“How’re you doing down there?” Vinci asks.
I push my head back above water, and glare as acidly as I can without trying to repeat the incident on the Spice Archipelago.
“I am pushing an entire fucking frigate with my tails and stubbornness because the living goddamn embodiment of penis envy slapped me into the mainmast, how do you think I am doing?”
“You're far too obsessed with the Sea King's appearance, is what I think. Is there something you'd like to tell me?”
“Fuck you, captain,” I growl.
“See, this is why I’m curious. Oh, and could you aim a bit more to the left? Jack says we're a bit overweighted on the right thanks to our loot.”
I actually growl at him, but I keep pushing anyway, making a minor shift to my spinning tendrils. It's taking all six to move the ship, and even with the wind and the full spread of canvas from the mizzen and fore masts, we're still limping along...but if it makes the difference between reaching the next island or starving, I'll happily pitch in.
There’s another reason, too - it’s hot as hell at the moment, and quite frankly the accumulated body odor of a hundred or so pirates, some of whom refuse to take off their cloaks and other shit, is approaching overwhelming levels (and the sweat and scent tends to make my stomach growl for entirely different reasons). Immersing myself in water prevents me from smelling that, thankfully.
And there's a third, one I haven't brought up with my captain.
I've always had more success meditating in motion. Repetitive, soothing work, that clears the mind. And that's what this is for.
It's time to go digging in my brain.
Not just to see what is there, whatever bestial core instincts took over on the Archipelago...but also to see if I can control them or at least tame them. Because what I saw in the Mists…it reminded me of just how far I have to go, if I want to be able to fulfill my master's wishes, and my own.
I will need power , and that power is there .
So I will take it.
My tails spin rhythmically, and my breath slows as I tread water, eyes closed. In. Out. Just focus on pushing the ship…
There was a place that was not a place, a hill of white clover.
It was currently occupied by a very large dragon.
A boy approached the hill, and the dragon cracked open an eye.
Oh, child? What brings you here at last? In trouble again? You should know I won't be so kind if I must save you again, it said, snorting embers from its nostrils.
Not trouble, the boy said. Unless you plan to make some.
The dragon laughed.
Trouble is all you bring on yourself, boy. You locked me away to walk among weaker men, you scavenged from the dead like some vulture rather than hunting worthy prey. I think, it declared, the embers becoming a cloud of flame, that I shall make whatever trouble I please. You cut your own wings away, child, and sealed them with me...but I can still fly, and you cannot.
A pipe appeared in the boy's hands, and a necklace of jade commas around his neck. The boy lit his pipe, and watched the dragon with empty eyes. I cannot let you, he said.
Let me? The dragon's laugh shook the hill and sent a cloud of smoke to blot out the sun in its cloudless sky. Kyakyakakakakakakakakakakaka...you cannot stop me.
The boy smiled in the third way, and the terrible Blade of Want, infinitely sharp and edgless, appeared in one hand. I can kill you.
And then I would win, child, for in doing so you would become me, the dragon said, baring fangs the length of the boy's body. A monster again, and that is a fate you have always tried to avoid, isn't it?
The boy laughed, blue eyes like ice. Better a monster with a mind than a weakling that cannot control himself in a fight, he said. And it would silence you, would it not? It's only here and now I know your voice for what it is, funny, that. I wonder if my captain could cut it out?
The dragon paused, then, and glared down at the boy, claws carving furrows in the white clover. What do you want, child? it snarled.
Then you are a fool, the dragon said.
As are all pirates, kingslayers, and thieves, the boy said calmly.
The dragon smiled in the second way at that, and lowered its head to face the boy eye to eye. You know what price I will demand.
Blood, and slaughter, and the end to all in the way of the path to glory, the boy replied, smiling in the first way, that which was pure as mountain air. It shall be paid.
The dragon laughed. For fire and air, tendrils and wings, your price is paid. For earth and water, shields and tails, greater debts will be needed to be settled. It grinned a terrible grin. Can you bear the weight of those sins, child?
As many as I must, the boy said.
