"When he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
―William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (Shakespeare Collection)
The stars will guide you, they said. So why was he getting lost now?
“Stupid untrustworthy humans,” E.N.D. grumbled, tracing the path with narrowed eyes. The grass beneath his bare feet seared from his body heat and withered in his wake, leaving the familiar mark of his presence as he trudged across the green plain. Claws that could tear a bear’s hide as well as a human’s throat swung at his sides, and from him came an aura of Black Magic so potent he couldn’t smell any animals within a five-mile radius.
That’s what E.N.D. is, after all, he thought, rapping his claws against his forehead. Something to be avoided. To be feared. Anyone with instincts can know that much.
After another few stressful minutes, he felt a subtle shift in the air: the ethernano had jumped from low to through the damn stratosphere. His hopes lifted as he checked the stars again—they had a delicate swirl to them that converged around the area directly ahead of him. He took a step forward and detected some air resistance in the shape of a wall. It was a simple matter for an Etherious of his level to dispel the barrier, and with that came the true vision lying beyond him.
A dark forest with lush vegetation stretched as far as the eye could see. Within were tiny lights of many colors—faeries, most likely. Further within, he could see large and inhuman shapes move through the murk. The whole area had more ethernano than the wizards’ academy. I feel almost bad trumping through.
He pushed a cluster of wide leaves barring the entrance and they immediately crumpled into grey ash. The closest animal, a large doe with dark brown fur and horns that curled high towards the treetop canopy, looked at him with alarm before scattering and leaving a flurry of leaves in her path. Inside, the woods were perpetually lit by ambient lighting that shifted colors every few seconds to some invisible temple. Yes, he wasn’t imagining it, there was a faint song on the wind as well. He was certain that, had he been a lesser being, he would’ve been hypnotized by it. He pushed the thought aside same as he pushed his way through the magical forest, siphoning the life from everything nearby.
"Demon! Demon!" a small tinny voice called from out of sight.
"Black as night, evil as sin,” another voice replied.
"Not ever shall he touch another one…"
"Correct! Because they all die in the end."
With a furious growl, E.N.D. whirled around and slammed his foot into a nearby tree. The trunk splintered into near nothingness and the wavy pattern of light was disrupted as wood chips and dust filled the air. “Say it to my face, I dare you!” he shouted. The background noise hushed to nothingness—even the wind fell silent. He was left heaving for breath, energy rolling off him in waves to blacken all nearby organisms. Whirling around, he planted a hand on a golden-leafed tree, his claws easily piercing into its thick hide. “Where are you now? Say it!”
"I’d like it if you calmed, Etherious." There was a new voice, soft and full and very woman. E.N.D. slumped and returned his claws to his side. Surely, this woman was who he sought. ”The faeries will guide you, and they must be alive to do so."
He took a deep breath through his nose and released it. His temperature slowly lowered, but he could do nothing about the Black Magic. The lights returned above his head, circling each other with jingling noises like bells, before a red one descended to eye-level. It fluttered impatiently for a single breath before taking off to the northeast. E.N.D. stumbled forward before regaining his footing and giving chase, shoving off trees and stomping protruding roots as he went. The faerie was relentless, almost seeming like it was trying to lose him, but it just barely kept itself within sight. As he spun around a bend into a partial clearing surrounded by soft growths of bluegrass as high as his waist, the faerie vanished.
"This way, Etherious." A new light, this time pale yellow, darted out from a tree’s hollow. ”And quickly—your energy is like poison to us."
Well, it at least explains why they keep their distance, he thought, following the faerie once more.
"What could you possibly ask of the witch? You are the strongest Etherious to walk the earth."
“Yes, and that right there is my issue. But I’m not expecting to hold a conversation with a brownie about it.”
"It is perfunctory that I ask. You might be looking to harm our Lady, after all."
“No, I have no intention of harming your Lady. I swear it on my brother’s grave, no intentional harm shall be brought by my hands…claws.”
The faerie’s light turned a bit greyer than before. ”You say intentional."
“Of course. Because, as you know, majority of the damage I cause is simply existing.” Around him, trees and undergrowth had been dying at a steady pace, previously fresh and full berries falling to the ground in shriveled husks, leaves browning and crumbling as if from the coldest winter night. “Though, hearing as much as I have about her, I don’t expect her to be so easily affected.”
