchantment: Ile-Raise!"

The needles quivered, their Archive screens wavering. "Nngh...don't you dare," Jellal hissed, holding the magic steady. Wendy gritted her teeth and focused. The active Dragon Seed – dragon blossom? she wondered – dug in, and it truly was like pulling up stubborn roots. Except the roots were the base of a tree the size of Tenrou, and they fought with a dragon's tenacity. So do I, Wendy thought, her mind snarling at the anomaly. Let her go!

All at once, the Dragon Seed relented, going dormant in an eyeblink. Irene gasped like a drowning woman breaching the ocean's surface. Jellal's acupuncture needles shattered, and she arched on the table, one arm reaching up and grasping at the air. "The...grain of the wood...the scent of chalk..." Her hand went to her face, tracing the line of a single tear. "I can feel it...I can feel it all...oh, gods..." More tears joined the first. "Thank you..."

"Of course," Wendy nodded. "We're happy to help."

Jellal smiled, chuckling. "You must be hungry, Lady Irene. Would you like something to eat?"

"Strawberries," Irene breathed. Jellal's smile vanished. "I want strawberries."

-FT- -FT- -FT-

"What's wrong, nii-san?" Wendy asked, watching their guest inhale her third strawberry cake. "She's so happy."

"Mm," Jellal didn't answer, glancing out the door. They were in the guild hall's back room, but the door was open and Fairy Tail was being...Fairy Tail.

Erza chuckled at his side. "She has good taste. What is wrong with that?"

"Nothing," he replied. Carla huffed and crossed her arms. Wendy half-frowned. Nii-san, be honest with us. Jellal sighed and looked away, as though he had heard her. "She recognized Erza. Her hair is the same shade of scarlet. The first thing she wanted was strawberries. What isn't she telling us?"

"You think we're related?" Erza asked. Jellal nodded, bowing his head until his hair shrouded his eyes. Erza smiled. "Me too."

The Starburst looked up at her, eyes widening. "That doesn't bother you?"

"She's not an enemy," Erza explained. "We all have things we don't want to talk about. What matters is that she's here, now, willing to help." Her smile broadened, and she took Jellal's hand. "I will always appreciate your desire to protect me, but I know you don't have to protect me from her."

"That's right," Wendy agreed, nodding as well. "She's a friend."

"You assume so much," Irene sighed, dabbing her lips with a napkin. Jellal's right about that part, though – she is a lot like Erza, Wendy thought. "There was a time when I thought to steal a descendant's life to end my torment." Jellal shivered, five pieces of chalk flying to his hand. "That is no longer necessary, but do not think you know me. I have lived four centuries, seen war and death, watched empires rise and civilizations fall. You are like snowflakes to me, melting to nothing as your lives drift past in moments." The Starburst let out a faint, hissing growl.

"Then why are you here?" Erza asked, her voice as gentle as her smile. Irene's eyes flew wide as she turned to stare at her fellow redhead. "You came to help us when we needed it most."

"I came here out of loyalty to Emperor Spriggan – the man you call Zeref." Wendy gasped. What? Him? Neither Erza nor Jellal looked surprised, though. "As for you, Titania, to me you are merely a descendant found by happenstance. I am here to deny Hades the Fairy Heart. You are a capable warrior for my cause, nothing more."

"You're welcome," Jellal snarled, eyes blazing with starlight.

Irene flinched and looked away. "My apologies," she muttered. "I implied a lack of gratitude. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am aware that Erza is precious to you. Rest assured I will not forget that."

"Hrm." Jellal turned. "Wendy, please let me know if you need more help from me. Until then, I'll be working on our solution to the Neo Devil Heart." He strode back towards his workshop, light still trailing from his eyes.

"You are very fortunate," Irene whispered. She didn't mean me, Wendy realized.

Erza's smile grew. "I'm quite aware." She waved at the empty plate. "Would you like another?"

"No, thank you," Irene replied, standing. "As long as it has been since I had that divine fruit on my tongue, I have not tasted anything in centuries. We have mere days before Alvarez throws its legions at Ishgar. I crave variety, and even my stomach has a bottom."

Wendy tilted her head to one side, watching Irene examine the guild. I wonder what she thinks of us, the healer wondered, but didn't mention it. Instead, she asked, "Jellal's concerns don't bother you?"

"On the contrary. I am relieved to find a Fairy Tail wizard taking this seriously." She strode to the doorway, grimacing at the chaos throughout the hall. "I appreciate the need to enjoy oneself, but few of them understand the war that is coming."

"It may seem that way," Erza reassured her, "but rest assured that they will take your comrades seriously." Her smile faded. "And we will do everything in our power to spare them."

Irene shook her head. "That, I never doubted. Come. Fairy Tail might be ready, but Ishgar will be no match for the Empire without Etherion or Face. You can only save it by saving Alvarez." Erza's smile vanished entirely. Is something wrong, Erza? Wendy wondered as they returned to the main hall. What could these Alvarez people really do to a whole continent?

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Era, X788: Lucy

"Five hundred airships?" Chairman Hyberion stared at Irene in what Lucy thought was disbelief. I know I'm having trouble believing it, the summoner thought. The rest of the new Council seemed even less certain than he, except for the plant-guy, Warrod. He was actually grinning.

"It is unlikely that Lord Invel would permit the sky force to deploy more than three hundred," Irene explained, "but yes, that is the extent of Alvarez's sky fleet. I should warn you that this number does not count personal sky sails, jet packs, or wizards with flight spells."

Hyberion turned to Master Ur. "You are certain that your contingency plan is ready?" he asked.

"Yes, Chairman," Ur replied, smiling. "Our friends won't let us down, not when we need them most. They'll be here."

"Very well," Hyberion sighed. "Though the armies of Ishgar will remain on high alert, we will place our faith in your insights, for now." He glanced at Lucy, Laxus, and Shadow Gear, Gajeel standing behind Levy with his arms crossed. "Then only one order of business remains. Master Milkovich, it is my unpleasant duty to ask you not to send anyone to rescue Master Dreyar."

Ur's smile grew. "I'm afraid we're already in Alvarez," she explained, serene as a Buddha.

This time, Warrod wasn't alone in remaining calm; Jura chuckled at the gathered wizards. The other members of the Council spluttered and gaped. "But – but all three of your most powerful teams have members here!" Hyberion objected.

"Actually, I've joined Shadow Gear full-time," Gajeel said, Pantherlily appearing from behind Levy. "Same with Lily here. Gee-hee!"

"Erik and Kinana have taken our places in Team Starburst," Pantherlily continued, sitting on Levy's shoulder. "Ultear's presence with them is temporary."

"Don't worry, old man," Laxus added, crossing his arms. "The Thunder Tribe's staying put. From what Blueberry said, you're gonna need us."

"And what about Lady Heartfilia?" Hyberion demanded, pointing his hand at her. "Surely, Titania's team wouldn't..." he trailed off, hand slowly covering his face. "Ultear. You said Ultear."

"Sorry, sir," Lucy admitted, rubbing the back of her neck, "but I think that's my cue. Bye!" She waved as Ultear's gateway appeared beneath her, and she swapped the Era Council chamber for a lacrima-powered sand skimmer. Mirajane wrapped her in an all-consuming hug.

Jellal rubbed his forehead as she arrived in Alvarez. "I was hoping they'd take longer to catch on," he admitted.

"Come on, boss," Cobra said, grinning as he leaned against the sand-boat's railing, "this new bunch is actually smart. That's been a good thing, most of the time."

"Hey Lucy, look!" Natsu ran up and down the boat, then grinned at her. "Levy and Jellal added one of those motion sickness crystals! I love boat travel!"

"That's nice, Natsu," Lucy mumbled, looking around them while Mira let her go. The desert was dotted with fascinating plants from flowering cacti to strange mini-trees with thin leaves at the end of thick, short branches.

Then they raced over a dune, and a city unlike any Lucy had ever seen sprawled before them. It dwarfed even Crocus or the Edolas Royal City. Homes and businesses were spread out over an area equal to a small nation, surrounding a mountain-sized palace that could have fit Magnolia within its walls. "So this...is Vistarion," Jellal breathed. "Mom. I made it." Lucy blinked as Mira put a hand on his shoulder. Right, his mother was named after this place.

"Jellal. Remember, you're backup," Erza insisted, looking a touch pale. Her eyes were locked onto the titanic castle, and she was already in her Armadura Fairy armor. "If the civilians see the mark on your face, they could panic, or even riot." He nodded, frowning.

"Oi oi, don't think like that," Erik added, shaking his head at the Starburst. "If anyone's going to be able to find the old man, it's you."

"So do we have a plan, kina?" Kinana asked, Exceed-like wings spreading from her back. "First thing is to find the Third Master, right?"

Jellal nodded. "Lucy. This one's yours. It's the other reason I wanted you safe in Ishgar until now. Which spirit do you think is best for this, Crux or Pyxis?"

Lucy drew Pyxis' key. "Crux's expertise is in Celestial Spirits. Open, Gate of the Compass!" Pyxis appeared, and with an enthusiastic squawk, pointed toward the enormous castle. His head-compass spun until it, too, pointed in the castle's direction. Then the bird pointed down, below even the city's base, pinfeather turning as they began to circle the city.

"Is that enough?" Gray asked, looking from compass-duck to castle and back. Juvia struggled not to make heart-eyes at him, even then. "We know the direction, but not where along the line he's on."

"I know the layout," Jellal replied, an glowing blue map of a large series of rooms forming over his hand. Along that line, there's only one place the Master's likely to be." A scarlet dot blinked in one room near the center of the map.

"That's my cue!" Ultear cheered, leaping to her feet. "Gray, Erza, Wendy, you're with me."

"Right!" Wendy agreed, standing.

"Hey!" Natsu howled, rushing over to the Space Mage. "I wanna fight!"

"We're going in, grabbing Master Makarov, and getting out," Ultear retorted, glaring back at him. "The idea is to not fight them in there."

Jellal put a hand on his shoulder. "Besides, the moment Master Makarov disappears, this place will act like an ant hill we kicked over. If you want a fight, you're better off out here." Lucy gulped. I'm not sure that's the best incentive, Jellal...

Natsu sat on the deck with a pouty frown, arms crossed and feet pressed together. Ultear nodded as her chosen team gathered around her. "Arc of Space: Liberation!" They vanished.

Lucy tensed, glancing around, as did Jellal and Meredy. Juvia glared at the castle, fists turning into water. "Are you going to be all right in the desert, Juvia?" Lucy asked.

Juvia nodded. Mira tapped the deck with her foot. "There's twenty gallons of fresh water under there," Mira explained. "We can even survive the desert a while if something goes wrong–"

Ultear's gate opened again, and her team returned with a weary, slumped Master Makarov. "Master!" they said as one, and the only reason they weren't all hugging him at once was he was too small for them to all get their arms around him simultaneously.

"You brats," Makarov sniffed. "You really can't be beat for recklessness." He sat on the deck, head bowed, but couldn't help a smile. "I'm glad you're safe."

"They're not!" A manic laugh echoed around them, coming from the ground in every direction. Jellal leaped to the controls, whirling the skimmer around in a hairpin turn. Both teams ended up grabbing whatever was nearest – except Juvia, who turned to water and soaked through the boards of the deck – and hanging on. "You may have snuck into Alvarez," the desert itself continued, forming a three-eyed monstrosity from the sand around them, "but you'll never escape my sweet sand magic!"

"That's more like it!" Natsu roared, leaping to his feet. "Fire Dragon – ROAR!" A great gout of flame shot from him, turning one of the several sand tornados following the giant into glass. Zen, Natsu! Are you trying to fight the whole desert?

"Ultear, now would be a good time!" Jellal cried, Meteor bursting to life around him. "Everyone, hang on!"

"What do you think we're doing?!" Lucy wailed, then shrieked when Jellal channeled his Meteor into the sand boat. They took off like a rocket across the desert, and even the sand magic could barely keep up.

"I'm going to bring us through in the sky," Ultear shouted back. "Otherwise, at this speed, we'd probably plow into something!" Jellal nodded, Meteor growing until it was too bright to see him through it. The sand skimmer launched into the air, rising several feet off the sand.

Ultear's gate flickered open in front of them, and in an instant, they were high over Magnolia. She closed the gate, only a bit of the desert coming through behind them.

"Whew!" Mira sat up from where she'd been holding onto a seat, and Lucy's leg. Always looking out for me, Lucy mused, smiling at her girlfriend. "That was exciting! So, who's up for a little celebration when we get back?"

"YEAH!" the others cheered, except Makarov and Lucy herself. Makarov couldn't help a broad grin, though, and even Lucy smiled for a moment. That's my Mira, she thought, her smile already fading. It's going to be an awfully short celebration, though. She stood and turned to look west, as Jellal brought them towards Magnolia Bay in a long, gentle spiral. Ever adventure we've ever had, all the friends we made and enemies we've faced...it's all been leading to Alvarez, Zeref, and Acnologia. She found Mira's hand and held on as though the world itself might pull them apart. This is it, isn't it?

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Fairy Tail Guild Hall, X788: Laxus

"Hades' plan is to make a lightning attack on Fiore from the north," Makarov explained, tracing a line on the map over the ocean. "He was also considering an attack by land through Bosco, but that depended on surprise, so he's abandoned it."

"What's he after, Gramps?" Laxus asked, striving to appear calm. From the way Freed gripped his hand, it wasn't working.

"Lumen Histoire," Makarov replied, eyes downcast. "The secret of Master Mavis."

Gray frowned. "She isn't really a ghost," the ice wizard said, "is she, master?"

"There is a crystal beneath the guild," Ur continued. Gramps looked up in surprise. "Master Mavis' body is inside it. Like poor Miss Lilica was, she's neither wholly alive nor entirely dead. She's suspended between them, able to appear before guild members, but the First Master can't work magic herself. She can influence Fairy Tail magic, strengthening or redirecting it, but she can't cast spells on her own."

"That's what Hades is after?" Natsu snarled, punching his palm with a burning fist. "His own teacher?"

"Lumen Histoire has another name," Gramps explained, turning his attention back to the world map. "Fairy Heart. Ivan wasn't completely wrong – it is a source of unlimited magic power – but it is also incredibly dangerous. The curse that plagues the First Master is still inside it with her. Even discounting that, such power will draw all manner of evil to seek it. You saw what King Faust was willing to do to claim it, and that was just to restore his world."

"If Hades already has Zeref, what does he need the First Master for?" Jellal asked, staring at the map himself. "His dark crystal should be just as powerful as Mavis', and Lumen Histoire couldn't possibly help him create his Grand Magic World."

Ur looked at Makarov, who nodded. "Master Mavis and Zeref share a connection," Ur explained. The whole guild looked at her, eyes wide, jaws slack. Even Laxus found himself staring in shock. Zen. That can't be good. Master Ur held up a hand. "It probably isn't what any of you think. She's helping Zeref deny Hades the power of Ombre Histoire. That's why she's not here, explaining this herself." Laxus snorted to avoid chuckling. That's what I get for making assumptions. I guess it is good, after all. Ur glanced at him, then continued. "Even with their combined resistance, Grimoire Heart has tapped enough of its power to rule Alvarez and usurp control of its elite wizards."

"The Spriggan 12," Irene interjected. "The weakest of them can rival your greatest Wizard Saints. August and I are well beyond any wizard of Ishgar. Even your so-called 'God Serena' only found himself in our middle ranks upon his defection."

"Can you tell us why he defected?" Erza asked.

Irene's laugh was cold and humorless. "Greed. Hades offered him nearly anything he desired. The pathetic creature had no greater wish than wealth or power." Her mirth vanished, replaced by a deadly glare. "The 'companionship' he sought was easy enough to acquire with the other two. Though he's also stupid enough to want to face Acnologia in battle."

"So he's a jerk. Figures," Laxus rumbled, thunder echoing deep in his chest. "Oi, Jellal, you think he's got the same problem I had, with the lacrima messing with his head?"

Blue summoned one of his Archive screens. "It's possible," he admitted, "but part of your problem was going through puberty while a magic crystal transformed your body. Serena was implanted as an adult." He scowled at the readout. "On the other hand, he has eight of them."

"Mine didn't bother me," Cobra noted. Most of the guild stared at him. Laxus couldn't help a bit of a smirk. "What? I was naturally evil."

"No you weren't," Kinana objected, hugging him. Erik blushed.

Ur clapped her hands once. Frost wafted from her fingertips. The commentary stopped. "Jellal, is my transformation complete?" she asked. Zen, I hope that was a good idea, Laxus thought, while the Starburst nodded. "Good. I'll handle Brain this time. Ultear, Simon, Beth, you will all remain in reserve until the initial invasion is repelled. Once we've driven them back, the three of you will transport the Fairy Wing to Vistarion. We'll confront Hades and his victims there."

"Aye SIR!"

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Saori Town, X788: Wally

"This brings back memories." Simon noted, looking around with a dandy grin. "Hard to believe it's been twelve years."

Ultear chuckled. "I can believe it. You were a lot younger back then."

"It's so beautiful, this love! Yes," Richard offered. Wally couldn't help a chuckle of his own.

"We can take care of ourselves, you know," Beth insisted, looking from Kagura, to Millianna, then Richard, and finally Wally himself.

Wally's own smile vanished. "You are expected to carry the entire guild into battle. Leaving you undefended wouldn't be dandy." He met her gaze with a professional's calm and sunglasses that were one with his face. Beth blushed and looked away with a darting glance. It's one thing to have pride as a Fairy Tail wizard, but honestly. No one expects you to do this without backup.

"I'm still surprised that the two of you aren't married, yes," Richard continued, leaning against the storage shed. The docks were quiet enough to hear ghosts – even the seagulls were gone.