Very well, the dragon rumbled. Let your education begin.
Vinci sniffed at the air as Ends Justified sailed along, albeit with some ghoulish help.
A pity they didn't have the timbers to rig up a suitable replacement. They had plenty of corpses in the hold, to be sure, but it would be a week or more at the pace they were setting, and with Kaneki using his tendrils and working nearly constantly...that could strain things quite a bit. Well, they could always hope a Sea King would pick a fight…
And that was a sentence he'd never thought he'd utter. Funny how having your own personal attack cannibal changed one's perspective.
Ends Justified creaked slightly, shifting in the waves.
Alright, he was being unfair. Kaneki was a great deal more than an attack dog. He'd started off as a rescuer and fascinating biological mystery, and while he'd replaced the former role with a subordinate one as Vinci's most capable right hand, his biology was still fascinating. And a dangerous temptation for Vinci himself…
Oh, not in the sense of making himself like Kaneki, not entirely - others might shed their humanity easily, but Vinci would cling to it forever, it was what defined him.
No, Kaneki's temptation was in the urge to use him, to encourage him to give in to the inhuman instincts he struggled so hard to keep at bay. A ghoul was a useful weapon and a far more useful ally.
But Vinci had not forgotten his promises. Not the one to allow Kaneki - and any other ghouls - to live without the need to devour humans.
And not the earlier one, to cure Kaneki entirely, to make him human again in body as well as mind, if it were possible. Kaneki himself may have forgotten it, may have buried it under the necessities of power, but Vinci...Vinci refused to.
If it could be done, if he could find a way (and he was starting to suspect he could , on this sea of dreams and madness)...then he would, even if it would rob the Nightmares of their biggest powerhouse. If that was what Kaneki still wanted…
Vinci sniffed at the air again, and made a face.
"Something wrong, captain?" Lauren asked, looking up from her examination of the rough-looking rifle one of the train folk had given her.
"Embalming fluid," Vinci answered.
"Yes. I can smell it on the air."
"Maybe it's coming from your lab."
"One, my lab is sealed, you should know that after the amount of time I've let you make your vile chemical concoctions in it. Second, even if my lab sprung a leak, I wouldn't dare use stuff of this poor quality."
"And I thought C had a good nose…"
"I took samples and spent some time optimizing the nerves and receptors. And whatever is smelling like embalming fluid... it's on the wind."
"So, behind us."
The captain and the armoress shared a look.
Both sprinted for the quarterdeck simultaneously.
"That," Jack said slowly, training his spyglass on the object, "is a big fucking ship. I think the damn thing's actually a battleship, it has the same hull. No gun turrets or super-heavy guns...looks like they've rigged up some sort of harpoon launchers instead of turrets."
"Any idea who they are?"
"Not sure on the jolly roger yet, but the size limits it. And they're hunting us, which makes it just one. The Necromongers."
"Lovely," the captain said with a groan.
"Yup. Their captain reanimates the dead as skeletal thralls. Burned a lot of islands to the ground. And he's got some freaky... things as officers. According to what few survivors that are sane at the end, it's something about scientific research and specimens or whatever. Nutjob."
"Really, now," Vinci growled, golden light starting to gather in his eyes.
"Are you guys going to be friends?" C asked innocently.
Vinci took in a deep breath, and let it out again. "That depends. Can we outrun them?"
"Unless Kaneki grows rockets, they've got more canvas, are on the same wind, and are closing alarmingly quickly for a ship that huge," Herman growled. "Nope."
"Then, no, C, we're going to be killing that charlatan of a scientist."
"Oh. Can I eat them?"
"No, since I can smell the stench from here they're probably filled with toxic preservatives. Kaneki!"
No Kaneki appeared.
"Right. KANEKI, GET YOUR ASS BACK UP HERE, WE HAVE PEOPLE WHO NEED THEIR TESTES KICKED INTO THEIR CRANIUMS!"
There was an alarmingly loud splash as Kaneki appeared on the rear rail, dripping wet and looking rather annoyed. His tails lashed in the air for a moment before shrinking away. "How many, why, where?" the ghoul asked.