The faerie blinked out of sight for a breath before reappearing against a wall of tightly-strung vines. Several tiny sprites drifted lazily against the dark green even with E.N.D. standing a few feet away. ”Our lady lies beyond," the faerie said before vanishing again. E.N.D. stepped forward, claws extended, and the sprites scattered as the deadly points drew close to the foliage—
“Please. I already have enough dead plants by your hand.” The vines snapped apart the same time as a sudden gust of wind hitting him from behind, causing him to stumble forward and inelegantly fall over a gnarled tree root, landing on his belly on a thick covering of foxtail grass. He groaned as he brought his claws forward to push himself up, but was started at what happened—rather, what didn’t happen: the grass crunched under his palms, but did not die. He scrambled to his knees in shock and stared long enough to give him a headache, but nothing happened.
“I’m here, you know,” said a deep female voice. He slowly raised his head to gaze across the circular clearing. Flowering grass covered all ground space with not a weed in sight, and the skinny trees that surrounded it donned brownish-white bark that blended with the cobalt sky and spilled stars above. Across the meadow stood a bench woven from the trees’ branches and grass, creating a soft seat for the Lady of the Stars. Her pale gold hair was braided down one slim shoulder and met the chest of her long white gown, belted beneath her ample breasts. She looked more like a faerie than anything; the only indicator of her status was a grey pointed hat sitting tilted on her head.
“Ah… My Lady,” E.N.D. said once he regained his bearings and dignity, dropping to one knee and bowing his head.
“You may rise.” He did, keeping a healthy distance between them. She shifted her legs and the fabric fell differently, baring a long one to the moonlight. Her ankle was adorned with several gold and silver trinkets, and from her calf to her thigh were silver scars in the form of tribal markings.
“What wish you of me, Etherious?”
He stared at the crescent moon for several seconds without responding. Thus, came the hard part, harder than even coercing the village into giving her whereabouts. “I ask…” He stopped and took a deep breath, feeling her eyes on him as he met her gaze. Her irises were soft brown, almost amber, a warm gold unlike the metallic sheen of the real thing. “I…beg of you to remove this curse upon me. Please.”
“You wish for me to remove your Etherious.” A slight frown pulled at her lips and she folded her hands primly in her lap. “That’s difficult, impossible even. Your demon half and human half are tightly woven, so much so that they act as counterbalances. Removing a half would put your body in extreme peril and most certainly kill you. Is that what you’re looking for, death? There are easier ways to—”
"I’m not—" he began in a shout, then calmed himself after breathing deeply through his nose. “I’m not looking to die. I want to be rid of this curse. I know it’s possible, because my brother, a human, could place it upon me in the first place.”
“The Dark Wizard is far from a normal human,” she countered. “He was touched by Ankhseram and could do things beyond my power.”
“Can you try? Please?” He was starting to sound pitiful, but didn’t care. She tilted her head to one side and tapped her chin.
“It’s been decades since your emergence as an Etherious. What’s the rush to end it now?”
“I…It doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter,” he repeated when his voice cracked. “I want you to try. Do you want me to beg and grovel? I’ll do that too.”
She stared at him for a long time with a blank expression, then finally sighed and combed through her hair. “I assume you know you must give up a valuable for me to initiate the spell.”
“I do.” With shaking claws, he gripped his scarf. The white checkered material lay coiled on his bare collarbone and shoulders, draped over his hard chest that was flecked with black and red scales. It was the one thing remaining from his pleasant human childhood—if there was anything with value in the world, it was his scarf. He swallowed and felt a bit lightheaded as he unwound it and folded it neatly between his hands. His feet felt like lead weights as he walked forward, the grass crunching lightly between his toes and the cold air running past his skin. She reached out as he drew close, and her slender fingers closed around a strand of thread.
“I could feel the emotions in this from here.” She smiled. “This will do fine.” She pulled her hand back and tugged the string loose. “To perform the spell, we must be linked together,” she explained as she drew back, further unraveling his scarf. His Adam’s apple bobbed at the sight. “It is the way my Celestial Magic works: to draw from the powers of the heavens, I must use some of myself and some of what I’m working on as catalysts. It keeps the universe in balance.” She was circling the edge of the clearing and leaving a trail of white thread in her wake. The scarf was half undone.