Ultear's smile softened as she looked at Simon. "I got cold feet for a while – and yes, I'm aware of the irony. I wasn't sure I wanted a big ceremony and a piece of paper just to say what we already knew. After watching Jellal and Erza's wedding in Kardia, though..."

"Well, I never doubted it," Simon insisted, taking her hand. "I can barely wait."

Kagura glanced out at the sea. "We must make it home first, nii-san. The way Master Makarov talks about these Alvarez wizards, the unimaginable power Lady Irene wields – this will be unlike anything we have faced."

"Way to bring us down, Kagura-chan," Millianna pouted, crossing her arms. "I was almost feeling lively, too." Kagura bit her lip and looked away. Millianna sighed, relenting with a hand on Kagura's arm. The sword mage brightened.

A red light appeared on Wally's HUD. "Incoming," he reported, touching two fingers to his forehead. "Jellal-nii, it's them."

Defend Team Gateway, Jellal-nii responded, his mind echoing with starlight and spellcraft. We're ready to give them a proper Fairy Tail greeting. Wally nodded, forming his Polygon Cannon and loading a Prerendered Rapid Volley protocol onto it.

The vanguard came into view over the horizon, so many dots in the sky they nearly formed a line. "That's...a lot of airships," Simon whispered.

"We will protect you, nii-san," Kagura insisted, unsheathing Defender. "You know what to do." While Simon nodded, Wally ran through analysis spells. A dandy problem calls for a dandy solution, he thought, HUD coming to life on his sunglasses. Even from the horizon, the incoming ships' Edeas output was enough for him to detect.

What he wasn't picking up was any sort of vanguard. His sensors didn't find scouts, incoming fire, not even a single wizard ahead of the massive fleet. "Something's not right," Wally reported with a scowl. "Check for stealth."

Kagura nodded and shifted Defender a few degrees. The slightest pulse of force rippled from it. For a moment, Wally felt a few pounds lighter. "It's just them, Wally-kun – no wait," she amended, shifting her stance lower. "I'm sensing a ripple ahead of the main line – gods! Master Ur, there's an entire flotilla of cloaked ships ahead of the visible fleet!"

"Bring them in," Ur ordered. "Now."

Ultear, Simon, and Beth all reached up, their twisting, warping magics joining to become a single, titanic ripple in the universe. A shadow-veiled gateway opened above them, and the Edolas sky fleet roared through, accompanied by the Extalia Imperial Guard. King Jellal stood at the prow of the flagship, Knightwalker by his side and his elite at his back. Behind them were the members of Earthland-1's Crime Sorciere, their Jellal garbed in the old Mystogan outfit, complete with replicas of the king's staff-arsenal. Wally couldn't help a grin. Three Jellals on our side? Can't get much dandier than that.

If Kagura could find them, maybe I can see them. Wally put two fingers to his sunglasses. "Polygon Augmented Reality Protocol," he chanted, sweeping the area around them. He froze.

A bald man in a suit was walking toward them, pistol in hand. The stealth master – Lessio! Wally realized, Irene's briefing proving dandy. "Prerendered Rapid Volley!" he chanted, unloading on the Spriggan.

Lessio fired back, summoning a second gun. He nearly managed to counter Wally's entire Volley, but the bursts of light disrupted his invisibility. "Transport," he grunted, holding out one hand. A sphere formed above it, growing out towards them.

Kagura slashed it with Defender, popping it like a soap bubble. Millianna leaped overhead, firing a blast tube from one palm and a capture tube with another. The Spriggan tanked the blast with a grunt, cutting the capture tube to ribbon with a summoned knife. "You are no match for our love, yes!" Richard insisted, putting two fingers below his eyes. "Liquid ground!" The earth swallowed their foe's legs.

"Polygon Rush," Wally chanted, becoming a storm of solid, cubical light and pounding Lessio from every direction. Again, Millianna struck with her twin attack, this time binding the Spriggan even while her blast rocked him in place.

"Off!" Lessio snarled. He thrashed, tearing off Millianna's capture tube, knocking Wally back, and breaking free of Richard's Earth Magic. Gods! How powerful is this monster?

Kagura flashed past the Spriggan, sheathing her blade as she landed. Lessio gasped, then clutched his stomach and fell to one knee. "Be glad I used the flat of my blade, assassin. Gravity Change." The spell slammed Lessio to the ground. Again, Millianna and Richard pinned him in place, encasing the villain up to his neck.

This time, his struggles were in vain. "Defeated by foot soldiers...I am unworthy to be called Spriggan," Lessio growled.

"That was some dandy work, Kagura-san," Wally said, tipping his hat to the young prodigy. She nodded back. "As for you, Spriggan, don't mistake us for small fry. No Dark Wizard may sleep peacefully so long as Cult Buster walks the earth."

"Be glad Irene asked us to show mercy, nyan," Millianna interjected, sticking out her tongue at him. Kagura chuckled.

"Foolish fairies. My way would have been merciful," Lessio retorted, still struggling. "Our fleet will crush your primitive continent. I was the only hope for your outworld friends. Now, they will be slaughtered."

The familiar great dipper seals formed in the distance. "Be judged by the Seven Stars–" Jellal chanted.

"Parallel Worlds!" Ultear joined in. Wait, that's Jellal-1 and Ultear-1, from Crime Sorciere– Wally thought. Then his jaw dropped as the Cosmic Magic symbol appeared a hundred times over in the sky.

"–Grand Chariot!" Jellal-1 cried. Seven hundred beams of heavenly wrath descended on the Alvarez stealth fleet. Their cloaks shattered, their shields collapsed, and their hulls crumpled under the assault. Only Jellal-nii's precision spared the sky sailors, the Seven Star Swords piercing engines rather than crews. Jacob Lessio stared with the others, his disbelief surpassing theirs.

"I think...I think Earthland-1 is very fortunate that those two walk in the light," Kagura whispered. Wally could only nod in agreement. The Edolas fleet surged forward, past the falling vanguard, to drive into the unprepared main fleet. I think, Kagura, that they have surpassed dandy itself.

Though if Lady Irene is correct, this is only the beginning. What do we do now?

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Fairy Wing, X788: Natsu

Natsu leaned on the railing of the airship, watching Alvarez grow closer at a speed that would impress a dragon. His hand went to his chest, as though he could feel the dragon seed within. Igneel...was Shou right? Are you in there, somewhere? He frowned at the gathering ships to the north, some in the air, some on the shore. Until Acnologia shows up, it doesn't matter. Master Ur says we've got to kick Spriggan butt to protect Fiore, so that's what we're gonna do.

A hand dropped onto his shoulder. Natsu yelped and spun around. Lisanna jumped back, then giggled. "I haven't surprised you like that since we were kids," she grinned. "Were you thinking?" Natsu snorted and looked away. She giggled again. "Don't worry. I won't tell Gray. Or Jellal."

"Thanks," Natsu muttered. "I'm not worried about these Spriggan jerks. Master Mavis has that whole thing wrapped up. The only real trick will be rescuing Zeref." His hand clutched the rail, twisting it beneath his fingers. "It's Acnologia I'm...afraid of. Our whole guild, all our friendship and devotion, was nothing against him. Lisanna, I think he killed the dragons."

Lisanna gasped. "All of them?"

"No. Igneel's still alive, I know it. Grandine has to be, or Wendy could tell. Animus and Atlas Flame survived too, so maybe Metallicana is out there. Most of 'em, though, yeah." Lisanna put her hand on his. "Ultear, Jellal, Levy, Mystogan, Wendy, Lucy, all our Guild Masters – we've got a bunch of really smart nakama figuring out how to stop him." He held up his free hand and made a fist. It burst into flames without Natsu even trying. "All I know how to do is fight. What good is that against a monster no one can beat?"

"You're not sick, right?" Lisanna asked, patting his hand.

Natsu turned to face her. His heart lightened the moment he saw her smile. "Mm!" he agreed.

"That's because we've got a lacrima on the ship that protects you from your weakness," she pointed out. "Natsu, all those really smart people are figuring out a way to make Acnologia less powerful, so you and the other Dragon Slayers can beat him."

"Mm, mm," Erza agreed, walking toward them. "Acnologia is a horror no single wizard, or even a single guild, can face alone." She looked toward the Christina, flying off the Fairy Star's left wing, then the Nyctimene, Sabertooth's owl-shaped airship, soaring to their right. "Fairy Tail may be the guild most devoted to bonds, but we have friends beyond even our unbreakable family. Together, we will triumph." She smiled. "I promise you, Natsu, you will have a part to play in that victory."

Natsu grinned. "That's more like it! Now I'm all fired up!"

"Good." Her smile vanished. "You should both prepare. We are over Alvarez now. The enemy will no doubt attack soon."

Natsu's smile followed Erza's. "Huh? We're waiting for them to attack us?" he blurted.

"After Cult Buster caught their stealth master and the Edolas fleet defeated theirs, they've gone to ground," Erza explained. Natsu growled. Cowards, he fumed. "Unless we find the hole in which they wait, we must draw them out."

"How?" Lisanna asked, the light of Mikardia flickering around her.

Erza snorted. "Our mere presence should be sufficient. Whatever their other sins, the wizards of Grimoire Heart are not stupid. If they will not emerge to face us, we rescue Zeref." Erza smiled again, shaking her head for a moment. "Hades – Precht – cannot create his Grand Magic World without him. If that does not convince him to face us...I cannot imagine that. Whatever he has become, Master Hades was once a Fairy Tail wizard. Surely he could not be such a coward that he would not fight for what he believes in."

"He's coward enough to hide," Natsu snorted. And horrible enough to build your nightmare around Jellal. Man, I wanna beat him up again.

Lisanna shook her head. "Conviction," she whispered. "It's all he believes in now. He'll fight."

"Good," Natsu rumbled, pounding his fists together. "I didn't pound him enough the first time."

In the distance, the sand swirled around some big town or other. Armies marched out from the cloud's edge, while ships rose from it. "I'm glad to hear it," Erza replied. "When this is over, even we will likely have had our fill of battle."

Natsu couldn't help but laugh. "I can't wait!" Lisanna and Erza both chuckled.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Fairy Wing, X788: Simon

"Where are they?" Ultear grumbled, pouting. She glared at the approaching Vistarion, arms crossed. "These are the strongest wizards in the world? Hiding under a cloud of sand. Honestly."

Simon glanced at Cana, but the younger Crash sister was flipping through her cards. "Don't worry, 'Tear. They'll face us soon enough," Cana said. I don't think I'd call that reassurance, Simon decided. She glanced over her shoulder at the rest of Cult Buster. Wally prepped his Polygon Rifle in silence. Millianna and Kagura spoke to each other in a shadowed corner, holding hands. Simon couldn't help a smile. Well. It's about time.

A blast rocked the Fairy Star. "Crap!" Ultear blurted. "Where'd that come from?" She rushed to the railing, only to find the Grimoire Heart airship exploding from the cloud at them. Dozens of Alvarez ships followed, racing towards their flotilla. Ultear's eyes glowed teal. "Cute, but I found you. Thanks, First Master. Let's go get those creeps!" She opened a gateway to the main deck of the Grimoire ship.

"Ultear, wait!" Cana blurted, beating Simon by a second. They both sighed as the Arc wizard dashed through, followed by Millianna and Wally. Kagura gritted her teeth and leaped through a moment later. Cana and Simon sighed, looked at each other, and rushed after them. I can always pull everyone out if things look bad–

The world flickered. Everything around them froze. "What the Grim?" Cana swore. "Is this Time Magic, nee-san?"

Ultear nodded. "You think I just teleported us off the Fairy Star on a whim?" she noted.

Simon's stomach churned. "Then how the Grim are we still moving in this?" he asked.

"My counterpart and I worked up some protection against this," Ultear explained. "It's called Age Seal. Irene says its practitioner is Dimaria the Valkyrie."

"The traitor is quite correct," Dimaria replied, floating onto the deck. She looks more dressed for the beach than a war, Simon thought, noting the jacket tied around her waist. Beside her were Neinhart, the blond summoner in his rose-adorned armor, and Wahl Ito, the onion-headed machine man. Wait, that would be one of his puppets, Simon realized. Behind them were a number of knights, most of them mass-produced types, though the four with Neinhart were more unique. "How dare you defy me in this world? My world?" Dimaria demanded, almost sounding bored.

Ultear dropped into a boxer's stance, glaring at the time mage. "Why don't you fight me, and find out?" she replied, her Arc magic flowing around her fists.

"Careful, Ultear," Simon warned, circling Neinhart. "All three of them are supposed to be as powerful as God Serena himself."

"So am I," Ultear snarled, reality pulsing around her like waves lapping at shore.

"Remember what First Master said," Cana added, cards flowing in circles around her. "We're a Fairy Tail wizard short here."

The Wahl puppet laughed. "Just one?" he mocked. "Your weaknesses are so obvious. We shall claim your Fairy Heart, and make our emperor's dreams come true."

"I've got it under control, Cana," Ultear insisted. "You, Wally, and Millianna deal with the small fry. We'll handle these three."

"I don't think so," Dimaria chuckled. "Age Scratch!" Ultear gasped and stumbled back, some cruel magic playing across her body. Wally, Millianna, and Cana all leaped at the Spriggan, but all three support teams charged to intercept them.

"Ultear!" Simon gasped. "Shadow Knuckle!" A hundred fists lashed out at Dimaria. The Wahl puppet charged him, but ran straight into Kagura and Defender.

Uncle Rob appeared, burning his shadows to ash with flame from his palms. "Oi oi," Neinhart smirked as Simon recoiled. "I am your opponent. Or rather, I should say they are." Shou swirled to false life beside Uncle Rob, his own cards swirling around him. Cana's gasp mirrored his own.

"I can handle her, Simon!" Ultear cried, throwing all her might at Dimaria. The Spriggan responded in kind with beams that tore reality in their wake. "I have wards against her Time magic! You've got to focus!"

Simon nodded. Master Mavis told me to face this guy, he thought, glaring at the carefree villain. That means I can defeat him. He gathered the darkness around his hands. "You were right the first time, monster," Simon growled, while Ultear unleashed Empyrean Rose on Dimaria. "I am your opponent."

Kagura deflected the puppet's weapons with Defender and her gravity magic, while Cana, Wally, and Millianna pushed through their support troops. Neinhart didn't even move, watching from the ship's railing with his legs crossed while Shou moved to interpose himself between the Spriggan and Simon. "Only for a few moments, muscle man," the smirking wizard retorted. "The idea that you could challenge me is quite ridiculous."

Simon's response was to call on a hundred shadow weapons in mimicry of Erza's Circle Sword. Shou and Uncle Rob countered them all with warp cards and jets of flame. Neinhart laughed. "You should give up, nii-san," Shou said. Rob took a step forward, the flames growing around him.

"You were a Fairy Tail wizard, ototo," Simon shot back, more darkness pooling around him. "The real Shou would remember that 'surrender' isn't in the guild vocabulary."

"It was supposed to be you," Shou hissed, smirking. Simon froze. No! he railed, but the shadow wizard could see himself falling, echoes of time telling a different tale from beyond. "For all the effort those would-be saviors have put into changing our fates, all they did was trade your life for mine. You stole my future, Simon-nii."

Simon's head dropped, and for an instant he nearly made a lie of his defiance. No. I am a Fairy Tail wizard. Thank you, Master Mavis. This is why you sent me against him, isn't it? He looked back up, Rob's flames nearly an inferno around the older man. Neinhart giggled. "If I could have saved you, Shou, I would have. You saved me instead. If I lost now, if I gave up with my friends and my love beside me, I would be unworthy of your sacrifice! True Shadow Magic: World of Darkness!" he chanted.

His power erupted from him, years of training and dedication granting him the power to swallow his enemies in the void. Shou's cards and Rob's flame vanished. Neinhart's smirk went with them. "What magic is this?" the Spriggan cried, firing a blast through the darkness. That could have vaporized a small town, Simon realized. "Release me!"

"No," Simon whispered, and his shadows echoed his statement. Neinhart fired two more blasts through the emptiness. "You threaten our First Master? Betray the emperor you claim to serve?"

"How dare you!" Neinhart cried, firing wild bursts of power and wind through the void. He's...strong... Simon admitted, turning all his willpower to maintaining his World of Darkness. "It is in our emperor's name that we fight!"

"Then you're a fool," Simon retorted, and the shadow echoed him more fiercely. "You're being used, Neinhart, and the worst thing is, you don't care." Neinhart's attacks flailed in every direction, Shou and Rob joining him. That's it, use up your power. Simon flowed through the darkness, at one with it yet nowhere at all. "You just wanted to show off your magic. Be careful what you wish for."

"You cannot do this! I am Neinhart! I have overcome death itself! Historia Legion!" he wailed, and an entire army of Tower Cultists appeared in the emptiness. Soldiers jeered, hounds howled, and the overseers called on their cruel magic

"Have it your way. Singularity!" Simon formed two massive hands from shadow, then clapped with force like thunder. World of Darkness collapsed into a single point. Simon reappeared on the Grimoire ship deck. Neinhart dropped to the deck with a wet smack. Shou and Uncle Rob became wraith-like and translucent. The army vanished entirely. "Like you said. Only a few moments."

"Simon. I am so proud of you," Rob whispered, smiling. Then he vanished. Simon struggled not to break down in tears. Uncle...Rob...

Shou, too, smiled, but at last it was his little brother, kind and carefree. "Remember, nii-san, you must never consider your own life to be insignificant." He disappeared as well.

"And never forget your friends, who love you." Simon fell to his knees, magic power spent.

Kagura was standing between the halves of the Machias duplicate, watching the real thing approach with a focus that Simon thought could carve Wahl in half. Ultear still struggled against her Spriggan foe, time doing battle with space before him. Both wizards were battered. Simon could sense the vast reserves of energy they'd both spent. "Neinhart," Dimaria breathed. "Very well. It appears you are marginally worthy foes, after all. Take Over: God Soul – Chronos!"

