Part 4 (final)
The monastery in the middle of Mikage Forest still made for an impressive if ominous sight. The grounds were almost entirely overrun with dry, twisted trees and their broken branches, but the main building was in the same ornate style as Kardia Cathedral. Even with most of the stained glass broken, the majesty and detail of the carved stone facade endured.
"Creepy," Gray and Lucy muttered in sync, their heads craned back to look up at the cathedral building.
"Smells weird," Natsu added, frowning.
He didn't elaborate, ignoring the questioning looks he received in favor of sniffing the air and wandering ahead, his expression intent. Exchanging a look, Erza and Lucy followed. Jellal trailed after them, keeping a careful eye on their surroundings.
"So there's no history of strange events at this place? No hidden skeletons? It seems an awfully fancy place to be in the middle of nowhere like this," Gray said quietly, to Ultear.
"We looked into that," she confirmed. "But it really seems to have been just a Zentopia monastery. Well, rather than particularly monastic, it seems to have been more like a... retirement home for wealthy noble patrons. Even though it looks like this now, Mikage was once very lush and pleasant. There was even a hot spring not too far from here."
Gray made a quiet noise of acknowledgement. "So the reason they chose this place is probably precisely because there's nothing interesting about it — no connection to them," he surmised. He made a face at the prospect.
"There's likely some connection somewhere," Ultear said, sounding equally unenthused. "I doubt they stumbled here completely by chance. But it's probably something tangential and so deeply hidden that we'll never find it. That's why—"
Both of them tensed for an instance, as the magical auras of their friends flared, and took off at a run — the other team had run into trouble. All the same, Gray smirked thinly at the prospect. That meant there was something here after all.
They burst into the cathedral only to come to an abrupt halt. The rest of their group was ready for action, but only ready. Arrayed in a semi-circle, Natsu, Erza, Lucy and Jellal were locked in a standoff with a strange figure that stood in front the altar at the other end of the building.
Completely covered in black and scattered places of armor, their opponent could have been a human or a golem, with no way to judge. It remained completely motionless, the mask hiding even the direction of its gaze.
"That's the same one Erza and I ran into before," Jellal said quietly, as Ultear and Gray made their way to the unmarked line. "But when we defeated it, it just... fell apart."
"It must be a familiar, or a projection," Ultear judged. "Should we destroy it again?"
"Might as well, I suppose," Jellal judged.
"I'll do it," Erza said calmly. Her armor switched to Heaven's Wheel in a flash, making the strange guardian's head turn toward her, but she didn't give it a chance to act. Half a dozen silver swords plunged into the black body, which shuddered with each blow and sagged abruptly.
It was clear now what she and Jellal had meant by the guardian "falling apart" — the black suit... deflated, like it had been empty all along, the mask and the armor pieces falling off to clatter across the stone floor. Once Erza's swords withdrew, gathering behind her again, the black cloth — or perhaps skin — pooled on the floor like a shadow.
"Is that it?" Natsu complained. "That's pathetic."
"...No," Erza said, her swords slowly rearranging around her — facing outward. "It seems not."
"I wonder if this is new, or if we just missed it because we retreated so quickly last time," Jellal said conversationally, as he too turned to face the shadowed alcoves of the cathedral. The others followed his example, their line moving to form a circle, their backs to each other.
Numerous dark figures had begun to crawl out of from behind the pillars and cracked statues, each one exactly the same as the defeated guardian. Others clung to the ceiling or the walls, like giant, misshapen spiders. They moved completely silently, the weight of their eyeless stares pressing down on the group in the center.
It was hard to gauge their exact numbers, but even faced with a swarm of the strange beings, no one showed much concern. Given the caliber of wizards on the team and the apparent weakness of the enemies, they would likely be able to retreat at the very least, if it came down to it.
But running away wouldn't get them anything either.
"Do you think there's a limited number left behind, or are they being created by a continuous spell?" Gray asked quietly, to Ultear.
"Who cares? We'll beat them all either way!" Natsu called back, his sharp ears easily picking up the words. A wild grin was spreading across his face, as he finally found himself in his element — an all out brawl.
"Very well," Erza judged, a much smaller, tight smile on her lips. "Let's try that approach."
"Alright! Let's gooo—" Natsu roared, lunging for the nearest enemy...
Only to crash face-first into a translucent wall. He stumbled back with a yelp, clutching his crushed nose.
Erza reacted the fastest, her silver swords shooting out in every direction — only to collide with a grinding screech against more magical walls that flickered into view all around them. "Barrier Magic?" she muttered, drawing back her weapons.
