Natsu groaned as he lied their motionless in the soft grass. His body throbbing, every muscle in him ached. He was unable to move apart from slowly opening his eyelids to the blinding light of the sun. He moaned a bit more as he closed them again. He could feel the cool touch of a breeze as wind blew by him, causing his body to tense up even more. The sound of leaves rustling in the trees and grass swaying were the only things he could hear.
He tried to take a moment to recompose himself, but he had no idea where he was, or what was going on. He wondered why his body hurt so much, and what he was doing outside, lying on the grass. He couldn't remember a thing about what had happened before he was lying there. He began to think that he was outside the lake where he and Lucy would often meet. But it just didn't feel right, and he didn't know of anyway he could have possibly hurt his body this much.
Not only did his body simply ache, there was a sharp, shooting pain that radiated from his shoulder. He could feel the warm stream of blood that oozed from the wound. It stung, and though he was unable to move any part of his body, it felt as though his entire side was numb. He groaned, feeling as though something were lodged in there, but he couldn't even move enough to pull the contraption out.
It was after a few moments that his memory started to come back. He remembered Lucy visiting him in the dungeons, the two of them exchanged a kiss, but then Duke arrived and took him to the tower. He struggled to figure out the rest, his head was throbbing to no end, as a mass amount of pressure seemed to be hammering away inside his skull. He then started to remember that he was in the tower, but that was all. Now he began to think that somehow he made it from the tower out to the grass.
Slowly the tension in his body began to melt away. It was strange, but he was starting to feel better, and as the pain left, his memory became that much more clear. Then his mind was flooded with the images of Jellal coming forward of Jellal meeting him in the tower, and then the man who shot him with an arrow causing him to topple from the tower window.
It all came back to him as he felt himself grow more enraged. Soon the burning sensation he had felt in his but before began to stir. As it did, the pain in his body just evaporated allowing the teen to move his arm just enough to pull out the arrow that was lodged in his shoulder. He breathed a sigh of relief as though he had yanked out the thorn that had kept his body subdued for so long.
He staggered forward as he picked himself up off the ground. His vision graying out on him, but then it cleared up almost instantly. He could feel the burning course through his veins, as the blood from his wound had stopped. He noticed that scales began to form on his skin, but it appeared that they had been there for quite awhile. He took a deep breath looking up to the tower window realizing that it was the scales that had saved him during his fall.
"Lucy," he exhaled in a deep breath as he began to sprint away from the wall and into the forest. He stopped himself as he soon realized that Jellal had not made it out of the tower when Duke had attacked them.
He peered back at the castle taking a deep breath he knew what had to be done. Without wasting another moment he ran back out of the woods and to the castle. "Wait for me Lucy," he said as he turned back around, "I will find you, I promise."
Meanwhile, outside of the castle's walls, Gajeel, Lucy, Levy and Erza continued to gallop west through the forest, careful to avoid the road in order to insure that they went unnoticed. Levy held onto Gajeel while Lucy held onto Erza, the horses in full sprint while the girls struggled to keep a grip on their riders. They galloped as fast as their horses could carry them, but at the same time making sure that they didn't collide with the trees or foliage.
Eventually they made their way into a clearing, still in full gallop, until eventually they came upon a river and forced to stop. The river itself appeared to be too wide and from the rushing rapids, it was clear that it was probably too deep to cross. Erza peered up and down the river looking for any possible bridge, or passage they could possibly cross at. From the looks of it, there wasn't, at least not near by.
Gajeel peered back behind them, he let his eyes magnify with his dragon vision to insure that they were not being followed. Though he could not see, nor sense any people pursuing them it wasn't enough to convince him that they were in the clear. They may have escaped the castle ground and the city, but he knew that it was only a matter of time before Duke sent a party to look for them. Right now all he knew was that there best chance was to get to Nivit, only there would the be safe for the moment. That and he could finally be on his way.
"What should we do?" Gajeel asked turning to Erza as his horse whined and became unsettled.
"There should be a bridge further up north," Erza said as she eyed the waters again. "But I don't know if it would safe to cross up there. We'll be too exposed."
"As opposed to what?" Gajeel sighed. "Swimming? There's no way to cross the river, at least not here. If we ride up to the bridge, we should be able to cross there."
"Yes, but do you know of another way around?" Erza asked. "Something that would be more secure and keep us hidden. I don't trust taking the road route. As a bandit I would think you would know the wild outskirts of this country well."