A burst of force left Dimaria floating in the air, lines of near-blinding power rippling across her body. From the neck down, the rest of her was sheathed in a darkness that equaled Simon's own. "Arc Crash – Annihilation!" Ultear roared, the spell smashing into the god-mage. Dimaria chuckled. Kagura fell back from Wahl Ito's onslaught, just managing to deflect it all. "Okay, time for some backup. Erza, Levy, I'm sorry."

Twin gates opened. Jellal and Gajeel appeared beside Simon, Ultear using the remnants of shadow to call them to his side. Wow...Ultear, you could do that even through a time lock? Simon wondered. "Eh? What's going on?" Gajeel asked, looking around them.

"God Soul and Machias," Ultear explained, her portal shields wavering under an onslaught of beams from Dimaria's fingers.. "Jump in any time, boys." Jellal inhaled, wind and light swirling into his mouth.

"Not gonna happen," Wahl laughed, summoning a massive beam rifle to hand. "Say goodbye to the sword girl, space witch!" NO! Simon railed, forcing himself to his feet.

"Karma Demon: Meteor Iron!" Gajeel chanted. Before even Simon could react, the Dragon Slayer was in front of Wahl, chain-sword slicing through the gun's barrel. The Dragon Slayer caught the severed barrel in his teeth and ate it, his speed rivaling Jellal's Meteor. "Meh, tasted better." His eyes gleamed red as he regarded the Machias. "Wait, is your whole body made of metal?" Gajeel licked his lips with a steel-scale tongue. Wahl's eyes went wide, and he screamed.

"You will not live to enjoy your first bite, bestial one," Dimaria intoned, turning her beams on the Dragon Slayer. Kagura leaped in front of him, deflecting the blasts with Defender, but she shuddered under the assault. "You dare challenge a god?"

"Star God's Fury!" Jellal chanted, blasting the Take Over wizard with a roar to do Natsu proud. I don't think I've ever seen him do that before, Simon realized, pushing himself to his feet. He used his remaining shadows to swallow a few small fry who attacked him.

"Arc Crash: Neutralization!" Ultear joined in, her power carving between wizard and spirit even as Jellal's God Slayer magic hammered the divinity itself.

Dimaria screamed and fell back to the deck, shuddering, her spell broken. "Forgive me, Lord Chronos, but to protect our family, Fairy Tail wizards dare anything," Jellal said, his nod like a bow as he watched the god flow away.

Kagura, seeing the opening, leaped to aid Cana, Wally, and Millianna. The remaining foot soldiers fell to a single use of Gravity Change. Wahl took one look at the state of his allies and shot away, a jet pack growing out of his back and carrying him from the battle. "Wahl! Don't leave us!" Dimaria cried.

"He's already gone," Ultear noted, clutching to her last scraps of ethernano. Dimaria tried to gather the remains of her magic, but Jellal swept them away with a Wave.

Age Seal shattered. Red lights came to life all across the deck. "The Neo Devil Heart," Dimaria breathed. "Help!"

"That's what it's – not the time," Jellal muttered. "Ultear, Simon, we need to go."

Simon stumbled to Ultear, taking her hand. Millianna wrapped Dimaria and Neinhart in her capture tubes, leaving the time wizard writhing and sobbing. Neinhart could only twitch. The others gathered around Simon and Ultear as the bridge doors opened, revealing the too-familiar Grimoire army. "We'll play with you another time, Grimoire," Ultear quipped, and they vanished.

Together, they brought the group to the Fairy Star bridge. Jellal rushed back to the controls and a surprised Mirajane, while Cult Buster collapsed where they landed. Gajeel shook his head while Ultear grinned. "Okay, that was a little more Fairy Tail than I normally go, but it worked, right?" she asked.

After a moment considering scolding Ultear, Simon settled on kissing her. "Don't ever do that again," he said anyway. Ultear laughed. Gods. I hope Master Mavis knows what she's doing.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Fairy Wing, X788: Mavis

Phase one, complete, Mavis decided. Stealth, Age Seal, and Historia are all neutralized. With Miss Irene prepared to face her comrade August, that makes the greatest threats Brandish and Larcade for their unusual magics, and Invel for his intelligence. The others possess great power and versatility, but have otherwise-traditional elemental magic. She watched, unable to contain her pride, as Ur, Jellal, and Mirajane brought the Fairy Star down through the growing sandstorm. I'm amazed Parallel Chariot worked a second time. We must end this here, today. Precht will not permit that combo a third success.

Be careful, Mavis, Zeref warned, and somehow the First Master's ghost heart beat faster at the concern in his psychic voice. Hades wasn't even concerned about the fleet. He believes you brought too few wizards to confront my Shields. She felt guilt and shame coil through him, mirror images of each other in his soul. Even your champions from his Tower of Heaven struggle against a handful of my stolen guardians.

Mavis send her beloved a smile through their bond. They were formidable, in spite of their reactions to defeat. Poor Dimaria. I have Jellal reassuring her she won't be harmed. The dear seems to believe terrible things about Ishgarans.

Zeref's chuckle was low, with little mirth. You wouldn't think so kindly of her had she won. Dimaria has little mercy. Though more than Neinhart or Wahl. His image became dark and translucent, head bowed. I was...not the best role model, perhaps, while suffering from Contradiction.

That Curse is monstrous, Mavis insisted. You did your best under horrible circumstances. One way or another, we will suffer it no more.

Agreed. Better this, than all that...death. Even frozen in his dark crystal, Zeref's shudder was palpable. Your wizards know not to free me, correct?

Only if we're freed together, of both crystals and curses. Mavis floated to Mirajane's side, watching the screen for the moment the sandstorm dissipated. With the literal sound of a finger snap, the storm vanished.

Below them were more soldiers than Mavis could count. Far more of the ships were intact than it first appeared. Brandish Mu had grown taller than Vistarion Palace. Ajeel was beside her, nearly as tall, a human tornado of animate sand. Dea Yggdrasil quivered behind them, while eight dragon heads writhed in front of them. Another artificial dragon flew above them, this one larger than Motherglare. The Neo Devil Heart had transformed, as they'd been warned, into the Devil Robo – a titanic automaton in Hades' image. It even had a metal beard, zig-zagging like a gray lightning bolt from the robot's Maginium chin. "Gods..." Jellal breathed.

Oh dear. Brave face: activate, Mavis thought, floating above the controls and smiling at her guild mates. "My, my. Precht always was one for spectacle, wasn't he? It's okay to be afraid, but we can't let our fear stop us."

The trio nodded. "Fear is not evil," Jellal agreed.

"Right. Fairy Tail, deploy!" Ur commanded. "Allied forces, encircle and run interference. We're going to tackle the Spriggan Shields head on!"

"AYE SIR!" the allies roared back, the speakers shuddering from the response.

Ur threw off her jacket. "Jellal, you have the conn. Mirajane, is Team Dawn ready?"

"Mm, mm," Mira nodded. Mavis glowed, literally, her pride in her family impossible to contain. "Ultear won't be happy you left her behind."

"That Dimaria woman is extraordinary. Even my Ultear will need to recover after a fight like that," Ur insisted. At the door, she turned and smiled at the She-Demon. "Besides, all my teammates are Fairy Tail wizards. We'll win." Mirajane smiled and nodded again. "Jellal."

"Master?"

Ur's smile made even Mavis shudder, the Ice Wizard's lips sharper than a reaper's scythe. "Kick. His. Ass. That's an order."

Jellal smiled and gave her a Fairy Tail salute. "Aye sir!" He turned to Mirajane just before Ur raced from the bridge. "Mira, give the order. All anti-Spriggan forces, disembark immediately. Everyone else, prepare for transformation."

"Aye!" Mira cheered, turning to her console as Jellal input the instructions on his. "Team Alvarez, engage. Team Fairy Robo, battle stations. Team Dawn, gather to deploy. Repeat," she continued. They're doing fine, Mavis decided, letting her mind flicker out.

Her ghostly form appeared at Natsu's side, flying beside him as he raced towards the Winter General, Invel. The man was well to the south of his comrades, speaking into a lacrima and pointing directions to the enormous number of foot soldiers. Invel had just enough time to look up in surprise before Natsu's blazing fist slammed through a wall of snow, sending the man flying. "Hi!" Natsu cheered, skidding to a landing in front of the Spriggan.

Invel stood and brushed himself off, glaring at the Dragon Slayer over thin glasses. "Master Ur sent you to face me? How disappointing. I would have thought she held me in higher esteem. Ice Slave." A flicker of pale blue frost rippled towards Natsu.

Roaring golden flames reduced the spell to vapor before it could touch Natsu. The young man's smile vanished, while Invel's eyes widened. "Oi oi," he growled, "you'd better take me seriously, ice soldier. I learned to burn down enemy spells years ago."

"Smarter than you look," Invel realized, sliding into a defensive stance. "True Ice Holy Armor!" A large, impressive battle suit formed around the wizard. Natsu's grin returned as he charged, Crimson Lotus Phoenix Blade forming around him even without an incantation.

Good, Mavis thought, flickering to the next battle. Wahl screamed and fled from a flying Gajeel, tongue flapping at the corner of Gajeel's mouth like a ravenous wolf. Meteor Iron raced jet pack, the Steel Dragon Slayer gaining on his target inches at a time. Mavis giggled and shifted again, to find Gray doing battle with the demonic Grim Reaper, Bloodman. The Etherious monster had become a living cloak of Magic Barrier Particles, with animate skulls swirling at his feet. "Foolish human!" Bloodman laughed. "Even a Devil Slayer is no match for my Third Seal form!" Oh, no, Mavis wondered, did I miscalculate?

Gray snorted. "Zero Destruction Fist," he chanted, plunging his ice-covered arm into the murderous cloak. The deadly particles froze and shattered, leaving the demon reeling and backpedaling. "Say that again, demon." No, I didn't, Mavis realized, relieved, and shifted again.

God Serena laughed, fists on his hips, as Laxus' lightning struck him to no effect. "So you're the feared Laxus Dreyar? Smashing entire guilds and Wizard Saints, shattering zombie dragons to powder with ease?" He shook his head, holding his arms out to put himself on display. "To the mighty God Serena, you're a mere foot soldier. Go on, attack me again."

Laxus snarled. "Lightning Halberd!" he chanted, the blast smashing into God Serena. Mavis swallowed an astral nothing at the sight – Serena hadn't been pushed back two inches. Right. This time, I'm not leaving this be. She reached out for one of the minds that had changed their fates. Jellal One! I need Lightning Stars in battle sector four!

Even as "Mystogan" raced towards them, God Serena stared at the minuscule grooves in the earth, smile vanishing as he stared and gaped. "You moved me? Impossible. That's...I will not accept it! Cavern Dragon Earthquake!" The ground erupted under Laxus, flinging him into the air, but the young Dreyar transformed into lightning and shot straight into the former Wizard Saint. "Enough! Sea King Deluge!" Serena howled, and a tidal wave erupted beneath Laxus, slamming into him and forcing him back into his human form.

Then the wave lifted into the air and flew towards Juvia, joining with her as she battled Ajeel. Mavis gasped and looked up, to find Jellal-1 redirecting the attack from behind Mystogan's mask. "God Serena," he noted, sounding no more concerned about the strongest God of Ishgar than he would a missing button. "I see. Lightning Stars!" He threw the spell, not at Serena, but at Laxus.

For all his treachery and foibles, Serena was no fool, and raced to intercept the spell. I don't think so, Mavis thought, creating an illusion that left the eightfold Dragon Slayer aiming ten degrees off of Laxus' true location. Mavis dropped the illusion the moment he was at Laxus' side. "Oi oi," the young lightning wizard sighed, "I wasn't doing that badly."

"Master Mavis asked me to deliver a meal to you," Mystogan replied. "I'm sure you can manage from here."

"Be sure he can't!" Serena howled. "Gale Dragon Wind Song!" The air churned so horribly that Mavis felt the wind tearing itself apart.

"Heh. And Jellal said I never studied physics." Laxus transformed back into lightning, flowing through the storm, drawing strength from it. "Arcane Art: Sacred Crimson Bolt!" For an instant, Mavis was transported back a century, and it looked as though Yuri flew through the air, casting mountain-shattering thunderbolts on a whim. Even his smile...

The bolt struck God Serena, and this time the blast threw the traitor back a lot more than two inches. He clutched the burned bruise on his chest, trembling. "Worthless prototype! How dare a clay model challenge a divine sculpture?!"

"We're men, you pompous jerk," Laxus snapped. Then his grin broadened. "At least, I am. Arcane Art: Roaring Thunder!"

"Purgatory Dragon Hellfire!" Serena roared, and the two spells smashed into each other, throwing both mages back. Keep going, Mystogan! Mavis sent. I will help Laxus from here.

I am not worthy of that name, Jellal-1 replied, causing Mavis to pout, but I understand, and obey.

Laxus gritted his teeth. "Man, needing this much help in a fight is embarrassing. What've you got in mind, First Master?"

Mavis was confident that her smile would have given even God Serena a chill, if he'd seen it. Count to three, she quipped.

"Huh? Oh!" Laxus held one hand over the other. "By Fairy Tail tradition, I will give you to the count of three to surrender." God Serena gaped, then laughed, a mocking, cackling sound that seemed to wrack his whole body. "One." The divine golden light formed between young Laxus' hands. "Two."

"You demand my surrender? ME? I am God Serena, you lightning lapdog! I will crush you with a hundred arts at once!" the traitor roared.

"Three!" Laxus clapped his hands together. "Fairy...LAW!" The golden light flared out, cutting off Serena's laughter as though breaking a lacrima-comm. Mavis lent him what strength she could, so the Dragon Slayer would not be wholly spent using the sacred spell.

When the light faded, Laxus was gasping for breath, even after the strength Jellal-1 and Mavis had provided. Serena twitched, hair bleached white and eyes blank. There was a tiny shattering sound, like a shard of glass breaking. Then a second. A third. Four, five, six, seven, eight – then, at last, the strongest God of Ishgar fell over, landing face-first in the desert sand. "A hundred, huh? You should've picked one that'd work," Laxus said, leaning on his knees and grinning at the unconscious Spriggan. Mavis performed a quick scan. The lacrima aren't broken, just inactive. Like Serena.

Fairy Tail is the best! Mavis exulted with a grin, darting to the next battle. Gildarts was twitching on the ground at Larcade's feet. Even without a body, Mavis could feel the drop of sweat rolling down her cheek. Maybe this one wasn't my best idea. Then Larcade leaned over the prone Fairy Tail ace, smirking down at his target. "You have been a naughty boy, haven't you?" he asked.

Gildarts' fist shot into Larcade's jaw. "Empyrean," Gildarts whimpered, but that was enough to send Larcade flying into the heavens. It did work! Mavis cheered. Flicker.

The power surging around August and Irene was so overwhelming, Mavis couldn't get close even in her spirit form. August's magic let him match Irene's unfathomable Enchantment, and the identical clashing styles pushed the ether itself away.

That left the battles of the more literal titans. Brandish literally had Lucy in the palm of her hand – though, Mavis noted with a scowl, the summoner's battered, shaking form hinted at an earlier fist. She closed in all the same, and stopped in surprise when she saw Aquarius floating there by Lucy's side. "Zoldeo," Brandish whispered, though at her size it was like the rumble of thunder. "You mean to tell me that some man I've never heard of killed my mother." Mavis gasped, hands covering her mouth. Oh, no!

"It's the truth," Aquarius replied, arms folded. "I certainly wouldn't lie to protect her."

"I'm not sure how I feel about that," Lucy interjected, a weak smile hovering over twiddling fingers. She shook her head quickly, then faced Brandish again. "But there's no way my mother would have ever killed anyone!"

This is the one, Zeref insisted. Let me help.

Mavis gulped, looking back at where the giant robots struggled, hands pressing against one another in a contest of mechanical strength. It will weaken the Fairy Star, Mavis pointed out.

Trust me. Mavis nodded, then flew to Lucy's side and concentrated. "E-Emperor Spriggan?" Brandish blurted. "This is a trick, it must be!"

"You like plush toys and animals with soft fur," Zeref said, leaving the giant mage gaping at him. "Though you remain calm in extreme circumstances, you have little patience for petty slights. In spite of your quest for revenge, you've never relished the thought of it." He paused, letting his hand drop through Brandish's little finger. "And you have remained devoted to me through all your years of service, though I have never been worthy of it."

"Your...Majesty..." Brandish breathed, trembling. Lucy rocked in her palm.

"It is the truth, Brandish," Zeref explained. "Lucy's mother died bringing the Dragon Slayers to our time–"

"Wait, what?" Lucy blurted, Mavis thinking much the same thing.

"– and Zoldeo murdered your mother in revenge, blaming Grammi for events beyond her control. Capricorn can tell you the rest of the tale of Zoldeo's downfall, if you wish." Mavis was proud of Zeref's calm, even while she worked not to burst into tears. How awful, she mourned. "Or, you could ask their ancestor, Anna Heartfilia. She began the ritual in my age, four centuries ago. She came with the Dragon Slayers, but has been Hades' prisoner for years now."

"Wait, what?" Lucy gasped. "We've got to save her!" Mavis' fury erased her sorrow. And we will, Zodiac Princess, she swore.

"Your Majesty, what must I do?" Brandish asked.