They were completely boxed in, but the same couldn't be said of their enemies. One of the black guardians lunged for them and, unlike Natsu, it passed seamlessly through the magic wall. Scowling furiously, Natsu kicked it back out, but the other black forms followed quickly and the small circle within the barrier quickly became crowded and chaotic.
"Argh! I've had enough! Fire Dragon's—"
Heedless of his friends' protests, Natsu unleashed a blast of fire. It swirled up against the barrier and turned back onto them, also trapped within.
"Ice Make: Instant Freeze!" Gray countered, dousing the flames with skill born of practice. "You idiot! Be careful, or you'll fry us too!"
"Tch!" Natsu clicked his tongue irritably, but drew back.
"What do we? There's more of things coming!" Lucy fretted, clutching her whip but hesitating to use it in the confined space. Summoning another body didn't seem like a smart move either, leaving her to retreat into the center.
"Break through," Ultear judged. Her Ark of Time enveloped one of the black figures, causing it to collapse in on itself. Whatever they were, they didn't count as human, at least. "If we concentrate our attacks on one portion of the barrier, we should be able to break through it."
That would require them to be stronger than the barrier's caster, but given their team, Ultear was confident they could manage.
"Leave it to us," Jellal said — Erza moving to his side.
Light engulfed them both, Erza requipping into her Morning Star armor, Jellal activating Meteor. They crashed into the magic wall like two shooting stars, making the entire cathedral tremble. They were halted for a moment — but only a moment, before the barrier cracked and then shattered.
The others dashed after them, through the opening they had created, while Erza and Jellal quickly cleared a path through the black guardians. This time, the group scattered in pairs, to avoid getting boxed in again.
Gray followed after Ultear, forming a sword to bash aside an enemy that tried to jump them when Ultear paused for a moment. She swept out her hand, sending a wave of magic over the entire building. The black guardians popped as Time of Ark reduced them to their prior state — all except for one. The last masked figure only rolled its shoulders and turned its hidden face toward her.
"That must be the real one," Ultear said. "I can't affect him... so the others are a form of replication magic of some sort, or perhaps clones."
"Who cares? As long as we take that one, we win!" Natsu yelled. Fist aflame, he charged forward again.
And crashed into another magic barrier, again. He stumbled back, swearing.
No one paid him much mind. Their attention was fixed on the cathedral's altar, where the last black guardian stood — and where another figure had appeared beside it. Also masked, but far more human-like, the man was dressed in the robes of a priest and held a staff in his hand. His heavy breath rattled through his metal faceplate, which had been carved in the shape of a bearded face.
Ultear narrowed her eyes, a sense of familiarity nagging at the back of her mind.
"Is that...?" Erza began to ask.
"Yes, he's making the magic barriers," Jellal confirmed quietly. "But it's a Thought Projection. He must be skilled to use magic through it." It was a difficult ability to master, though it had been vital for the charade of 'Siegrain' that Jellal had once pulled on the Magic Council.
"D-6, withdraw," the man spoke, his voice rattling through his mask. "The heretics of Crime Sorciere are beyond your ability."
The single remaining black guardian — D-6 — ducked its head. "Yes, Lord Arlock," it said in an unexpectedly smooth, even voice. It, or perhaps he, bowed in acknowledgment of the priest's order and allowed its shape to collapse like the other copies had. The empty black skin and the armor that clattered to the floor both slowly dissolved into inky shadows that seeped between the floor stones and disappeared completely.
Slamming a flaming fist into the magic barrier, Natsu yelled, "Get back here, you coward! Face us for real!"
Gray groaned under his breath, and Lucy facepalmed in frustration, but fortunately for Natsu, Erza ignored his outburst, keeping her attention focused on the priest, Arlock. If he was a Thought Projection as Jellal said, they had no way of stopping from vanishing at any moment. Why had he remained even after dismissing his minion? Was he planning to trigger a trap? Was he going to fish for information? Or did he just want to taunt them?
"It seems you've heard of us," Ultear spoke up, in a casual tone. "It's an honor to have drawn Avatar's attention."
Arlock let out another shuddering exhale. "Few who walk the dark road have not heard of you heretics," he said, his voice hollow and grating. "Not only failing to achieve your aims, but even turning against your master and becoming an attack dog for those of the light... Hades was a fool to take one of such weak mind into his confidence."
Gray wasn't the only one in the group to scowl and glare at him for those words, but Ultear herself kept a blank, neutral expression as she gazed back at him. "You're right, our plans failed," she said calmly. "And so will yours. We will stop you."
