Actions

Work Header

The Butcher Bird (One Piece SI)

Chapter Text

000000000000000000- chapter breaks, should only apply to the first five chapters as those are consolidated from arcs.


- PoV breaks. 

 

----------------------------

 

The man was old, and dying. He'd been dying for years, but now it was tearing him apart.

I don't know where I am. A jungle, duh, but no idea where it was. I'd tried eating some of the fruits over the past weeks I'd been trapped in this green hell. They'd tasted worse than anything I'd ever eaten. Everything tasted like that.

Neither of us had the supplies or the expertise to fend off old age, not really. He'd lived longer than most, in this world.

But now? I could smell something delicious. I could barely see, was crashing through the underbrush like an idiot, but there was food somewhere.

Two years of training. Of ridiculous tasks, of killing wild animals, of battling the pirates that passed by and taking what we wanted and needed from them, all so I could grow stronger. He'd given that, for a promise.

I'm on it before it realizes I'm there, blind with hunger, mad with it, teeth finding an artery easily and opening it up, so sweet.

It was a price I'd been more than willing to pay, once I'd realized which world I'd been sent to, and in what era.

Something struck me in the side, driving me away from my catch, and I growled. Pressure in my back relieved itself, and red tendrils lashed out, cutting down the prey where they stood. More meat, after all. Other members of the herd ran, and I let them. I had food.

The old man raised himself off the bed with effort, and I was at his side in an instant. "Easy, you bastard. You're not well," I say quietly.

It wasn't until the first of the crew had been reduced to blood and cracked bone that I realized what I was devouring so desperately, and what the red tendril-limbs that had burst from my back were.

"You think..I do not know that, little monster?" the old man replies. "Help me up. I will not...die in my bed."

I don't remember what happened after, not clearly. Flashes. Violence, men screaming for their leaders to save them. Running from me in fear. Men in white uniforms trying to burn down the forest, falling to me, becoming food. I don't know how long it was. But then He came.

"If you say so, Sensei." I can feel the bones where I lay a hand on his back, sharp under thin skin. When had the old man gotten so frail? It seemed like only a few days ago he'd been lifting boulders and chopping down trees beside me.

He came alone, and the memory of the ambush I laid for Him is still clear as day. I hurtled down from the trees, tendrils striking- and hit nothing but dirt as pain ripped through me.

Slowly, I help him shuffle out the door and onto the porch of the tiny wooden house we'd lived in for two years. He sinks into the rocking chair with a groan, and nods fractionally.

I'd expected to die as I lay there, unable to move, my body refusing to heal the damage, hearing His footsteps draw closer. I welcomed it. I deserved it, for being too weak to end myself when I'd realized what I'd become. Instead, He spoke.

"You know what you must do," the old man whispers. I nod. We'd spoken of this, agreed on it. It still hurt to do it.

"So. You are the monster that lurks, guarding the treasure of the forest," He said, leaning down so I could look at Him from where I was frozen. His voice stripped away madness, cleared the hunger. "An eater of men. A ghoul. But…" He paused, and looked at me closely. "You are not one by choice, but by necessity. Hmm. When you are healed, little monster, seek me out. It will not be easy, but I doubt your life has been."

I hand the old man his sword, an ancient thing, near as long as I am tall. He leans on it at first, levering himself out of his chair, but as he gets upright strength seems to return to his limbs, and his eyes clear. By the time we head down into the grass surrounding the house, he stands straight, the image of a wise man who was still strong.

I clung to the sanity He'd given me in the days that followed. And I followed his trail and his scent, down to the harbor. I'd forgotten my name, so I chose a new one. With half-remembered speech I secured passage aboard a passenger liner, and waited. When a man aboard attacked a woman one night, I waited for a stormy night, ate well, and spun a tale of him having slipped over the side. His scent spurred me on, and with stolen funds I bribed a fisherman to follow it to monstrous shores. Serpents and strange creatures rose up to try to sink the fisherman's vessel, and despite the growing hunger in my belly. and the wounds they inflicted, I cut them all down, staggering ashore with blood spilling from my wounds.