"I will not ask you to battle your fellow Shields. Hades is another matter. Mavis wants him alive, so I would prefer you not use lethal force, but kindly extract Lady Heartfilia from the Zalta Anim." Zeref pointed at where the Twin Sabertooth Dragons fought Daphne's masterpiece, then sighed while Lucy gaped. "I must go, before the drain on the Fairy Star endangers its pilots." Mavis released his image, and Zeref faded to where only she could see him. Brandish shrank, disappearing from view. Of the Spriggans, that leaves the most obvious battle. Mavis turned to fly into the duel of the cyclones. Zeref, please let me know if Lucy and Brandish need my help. He nodded, and she moved.

Serena's wave had allowed Juvia to grow nearly the size of Ajeel's whirlwind form, her living Water Cyclone dampening his Sand Magic even as he evaporated her added mass. Juvia is more skilled, but Ajeel is stronger – and he definitely has the home field advantage. All at once, Mavis grinned again. She darted over to Natsu, who was still battling Invel. The Dragon Slayer was pressing the ice wizard, but their duel continued. Natsu, blast some ice in Gray's direction, she instructed him. "Gee hee!" Natsu laughed, smashing a massive column formed earlier in their duel – towards Invel? He knows what he's doing, Mavis decided. Invel slammed the column aside with a swing of his gauntlet, which sent the ice flying towards Gray and Bloodman. Impressive. He worked out the relative angles in an instant.

Gray was sitting on the ground, gasping for air, while his foe was trapped in a block of ice. "Man, I'd settle for the shavings from one of Cana's slushies right now," the Devil Slayer muttered. The miniature glacier landed beside him a moment later, leaving Gray sprawling for cover. Mavis couldn't help a giggle. "First Master," Gray whined, then stared at the enormous meal before him. He clamped his teeth on the block, inhaling it in a single bite. "Okay, who needs – Juvia!" Mavis nodded, though she wasn't sure Gray had so much as glimpsed her before leaping toward her. "Ice Geyser!" he roared, forming the swirl of frozen shards right into Ajeel.

"Ice shavings? Against my living Sands of Death? You're even less sweet than you look, aren't you?" the Desert King laughed.

"Gray-sama has already beaten you, villain!" Juvia cried, slashing into the Spirggan with her own Water Cyclone form. "Water-Make: Tsunami!"

Ajeel thrashed around her, attacking Juvia from all directions. "Gah! Stop that! You can't survive my – can't – die, damn you!" With a final scream, he threw himself at the water woman.

Gray flew straight into Ajeel's sand-formed face ."Ice Devil RAGE!" he roared, blasting the Spriggan point-blank. At the same time, Juvia's Tsunami reached its climax, exploding from within Ajeel. The sand wizard screamed again, then collapsed, his human form landing with a meaty splash in the pond left by Juvia's efforts. Juvia formed beside him, dragging the Shield to land before collapsing beside him. "Juvia!" Gray cried.

"Juvia...is well, Gray...san," she replied, smiling at the sky. "Just tired."

Gray snorted and shook his head. "Good. Now let's be clear: you beat the sand guy." Juvia's smile was Natsu-wide.

"Who are you people," Ajeel rasped, prone and twitching beside Juvia.

Gray crossed his arms and glared down at the overthrown Desert King. "The last guild you ever want to anger, creep. We're Fairy Tail."

The mocking laughter that responded left Mavis' blood cold, even in the desert. To think, Precht gave me sensations out of kindness, all those years ago, she reflected, turning towards the voice. Brain strode towards them, a strange slot-machine robot beside him. Obra, Black Snake, Ikaruga, and Doriate followed them. "Your guild barely even walks in the light, ice devil," Brain sneered, dark magic swirling around his fingers. "Yet you continue to stand in the way of the dark's champions. This time, you will pay dearly." Gray took a step back towards Juvia, fist in palm.

Master Ur appeared in a swirling explosion that erupted in front of the six Balam mages. The rest of the original Oracion Seis followed her out of it, glaring at their new counterparts. "Get away from my son, monster," she whispered, fists shaking at her sides. Again, Mavis doubted her own calculations. We must win every battle, but all Precht needs is one...

Chapter Text

Volume Twenty-Six: Apocalypse Now

Earthland-2, Vistarion Outskirts, X788: Ur

Brain laughed at the sight of Fairy Tail's Fourth Master. In spite of the circumstances, Ur had never been more glad that she'd taken the job. "Throwing old models against the new? Foolish, ice fairy." Ur bared her teeth at him. You. At last.

"Your new Prayers are a bunch of leftovers, La Pointy," Erik retorted, "and you know it. I can hear you." He snarled. "Zen knows I wish I didn't."

Brain closed his eyes. Erik gasped and stumbled back, Beth leaping between them to shield the team with Reflector. When Brain opened his eyes, they were red. "Do you hear this, you useless, artificial wizard?" he sneered, Darkness Magic roiling around him with ever-greater fury. Ur strode out of her pants, one pace closer to the villain.

"Cobra? What has he done now?" Beth asked, eyes flickering between her erstwhile "father" and her best friend.

Erik shook his head, trying to clear it, then glared at Brain. "He fixed his Zero problem. All the power of crazy pants, all the control of the S-Class creep. Brain's going to tear the world down, then rebuild it in evil's image. Sorry, the 'dark image of Ankhseram.' I can't hear anything else from him. How the Grim are you doing that, old man?"

"It doesn't matter," Ur insisted, planting her fist in her palm. Cold that drove back the desert heat wafted from where they met. "The only glory for him will be back in prison." Sorano and Sawyer darted to her left, her wings and his speed both sheathed in Meteor's light. Richard and Erik shifted to her right on a disc of earth carried by liquid sand. Beth flew above her, Reflector mixed with Darkness Magic that matched Simon's rather than her father's. "Gray, take Juvia and go." Gray gritted his teeth – I sympathize, honey, but you're running for two, Ur thought – then slung Juvia's arm over his shoulder and helped her retreat. The Fourth Master managed not to sigh at Juvia's heart eyes, but it was close. Then Ultear-1 appeared from a blur in the world, put her hands on their shoulders, and made all three of them vanish. That's my girl.

Brain laughed, then touched his face. Lines like his old Body Link Magic appeared along it. "Poor, bereft children. You may yet repent and beg forgiveness."

Ur choked on his words, spluttering while she sought her own. "Repent? REPENT! You despicable horror! I wouldn't insult a demon by comparing you to one! After Nirvana – the Tower – my Ultear – what kind of god demands the agony and slavery of children?" Her tears froze as they fell. When she realized her team was shivering, Ur reined in her magic, concentrating it in her fist. Her eyes narrowed almost closed. "You weep and beg to be forgiven. Or, at long last, I will repay you for your 'kindness' towards my family."

The Balam master lowered his head, still smiling. "One final lesson it is, then." With that, he looked up, arms outstretched. "Take Over: God Soul! ANKHSERAM!"

Ankhseram! Ur thought, eyes wide. Irene warned us that he'd learned God Soul, but she never said – Fourth Master's thought froze there, when Brain's skin burned with an overwhelming white light, except for the lines, which were so dark they were as openings to the void itself.

Music Cue: Summoning the Celestial Spirit King

Brain floated in the air, plants sprouting in the desert sand at his feet, an insect falling dead from air around his shoulders. The image of a blazing white caduceus formed on his left shoulder, while a black reaper's scythe tattoo carved itself into his right one. In spite of that, the Darkness Magic swirled around his left hand, and the Light Magic gathered in the opposite palm. "Humans," the hybrid being intoned, his voice ringing the air like a bell. "You think death is evil. That it is a curse. So many times have I tried to teach you: the true curse is to be banished from death. Zeref was not enough. Mavis was not enough. Even Acnologia, who was not of my making, is not enough. You refuse to learn."

"Liar," Ur hissed, calling on the magics Levy and Jellal had forged from the study and sacrifice of her student-sons. "This isn't about death. It's about life! You have twisted too many in your 'lessons,' with your monstrous Contradictions and your torment of helpless children." Like her foe, Ur gathered different powers in her hands – lavender ice in her left hand, and black ice in her right. Brain-Ankhseram blinked, while his minions murmured and moved back a step. "If you're so enamored of death, little god, perhaps you'd like to make the trip yourself!"

"'Little?'" Brain's voice emerged from the echo, his feet returning to earth with a gentle thump. "I see your trick. Like Cobra and Laxus, you have claimed magic by lacrima. Devil Slayer from the obsessed hunter, and God Slayer from the power-seeker." His smile returned. "The Devil Slayer will avail you not, pretty one, and the God Slayer lacks the strength to face me." An eruption of power threw all other eleven mages back, his foes and allies alike. "I am no mere functionary, mortal! Ankhseram Is!" He intoned, the god's voice taking precedence again. Once more, he floated into the air, one angel's wing and one devil's sprouting from his back. "I am Living and Dying. There are no Gods above me in this world. My Power is beyond all mortal comprehension."

"Ice God FURY!" she roared in response, smashing him through his new Prayers. "Formation Two. Remember the plan."

"Right!" Team Dawn cheered, charging at their replacements.

"Jackpot," Brain ordered.

The slot machine guy – his name's Jackpot? Really? Ur wondered – laughed, shot into the air with a Fukuro-like rocket pack, and pushed his own lever. Coins shot out from his dispenser, transforming into shadowy warriors as they fell. "Angel Messengers!" Sorano chanted, her legion of hungry maws charging into Jackpot's moneyed legion. She flew into the air to face the bizarre magic device. "Your coins are cheap imitations, automaton."

"You're about to become Yukino's little sister!" Doriate mocked, but before he could do anything else, Sawyer wrapped him from head to toe in duct tape. He thrashed, muffled howls bottled in his throat.

"Now he's what I call slow," Sawyer quipped, churning his arms to create whirlwinds that kept Doriate's guild at bay. "Angel. Don't die," he added, grinning up at the summoner.

"Hmph." Sorano focused more avidly on her foe, her Messengers equaling the coin soldiers in power and number. "Take your own advice, Racer." Sawyer's grin broadened, and he raced off with the demon.

Ur strode through the rest of the battle, casting out walls and hammers of ice where they would help. Ikaruga smashed through Ice Mjolnir, but that provided cover for Beth as Team Dawn's XO created lenses that magnified her teammates' magic. The Messengers tripled in number, Liquid Ground surrounded Black Snake before he counter it with Ajeel's sand magic, Erik's "knockout breath" (anesthetic with "a dash of neurotoxin for flavor," according to the Dragon Slayer) left Obra reeling, and Beth warped Ikaruga's sword around her to bind the shocked blade master in place. Ur froze Obra in lavender ice. "Sawyer, east," she ordered, Beth transmitting her command. Sawyer dragged the still-struggling Doriate into her Ice Devil Geyser, trapping him as well.

Brain's counterstroke scattered both teams, the blast of light and shadow rivaling the Twin Dragons' Unison Raid. "Ice-Make: Devil God Shield!" Ur chanted, her clamshell barrier holding just long enough to keep her in the fight before it shattered. She glared at the chuckling sadist, making an X in front of her with her forearms. "Ice Drive," Ur chanted.

The two Slayer styles wove a lattice of silk-like armor across her skin, turning her into a violet devil-goddess of frozen wrath. Wings like Sorano's erupted from her back, while spiked studs encrusted her knuckles. The very sand froze and cracked beneath her feet. Air churned around her in a miniature storm, the overwhelming cold of her body tearing at the fierce desert heat. She panted with the effort of restraining the rage within her, boiling over in defiance of all her magic. "Impressive," Brain noted, still smirking. "Harvest!" he chanted.

Flails of light sprang from his skin, spinning in mockery of threshing. Scythes of darkness emerged from the lines of shadow, quivering in place around him. Then they all flew at Ur. "Ice Quake!" she chanted, and the ground between them turned into an exploding glacier. Every last weapon flying at her froze and shattered. Brain's smirk vanished. "This is your last chance, LaPointe," she whispered, every cell in her body screaming to avenge her children in this world, and the one where she failed them. "I have no mercy left to give you."

"I had none to begin with," Brain replied. One eye glowed with a painful white light more fierce than the sun, while the other devoured all light near it, an emptiness beyond darkness. "Paradox!"

Magic itself erupted around her, offering overwhelming and limitless power one instant, denying her all hope the next. The power to heal, to create, to remake – turning love into reality. The power to curse, to destroy, to pervert – making hate a cruel truth. A force more subtle than ether yet undeniable as sunlight pulled at her from everywhere, inside and out.

"Magic has already gone too far, devil mother," Brain lectured, striding towards the paralyzed guild master. "Through it, free will itself can be stolen from even the strongest heart, turning Heaven's champion into a villain to terrify Grim." A brief image of Mystogan flickered above him. "It can give one man the power of genocide." A picture of Acnologia roared behind Brain. "It can even give man life beyond his time." Hades snarled a smile at the controls of the Devil Robo in front of the Prayers' Master. "I can prevent none of these things. What I can do is preserve the justice of Heaven. This I will do, even if I must turn your fleeting lives into Hell on Earthland – and the magic of your weakest child will not avail you!" Ur's twin lacrima quivered under the assault, trembling before the might of Ankhseram.

Ur herself refused to do the same. He's pouring all his might into this spell, the Fourth Master realized. If I can throw him off for just an instant, I'll have an opening. I can end this! She concentrated, forcing her hands together through a pressure that pulled existence itself apart. "Ice God Make: Gungnir!" she cried, clapping and calling on her own divine wrath.

Music Cue: Fairy Tail Main Theme, 2016

The black spear caught Brain from below, tearing through the desert to pierce and capture him in one stroke. LaPointe gasped when the weapon struck, then screamed as it crushed him skyward. "I have no weak children, monster! Ice-Make: Zero Dragon!" An enormous version of Lyon's Snow Dragon roared through the air, enduring the beams slashing from Brain's eyes to chomp him from Gungnir's tip and smash him back to earth. "Every one of them has surpassed you. Your cruelty could not break them, your magic could not corrupt them, and your power will not harm them, ever again! Devil God Swan Wings!" Purple blade-wings slashed at Brain the moment he shattered Zero Dragon. "This is why Slayers exist. I defy your judgement! Humans will decide what arts and devices we will use. We make our future, not dragons, demons, or evil gods!"

"Enough!" he roared, punching out with both fists and smashing through all of Ur's creations. That's it, creep, monologue and hold still, she thought, crouching and spreading her wings. "I bear the might and will of the true god of this world, ice witch. No last-minute lacrima will save you from–"

She erupted at him with power and speed beyond even Ice Volcano. "Devil God Zero Fist!" Ur chanted, slamming her gauntlet into his face. That hammered him back to earth, eye-magic broken as his red Zero features returned. "Ice Motor!" she continued, Sawyer's magic filling her as gauntlet-engines took form around her arms. With speed rivaling Fairy Tail's fastest, she pounded Brain from belt to scalp. "Sawyer! Sorano! Beth! Erik! Kinana! Richard! Wally! Millianna! Jellal! Erza! Simon! Alphonse! Shou!" He managed to impose one palm between her fist and his face, fear infecting his expression at last.

She kicked him in the ribs hard enough to fling him overhead, allowing her to crouch for one final blow. "Ice God Ymir Wrath!" she chanted, a massive purple fist of ice forming around her own. "ULTEAR!" The force of her uppercut shattered her entire Drive spell, reducing Ymir's Fist to powder. God Soul shattered with them, Brain flying into the heavens bereft of his magic, his team, and his consciousness. Ur's breath churned, fierce and heavy, while she watched their lifelong tormentor vanish into the sky. "Never touch my children again," she whispered, fist still trembling. Her magic reserves were barely touched. "I will destroy you all and leave no trace." She heard Mavis and Makarov cheer in her mind and heart.

That gave her a moment to check on the state of the battle. Massive columns of rock and vine kept divisions at bay, while beasts of dark ice and webs that bound magic drove them back, revealing Lamia Scale and Crime Sorciere to the west. To the east, locations flickered and transposed themselves to appear beneath black lightning and infinite Molding Magic, proving Sabertooth could do battle even with its Twin Dragons occupied. Vistarion shimmered in the north, its forces bottled up by fires of Phoenix Grave and the might of Earthland-1's Crime Sorciere, while south of the battle, Power Parfum and Drunk Falcon Style joined forces to keep legions at bay on the ground and in the air. Such courage, Ur thought with a smile. Truly, Fairy Tail has friends beyond measure. Now, we must win the day before arsenals and numbers can overcome might and devotion. A quick look at Team Dawn showed their triumph over the Neo-Prayers, Sorano in particular turning a very Ultear-like smile on the trembling Klodoa. Oh, he must have been Jackpot.

"You're not a dragon either," Daphne's voice mocked, her substitute creation flying towards the guild master, "but you'll do for now, yes, yes! Behold, Super Artificial Dragon Zalta Anim!"

Ur glared. "Begone, Super Artificial Dragon Zalta Anim. Ice–"

Don't! Lucy and Brandish are in there, Mavis warned, rescuing a hostage!

"Oh for Zen's sake. Ice-Make: Zero Titan Form!" she chanted, forming a body of ice around her to equal Makarov's Giant Magic.

Makarov grew beside her, and the two caught Zalta Anim before it could wreak any further havoc. "You've surpassed me, Fourth Master," the old man cheered, his smile the size of the moon.

"Only because I stand on the shoulders of giants," she quipped. Makarov laughed. "Now let's end this."

A wave of dark power tore from the Devil Robo. The fallen Spriggan Shields quivered. "None of you will stand before me," Hades announced, and his titanic counterpart formed a smile of steel and death. "Did you truly believe I would risk all in battle against the Fairy Tactician without a contingency plan?" Ur snarled and grappled with the Zalta Anim. You have got to be –

Fairy Robo smashed that smile with a fist larger than either of theirs. "You must defeat us first, Father," Jellal retorted, an enormous De-Malevo Lance appearing in that fist. Ur's smile returned. This contest is over.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Vistarion Outskirts, X788: Jellal

I have to admit, whatever I think of her morals, Daphne is a genius with few equals, Jellal thought, gasping for breath. She's outdone herself this time.