"There is no other route that I know of," Gajeel grumbled. "Just because I was a bandit doesn't mean I know of every secret passage and road. Our best chance is to just cross the bridge. Trust me, I doubt there is nobody there that would stop us. And if there are, I'm sure we can handle it."
"I don't know," Erza said looking back at Lucy, "I cannot put the princess in any danger. It's bad enough that I have to trust a bandit to help me safeguard her."
"I don't need to be here wench," Gajeel growled. "I could have run away with the Sting and Rogue when I had the chance, but I opted to stay."
"Erza please," Levy whimpered, "Gajeel has done more than enough to prove that we can trust him. Can you not be so hard on him?"
"Erza, Natsu trusts him, and if Natsu does, than so do I. Even Jellal trusted him enough to send him with us and as you're lord you need to trust his judgment," Lucy said. "That and I know you're more than capable of handling him if he does turn on us," she whispered in the red head's ear.
"We should head north, if Jellal and Natsu are to meet us at Nivit, that will most likely be the path they travel down," Gajeel stated as he turned his horse in that direction. He scowled at Erza; Levy growing a bit unwary as she could see the distasteful expression on his face.
"Very well," Erza sighed giving in. "We will take the path up north, but we will only cross when we know that it is safe."
"All right," Gajeel growled as they continued to gallop along the riverbed.
After a few more hours they finally arrived at the base of the bridge. The tree line surrounded it on both sides, making it difficult for Erza to spot any potential travelers that could possibly cross it from the other end; though it also helped provide them cover as she watched. Gajeel pestered for them to just cross now, that they were in the clear, but Erza just had an eerie feeling that she couldn't shake. She didn't want to cross just yet. there was just a suspicious sensation in the pit of her gut.
The bridge itself was rather large, constructed of stone blocks. It had to have stretched for over thirty meters. For Erza, that was just too long a distance for them to travel out in the open. The edges of the bridge only stood up to knee height of the horses, so if they were attacked there would be no shelter for them to take. That and the water underneath ran at such high speeds they would have nowhere to go if they got stuck on it.
"Let's just go," Gajeel whined. "There's no one around, and the longer we wait, the more time we waste and risk having someone stumble upon us when we do decide to cross."
Erza glared back at him, but she knew he was right. She devised a plan, one that could insure that it was safe for them to pass.
"Why don't you go first?" Erza suggested. "Leave Levy and behind and walk across to insure that it is safe."
"Why me?" Gajeel snarled.
"Are you a man or aren't you?" Erza snipped.
"Fine," Gajeel grumbled as he jumped down from his horse and walked towards the bridge.
He peered back, grumbling to himself as he reluctantly walked onto the bridge and made his way down a significant way before stopping. He turned back to them with an unsatisfied glare.
"So far so good," Erza whispered as she watched.
"You should be kinder to Gajeel, Miss Erza," Levy said softly. Erza peered back at her with a bewildered, yet somewhat annoyed glare while Lucy stared at her with a somewhat confused expression.
Erza just shook her head and looked back over to Gajeel. She saw him standing near the center looking around. He turned to face them with a sour expression on his lips. Erza breathed a sigh of relief as her stomach began to unwind a bit.
"See," he shouted, "there's nothing—"
He was immediately cut off as an arrow came hurtling from behind the trees, striking him in the back. Gajeel let out a howl of pain, falling to his knees as Erza unsheathed her sword, as she heard the cries of men rushing towards her. Levy let out a loud shrill as Lucy looked around frantically. They were surrounded, and for Gajeel it did not appear to bode much better as a swarm of bandits rushed in from the other side of the bridge.
Gajeel stood up in a fit of rage, roaring fire from his mouth as he did so. He turned back around to face his assailants, six in all. He staggered forward, the arrow in his back radiated a sharp pain throughout his body. He could see the men coming in closer and then he leaned forward and belched out of furry of flames, consuming the attackers. The men let out shrills of terror and pain as they jumped from the bridge into the frigid rapids below.
Erza held out her sword, pushing Lucy and Levy behind her so that she could better shield them. Though it seemed pointless as there was no escape for them. One accoster came running at her, lashing his sword downwards. She stepped aside, letting the swing of the sword carry forward before she lunged her own weapon into the man's abdominal. He burst out yelling before falling forward, lying motionless on the ground.
Another man charged in from behind her, Lucy seeing him as he was just about to swing his sword. Lucy stepped up, grabbing the man's wrists before she spun around, hurtling the man over her shoulder to the ground. She wrenched the sword free, just in time to deflect another oncoming blow from another assailant. After she parried the on coming strike, she swung at the man's legs, slicing a large gash on his calf, causing the man to buckle under and fall to the ground.