"You know nothing of our goals, girl," Arlock said. "We will not fail as Grimoire Heart did. We will transform this world. But there is no need for a heretic like you to witness it. This place shall be your grave!"
He had slowly raised his staff as he spoke and, at the last word, brought it down sharply, the tip striking the floor stones with a gong-like sound.
A crushing weight slammed down on them, pressing them into the ground. Another magic wall, this one horizontal, pushed them down so they had no leverage for an attack to break it. Arlock's staff clanged again, and the entire cathedral shuddered. With a deafening rumbling, the ceiling cracked and began to crumble.
Lucy let out a short, startled shriek as a chunk of rubble crashed next to her, passing through the magic barrier pinning them down. They had to do something; the next boulder might not miss.
"Lucy! Damn it!" Natsu yelled, his flames flaring instinctively.
"Idiot! Stop!" Gray yelled back.
As before, the fire spread out beneath the wall first, nearly swallowing the group. There was no room to maneuver, and the chances of hitting each other were high, pressed together so closely.
Using Ark of Time, Ultear tried to return the building to its untouched state — the ceiling and the walls reversing their fall and trying to reassemble. But before the arches and buttresses could reform, they seemed to hit something that sent them falling again. The reason for the collapse in the first place — another magic barrier that had broken down the ceiling and now continued to descend, crushing Ultear's efforts to hold up the building.
"We have to—" Erza tried to say.
"I've got it!" Lucy called out. "Virgo! Go under!"
With a chorus of startled yelps and a sound like a jackhammer, the group dropped into a series of perfectly round holes, connected by a round tunnel. Sweeping her hand out quickly, Ultear closed them up again, just as the cathedral finally crumbled above.
"A crushing punishment, Princess?" Virgo commented in her usual way. "How cruel."
Lucy ignored her remarks. "Virgo, can you dig us a way out? Somewhere beyond the monastery grounds," she said.
"As you wish, Princess," Virgo bowed and, with the same drilling sound, vanished in a flurry of loose dirt.
The cathedral and the rest of the monastery complex had been completely levelled, leaving little more than a uniform layer of rubble across the grounds. Arlock's Thought Projection was long gone as well, of course.
Gray cursed under his breath, brushing dirt off his bare shoulders irritably. "So much for that," he said. "There goes our last lead."
The others winced in frustration as well. They'd come out of it more or less unharmed, but also with nothing to show for it, aside from a couple of names.
"Do you think there's any point in restoring the monastery and looking around again?" Jellal asked Ultear.
Strangely, she smirked. "There no need," Ultear said, sounding far too satisfied. "I think I've got everything I need." Looking around at the confused faces, she raised an eyebrow. "You must have noticed. He said he knew of us, but he focused on me — and on Hades."
Jellal nodded thoughtfully. "Generally, I am the more infamous criminal," he agreed. "So you've seen him before, when you were with Grimoire Heart?"
"I wasn't sure at first, but it came back after a while," Ultear said. "It was a long time ago. He wasn't wearing a mask back then. But I'm sure it's him. He came to see Hades, to read some of his rare dark magic tomes. Hades had the greatest collection of forbidden texts on this continent... and that man was interested in a very specific set."
"You think that's what their cult is after too?" Gray guessed.
"That's right. That man was researching summoning — summoning gods, specifically," Ultear said. "He was obsessed with returning the world to the age of divinity, as he called it. It would certainly make the basis for a cult's doctrine. Thinking back on it, the descriptions we got from Greenbridge match up to several high ranking members in Grimoire Heart who weren't at Tenrou, too. He would must folded them in afterward Hades died... Well, with all that, we've got a much clearer picture, wouldn't you say?"
Her smile widened a little at Gray's hopeful expression. "Then, with the Rune Knights..." he started to say.
"I still have a few good pieces of blackmail," Ultear said. "Together with this, I'll work something out." More gently, she added, "I'll do everything I can, I promise."
She could see he understood. Some tension in his shoulders eased as he smiled at her in return, and even if it was selfish, Ultear felt like she had made the right choice, somewhere.
For several long moments, they were content to simply gaze at each other, until Ultear became aware of the approving, amused, and bored stares on them. The rest of the group was watching them with varying degrees of patience, unwilling to interrupt the moment between the two supposed lovers. Finally noticing the same thing, Gray cleared his throat awkwardly.
"Then let's get going," he said. "You said you have a contact in the Rune Knights?"
"I do," Ultear said. "But first, do you want your coat back?"