The Devil Robo stood before them, arms crossed, watching them with a posture that was unmistakable for anyone other than Master Hades. The helm is different, Jellal noted, with wings of dark metal and bronze horns, but the rest is a giant automaton of his guild master garb. Jagged pauldrons over a chain mail cloak, all of black Maginium. A blood-red chest plate with naked steel forearms. Light bronze legs above crimson boots with a flame motif at the tops. He spun De-Malevo in his hands, leaning on Erza's skill through the mind-lacrima bond, and readied himself for their foe's next assault. "I see you ego has not improved," he drawled.

"Pah. You have written your infatuation with the red-haired foot soldier upon earth and sky," Hades retorted, smirk returning. "Adamantine torso. Armadura legs. Purgatory arms. Nakagami's crest over a long scarlet helm. Do not lecture me on appearances, brat."

"You dare!" Erza's will roared through the bond as well as the speaker system, shifting De-Malevo to an attack stance. "A man who sells his son to Grim has no right to pronounce judgement! Power to Repel Evil!" She threw the lance, which rocketed through the air like the original. Hades caught it before the tip could pierce his chest plate. That wasn't the point, Jellal noted, grinning at the groans in response to his pun. De-Malevo's cleansing power disrupted Hades' spell, and the beaten Spriggans fell still again. He can revive them? Mavis, Chro– The epithet died on his lips. Ombre Histoire. Limitless power, if given proper direction.

No. That's wrong. Jellal called on the bond, and his teammates returned control to him. "Starburst!" he chanted, Fairy Robo's free hand firing a blinding blast in Hades' face. The Grimoire Master countered with a disc of darkness. "Why haven't you created your Grand Magic World, Hades? I thought that was your entire purpose in 'awakening' Zeref."

"Without his cooperation," Hades admitted, "another source is necessary." The metallic smile grew. "So kind of you to bring her to me." Jellal gasped, turned control over to Erza, and checked the wards around Fairy Heart. She parried Hades' next spell while Jellal's mind examined the bright crystal. She's still secure. He must have deduced her from the power flowing through the Fairy Robo. He summoned his enchanted chalk, writing equations in the air with a light pen's ease. I'm so glad Beth thought of this. Wearing out chalk seems wasteful, in retrospect.

"Jellal, are you seeing this?" Levy asked, her own equations joining his. Oh, no... the Starburst thought, their conclusions predicting the magic emanating from the Devil Robo with an accuracy that felt impossible. "He's recreated the Eclipse gate with the Neo Devil Heart. Instead of the heavens, though, he plans to use the Histoire crystals!"

"Moving time, not forward or backward, but sideways." Jellal shuddered, the terror of the implications stealing warmth from the world. "That's how he was able to ward Crime Sorciere from our world so often. He figured out how parallel realities work. If he can merge the realms of darkness – no, not darkness. Emptiness. He plans to erode the strength of our reality by weaving the realm of the void into it. Once he does that, Hades can use the combined Fairy and Devil Hearts to rewrite the world – the stars – sweet Mavis, he's going to poison the whole universe!"

"No one could run those kind of calculations!" Levy objected, script forming around him as she worked. "It would take every mathematician in the world thousands of years just to work out the merger with our own world. One misplaced decimal point could shatter all of Earthland!"

"Archive." Jellal frowned. Levy gasped. "That's why Daphne's so important, what he recruited Brain for. Ultear-1 probably managed something similar in her universe before returning to the path of honor." He ate the light radiating from the Fairy Heart, braced himself. "Levy, contact Hibiki. He's probably coordinating for our allies, so he shouldn't be in combat. If he is, convince him to pull back."

"Mm, mm," Levy agreed, "but what about you?"

"I don't know yet," Jellal admitted. "I want to go take down Daphne, but that smacks of revenge. I can't let my personal bias–"

No, Mavis replied, taking form and smiling at him. You don't want revenge. You want justice. This is smart and right. The power of feelings, united with the insight of wisdom. Deny Hades his genius, and Erza will triumph over him.

Terror threatened to drown him, the memory of Erza's entire team battered by Hades consuming all other vision. He shook his head clear. No Devil King can defeat the Fairy Queen, not any more. He nodded. "Erza, you have the conn. I'm going after Daphne."

A fear identical to Jellal's roared through Erza before she crushed it under heel. "Remember your orders," she insisted, shifting her stance. She and Mira let their minds flow together, aligned so completely it could be mistaken for a Unison Raid. I don't know why Master Mavis wants us to avoid a true Raid for now, Jellal thought, but I will place my faith in her. He floated towards the Fairy Robo's head. "Formula Eyes," he chanted, enhanced vision piercing the veils of the world.

Huh. She's in the right shoulder, same place Mira is in ours. Jellal braced himself. "Blink. Meteor Wave." Fairy Robo's right eye opened, only Meteor's speed allowing him to race through it before it closed again. He pierced the Devil Heart's ward shields, crashed through the opening where the shoulder joint met the main body, grabbed Daphne by the collar, and pulled her through the back of the Devil Robo.

"Ether Dragon Claw!" Daphne cried, throwing Jellal off and taking flight with her small dragon wings. "What's this? Is my Jelly baby trying to be clever? Yes, yes, you are, aren't you?"

"Requip!" Erza chanted, and a building-sized Perdition filled the Fairy Robo's hands. "This is the end, Master Precht. Yield before this goes any further!"

Jellal grinned at his opponent. "Who needs to be clever? Erza can deal with the fossil." His smile vanished, and his fist blazed with cosmic power. "You, though...four years ago, you invited me to a dance, then ran out before the final set." He pounded his fist into his palm, and the shockwave pushed Daphne back. "So. Where were we?"

"Heavenly Body Fireworks!" Siegrain chanted, and the Devil Robo fired blasts at super-Titania. Erza deflected them with Perdition, but that pushed the Fairy Robo back. Old agonies tore to the surface, and he saw Shou's ruined body falling, Alphonse's lifeless eyes staring at the sky. Erza!

"Ether Dragon Roar!" Daphne chanted, and Jellal blocked the blast with a solid seal just before it crashed into his face. "You shouldn't take your eyes off an opponent, Fernandes!"

"Dark Écriture: Reflect!" Freed chanted, a Rune Magic shield forming at super-Titania's side.

Jellal smiled again. "True enough, Daphne. Cosmic Wave!" The spell, long since perfected after his first effort at the Grand Magic Games, crashed into Daphne. She tried to consume the magic, but Jellal's Wave thwarted her efforts, and she growled at him beneath glowing eyes. "Yield, and I will show mercy."

Daphne snorted. "You'll show mercy if you win anyway, yes yes." She cupped both hands together, where blue magic gathered in a crackling ball of power. "But you won't win! No! Ether Dragon Shining Fang!" The blast tore through the air with power to tear through Meteor Wave. Jellal dodged, firing more blasts at her. She returned fire, their skills too evenly matched for either to truly harm the other in an aerial duel. Second Gear? he wondered, but Formula Eyes revealed otherwise-invisible chaff, like Jose's razor paper. Made of ether. Wonderful. He circled the dark wizard, trying to adapt his counter for Jose's defense to Daphne's. Or, am I going about this the wrong way? Luffy doesn't just increase his speed, he uses One Piece's magic – Haki – to become stronger and tougher as well. Meteor already does that for me. Maybe that's why I haven't been able to consciously go past Third Gear? Am I afraid of that much power?

He concentrated, drawing in more ethernano. Have to watch my reserves. The sun was out, depriving him of starlight. Mavis, I'm an idiot, he realized. The sun is a star! He created a shield out of cosmic force, then bit at the sunbeams around him. It wasn't at all as filling as traditional starlight, but it was enough. "Treat me like a small fry, Jelly bear, and you're the one who'll get burned!" Daphne retorted. "Ether Archive Barrage!" Some three dozen Archive windows appeared around her, glowing with magic fury.

Now's my chance, Jellal decided. "Fourth Gear!" The world didn't slow down more than it did in Second Gear, but his entire body shuddered with might beyond anything even he had known. Gods. What am I? He raced around the Archive windows, tanked the ether blades, and tackled Daphne. She put up no more resistance than one of Asuka's dolls, and he bore her to earth, planting her in the sand with a one-armed shove. Her Archive Magic shattered like paper-thin glass.

Not wanting to burn through any more ethernano than necessary, he let Fourth Gear go. When Daphne shuddered and coughed, he planted his foot on her stomach and pointed one palm at her. A sapphire blue Cosmic Magic seal burst to life around his hand. "You might want to surrender now."

"Yes," Daphne agreed with a gulp. "Yes." Jellal's arm quivered for a moment regardless. I want to...I want... Jellal blinked. Grim. I don't want to hurt her. Not really.

Shadows and flame roared around the Devil Robo's right arm, and Hades pounded the Fairy Robo with power that tore the air itself. Those aren't ordinary magics! That's Zancrow's fire, but that darkness – it's Shadow Dragon Slayer magic! How? He felt Daphne shift beneath him, and he whirled to find her reaching for an Archive window. She released the magic and favored him with a quivering smile. "Star Cage," he chanted, expression flat, and bands of force tangled her up inside a spherical prison like a bird cage. "Behave, Daphne."

"Jellal," Hades rumbled, and Jellal looked up to find the Devil Robo glaring down at him. "Disappear. Poison Devil Twin Fangs!" The automaton opened its mouth, and a dark purple version of Cobra's spell lashed out at him as a pair of writhing serpents. Meteor Wave let him dodge, less than two centimeters between him and the murderous venom. He held Daphne behind him, keeping her out of the line of fire. Erza howled in fury and swung Perdition at the Devil Robo. Hades parried with his chains.

"How is he doing this?" the Starburst demanded, glaring at his prisoner.

Daphne laughed. "You implanted two Slayer crystals in your guild master. Amateur. Master Hades has three! Zancrow's Fire God, a mix of Cobra and Sherria for the Poison Devil, and my masterpiece – a copy of Rogue's lacrima, for Shadow Dragon Slayer magic! You can never defeat him now!" Jellal circled the monstrosity, and Erza used the distraction to slam Perdition into the shoulder Daphne had been in.

"Foolish child. Have you forgotten, Titania, that I dance with magic?" Hades shrugged, and force mightier than Gildarts' pushed Perdition out of his war machine. "Living Poison Shadow Art: Grim Nemesis!" Jellal froze. The pulsing, living shadows came to life again, but the runes were no longer the color of dried blood, but of venomous bruises, which seemed to murder the wind itself. "If you will not yield, my son...then you will die."

"Jellal!" Erza cried. "No more, Hades. You will never harm him again!" She swapped Perdition for her golden halberd. "This is the end! Nakagami Starlight!" Titania drove the polearm at the Devil Robo, who parried with a magic chain. The tip still pierced the automaton's chest plate, but only by a few inches.

That might be enough, though, Jellal theorized, racing back to Fairy Heart. "No funny stuff, Daphne, or I'll turn you over to Cana." Daphne gulped and held still. He summoned Archive screens, following Nakagami Starlight's magic to Ombre Histoire. Amazing! She was able to cut a rift, not just in Grimoire's wards, but the Contradictory Curse itself! His fingers turned into a blur, instructing Archive to test his hypothesis. "Levy, Freed, we have an opening. Make the connection, but remember–"

"No contact with the curse," Freed assured him. "We will be careful, Lord Jellal." Jellal blinked Lord? Mavis, was this Laxus' idea? Though I suppose it's better than prince... Jutsu Shiki wheeled through Fairy Robo. "Area command: dual neutralization!" The twin Curses intertwined, Freed's spell commanding them to attack each other.

"Solid Script: Enchantment!" Levy chanted, and Freed's spell strengthened tenfold.

My turn. He turned all his magic and knowledge on the unholy Curses, pulling them towards each other and away from the two wizards. Hermetic formulas, Archive commands, and God Slayer magic all struck at the ancient spells, pulling them up at their etheric roots.

It wasn't enough. The Curses nearly destroyed each other; the combined Fairy Tail spells were almost sufficient; Nakagami Starlight's power came close to bridging the gap. Yet the closer they came, the stronger the Curses' resistance grew. Jellal redoubled his speed and determination. It's a defense mechanism in the Curses, he realized. They retreat into themselves, drawing power from the way they enchant their victims. A Curse strengthened by an evil blessing, drawing power from their immortality! His human fingertips bled, and his wooden ones smouldered, from the friction of his struggle to compensate. "It's not working," Jellal breathed, his entire body a blur as he fought the doom of Ankhseram. "Damn it. All we need is one push!" Jellal's magic senses screamed a warning – Hades was chuckling and gathering his strength. Oh, gods. He was waiting for this. If our spell fails, he can use the backlash to revive the Spriggan Shields. We can't fight them a second time, even Fairy Tail would be crushed!

"My beautiful children." Makarov's voice echoed across Vistarion. "I am so proud of you. Do not consider this your failure, but only my final lesson to you." Jellal gasped. Why is he saying that? It sounds like...goodbye...

"NO!" Jellal cried, somehow moving faster still. "You are not permitted to treat your life as insignificant! Master!" A hundred cries of refusal mingled with his.

"There are times, brats, when doing the right thing means breaking all the rules!" Makarov roared. You know that better than anyone, Jellal, the Third Master sent. "Go forth down the path you believe in! That's what it means to be in Fairy Tail!"

"FATHER!" Jellal screamed.

Hades turned his attention on Fairy Robo. "You beg for me now, boy?"

"I wasn't talking to you, monster!" Jellal plunged his arms into the Archive screens, merging with their magic. The power of the computation wizardry threatened to overload his nervous system. Jellal didn't care.

It didn't matter. It was too late. Just as Brandish destroyed Zalta Anim from within, a Heartfilia in each fist, Makarov clapped his hands. "FAIRY LAW!"

All became golden light.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Vistarion Outskirts, X788: Erza

Music Cue: Sad Fight

"No!" Hades snarled. "Grimoire–"

The world turned red. Erza's swords flashed out, carving the Devil Robo's arms to shards. The one in her hand pierced the old Devil's Heart, leaving the Second Master mortal for a second time. Jellal's spell got far more than the push he'd asked for. Both Lumen Histoire and Ombre Histoire shattered. Mavis and Zeref floated from the respective battle machines, free of both crystals and curses at long last. All the armies of Alvarez had fallen prone, stunned but unharmed. It was, without question, the most extraordinary victory in the history of warfare.

It was dust and ash. Erza shot out of the Fairy Star, racing to where the Third and Fourth Masters had been fighting Zalta Anim. The artificial dragon was nothing but scrap and powder. Ur's titan of ice had likewise been reduced to water soaking the desert sands.

Makarov was a dark gray statue, once more his normal size. His hands were still clasped together, the look of determination on his face unrelenting even in death. Mavis stood in front of him, trembling. "Makarov...why?" she wept, then threw her arms around the old master, sobbing.

To save us all, Erza thought, tears streaming from both eyes. I guess...I haven't wept half my tears yet, after all.

"No. It won't end like this! Amaterasu Formu–" Hades began again.

Zeref whirled on the sound, eyes blazing with crimson fury. "Boom," he chanted. The explosion annihilated the Devil Robo, sending the Kin of Purgatory on board flying. With a gesture, he yanked Hades through the air and pinned him to the ground. "You should know, every one of Tartaros' Curses is based on a spell I researched." He looked away. "Though Kyouka's pain curse was the reverse of its original anesthetic purpose."

"It doesn't matter," Jellal replied, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. "You're a Fairy Tail wizard, Zeref. The guild only exists because of you, and you wish to do good in this world." He strode to tower over the Second Master, Daphne struggling in her Star Cage. "But. You. Is it finally enough, you vile old man?" Erza trembled in place. Jellal...please, don't give in to grief, not now. She said nothing, though. If I stop him, he'll always wonder...

"It was the only way," Hades insisted. "To end human suffering means a humanity that has the power to prevent it. No amount of temporary grief could be allowed to stand in the way of Heaven."

"Precht," Mavis whispered, still crying.

"Nirvana," Jellal sighed. Hades snorted. "You scoff, but your efforts were far more terrible than the Nirvits, and the results were no better in the end. First Master, I imagine you want me to spare this villain?" Hades chuckled. Zeref glared at him. Jellal, please, stop, Erza thought. This is not you.

"Don't – please – if you have that much hate, kill me instead!" Daphne begged. Jellal froze and turned, eyes wide. "I'm the one who hurt you, and he...he gave me the dragons."

A roar, all too familiar by then, shattered the sky and shook the earth. "It's him," Levy whispered. Gajeel was by her side, seeming to appear from nowhere to join her.

"Your Majesty." Brandish grew from the sand to join them, nodding to Zeref. Lucy and a woman who looked almost identical to her appeared beside the Spriggan. That must be her ancestor, Anna, Erza realized. "He's coming, and none of our contingencies are in place."

"A moment," Zeref said, holding up a hand, then looking at the grieving First Master.

"He was trying to save me from the Curse," Mavis whispered, still hugging Makarov's body. "Precht was trying to cure me. I'm sure your mother was a wonderful woman, Jellal, but your sympathy – that insatiable need to help others, protect them, heal them – you got that from your father. Yuri and Warrod were both good people, but Precht was always trying to make the world better, from our first adventure together. I don't know how he fell into it, but, please...he was looking in the void of the Curse for a way to carry me out."

Jellal frowned, but he sighed, shoulders slumped, and looked away. In spite of the grief, Erza couldn't help a wan smile. "And what did you find there, old man?" he asked.

"Nothing," Precht said, Jellal looked over his shoulder. "When I sought the truth of magic, the first thing I looked for was the Light. It doesn't exist. There's nothing out there but an endless void. The Light is a lie, Jellal. It's a handful of tiny sparks in an ocean of emptiness."