Erza fought off two more men, blocking each of their swords with her own. She knocked the first man's sword, stepping forward to head butt him in the nose. She grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and threw him into the second man, knocking them both over. She held up her sword as four more men stood in front of her with their own weapons extended. She eyed them carefully, watching their every move.
Levy took a couple of steps back making sure to stay out of the way. That was until a man came up and grabbed her from behind, his forearm wrapped around her neck. She tried to scream, but the man pulled her in tightly preventing her from doing so. She gritted her teeth, as she could feel her vision starting to gray. She refused to give in. She stomped on the man's foot, causing him to lose his grip as he let out a loud yelp. She then spun around and kneed the man in the groin.
Lucy picked up one of the swords and held it in front of her, to keep the assailants at bay. Her heart racing like mad as she could feel her own legs quiver underneath her. The men chuckled as they smirked at her, their gaping decaying teeth hanging out of their yellow gums. She cringed under the gaze of their piercing gray, ragged eyes. Their skin as greasy and leathery as their shredding strands of hay they call hair.
Lucy backed up as she saw them take a step forward towards her. The men she had knocked down had picked themselves up as well. She kept walking back until she bumped up against someone. She jumped as she spun around, as did the person she bumped into. The girl nearly had a panic attack as she spun around to see that it was Erza. Her hands jittered in her hands as she nearly dropped the sword, the red head with the same panicky expression in her eyes.
The two of them stared at one another for too long as they were both tackled from behind. Their swords were knocked away from their hands, as they struggled to break free. A man held down each of their hands while another dug his knee into their backs keeping them pinned on the ground. They could feel the men taking out rope so as to bound their hands together. Levy herself was grabbed by two men on either side, as she was forced to the ground, lying on her face as she could feel her wrists being tied behind her back.
Meanwhile, Gajeel teetered back to the other side where he could see over a dozen men had now captured the girls. The searing pain in his back made it hard to move, and even more difficult to keep his focus. If he could pull it out, he knew that he could regain himself. But for now, as long as that arrow was stuck in him, he wouldn't be able to move about as well as he could.
He seethed as he noticed two more men break away from the rest of the attackers and come rushing towards him. He breathed a large roar of fire once again causing the men to fall down in freight at the sight of it. They stared at him, as Gajeel began to run at them, the pain throbbing with each and every step, but he did not let that hold him back.
As he remained focused on the two men in front of them, he did not notice that there was another man who had already pulled out a bow and arrow aiming it at him. As Gajeel continued to sprint forward, the man let loose his arrow as he struck Gajeel beneath his left rib cage causing the teen to fall to his knees and collapse to the ground.
"Damn it," he growled. He could feel the burning sensation in the pit of his stomach like he normally did, but with the arrows in his body he just couldn't bring forth his full power.
He fought to stand back up to his feet, as he faced the man who had shot at him. He rushed towards him in a fit of rage, unable to control his emotions. He could see the man panic as he attempted to draw another arrow. Before he had the chance to lift it into the air, Gajeel pounced on him, able to turn his fingers into claws just long enough to slash open the man's throat.
Blood spewed forth, drenching Gajeel's face in the man's warm blood. But he did not have a moment to regain himself before three men jumped on top of him, forcing him down into the dirt. He fought them off, the front arrow snapping under their weight, but he could feel them driving it further into his body. He yelled in pain as he managed to throw one of the men off of him as he got back up to his knees. But as soon as he did so, a large club struck him across the face knocking him to the ground unconscious.
Jellal found himself being forced down to the stage in the town square. Though nobody really paid any attention to what was going on after the slave uprising earlier. Most of the town's people were busy repairing the damage done to their shops and homes, that they hadn't even noticed the noble being thrown up in chains onto the stage.
The town was in disarray; half the shops were ransacked and broken into, bodies still filled the streets as workers did their best to pull the corpses to the side, most carts had been overturned and many of the people were just outright crying after enduring it all. Many of the town's guards were busy helping to clean up the mess, or kept watch over what slaves they managed to capture in the battle, or those that had escaped, but been brought back.
King Duke stepped up onto the stage, looking out at the carnage that had been caused. He knew that this was a poor reflection on his newly appointed position as king. He wondered how he was going to continue to keep order in the city; he could only imagine the outrage he was going to hear from the people the next day. With so few slaves left, there was almost nothing people could do to completely fix all the destruction that had happened in the city.