“I’m following.” Not really.
“It’s okay if you don’t understand. This is magic as complicated as the one animating you, Etherious.” She paused. “E.N.D. That’s your name, isn’t it?”
“That’s what they call me.”
She stopped moving and abruptly straightened. “Your name. I need your given name. They have power, you know.”
“My given name…” He had almost forgotten it after so many years. He stared at the remains of his scarf and frowned. A little boy with black hair and gentle eyes danced in his memories, and the boy called him… “Dragneel… I’m the brother of Zeref, so my name is Na…tsu Dragneel.”
“Natsu Dragneel. I henceforth commit it to memory.” She resumed movement until she stopped in her original position, face-to-face with him. She held up the thread and Natsu noted with some shock that the scarf was completely unraveled. She held her free hand out expectantly, and it was with some measure of doubt that he raised his own, his claws glinting ominously. She pressed her palm to his and linked their fingers together, and then did the same with his other hand. “Now, I can’t be assured this will work completely if at all, but I will try for your sake.”
“A…Alright.” The thread of his scarf wiggled through the air before coiling around her arms and hands, then continued up to Natsu’s elbows. She closed her eyes and a gentle sound came from the back of her throat as a soft white light surrounded her body. Wind built in the little clearing, causing her hair to dance around her shoulders. The etherion levels spiked dramatically within the span of a few seconds, enough that Natsu feared he would choke on the magic in the air. As he watched, balls of light of different color and size appeared around her, floating in the dark space like grounded stars. He began to understand what she meant by “giving a piece of herself”—like that, he felt connected to the universe and everything in it. It was a nauseating and dually liberating emotion.
"Survey the Heavens, open the Heavens." Her voice was soft as a psalm but steadily grew louder on each word. ”All stars far and wide, show thy appearance…" He felt a burning sensation on the backs of his hands and looked down to see threads of gold slithering along the paths of his veins. Her words broke for a moment as her eyebrows furrowed with concentration, and the burn abruptly spiked to burning-alive levels of pain. It took all his self-control not to recoil, not that he believed he could; the thread of his scarf was like steel binding their arms and hands. His skin seized up like it was about to be ripped from his skeleton, then the pressure completely vanished.
Before his eyes, the skin of Black Magic that had covered him for decades began to crack and disintegrate.
“It’s…you…” Words failed him as he watched flecks of darkness break away from his fingers and wrist, baring tanned skin. His claws turned white as the bone they were formed with before crumbling into dust, leaving short and broken fingernails in their wake. He stared on in shock as her magic continued past his wrists and onto his arms. The burning grew worse with each inch of skin revealed, and eventually it upgraded from burning to stabbing, invisible needles stabbing into his entire body. His jaw tensed so much he felt his teeth fracture and he actively struggled with their grip.
“It’ll hurt—of course it will hurt,” she said with some measure of annoyance and patience, looking at him with one eye. “Bear with it, unless you’re content with just human arms. It will only truly pain you when it comes to your heart.”
Because it’s been a breeze hitherto, he thought bitterly. As her magic progressed and removed the scales from his upper arms and shoulders, the stabbing sensations grew so strong he forced his legs not to buckle. The threads of gold continued along his collarbone and ribs, the skin there coming out pinker than the rest, and slithered down his hips and under his canvas shorts to his legs.
"With such shine, oh, Terabiblos. I am ruler of the Stars, aspect become complete…"
Time passed, and the only thing left to his Etherious name was his heart. He looked human from what he could see, and moreover he felt human. But shedding his skin was the easy part—it was only the physical manifestation of the core Zeref revived him with. He could’ve asked any low-count wizard or mage to fix his appearance, but that was what made him E.N.D. Although Zeref used a brand of science and magic to make that core, he hoped the famous Celestial Mage would be stronger. Hoped.