"You left Fairy Tail," Jellal retorted, eyes narrowing. "The moment you did that, you chose to look in the wrong place." Precht's one good eye widened again, then closed, tears trickling from it. "Goodbye, old man. I'd try to save even you – to honor Master Mavis' love, and Master Makarov's sacrifice – but Acnologia is coming, and we're out of time."

"Then kill me," Precht whispered, and Jellal froze. "Kill me, and claim my power. You will need it against the Apocalypse Dragon." Jellal faced him, eyes wide.

No. Jellal would never do that, but the Second Master might do it to himself. We lost one Master today – we will not lose another, not to despair. Erza held aloft a sword. "Master Precht! There are three rules for those who leave Fairy Tail. One! You must never reveal sensitive information about Fairy Tail to others for as long as you live. Two! You must never use contacts met through your being in the guild for personal gain. What is the third rule, Second Master!"

"Three," Precht breathed, tears streaming from both eyes. "Though our paths may diverge, you must continue to live your life to the fullest, never consider your own life to be insignificant...and you must never forget your friends, who love you. Makarov – Warrod – Mavis...what have I done?"

Mavis let go of Makarov, strode to Erza's side, and smiled at the Second Master past trickling tears. "Precht. You're asking the wrong question."

"Then what is the right one?" Precht asked.

Mavis' smile grew, and she looked at Jellal. His artificial hand twitched. "The question, old man, is what are you going to do now?" After a moment, Jellal leaned over and offered his real one to Precht.

"Even after all the sins I've committed?" Precht whispered. Jellal's eyes narrowed, but he said nothing. Precht reached up and took Jellal's hand, and the Starburst helped him up. Seconds passed as they stared at each other. "Acnologia is coming," Precht said at last, looking eastward. "Daphne used her findings in Crocus to create dozens of dragon eggs. They hatched at the beginning of the year. Then, there are the Dragon Slayers."

"With Caine's artificial soldiers gone," Jellal replied, "every known Dragon Slayer in the world is here, outside Vistarion." He released Daphne, who landed on her feet with a gentle thump.

Precht nodded. "Our best hopes were Irene and August, and they expended much of their power against each other."

"Fear not, Second Master," Erza replied, smiling. "We have a plan, an army, and a miracle." Jellal glanced at Makarov, and Erza's smile vanished. "Jellal, don't. He made his choice, and we need you now."

He sighed and nodded. "I'll grieve later. Right now, we need to lure Acnologia somewhere away from civilians, and we're a kilometer outside the largest city on Earthland."

"The Space Between Time," Anna said. The assembled wizards turned to her. "My original plan was to trap Acnologia in a place beyond the universe and a moment beyond eternity, but Hades – Precht – foresaw that it wouldn't work."

"Acnologia is the Magic Dragon Slayer," Zeref explained. "He would just eat the spell and return more powerful than ever." Erza blinked. Oh dear.

Hades stroked his beard. "As a battleground to face him on, however, the plan has merit. Acnologia is unlikely to care about the arena, so long as he has Dragon Slayers to fight."

"He will want to kill the baby dragons eventually," Zeref warned them. Erza gasped while Daphne shuddered. "Acnologia hates dragons. He doesn't hate humans, he merely holds us in contempt. He will not rest until there is no remnant of the dragon race except himself."

"So be it!" Erza declared, Requipping into her Heaven's Wheel and pointing a sword eastward. "Let Operation Milky Way begin!" We will win, I swear it...for you, Master Makarov.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Vistarion Outskirts, X788: Lucy

"We need more coverage to the east!" Lucy called, Gale-Force Reading Glasses allowing her to speed through Hibiki's Archive screens. "Please, anyone with Letter Magic, we don't have enough runes in Sabertooth's sector!" Anna took a breath to respond.

"On it," Zeref reported before she could, vanishing in a sphere of darkness. Lucy's eyes bulged. I...I just gave an order to the Dark Wizard Zeref, she realized. She slapped her cheeks and shook her head clear. It's that kind of day. Get it together, Lucy Heartfilia. We've beaten every other enemy that's tried to destroy Fairy Tail. No matter how powerful it is, Acnologia is alone.

A quick scan of Archive revealed their next priority. "Guys, Vistarion's still vulnerable. We need more shields around it, or–" Lucy froze as the desert between them and Vistarion grew, and the city raced toward the horizon. "Eek! What was that?"

Brandish appeared from the sand beside her, and Lucy squealed again. "The Emperor's wards prevent me from shrinking Vistarion itself. So I just made the land grow between us and the city limits." Her grin was downright mischievous. "Pretty clever, huh?" Anna giggled.

Lucy smiled. "Mm!" she agreed, then turned back to the Archive. Reports sped past, Lucy hardly able to believe the magic their new alliance gathered. Spriggan Shields and their support wizards invoked power that rivaled entire Ishgar nations. Guilds of legendary mages summoned spells and forces that surpassed anything the Grand Magic Games had ever seen. Airships from two worlds circled the growing battle zone. Wards grew, made of energy and ether, space and time. Surely, even Acnologia would have trouble with this, right? Lucy hoped.

"My, my." A tall, well-muscled man strode into the center of the zone. Where did he come from? He had hair almost the exact color of Jellal's, cascading down to his waist. Markings of the same shade of blue ran along the outline of his face and curved down his arms. From the waist up, he only wore a black cape with a high collar; below his white belt were black pants with the same blue markings as his arms, torn away just above the ankles. The sheer magic strength emanating from him made Lucy shiver. Based on what the summoner saw around her, she wasn't the only one. "This is one hell of an invitation you laid out for me."

Anna narrowed her eyes and leaned forward. "Can you get a better look at that man, my dear? He seems familiar somehow."

"Eh?" God Serena asked before Lucy could reply. He raised an eyebrow, then leaped to face the newcomer. "What are you doing here, barbarian? This is a field for Dragon Slayers." The blue-haired wizard chuckled. Serena scowled, eyes narrowing. "Can't you hear me, small fry? I'm the most powerful Dragon Slayer in the world! I just told you to move!"

"The most powerful Dragon Slayer," the blue wizard retorted. "You." His chuckles grew into laughter, which turned into booming hilarity. All the while, God Serena glared, fists shaking with growing magic. All at once, a column of blue-white light erupted from the Spriggan, and he howled in outrage. "Oh, no!" the stranger laughed, one hand clapping his forehead. "Look at all that strength!"

"Serena, get out of there!" Zeref cried.

"I'LL TEACH YOU TO MOCK GOD SERENA!" he roared, the column tearing apart to become the form of eight dragons writhing toward the heavens. With a murderous howl, Serena charged at the strange mage, one fist surrounded by a volcanic inferno, the other by a screaming storm. The blue-maned newcomer didn't move, and the force of the twin blows created a shockwave that pushed nearly everyone on the perimeter back. Entire battalions were knocked over, airships wheeled through the sky, the desert sands themselves were smashed into craters and reservoirs and fields of jagged glass.

When the blast faded, the stranger was still there, completely unharmed. Even his hair was unruffled, his cloak not so much as singed. Serena gaped. "That's Acnologia, you fool!" Irene shouted. "Run!" Lucy and Anna gasped in time. Oh, no! It's too soon!

Acnologia brushed sand off his shoulder. Serena still stared, jaw slack. "What was it you called me, boy? Small fry?" When Lucy reached for her keys, Anna tackled her and covered Lucy with her body. No! Lucy railed, but the power that rose from the battlefield stole her breath. "Let's test that." He poked the former God of Ishgar with one finger.

Serena just...exploded, reduced to nothing but ash and lacrima shards. "Huh. Small. Fried. What d'ya know." Again, Acnologia laughed.

Irene appeared at Lucy's side. Beyond surprise or terror by then, she could only blink at the Scarlet Despair. "How long do we need?" the Spriggan demanded.

"Um..." Lucy got back up, her fingers racing through the Archive. "Three minutes. Four would be better."

"Understood." Irene looked over her shoulder. "August! It's time!"

Zeref appeared the moment the Spriggan archmage arrived. "August," he breathed.

August smiled at the infamous wizard. "It's fine, Your Majesty. Even if I survive this battle, I don't have much longer. I have lived a long, full life. I am just happy to know...that the Emperor's son was loved." He turned, and with a flickering blur, appeared on the wounded battlefield. Zeref looked away, and the sorrow on his face almost made Lucy weep.

Irene chuckled. "He always was one for drama. I'll do my best to keep him alive, Your Majesty." She, too, appeared before Acnologia in a blur. "Enchantment!" she cried, and the three circles forming on the battlefield glowed twice as bright. Zeref disappeared again, and the script writing redoubled.

Acnologia gasped. "You," he snarled. The two Spriggans slid into mirror-image battle stances. He screamed, and his Apocalypse Dragon form boiled out from his human one. "Irene Belserion. I've waited to kill you for 400 years."

"Keep waiting," Irene smirked, transforming into a white dragon with a long red mane. She was nearly the size of Acnologia himself. The two dragons roared, then slammed into one another, clawing and biting with warriors' skill and ferocity. August appeared above the pair, breathing a beam of light identical to Acnologia's into the Dragon Slayer's back. The explosion that followed swallowed the entire battlefield in sand.

"Lady Anna!" Lucy gasped. "Is there anything we can do to help?"

Anna frowned and shook her head. "No more than we're already doing," she replied, watching the circles grow. The dust from Jellal's chalk alone created a small cloud along the entire perimeter. Freed's Jutsu Shiki glowed purple through an entire circle. "Countless wizards are doing their part. You'll have your chance soon, dear. For now, we have to keep the Letter Magic in order."

Lucy nodded.. "Right!" she agreed, returning her attention to the Archive screen. We can't let any of the spells clash with each other. We could lose our only chance!

"Can you manage it yourself, Anna?" Zeref asked, leaning in between the Heartfilias to peer at the Archive screen.

Anna shook her head. "I'm sorry, Zeref. It's too much data, from people I don't know well."

"It's okay," Jellal replied, appearing at Lucy's side. Once more, his smile was hope, shining bright as the sun. "I'll be enough." He thrust his hand into the Archive, runes flickering past on his eyes.

"But Jellal, we need you on–" Lucy began, then saw Jellal's form flicker, and realized she could see through him. "Thought Projection?"

"Mm," Jellal agreed. "Mystogan is helping me. I'm in the Fairy Robo again, with Erza. I'll be fine. Zeref has the Book of E.N.D."

Lucy turned to face the Dark Wizard, who held up the book at the heart of so much Fairy Tail history. "I need to make this right, but I don't have much time. The Book carries part of Natsu's soul." Everyone flinched as another explosion filled the entire war zone. Countless barriers and spells warped, flickering, before snapping back into place."I need a wizard who is also a writer, that knows Natsu well. You and Happy are his best friends, and the Exceed...let's just say he has other talents." He held it out to Lucy. "He trusts you. So do I."

For one priceless moment, Lucy stared at the Book. Then she glanced toward the battle, but the world-shaking magic around it hid the conflict itself from view. Lucy faced Zeref once more. "No," she replied, arms crossed. "Where's Natsu? Natsu!"

Zeref gasped and held out a hand, mouth falling open, but Natsu landed beside them before the Dark Wizard could speak, Happy leaping from back to shoulder on the Dragon Slayer. "What d'you need, Luce?" he asked.

"For him to tell us what the Book of E.N.D. really is," Lucy demanded, pointing at Zeref, "and what it has to do with you in the first place!"

Natsu scratched his head. "He made me, right? So what?"

"Lady Anna told me that you came here from four hundred years ago, with Wendy, Gajeel, Sting, and Rogue," Lucy explained. Happy gasped and Zeref looked down again, but Natsu just blinked. "Natsu, Igneel didn't disappear – you did!" That got the Salamander's attention, Natsu's eyes widening. "Zeref started all this four hundred years ago too, and now he wants me to help him rewrite you. I'm not letting anyone change one word until–"

"He's my little brother," Zeref whispered. Natsu, Lucy, and Happy all gaped, jaws dropping, eyes going blank-white and round. "My full name is Zeref Dragneel. The last thing I said to my parents before leaving for Mildian was to promise to look after Natsu if anything happened to them. He was...hurt, in a dragon attack, during the Festival."

Natsu frowned. "I died, didn't I?" This time, they all gaped at Natsu. "That's how the First Master got cursed. Saving Master Makarov's dad with special magic. So you brought me back, and Ankhseram was a jerk about it." He waved at the Book. "You needed the Etherious stuff to do it, right?"

"Natsu," Happy whimpered. Yeah, that's about all I've got too, Happy, Lucy admitted to herself.

Zeref, on the other hand, smiled. "You've never been as simple as you pretend. There were a lot of other factors – Eclipse, Tartaros, R-System – but you covered the important parts. After I left you with Igneel, I spent a long time lost and alone. It was a world without hope. Then I met Mavis." He looked to where she was directing the efforts to secure the Zone beyond Time, his smile growing. I didn't really see it until now, Lucy thought. Brotherhood. It's in their smile. "I gained the world, then thought I lost it – when Daphne encased me, I was ready to wage war on humanity. Natsu, I restored you to life so you could kill me."

Happy gulped, though Lucy couldn't guess whether it was Zeref saying that with a smile or the sudden infernos roaring in Natsu's eyes. "I don't believe it!" Lucy insisted. "You went through all that to save your brother. There's no way that all you wanted was to die!"

Natsu's rebuttal was more to the point – a fist in Zeref's face. The older Dragneel didn't even flinch, not looking remotely surprised. That stopped Natsu in his tracks, and he sniffed the air next. "I don't think you're gonna be that stupid again, but I'm not taking any chances. OI! MIRA! I NEED THE GUILD MARK STAMP!" he roared.

Huh? Lucy wondered, but her love didn't hesitate, the Fairy Robo throwing the stamp from a quarter-kilometer away in a wobbling arc above the battle. Natsu caught it one-handed, pulled Zeref's robe aside, and stamped a golden guild mark over his heart. "There!" Natsu laughed. "Now you're a Fairy Tail wizard." His smile vanished in an eye blink. "Never treat your life as insignificant again." He threw the stamp back towards the giant suit of armor, then grinned at Lucy. "Okay, Luce, you and nii-san should get started on your book thing now." He strode towards the Zone barrier, cracking his knuckles.

"What?" Lucy blurted. "Wait, what should we write?" He really doesn't care?!

"Whatever you can that'll let me protect the guild," Natsu replied, looking over his shoulder and grinning again. "The Book of E.N.D. is about me, right? Then that's what it should say!"

Zeref's fingers brushed his new mark, the legendary wizard staring in disbelief. Oh. We're both Fairy Tail wizards now. He trusts us. Lucy smiled back. "Mm!" She dragged Zeref down to where they could both crouch over the book, pulled out her pen, and started reading. "We've got a lot of work to do. So. What are the best and worst things about being Etherious?"

"Oh. Well. The best thing is probably the physical part," Zeref began. Lucy nodded and made notes in the margins. Natsu. It's going to be all right, she promised.

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, The Battle Zone, X788: Natsu

Sixty seconds. Natsu stood between the first and second layers of the Zone's shields, flexing his legs and watching Acnologia fight. He's strong, and he knows it. The Salamander frowned when the Apocalypse Dragon raked Irene's chest with one claw, the white dragon recoiling. Blue energy like Wave Magic flowed from the wound. The blood stain was incidental. How did Dad put it? Magic is in every part of a dragon. Bone, blood, breath, muscle, and heart. Yeah, that's it. Problem is, that's him too. August struck Acnologia in the wing joint with a Dragon Iron Fist of the crazy Slayer's own element, whatever it was. Acnologia tensed that part of his body just when the blow landed, the rest of him flowing with the impact. Wow. He's good. Not just strong. His whole style is about using his power, even when he's fighting powerful enemies.

Acnologia shifted twelve degrees, then beat his wing into August, sending the old human flying towards Lamia Scale. A black ice ape appeared and caught the Spriggan, and August used that to throw himself back at their enemy. It's more than his own power. He knows how to turn his enemies' strength against them. Irene darted to the side of Acnologia opposite August, preparing to catch the monster between them. Acnologia braced himself, then deflected August's attack into the air while slashing his tail at Irene's neck when she charged. The Spriggan Shield dodged by inches, lashing out to bite the base of Acnologia's throat. He discouraged her with a head butt that slammed her snout to the sand. Good with precision, too. August and Irene have mastered at least three fighting styles each, and he's beating them both. What a fight. If only it wasn't life or death.

Thirty seconds. Acnologia breathed a gout of murderous white magic at August, who managed to evade at the cost of his staff. Gotta remember Jellal's lesson about blocking enemy magic. Burn it down, tear it apart. Speed won't be enough by itself, gotta hit and move, aim for the joints. Looks like he can miss stuff under his belly. While Irene fired a Dragon Roar blast to their enemy's face, August slipped underneath and kicked him from below. Acnologia didn't seem to notice. Natsu snorted. Thickest armor's down there, he doesn't mind missing that stuff. Natsu grunted and cracked his neck. My best bet's to go for the joints straight on, then bounce off and light him up. Flame his eyes, nose, ears if I can find 'em. He looked across the battlefield. Laxus'll probably blitz him, hard and fast in lightning form. Sting and Rogue need to Flash Fang him first thing. Gajeel is probably our best defense guy. If Lucy's plan works, Wendy can go in and keep him from breathing, maybe stop him from sniffing us out. Cobra's the wild card – we won't know how effective poison'll be until we try.