In the meantime, he would deal with the traitor, Jellal. The young noble sat on his knees, his hands bound by chains as two guards kept their spears pointed at his neck. The young king approached him, filled with anger and embarrassment by what had happened. He stepped up in front of Jellal and slapped him across the face once more, seething. He was more livid by the betrayal of a dear friend, one that he had hoped would serve as his right hand.
"Why Jellal?" Duke sneered. "Why would betray me? I am your king!"
"I did what was necessary," Jellal spat back at Duke. He glared back into the young king's eyes.
"Necessary?" Duke snorted. "Necessary! I am your king, I was your friend, there is no excuse for the treason you committed against me. And for what? A dead slave, a whore of a princess who's only going to be caught by men in a matter of time? That is, if she isn't raped or killed by bandits first. All you did was forfeit your own life for nothing Jellal, nothing."
"You know nothing," Jellal growled. "I thought you at one time you worthy of being called a king, but clearly you're nothing more than a power hungry fool. One who would stoop so low as to betray his own friend, and supposed father-in-law."
Duke slapped Jellal one last time before motioning to one of the knights, a man from his own personal guard, to come over and deliver the sentence. The knight nodded as he unsheathed his sword and stepped up behind Jellal. He peered back over to Duke before getting the nod to continue on. The guard raised his sword into the air, ready to strike it down upon Jellal's neck. Jellal just sat there, firm, as he awaited the final blow.
Just then a Natsu leapt down from high on the castle walls, landing on top of the knight that was supposed to finish Jellal. Everyone was stunned, including Jellal as he stared back with wide eyes. Without a second to waste, Natsu used his claws the slash open Jellal's chains, freeing the young noble.
"Get them!" Duke roared.
What soldiers he had left, no more than half a dozen or so, unsheathed their weapons and encircled the two of them.
"Any plans?" Jellal asked as he eyed their surrounding enemies.
"Yeah," Natsu answered. "Just give me a moment."
The young Draconan teen took a step forward, and as he leaned forward he let out a wave of flames at the enemies nearby. The men were startled, but none more so than Duke, who took the opportunity to run.
"Archers!" Duke cried.
The sound of the commotion startled the town's people as they began to grow even more worried. Most of them returned inside, so as to avoid any further conflict. A few men with bows came running towards the king, noticing Natsu and Jellal on top of the stage.
One of the knights rushed in at Natsu, swinging his slashing his sword at the boy's gut. Natsu could feel his dragon senses taking over him, as his vision began to magnify and his body encased in a warm, burning sensation. He ducked under the sword, using his claws to slice through the knight's armor, slitting the soft flesh underneath. The man toppled over dead from the impact, as Natsu sensed another knight coming in from his left.
This time Natsu caught the sword by the handle as he drove his claws through this knight's armor and into his sternum. He yanked it free as he used it to spin around, catching another oncoming sword. He threw it to the side, grabbing the man by the neck, and with one twist, snapped the windpipe. By now the other knights were afraid, but one had enough courage to try and tackled Jellal. The young noble grabbed his arm and threw the knight over his shoulder and off the stage.
"Come on," Natsu ordered as he ran over, grabbing Jellal by the waste and leaping towards the wall.
The archers were in place now, letting their arrows fly at the two of them as Natsu scaled the wall. He could sense each arrow coming, as he jumped side to side, and upwards to avoid the shots. Jellal winced as he bounced on the boy's shoulder, his gut landing hard on the bone. Finally, they arrived at the top of the wall Natsu looking on either side, noticing that the guards were rushing towards the two of them in a full on sprint.
"Hold on," Natsu said to Jellal as he ran towards the opposite edge.
"What are you—" Jellal cried as he realized the Dracnoan's plan. "No!"
Natsu leapt from the high walls, out towards the trees. The guards came to a grinding halt as they watched him. Jellal screaming as the two of them went gliding down. Natsu reached his free hand out for one of the tallest trees as he drew closer, and closer to it. He sank his claws into the bark, sliding down the trunk, spinning around it until he landed hard on a firm tree branch. Though the velocity of his momentum caused the branch to snap underneath him as the two began to plummet to the bottom.
Natsu did his best to land on the larger branches as they continued to fall. Each one snapping under him until finally the two of them landed hard on the ground. Natsu felt a shooting pain radiate from his feet, but it soon vanished under his natural power. Once he was stabilized he put Jellal back down on his own feet, grinning widely at the now pale, and traumatized noble.
"Don't," Jellal stuttered in a shaky voice, "don't ever do that again."