"—stars of Heaven, shine!" She threw her head back as her fingers tightened around Natsu’s, then her magic ultimately clasped around his heart. For a second, the world froze, and he felt nothing. Then pain beyond comprehension struck, and Natsu crumpled to the ground, taking her down with him. He opened his eyes (he passed out?) to see her on her knees several feet away. One arm was crossed over her chest and the other was extended stiffly into the air, which Natsu slowly realized was the thread of his scarf forcing her arm to align with his.
“What have you done?” she said in a low, angry tone. He blinked groggily and tried to make his extremities work.
“Your heart.” She pointed at him with a slightly-shaky hand. “Trying to rewrite his magic has sent out some sort of…signal. This was a trap, wasn’t it?”
“I wouldn’t—” He gasped and bit hard on the back of his hand to avoid vomiting. He wouldn’t intentionally call Zeref, not when he spent so much time avoiding his brother, but to the rest of the world, he was just a puppet of the Dark Wizard. He tried to say he wouldn’t dare, but he could barely breathe, and it took all his effort not to black out again.
“You’re—augh, this stupid spell,” she said with a frustrated growl, tugging at the thread. She gave up after a moment and her head jerked up to see the light of the stars slowly darkening. “I don’t have time for this! Your recompense will come in a moment—for now, I have to protect this forest.” She grabbed his wrist with her free hand and roughly pulled him to his feet. He couldn’t even walk in a straight line but she ran and well-nigh dragged him behind her.
The forest was twice as hard to travel through without his magic disintegrating everything he touched. Branches smacked him in the face and damn near knocked his teeth out and blinded him—he had no idea how she managed to duck them as she did. He also noticed that on the way back, not a single living creature was in his line of sight. If that wasn’t a sign of Zeref’s presence, then it was the resonating buzz in the back of his head.
They passed through the final wall of leaves into the meadow Natsu began in. She skidded to a stop and turned to face the forest that dissolved once more behind a wall of illusionary magic, then directed her ire towards Natsu. “You’re lucky I have one hand free, otherwise I’d decapitate you here and now. No one gets to endanger my friends. What sort of game is Zeref playing? We have done nothing to wrong him, nor have we strayed into his path.”
“I told you,” he said with better control of his vocal cords now that the pain had dropped from spasm levels to merely tear-inducing levels, “I wouldn’t! I don’t go around doing his bidding—not anymore,” he amended when she gave him a flat look. “Which is why I came here, so I would be completely free from him!”
“And look what that’s done to us,” she said monotonously.
“I’m sorry, alright? I didn’t know. But what’s done is done.”
“Indeed, what’s done is done.” She grabbed the thread and tugged at it futilely. “We’re bound, and now the Dark Wizard has placed a beacon over your head.”
“Just break the stupid thread!” He tried clawing at it before he remembered he didn’t have claws anymore. It also processed that he couldn’t chew through it either.
“The bond can’t be broken until the spell is completed—that’s the stigma of Celestial Magic. It doesn’t need to be successful, but we—” She went still as Natsu felt the resonance reach a peak. “—don’t have time to do it.”
He looked to the east where the first strings of dawn were rising to the sky and a shadow of a figure crept along the horizon. While Natsu left a veritable trail of death around him, Zeref’s effect was more mental: the space around him appeared to warp, the birthing light fading into his presence like some sort of singularity. His white sash blew out behind him while he took measured steps forward, but time also distorted around him, making his trek look a lot shorter than it was. Two seconds later, he was close enough that Natsu could see his black eyes.
“So, this is what you’ve been trying to do,” Zeref murmured as he stopped a few feet from them. Natsu stared wide-eyed with some vague awareness of shallow breathing beside him. Zeref looked at the forest that should’ve been completely disguised before returning his gaze to Natsu. “Well?”
"Well what?” he said with his usual amount of wit and tact. “We aren’t conjoined twins, Zeref. I’m allowed to do what I want.”
“Ah, is that so?” He gave a small smile and chuckled under his breath. “And instead of telling that to my face, you went and snuck around to remove the magic animating you. And you went to this Celestial Wizard to do it.” He turned to her as she met his eyes with an even look.
“Trust me, if I’d known the consequences, I wouldn’t have done it,” she said flatly. “Rest assured, I won’t even now.”
Traitor! Natsu thought, not that he could blame her. Still, his scarf was wasted for naught!