Ten seconds. "Take Over: Dragon Soul!" Natsu chanted. His scales, claws, and wings rippled to life across his skin. He braced himself while August grew larger than Master Makarov (and Natsu clamped down on the sudden pain in his heart, hard) and hit Acnologia with a double-handed hammer blow. For a moment, Natsu lost track of the fight while something inside him intertwined with Dragon Soul. It was, at once, both limitless power and a weight bearing down inside him, until it finished becoming part of his dragon-self. That must be the Etherious thing. Lucy and nii-san are really good, huh?

"Open, Gate of the Twins! Gemini!" Lucy chanted. Time to move. Natsu crouched while Wendy and Gemini appeared in front of him, Gemini already in Wendy's form. Gemini-Wendy had a slightly different scent to her/them, something Natsu couldn't place until he saw the purple lights on the spirit's wrists – not that he needed his nose to tell them apart, with Gemini holding the Dragon Cry. Sensory Link and Psyche Link? Our Meredy and the older one? Why?

"Milky Way!" Gemini chanted.

"Deus Magia!" Wendy joined in, casting the spell on her copy.

Even while Natsu flew into the war zone, flying over the pair, he saw the lights glowing on the wrists of all the mages present, except for the Dragon Slayers, Daphne, and August. Power flowed into Gemini and Lucy, and the magic of all the wizards on both sides poured through the Milky Way spell to crash into Acnologia. The Apocalypse Dragon roared, and Natsu felt as much as saw the dragon spirits pouring from his body. Acnologia looked down at his fore claws, blinking. "All of you?" the monster asked. Then Natsu hit his jaw with an Iron Fist, Laxus blitzed him as Natsu expected, Gajeel sliced at a wing with Steel God Sword, Wendy kicked at Acnologia's rear legs with Sky Dragon Claw, and Cobra breathed a Poison Dragon Roar straight into their foe's nostrils.

Daphne appeared with Sting and Rogue. The Light Dragon Slayer went high, firing a blinding blast in Acnologia's eyes, while Rogue went low, using Shadow Pit to pull the monster down. "Oi, Daphne! About time you showed up!" Natsu called, grinning.

Daphne glared at him. "Master Hades is working with you, so I'm helping too. Just remember – I'm not doing this for you. I'm doing this for the dragons." She made Archive screens around her, all of which created magic whirls that pulled ether away from Acnologia.

"Fine by me! Lightning-Flame Dragon Mode!" Natsu chanted, erupting in thunder and fire.

Acnologia laughed. "At last. At last! A real fight!" He spread his wings with such force that he threw all his foes into the Zone walls except August and Irene. "I can finally get serious." Then, with a speed rivaling Jellal's, he grabbed August and squeezed. The old man crackled like popcorn on a grill.

"I'm sorry, Father. Ars Magia!" August chanted. White light surrounded the archmage and the Dragon of Magic. Acnologia wailed, and even through the light Natsu could see their enemy thrash. Then the spell vanished. Acnologia collapsed, more dragon spirits flowing from his body than ever. Natsu caught sight of Uncle Atlas' face darting past, and he followed it to where it landed outside the Zone. There, it merged with his body, where he'd landed with Flare Corona. In seconds, the dragon grew back to full size. Natsu couldn't smell any hint of August. Zeref screamed, and several Spriggans sobbed violently enough for the Salamander to hear them.

Damn it. No time, Natsu decided, charging at Acnologia again. Fortunately, Irene did the same, and they hit him as one. Irene bit down on their enemy's neck while Natsu struck him square in the nose. "Did we get him?" Daphne asked, flying over to the Salamander. Not a chance–

Acnologia spun in place, throwing Irene off, slamming Gajeel into the sand, and slashing Cobra with his tail. All three went flying. "You," Acnologia rumbled, glaring at Daphne. "I felt your loneliness and permitted you to see me, and this is your repayment? You side with the dragons?" Laxus rushed in to hit him again, but Acnologia batted him away with a single claw swipe.

Daphne gasped, staring in awe. Then she shook her head and glared. "You are a dragon," she snarled back. Acnologia's eyes went wide. "If–"

Before Natsu could move, the monster had bitten Daphne in half at the waist. He spat her out, not bothering to look where she landed, then turned to face Irene again. This time, Hades and Siegrain cried out, both flying into the war zone. "Shadow-Fire Roar!" Hades boomed. Natsu joined in with a blast of his own.

Siegrain slid to Daphne's side, but she was looking outside the Zone, at where Atlas Flame was watching the battle rage. "Daphne," Siegrain gasped. "Daph, look at me! You've got to hang on!"

"A...dragon," she breathed, her smile shining as tears rolled past. "Look, Sieg...finally...a real..." She stopped breathing, eyes frozen staring at Uncle Atlas.

Again, the Dragon Slayers flew at Acnologia, but this time, he just ignored them. Oh, come on! Natsu raged. The false Dragon King focused on Irene, his roar a beam of murderous light as wide as the Tenrou Tree. Miss Belserion dodged, but lost a wing in the process. She shrank back to human form, gulping in deep breaths. With a chuckle, Acnologia strode towards her. "I won't have to wait much longer, dragon-lover."

"Solid Seal," Siegrain growled, and a wall of force that stretched across the entire Zone separated Acnologia from Irene. "I am your opponent. Be judged by the Seven Stars: Grand Chariot!"

Power to annihilate cities rained down on the Apocalypse Dragon. He's gotten stronger since last time we fought, but... The unharmed Acnologia turned to glance at Siegrain, head cocked like a curious dog. "Are you...no," he sighed, still ignoring the Dragon Slayers. The longer this went on, the hotter the flames of fury raged in Natsu's heart. "You're just some copy. Pity." He swung his tail at the Grimoire wizard.

"Grim Drive!" Siegrain chanted, and a Shade-purple copy of Heaven Drive erupted around him. He dodged the tail and flew into Acnologia's chin with a double-fisted punch.

"Siegrain, let us help!" Wendy pleaded, her magic strengthening the other Slayers at the same time she tore the air from Acnologia's mouth. The monster was ignoring her efforts.

"Stay back, Wendy – I'm going to kill this thing!" Siegrain roared. "Star God Black Hole!" He threw the all-consuming sphere at the murderous dragon.

Acnologia winced when it landed. "Heh. You're still a Fernandes. Magic Dragon Death Fang!" His claw slashed out. Siegrain dodged back, but Acnologia's power tore apart everything – air, space, even light. When the slashes reached Jellal's brother, they carved him into four pieces. Jellal screamed, the Fairy Robo taking a step into the Zone before stopping. Acnologia turned his attention to eating the Solid Seal.

"Jellal?" What was left of Siegrain's head and chest looked toward the Fairy Star. "We're...still brothers...aren't we?"

"Always!" Jellal cried. Siegrain closed his eyes.

Damn it! Natsu burst into flame, melting the sand below him, but still Acnologia ignored him to concentrate on Irene. The dragon souls were pouring out of him in a thick mass by then, indistinguishable from one another except for the one that flew into Cobra. Irene howled and charged into the Dragon King, and the eruption of magic made it impossible to see or even smell them. At least he's weakening. Milky Way – it's working!

Animus appeared above Cobra, flying over the battle and circling the column of wizard light. It finally faded, and this time Irene was shuddering on the ground, blood staining her robes. Two fingers on Acnologia's left hand were broken, and gashes ran along his left side, torn across his arm, leg, and wing. Animus chose that moment to charge, blasting the insane Dragon Slayer. "Apocalypse Dragon Mode," Acnologia chanted, and his body glowed with the blue aura of magic control wizardry. The monster turned and inhaled, devouring Animus' next attack, then roared a burst of power that tore a hole through Animus' chest. The dragon fell dead between Cobra and their foe.

"Son of Igneel!" Atlas roared. "Use my power!" He breathed a roar of flame that became an inferno around Natsu. Salamander started eating before Uncle Atlas was done, and he felt his power grow more than ever.

Acnologia turned to face Natsu, and chuckled. "What's this? Are you starting to learn what real strength is, boy?" He glared at the prone, wounded Irene. "I'll face you soon. First, it's time to settle a very old account." He leaped on the prone Dragon Slayer, maw chomping to tear her apart.

"Enchantment: Universe Zero," she chanted, smiling. Acnologia twisted and warped in a way a lot like the air did around Natsu's incredible heat, except it wasn't an illusion – his body was really doing that. He roared and smashed a fist into what was left of Irene Belserion, leaving a scarlet dot in the sand.

Erza cried out. There was a sound like metal getting punched. "Unison Raid: Adamantine Seal!" she and Jellal chanted, and all the Zone's runes glowed with a silvery sheen. The dome of magic around the Zone took on a mirrored edge, humming with new strength. So that's what Mavis was saving their Unison Raid for.

"Natsu!" Macao shouted, throwing his purple flame in. It didn't add much in terms of power, but made his fire more solid. Totomaru added a green flame, which filled Natsu with a wellspring of physical energy, like his body couldn't be stopped. Jellal cast his blue Supernova at Natsu, and the exploding star soaked into him with world-searing might. Even Zancrow pitched in with his black God Slayer flames; the Grimoire nut case had done something to his fire to make it edible.

Natsu wasn't the only beneficiary from this storm of help. Orga, Wahl, and Mystogan shot lightning at Laxus. Sherria and Dyst churned up wind for Wendy, while Max and Ajeel used their sand powers to create a tornado that fed her just as well. Levy tossed Gajeel Solid Script: Steel, and Brandish grew it to the size of a small building. Leo, Wally, Lisanna, and Larcade threw light at Sting while Simon, Mirajane, and Freed fed Rogue shadows. Ichiya, Kinana, and Bacchus formed a stream of liquid for Cobra. Don't want to know what they came up with, Natsu decided. Vijeeter and Enno were doing dances that had something to do with time. Time? Why the Grim–

"Parallel Worlds!" Ultear-1 and Dimaria both chanted, and Natsu finally found himself with more flame than he could eat, all their meals multiplied a hundredfold. His body shuddered with power he'd never imagined. Oh.

Acnologia shook like a wet dog, and his dragon body went back to its normal shape. "You wizards. You're really afraid of me, aren't you?" He shrunk further down, returning to his human form. He flexed the fingers of his right hand to make a fist a few times. "Let's have some fun before the end. Apocalypse Dragon Crashing Hammer." He punched at Laxus, throwing the Lightning Dragon Slayer into the Zone wall.

Natsu flew at the Acnologia, spinning with lightning in one hand and fire in the other. "Crimson Lotus: Exploding Lightning Blade!" he chanted, spiraling straight into their enemy. At last, Natsu was able to hurt the murderer, sending him flying, burning, and convulsing all at once.

Acnologia spun in the air, shaking off the blow, the fire, and the lightning, all at once. He landed on his feet, sliding back half a meter before batting aside Rogue and Gajeel with Iron Fists. He stood and smirked again. "Zeref's brother. Igneel's son. You finally ready to give me a real fight, Salamander?"

How can someone who fights this well be this stupid? Natsu wondered. "Nii-san? Tou-san?" he asked, snarling. "I owe them a lot. Iron Fist!" He swung at Acnologia. Sting and Laxus came at the monster from different angles as well, but Acnologia blocked them all. Sting and Laxus went flying, but Natsu used his wings to keep their enemy from throwing him aside. "They were only the beginning. Erza taught me to be strong. Crushing Fang!" They traded slashes, both coming away with shallow cuts on their ribs. "Jellal taught me to be smart. Gray taught me to be brave. Sword Horn!" The racing head butt actually hit, and Acnologia's return kick only knocked the wind out of him. He ate the flames still roaring to him while Precht and Rogue swallowed Acnologia in shadow.

The Apocalypse Dragon blew away the shadows. Natsu couldn't see the two Shadow Dragon Slayers, but he could still smell them. They're okay. Ish. "Brilliant Flame! Lucy taught me to be kind. Happy...take a guess," he grinned. "Flame Elbow! Wendy taught me to be gentle. Gildarts taught me to be afraid."

"Afraid? Hah!" Acnologia laughed. "Grip Strike!" The monster grabbed Natsu, and magic power beyond anything he'd ever known hammered him through all the power Natsu had been given. "Fear is for the weak." Acnologia let go, and Natsu dropped to one knee. "Even without the dragon souls, I am the most powerful being in the world. All I lack is challenge." His grin was Natsu's in a funhouse mirror, twisted joy seeking deadly release. "Fight me!"

"Natsu!" Laxus cried. "Everybody, roar!" They all obeyed, hitting Acnologia at once. The monster laughed and hit back with a spell like Exploding Flame Blade, spinning and blasting them all at once.

"Crimson Lotus Fist!" Natsu chanted, throwing twenty punches in a second. The blows struck the Exploding Magic Blade, and while it wasn't enough to punch through, Salamander was able to stop the spell. "Fear is not evil," Natsu continued, glaring at Acnologia. The two circled one another, each of them shifting form in response to the other's. "It tells you what your weakness is. You don't think you have any weaknesses, do you?"

Acnologia's smirk grew. "I purged myself of all weakness long ago."

"Wood-Make: Voyage of Impassible Hope!" Laki chanted, and a large boat appeared under Acnologia. The Dragon Slayer looked down at it, eyebrow raised – and then he went round-eyed, jaw dropping.

"Water-Make: Tidal Rush!" Juvia chanted. A wave flowed under the boat, and Acnologia fell in as it carried him towards the center of the Zone. The dreaded Apocalypse Dragon got the bloated cheeks of motion sickness and leaned over the side, eyes swirling.

"Did you mean 'impossible' hope, Laki?" Gray asked.

Laki whirled on the Ice Devil Slayer, and Gray recoiled. "I know what I said!" she insisted, pouting with her hands on her hips.

Acnologia transformed back into a dragon, smashing the boat and the tide. "If some small fry is going to attack me from out there," he rumbled, glaring at the Wood-Make wizard, "then I'm not going to play with you. Apocalypse Dragon Roar!" Gray leaped in front of a paralyzed Laki, and Juvia screamed.

Natsu darted in the path of the beam, just managing to beat Laxus to it. He punched the roar, stopping it cold. Again, Acnologia laughed and changed back into a human. "That wasn't an attack. She was making a point. There's one more Fairy Tail wizard I need to tell you about: Lisanna taught me to love. Lightning-Flame Exploding Hammer!" He surrounded his arm with power and punched Acnologia, the explosion pushing the monster back.

"Ah, love," Acnologia drawled. "I suppose this is the part where you tell me that you have people to protect. So did I, once. The dragons killed them all. Now, I kill all dragons! APOCALYPSE DRAGON DEATH BLOSSOM!" He lashed out in all directions, fists and feet throwing bolts of annihilation at them all. Somehow, Wendy dodged every attack save one, but the rest of them were battered across the Zone. Adamantine Seal and the three layers of Letter Magic kept the spell from going any farther, though the dome cracked and warped under the assault. "You can't win, son of Igneel. In this ridiculous Zone of yours, magic is everywhere. All I need do to feed is inhale! Family is not enough. Death will always be stronger!"

Music Cue: Dragon Force

"You don't get it," Natsu growled, forcing himself to stand. "I'm sorry that your friends died, but you're hurting people who didn't hurt them. And my friends – I've always been the one they protected." Fires every color of the rainbow swirled around him. The green flame patched his injuries. Blue fire strengthened him. Purple flame shielded him. Black fire sharpened his Slayer magic. Golden flame fueled him. "Fairy Tail...all our friends...even people who fought us, hurt us – we all want to live together, fight together, laugh together, have fun together. So I'm not gonna let you kill one more person! You want a good fight? So do I, but as long as you want to make my friends cry, that's not all I'm going to do here! I'm going to burn you down, no matter how strong you are, because they are what give me the strength to fight! WE'RE ALL GOING HOME TOGETHER!" The column of fire and lightning roared towards the heavens.

"Igneel can't save you now, you little–" Acnologia began.

Five more souls erupted from his body, flying through the children of four hundred years. Just beyond the Adamantine Seal, they took form once more: Weisslogia, Skiadrum, Metallicana, Grandine – and Igneel! "Natsu!" Igneel roared. "This is your true strength! Not rage! Not muscle! Family! Today you overcome all hatred, for I, Igneel, am with you!"

Their parents didn't roar. They didn't have to. All five dragons glowed – white, purple, gray, blue, and red – and the might of the true Dragon Kings surged through their children. "Fire Dragon King Mode," Natsu whispered. The flames roaring around Natsu became stronger than the Dragon Slayer had ever imagine possible. Tears of joy sizzled and boiled away in his father's flame. Dad! DAD! You came back! The Salamander made fists like suns. I won't let this creep tear us apart again! He launched himself at the would-be Dragon King. All four of his fellow time travelers did the same.

"So," Acnologia snarled, glaring at Igneel. He leaped into the air, tossing them all aside again with an explosive spin. "You bet everything on your children, now. Them, and that slip of a Heartfilia." Natsu landed, then froze and gaped at Lucy. She had fallen to one knee, holding up the arm with Gemini's key using her other arm. Sweat ran down her cheeks; even with mages from all over the world and beyond pouring strength into her, Lucy trembled. Her ancestor Anna held onto her, a hug holding her up. Milky Way, Natsu realized. Gemini can only be as strong as Lucy. She's saving all the dragons' spirits. Luce...you're amazing.

In spite of Acnologia's human appearance, his roar was more terrible than any dragon's. "When they die, you die – forever, this time! Apocalypse Dragon Exploding Death Scythe!" He smashed all the other Slayers away except Wendy, who carried them to safety on wings of wind.

"Fire Dragon King – DEMOLITION FIST!" Natsu roared, leaping above Acnologia and slamming a punch down on their enemy. That finally drew blood, a trickle dripping from the corner of the monster's mouth as Natsu smashed him into the earth.

"Sky Dragon Queen – Hurricane Drill!" Her kick crushed him through the ground, leaving a valley in the bedrock beneath the sands. "I'll never let you touch Grandine!"