"No promises," Natsu chuckled. He was actually rather impressed with himself. "Now come on, we have to find Lucy and the others."
"Well than that means we're going to have to head out west," Jellal said as he peered back up to the castle wall. The guards stood there staring down at them both bewildered and frustrated. "But first we should make sure that we lose any potential pursuers. They're more than likely to send the dogs after us. So, it's best if we go find some horses then."
"Well I don't know where we can get horses," Natsu said. "But I think that we should head out west anyways."
"Not if we want to lead them on our trail and put the others at risk," Jellal answered moving forward into the wood. "Come, we'll go south for the time being, there is a stream just a little ways off. There we can lose our scent, and hopefully find horses and head to Nivit."
"What about Lucy and the others?" Natsu asked as he followed him. "We can't just leave them alone."
"They should be fine as long as they reach Nivit," Jellal told him. "They'll be safe there, the ruler is a kind and noble man. He will watch over and protect Lucy and the others until we get there."
"How do we know Duke won't go after them now?" Natsu asked worried.
"Because he's too busy having to deal with rebuilding Konvern after the uprising, and he's probably more concerned about finding us over them. So, as long as we continue to draw his attention away, they'll be safe."
"I hope you're right," Natsu sighed. He couldn't help but have a bad feeling in the pit of his gut.
The two of them continued to sprint through the forest, Natsu following the young noble as he led the way. He didn't like the idea of the two of them taking another way, he wanted to do nothing except head west, to be with Lucy again. He hoped that they would not be delayed for long. But he knew that he should trust Jellal, it would be terrible if all he did was lead Duke and his men to Lucy and the others. For now, he knew he would just have to be patient.
Back in Konvern King Duke was in an anguish of humiliation and rage. He stood in the king's hall yelling at the other nobles, and those that served as council to his court. Among them, Ivan sat at the right hand, and though he looked displeased, he was more annoyed by the young king's rabid howling than he was upset about the rebellion.
"WHAT IN THE HELL HAPPENED OUT THERE?!" Duke roared over them, pacing back and forth in front of the table. The other nobles recoiled and cowered away. None of them, apart from Ivan, was even willing to look at their king. "First the slaves rebel, we lose the majority of our work force, then the princess escapes, humiliating my rule, and now we can't even handle a simple slave? What is wrong with this country?"
"None of us could have foreseen the slave rebellion, your Grace" Ivan told him. "Right now is not the time to worry about slaves, that is a task that is easily fixed. What our main concern is the loss of the Draconan beasts and the fifth one that is rumored to live in Nivit."
"I care not for the Draconans!" Duke yelled waving it off. "All except that son of a bitch Natsu. I will have his head on a pike, along with that whore of a princess, Lucy."
"And you will have it, your Grace," Ivan told him. "But we most focus on the tangibles and what is really important. Right now the city is in disarray, and the people are starting to ask questions. Bring your armies here, to Konvern, show that you are still a man of power that deserves to be respected."
"You are right, Ivan," Duke answered. "Someone send a pigeon to Junelle. Tell them to send me my own council and all the military we can afford to spare to Konvern. I will insure that there is order in my kingdom, and I will no longer tolerate the apathetic behavior that seems to plague this wretched country. I will burn down every acre if that's what it takes."
"Very good, your Grace," Ivan said nodding his head. He turned to a young girl that was sitting next to him. She had long, flaming red hair and pale skin. Her eyes yellow like the petals of a sunflower, but with an eerie grayness about them that made it almost inhuman. "You heard the king, go now."
"I will find the slave Natsu," Duke seethed, "and when I do I will kill him." He took a deep breath as he sagged down in his own chair at the head of the table. "Now get out, all of you. I need to be alone for a minute."
The nobles complied as they all stood up to leave, even Ivan. As they left Ivan turned back to see Duke sitting there, rubbing his forehead in agitation as the young king contemplated what he was going to do. Ivan could see the frustration in his eyes, and secretly smirked to himself. As he walked out the chambers, Ivan was greeted by two other men: Nullpudding and Kurohebi.
"What news, my master?" Kurohebi asked him as they continued to walk down the castle hallway.
"The boy has escaped unharmed, as I predicted," Ivan told him. "The plan is coming together. Soon Duke's armies will arrive here, and we will have the largest army in all of Fiore at our fingertips."
"And what of the Draconan?" Kurohebi asked. "What of Nasu?"
"His part in our little game has only just begun," Ivan said smirking. "Soon, he will have what he wants, and so will we."