“And what does that mean for me? You two are bound until you complete the spell, that’s how your magic works.” He stared hard at the thread before looking up at her witch’s hat. “Although…perhaps I could find a way to bypass it. I’d need some material from celestial bronze to mark the spell’s components first, but if I could successfully discern it…” Natsu recognized his brother’s far-off gaze: he was already lost within his head’s research. He shifted a foot away from Zeref and he blinked back to reality. “Alright, then,” he said in an odd tone that sent chills down Natsu’s spine. “If you don’t want to be with me, then alright.”
“What—” He felt a wind cut between him and the Celestial Mage and turned to see her without her hat. They looked towards Zeref, startled, and Natsu saw him pull a ring of golden keys from inside the pilfered cap.
“Give those back!” she shouted, rushing forward and dragging Natsu by the arm with her. Zeref didn’t move an inch but Natsu caught the red glint of his irises as it happened. Grabbing her shoulder with his other hand, he backpedaled and tripped over his feet, causing them both to hit the ground. Either way, it saved their lives, because from where Zeref was standing, a solid line of grass, flowers, and birds previously flying overhead lay grey and dead.
“You see the stakes if you try again,” he said in a low warning tone, setting her hat on the ground and stashing the keys in the folds of his robe. “I need Natsu, but if you weren’t bonded, I would end your life in a second.”
“There’s a reason why you’re the scum of the magical world,” she said in the same tone, eyes narrowed as Zeref turned his back to them. He chuckled again as he walked away.
“He doesn’t care what others think,” Natsu muttered as Zeref went out of sight, his fist clenched so tightly it was starting to become numb. “He practices magic for one purpose only, and while he gets closer to that goal, he couldn’t care less what it does to the world around him…or the people around him.” He massaged his chest absently as he spoke, then snapped from his fugue to gaze at the Celestial Mage, who was staring at the trail of lifeless greenery with a look that could cause a second death.
“He’s damned us, you know,” she said after a deep breath. “I can’t perform Celestial Magic without my Keys, and we’re stuck until the spell is completed.”
“Well…” He didn’t have a problem with her per say, but it wasn’t his ideal situation to be stuck with her forever, or until Zeref found a way past the spell—the latter would probably come first. “There have to be other Celestial Mages in Fiore, right? Can’t they finish the spell?”
“I’m the only one in the west. We would have to travel very far to find another, and even then, we aren’t exactly looking to be found.” She groaned softly and slapped her palm to her forehead. “Why did I get roped into this…?”
“I’m sorry, if that’s any consolation.”
“It’s not! Look at this, I’ve lost my Keys, my friends, because of you!” she yelled in his face. He clenched his jaw as his anger came to boil in response.
“I didn’t ask for this to happen, you know! I said I’m sorry, what else do you want?”
“I want my Keys and I want the bond to be broken!”
“Well it looks like neither of us are getting what we want today!”
They glared at each other, red in the face and breathless, before turning away. “Cathartic?” she asked.
“Indeed.” Natsu glanced at his arm before letting it flop limply to his side again with a sigh. “Didn’t do anything about this predicament, however.”
“Then we should start walking.” The sun peeked over the horizon and crept up behind her, making her hair look like strings of gold. Strings of fate, he suddenly was reminded of. And golden strings belong to immortals. But… Impossible. Only humans can wield magic. “Within this domain also dwells Titania, queen of the faeries. Surely she can direct us to another Celestial Mage.”
“Surely,” he said noncommittedly. She took a step forward, drawing their arms taut, then looked back at Natsu, who hadn’t moved. “Considering we’ve already given a piece of ourselves, I find it odd that you hadn’t given your name.”
“Names have power,” she reminded him. “My name is not something I would go tossing around. If you wish for something to call me, then use Zodiac.”
“The Keys that you caused me to lose are part of the Zodiac, the strongest form of Celestial Magic and the circle of my closest friends.” She gave him a hard look and tugged again; this time, he followed. “Call me Zodiac if nothing else.”
“Fine, then, Zodiac,” he said with exasperation as he was led into the early morning’s light. May the gods give their blessings that both could find a satisfactory and hopefully not mortal end. “And—wait, did you say Titania?"