Acnologia stood and wiped his mouth, brushing away sand and blood. "You're the one," he chuckled. "You made all this possible, you and the last Fernandes. Not a little girl any more, I see. What's your name, sky sorceress?"

"I am Wendy Marvell," she announced, and Acnologia froze, "and I won't let you hurt anyone else! Natsu! Ile Arms! Ile Armor! Ile Vernier! End this!" Natsu thought he'd known what power was before, but the howling might that surged through him left the Fire Dragon Slayer trembling.

"Mar...vell..." Acnologia whispered, staring at her with wide eyes.

"OI!" Natsu roared. "Fight me!" That got Acnologia's attention, and both Dragon Slayers turned to face each other. "Fire Dragon King Crown!" Natsu howled, and a circle of flame roared to life around his head.

"Apocalypse Dragon King Sword," Acnologia retorted, his arms shimmering with blades of light. "That's right, 'E.N.D.,' end this Festival – claim the crown of Dragon King – if you can!" He flew at Natsu, teeth bared. "Arcane Art: Armageddon Omega Fang!"

"Arcane Art: Crimson Lotus Phoenix Blade!" Natsu roared back, and they flashed past each other, Natsu's head crashing into Acnologia's chest as Acnologia's arms slammed down onto the Salamander's back.

Natsu screamed as both his wings collapsed, Omega Fang shattering their bones and shredding their flesh. He tumbled to a landing, barely able to get up on one knee. His other leg was broken, and it took all his willpower not to fall over. Natsu turned and glared at Acnologia.

The Apocalypse Dragon landed on his feet. His cloak rippled in the circling winds. "Four hundred years. It took long enough. Still, I got one last good fight." He turned, and Wendy gasped. There was a hole burned right through his chest. Cracks spread through his body from the hole, and he came apart like ash. "If your words had meaning, protect this family with all your might. You are worthy... to be the Dragon King."

When he was gone, Natsu grinned. "Nope! Just the prince." Igneel laughed. The Zone beyond Time collapsed, and the greatest mages in the world rushed in to pile on the Dragon Slayers with countless hugs. Dad. We're going home. Together. His grin spread. Then I'm gonna bust you in the jaw, and you're gonna tell me where you were!

Chapter Text

Earthland-2, Vistarion, X788: Jellal

"You really were inside me the whole time?!" Natsu blurted, shaking a fist at his chuckling father. Jellal couldn't help a smile at the sight of Salamander, virtually wrapped in bandages and wearing two casts (one around his chest and one on his leg), shaking a fist at the titanic Fire Dragon King. "Fight me, Dad!" His floating transport chair bobbed in time with Natsu's tantrum.

"Not until you've healed," Igneel barked, one eye squinting down at Natsu even as the dragon grinned. "Grandine will never let me hear the end of it otherwise." Natsu pouted and crossed his arms. "Besides, it was the only way either of us could survive. Mind you, I was certain that I would not last long outside you. This guild you've found is amazing, Natsu."

Erza nearly tackled him with her hug. "We were blessed with a miracle," she announced.

"Erza!" Jellal blurted, sure his face was the color of her hair. "This victory belongs to all of us. Wendy and Lucy cast Milky Way. Natsu was the one who defeated Acnologia!"

A Happy-sized Pantherlily chuckled and landed on his shoulder. "True, but you worked out the path to saving the dragons and casting down the human apocalypse...Prince of Men. Gee hee!" Jellal felt his face burn hotter than the desert as Erza's eyes lit up with stars of mischief. I'll get you for that, Lily!

In spite of the rush of victory and the familiar teasing, Jellal's heart collapsed in moments. His eyes slid to the still-upright body of the Third Master. Makarov...Siegrain...Irene... He sniffed, head bowed. I'm sorry, Erza. It looks like I wasn't much of a miracle, in the end.

"No." Erza was still holding him, her face buried in his shoulder. "We will mourn them when we return home. Right now, please, just be glad for who is alive." Jellal shuddered, then nodded.

A man cleared his throat behind him. Erza stiffened and let Jellal go, allowing him to turn. Standing there were the surviving Spriggan Shields, led by Winter General Invel. "Jellal Fernandes. Are you familiar with your family's Alvarez history?" he asked.

"Yes, but I don't understand why that matters now," Jellal said, rubbing the back of his neck. "Don't you have your emperor back?" He glanced around, looking for Zeref and Mavis.

They were approaching even as he sought them out. "I already abdicated," Zeref explained, Mavis holding his hand with a familiar, implacable grip. Jellal almost smiled again. "I overthrew your great-grandfather when he was young. The throne is rightfully yours." Erza inched closer, and the dark wizard chuckled. "I imagine you won't be any more interested than I was, though I'm afraid I'm still trying to set my mind in order. Four centuries of the Contradictory Curse twisting the paths of my thoughts – it's not something to be taken lightly. Perhaps you have a solution?"

Jellal turned his attention from Zeref to the Shields. They look to Invel, he realized, with August and Irene gone. He looked over his shoulder, unable to stop another faint smile at Natsu still arguing with mighty Igneel. The great dragon's laughter boomed overhead. "Oi, Natsu!" Jellal called.

Natsu spun around, losing control of his hover-chair for a few seconds before halting and facing the Starburst. "Eh? What is it, Jellal?"

"Your fight with Invel." The Shield leader's eyes widened, but his colleagues all smiled. "How did that feel? What was it like?"

Natsu pouted. "He was holding back. I could tell. He knew we were gonna be working together, so he made sure we both had a lot of energy left." He pointed at Invel. "When I heal, you'd better fight me, Invel!" Gray and Mirajane both laughed. Jellal turned his attention back to the general.

"Hades – Precht – was not subtle with his manipulations," Invel explained. "I surmised your purposes, and fought Natsu only to the level necessary to keep him occupied and 'fired up' until Acnologia arrived." He shrugged when Natsu glared. "That level was considerable, if it matters."

"Can I directly transfer my authority to someone?" Jellal asked.

Invel blinked and adjusted his glasses. "The truth of your heritage is already spreading like a flame of hope across Alvarez," he explained. "Emperor Spriggan – Zeref – was popular thanks to his well-reasoned policies, but even before Hades, there was a resistance that chafed against his absolute rule. In the last three years, under the relentless shadow of Grimoire Heart, that resistance that blossomed into full rebellion." Invel's shame was writ across his face as he looked away. "When the people learn of the wonders you've managed, they will clamor for your leadership. Your Majesty."

Jellal gulped. "Your Maje–" oh. Okay then. Think fast, Starburst. He searched his memory for some example – anything – that might guide him. "I take it that the people have no representatives?" he asked, stalling as much as anything else.

"I considered it a potential distraction," Zeref explained. Mavis sighed.

Jellal's attention turned to the First Master. Her favorite book, he remembered. "Rondor," he whispered.

Mavis gasped, then smiled like a sunrise. "The great kingdom from Lord of the Fairy?"

"Exactly. When the king claimed the Phantom Flame, he left a regent in his place, and they ruled and protected Rondor for centuries after the king's fall." Jellal's smile returned. Master Makarov. Please, help me find my own path without abandoning others on theirs. He bowed to Invel. "Winter General. I decree the creation of a Parliament of the people, which you will create to ensure a fair voice for them in the new government. I further invest you as my regent, to rule in the stead of the Fernandes family while I go into exile."

The Starburst looked at Erza, his fear and uncertainty vanishing in the light of her relief. Invel's jaw hung completely open, though Brandish and Larcade high-fived one another behind him. "It would be unseemly for a mercenary guild wizard to reign over the mighty Alvarez Empire, after all. If you should need us, I think your regency will find Fairy Tail's rates quite reasonable."

"And perhaps, one day," Mavis finished, "a child of Fernandes or Dragneel will return to be king, once more." She nodded to the Spriggans, smile growing. "Until then, protect what you love with all your might."

"And," Grandine added, smiling down at them with Wendy atop her head, "know that the gratitude of the dragons will always be with you."

Zeref, of all people, laughed. "I would be careful saying things like that. They have over eighty dragon eggs ready to hatch. In a few years, you may want to stay on the other side of the world from that." In spite of all they'd lost, Fairy Tail joined in the laughter, glad to be alive. Thank you, nii-san, Jellal thought, holding Erza and watching Mystogan help the city clean up. Crime Sorciere was our real miracle, all along.

Chapter Text

Interlude: Happily Ever After (it just means time)

Earthland-2, Fairy Tail Guild Hall, X788: Jellal-1

Even after watching Fairy Tail victory parties in the past, Jellal was amazed.

Somehow, the Guild Hall was playing host to all the guilds who had fought alongside them during the war, and the Spriggan Shields, and the six surviving dragons. At least in the dragons' case, they had some help, Jellal realized, Formula Eyes making note of Brandish's magic reducing them to about the size of large horses. Everyone was either drinking, fighting, dancing, playing, or laughing, most wizards doing more than one.

Yuka and Dyst were arm-wrestling with arms made of Wave magic. Bacchus and Gildarts were engaged in what Cana called an "extreme drinking contest," which Bickslow had clarified meant a drinking contest between Bacchus and Gildarts. (Cana then borrowed Evergreen's fan, which convinced Bickslow to find a different part of the celebration to enjoy.) Jura and Laki made sculptures of stone and wood, with the "score" apparently being based on the volume of the responses' sound. That explains Laki's squid monster, he thought with a grin. Jellal couldn't quite work out what Ren and Kagura were doing, but Millianna was convinced that they were trying to out-ignore each other.

Araña held up a newspaper with the headline "Crime Sorciere Pardoned" for all to see, getting cheers and grins wherever she went. Azuma sat in a corner, much as Jellal himself would have done, tears trickling past a quivering smile. Michelle was taking to Lucy and Mirajane with great animation, vine-sculptures acting out one of their adventures fighting Dark Guilds. Huh. Looks like some mist wizard named Caesar threatened Pergrande in this universe, rather than Mr. Hook. Then Araña reached Erigor, their eyes met, she cast the newspaper aside, and the two saint-class wizards threw their arms around each other and kissed as though their lives depended on it. Nearly the entire guild hall cheered.

All seven Dragon Slayers were still wrapped in more bandages than Jellal himself, Mystogan disguise or no. Gajeel and Erik were grinning and comparing injuries; neither Levy nor Kinana looked amused. Laxus was scowl-pouting while Freed tended to his wounds. Sting and Rogue were tucked into another corner, arms around each other, while Minerva clucked over them, a frazzled mother just this side of lecturing the boys. Natsu...

Where is Natsu, anyway? Jellal wondered. Then a burst of flame erupted a few feet away from him, and Natsu leaped into the air, fist glowing with embers. "Fight me, Mystogan!" he cheered, his grin as wide and absurd as ever. ...I don't dare go too easy on him. Neither Erza nor Natsu himself would ever forgive me.

"Mystogan" therefore sidestepped, chopping Natsu on the back of the neck and driving the Fire Dragon Slayer into the wooden floor. Laughter surrounded them. "You haven't recovered, Natsu," Jellal pointed out, helping Natsu stand. Happy sighed and facepawed, Carla chuckling next to him. "Perhaps another time."

The native Jellal sighed, gripped Natsu's shoulders, and steered him towards Lisanna. "You defeated the Apocalypse Dragon," he noted, "but you're no match for our nii-san."

"I c'n take 'im," Natsu groaned, but let Jellal-2 guide him into the seat beside Lisanna.

Wait, Jellal-1 wondered, where's Wendy? He scanned the room, picking up a few more new details – Richard was extolling the virtue of love again, hugging the blushing Beth and Wally into each other, while Angel and Racer tiptoed away from the enormous ex-Prayer. Two more couples we missed. Well, I'll have to let Meredy know for her 'scorecard,' if she hasn't tallied them already. That's when he spotted Wendy sitting alone on the second floor, looking down into the crowd without a smile. Hm. He worked his way up to her, ducking hugs from Elfman and Meredy-2. Wendy noticed him before he reached her, but he hadn't meant to surprise her anyway. "Wendy? May I?" he gestured to the chair beside her.

"You already know why I'm up here," Wendy sighed, "don't you?"

"Acnologia reacted to your name," Jellal said, and she nodded. "He had blue hair, and you're both from four hundred years ago. You're wondering if he hadn't lost everyone after all."

"The last thing he said was for Natsu to protect us. Maybe there was still good in him. Maybe...maybe he didn't have to die," Wendy whispered.

Jellal shrugged and put an arm around the Sky Dragon Slayer's shoulders. "Maybe," he admitted, "but he didn't leave Natsu much choice. Besides, I think he wanted to be stopped. A normal lifetime can leave a person with unbearable pain. What can four centuries do?"

Wendy looked up at him with a frown, then pointed at Zeref. He was still canoodling with Mavis in a corner, the two of them looking at each other with heart-eyes to do Juvia proud. "Should Zeref die?" she demanded.

"Of course not," Jellal admitted. "That's not the point. He's gone, Wendy. All you can do now is be a Fairy Tail wizard, and live your life to the fullest. If there was good in him, and it had something to do with the Marvell family, then make sure that good lives on in you."

She sniffed and rubbed her eyes. "Thanks, Jellal." Then she punched him in the arm. She's growing up so fast, he thought, unable to stop the smile from forming, grateful to Mystogan's mask for hiding it. "You'd better take your own advice."

I'm not a Fairy Tail wizard, Jellal thought, choosing a non-committal shrug instead. She huffed in a very Carla-like manner as he headed back downstairs, removing Mystogan's disguise and levitating it to the bar top.

His Ultear and Meredy were already waiting for him at the back door. "I'm surprised you lasted this long," Ultear quipped.

"I just wanted to make sure everyone was as all right as they could be." He glanced at Master Precht, who was drinking something Jellal couldn't place. His eyes were fixed on that drink most of the time, but occasionally flickered to Jellal-2 and Erza, who were walking a circuit through the guild. Checking on everyone, Jellal-1 decided, having done the same by then. They'll confront their own grief later. He blinked, eyes returning to Precht. "The Rune Knights are letting him stay here?"

"He's going to turn himself in when cleanup's done," Meredy whispered. "Zeref offered to make him an ambassador, for the diplomatic immunity, but Precht refused. In exchange, the Council won't execute him." She looked away. "Our Master Hades was always nice to me..."

"It's what he wants," Jellal assured her, resting a hand on the younger wizard's shoulder.

Ultear snorted. "So long as you don't get any ideas, Jellal," she insisted. Without another sound, they went out the door into the field his counterpart had turned into the guild's training field. This place is where they really won the war, Jellal mused, stamping down pride unearned. Now, they can enjoy the peace to follow. The trio stopped at the edge of the lacrima circle and began their dimension-spanning ritual.

"And where do you think you're going?" Simon called. Jellal froze.

Music Cue: Fairy Tail Main Theme (Slow Version)

The members of Crime Sorciere turned to find that the entire guild had mustered on the field behind them. How could they move so quietly? he wondered, then caught the satisfied twist to the smiles on Simon and Ultear-2. Oh. Jellal sighed. "We have to go," he explained. "Our Fairy Tail is returning."

"We have friends to watch over," Ultear explained, "and promises to keep."

Erza-2 nodded. "We would expect nothing less. However, since the three of you seem to need the reminder more than any others we know..." She Requipped to her Farewell armor. "Let the Fairy Tail farewell ceremony begin!"

"Yeah!" the guild cheered. Natsu and Lisanna grinned at each other and shot bursts of magic into the air, fireworks blazing in the sky despite the glow of evening. Gray and Juvia joined in, followed by Lucy and Mirajane. Though he couldn't remember why, the sight of the fireworks crushed Jellal's heart, tears streaming down his face as the rest of the guild joined in.

"There are three rules that wizards who leave Fairy Tail must abide by!" Ur called out, striding to the front of the group.

Meredy sniffed, wiping her eyes. "Is there any point in telling them we were never guild members?" she asked. Ultear merely chuckled and shook her head.

"One! You must never reveal sensitive information about Fairy Tail to others for as long as you live. Two! You must never use contacts met through your being in the guild for personal gain," Ur said.

"Three!" Every member of Fairy Tail joined in, pointing skyward with the guild salute. "Though our paths may diverge, you must continue to live your life to the fullest, never consider your own life to be insignificant...and you must never forget your friends, who love you!" They were all crying.

"As long as we remember this day," Jellal-2 whispered, while the others sobbed and waved, "I know we'll meet again."

Ultear completed the spell through her own tears, the gateway taking form. Meredy waved and backpedaled through. Ultear nodded and turned, joining her daughter. Jellal paused. "We will. It's a promise." He shook off the overpowering sense of déjà vu and strode through the gateway.

Jellal heard one last thing from his counterpart. "They were right. Hope is blue." Then Earthland-2 was gone.

Jellal froze again as they emerged over the ocean of Earthland-1. "The – the Tenrou Tree," he whispered. "It's there."

Ultear nodded and pointed at the incoming Christina. The members of Crime Sorciere were floating on a clear platform of magic force. "I've veiled us with our magic. I know that the theme of our guild is punishment, but I think, this once, we've earned a moment of light."

They watched, silent and invisible, as the Christina bore Fairy Tail wizards to their sacred island. At first, the guild's haven seemed abandoned, inhabited only by animals and memories. They rushed across the island all the same, and their fastest – Jet – reached a disturbance in the soil and skidded to a halt.

Natsu. Happy. Wendy. Lucy. Carla. Gray. Juvia. Erza! Jellal watched as the Fairy Tail wizards awakened one friend after another, weeping in joy with each one they found. They're really alive. Jellal wiped away a tear of his own. Yes. Just this once...I will permit myself happiness.

Chapter Text

My apologies, but I accidentally posted chapters for Part Three in Part Two. What Once Went Wrong concludes in Part Three: Debts.