"A lot, they're an affront to medical science, and they're right behind us."
"Going to be in cannon range in a few minutes, actually," Jack supplied. "Pity, I was going to start working on my hammer today."
"Impact and Flame Dial attachment points with an arming mechanism in the handle, right?" Lauren asked. "Fixed that up already. Was going to test it out, but…"
Jack eyed the girl in surprise for a moment.
"What? I'm in charge of the armory. That includes your hammer of compensation," the dark-skinned gun-witch replied dryly, loading shotgun shells into a sawn-off. "And I had a spare hour last night, and you left your notes lying around."
Jack just nodded. "...thanks."
"Don't mention it."
"Right," the ghoul said, eyeing the approaching vessel. "We going to turn and fight?"
" Yes ," Vinci growled, hands tightening on his saws.
"Great. GET YOURSELVES READY, YOU PACK OF DOGS! LOAD THE CANNON, SHARPEN YOUR SWORDS, TAKE UP YOUR PISTOLS! WE HAVE BOARDERS TO REPEL AND A RIVAL TO SLAY, NOW MOVE!"
The deck of Ends Justified exploded into activity as Jack dug a finger in his ear, wincing. He hadn't figured Kaneki had that kind of volume.
There was a roar of gunfire from the approaching vessel, and Vinci's irises spun as his hands blurred into motion. A chain of explosions filled the sky with smoke and fire in the next instant.
"Pravilno, Lauren, C, stay here, shoot down anything that they fire our way," he ordered. "Herman? Bring us about and set us to cross their bows, then get ready to fight. Kaneki, Gin, you're with me. Jack, get your hammer and our best fighters and join us."
"Aye, captain," everyone chorused.
The Necromongers drew closer and closer under the roar of their guns, relentlessly reducing the distance. Everyone could make out the Jolly Roger, now, a twisted image of a skull surrounded by surgical instruments billowing from the largest mast of the immense vessel.
Gin just wanted the damn thing to charge in, already. The waiting was intolerable, and the constant cannon fire wasn't particularly helping.
Nor was it actually hurting anyone, as far as he could tell. For the Necromongers, the sheer size of their vessel and its immensely thick timbers meant Ends Justified's guns couldn't deal enough damage, though there were spots where the cannonballs had managed to find a way in - mostly gunports, and it was a damn good thing they had a gun making genius on board, or their cannons wouldn't have had the accuracy for those shots.
For the Nightmares…
Well, Lauren was pushing the boundaries of how quickly one could track and fire, Pravilno backing her up, while C just tossed the shells back at them.
Either way, it resulted in a whole lot of nothing, albeit the kind of nothing with lots of explosions happening.
And all the while, the enemy got closer. They'd be in range of those harpoons soon…
Thoom. Thoom. Thoom.
The hell? That wasn’t cannon-fire. It was something else, the sound of countless feet stamping against a deck at once.
And it was getting faster the closer the enemy got. The gunports were closing, the harpoon launchers on the bow swinging into place...
And then it stopped, the Nightmares staring frozen up at the ship, the only sound the fluttering of the flags and sails in the wind.
The harpoon launchers fired.
" Incoming! "
Gin spun his tonfas, slapping one of the massive spears out of the air with an impact that rattled his bones- even though he wasn't using his powers - before looking around. Over a dozen of the damn things were embedded in the ship, and the cables were already drawing taut.
"Well don't just fucking stand there!" he shouted at the crew. "Cut the damn things!"
That got them moving, and the deck became a blur of motion once again as cutlasses, katanas, and the occasional Tempest Kick cut at the cables. Four of them frayed and snapped nearly instantly, another three soon following.
It still wasn’t quick enough, as what seemed like a small army appeared at the rails of the enemy vessel, and began to slide down the remaining cables, forcing the crew to ready themselves -
Okay, those were fucking skeletons coming down the cables.
Gin decided not to question it.
“Resonant Frequency: Bone.”
At least it would make his job a lot easier.