Gray glanced back at her, puzzled. His gaze slowly panned down, and he realized what she'd meant. As usual, he had stripped off his jacket — and Ultear had picked it up, putting it on herself.
There was an inordinately long pause, as Gray stared at her. "...No," he said finally, as if in a daze. "Keep it."
That was the last straw. "Enough flirting already!" Natsu yelled. "Let's go!"
"We weren't—" Gray tried to protest.
"You really were," Lucy assured him, smirking.
"It's cute," Erza said, in a tone that was probably meant to be comforting. "I'm happy for you."
Jellal just smiled knowingly at Ultear. It felt a bit like karma — she'd wanted him to be more confident and independent instead of just following her lead, but now that he was, she just kind of wanted to punch him.
Friends were a terrible thing to have. Boyfriends — even worse.
As instructed, Meldy had arranged the meeting. The time and place were decided, and there was no backing out now.
Ultear would go alone. There had been protests, of course, but it was the most logical course of action. Fairy Tail was a legal guild, and they could ill afford to be caught openly associating with even an "independent" group like Crime Sorciere. And if negotiations did fall through, Ultear had pointed out a bit wryly, she'd be counting on Jellal and Meldy to bail her out.
Fairy Tail would depart come morning, and Ultear would set out to meet her contact. But before then, there was one last thing she had to do.
She had decided, after all, to move forward without regrets, or things left unsaid.
Gray walked silently next to her as they made their way out onto an empty path, in the woods behind the clearing where their group had camped out for the night. She could feel him watching her, trying to guess why she had asked him to come with her alone.
Finally, Ultear drew to a stop and turned to face him. "We need to decide what we're going to do — regarding our relationship," she said, firmly. "Tomorrow..."
Gray clicked his tongue irritably. "I already said I'll wait, I don't care. If this is about how I might fall in love or something, it's not —" he started to protest, but Ultear held up a hand to stop him.
"If it was just a game of pretend, I wouldn't care," she said. "I think we've both achieved what we set out to do, so it doesn't really matter how we end it... or that's how it would be. But it's different if there's honest feelings behind it."
Her brow furrowed when Gray flinched, his expression becoming tight and a little pained. "That's... You're right, I should have said something," he muttered, looking away. "It's taking advantage, if I'm..."
He trailed off, looking troubled and guilty — and that hadn't been what Ultear was aiming for at all.
"Gray," Ultear said slowly, "I was talking about me."
There was a moment of stunned silence as her meaning sank in.
"The one taking advantage was me. From the start, I haven't been honest with you," Ultear went on. "I didn't say anything, didn't plan to say anything, because it seemed like a meaningless dead end. But I always... I've always..." She sighed in frustration. "I can't find the words..."
Hesitantly, she studied Gray's expression. He was staring at her, wide-eyed and too stunned to accept or reject her words — her confession.
Of course he was stunned. Ultear had always been good at hiding her thoughts and feelings. It wasn't fair to just dump this on him, but... she didn't want to keep quiet either. Just this once, she wanted to be selfish about these feelings.
Reaching out slowly, giving him time to pull away, she rested one hand on his cheek, the other on his shoulder. Face tilted up, she closed the distance — softly pressing her lips to his.
There was no one watching. There was no need to play pretend. This wasn't for that, not for anyone's benefit, not part of any scheme. This time, Ultear savored the brief, gentle contact, the way Gray's soft exhale fanned against her cheeks, the way he canted his head to fit his lips better to hers, the warm touch of his hands over her sides.
Reluctantly, Ultear drew back. But... not too far. The hands on her waist tightened, and Ultear looked at Gray in bemusement.
He had opened his eyes, but refused to look anywhere close to her direction, ducking his head and turning away. "...I don't know either," Gray mumbled, barely audible. "I don't know how to put it in words. I just know... I like kissing you. It's embarrassing, but I like holding hands with you, I like being next to you. I want to spend more time with you... I don't want to, to break up."
"...Oh," Ultear murmured. Sliding her hand along his cheek, she ran her thumb over the red blush that was blooming over his cheekbones. "Oh."
"If it's falling in love..." Gray went on, still avoiding her eyes, "I already... I'm already..." It was his turn to sigh in frustration, words failing him. Dropping his forehead onto her shoulder, he muttered, "I want to see you again. I'll wait, Tear... okay?"
"Okay," Ultear whispered, slipping her hand through his hair and pressing her cheek against him. "Then I'll come back quickly, I promise."
Yes, she wanted to hurry and catch up to him. She wanted to walk in the light too, side by side.
So they could be together — for real.