We face each other in grass that has grown up to our knees. I focus, and a single tail bursts free, coiling out to my right as I slip off the red captain's coat I've grown to favor. In response, the old man raises his sword.

He found me at the entrance to his home the following morning, and smiled. "You have survived. Well, little monster...what is it you desire? Survival? Power? Riches? What in this blood-soaked world do you want most?"

I lunge forward. So does he. Tendril and sword strike as one.

"Scale Cut!"

"Blade of Want!"

What did I want? If I wanted mere survival, I would never have followed  Him . If I wanted to rule, I was terrifying enough. If I wanted riches...what man could stop me, in one of the Blues?

Fragments of memory tell me. Men who call themselves dragons, slaving and raping with none to stop them. Islands burning over the fears of bureaucrats. Countless lives ruined by petty cruelty and the desire for power. Madmen with abilities none can counter suffocating countries under their rule.

"I want…"

Blood spatters the grass, and I stagger as a cut appears across my chest, bone-deep. But healing.

I raise my eyes to meet his own. "This world is a cruel place, filled with monsters. And so I'll kill them. I want the strength to do that."

The old man falls to his knees as his sword breaks, his blood staining the ground.

"Then I think we can make an accord, little monster," He said. "I will give you that strength, if you will add seven to your list of monsters."

My tendril lashes out and severs neck and spinal cord, coiling around the head in an instant, returning it to me. I close the old man's sole remaining eye, then lay it down in the grass. It will keep. The body will not.

I eat.

"Seven lives? What have they done?" I ask.

"They killed a dream," He replies. "Do you have a name, little monster?"

"Yoshimura Kaneki."

"Hm. Then, young Yoshimura, my name is Arima Zoss. Until you die or your training is complete, you will address me as master."

When that is done, I gather up a burlap sack and cotton cloth, wrap the head carefully, and place it in the sack. I get the meagre possessions I still have- a few beri, a sharp knife, a few changes of clothing- and then set bales of hay against the walls of the house.

By the time I set foot into the small skiff that Zoss had kept for supply runs, the house was burning merrily.

I have a large bounty to claim, a crew to gather, and a better ship to either buy or steal.

After all, while the skiff is plenty for the South Blue, it isn't something that'll survive the Grand Line, much less the New World. And I have business to handle.

00000000000000000000

It is alarmingly difficult to get a bounty turned over to you, apparently.

Well, it actually isn't, if you've got approval, recognition, and occasionally a license.

But if you do what I did, which was dump a head in front of the first Marine to challenge me...well…that lands you an interview with the base Captain and about a dozen heavily armed guards. All in a very small room.

I can smell their fear. Even the Captain- a man built like a shaved bear with a set of brass knuckles shoved very conspicuously into his pockets- is quietly freaking out. Mostly because I haven't said a word after telling them I was there to claim the old man's bounty.

Not my plan, but the old bastard wanted to go down fighting and figured his bounty would give me some start-up funding.

And so we wait. The Captain hasn't spoken, and neither have I. The only sounds are the slight noises the Marine guards make and the ticking of the clock on the wall.

It's incredibly creepy. Then again, I can't judge.

After several minutes of this charade, a guy who I assume is a clerk enters and whispers in the Captain's ear. The man nods, then stands, and I tense myself, waiting for something to go wrong.

"Well, Mr. Yoshimura, it seems you have done the Marines a service after all. The bounty has been confirmed. Arima 'One-Eyed King' Zoss, worth 21 million beri. Now, there is a small wrinkle…"

"Let me guess, you don't have that kind of cash on hand," I say drily.

"For the bounty as it was posted, well, we could pay that. However, his bounty is fifty years old, and with the inflation of the beri since then…the World Government decreed that bounties would be pegged to increase with inflation- to ensure criminals who were laying low would still be considered profitable to the more mercenary hunters- and...well, it totals to one hundred and eight million. We had to confirm that it was indeed him before handing over that amount of money."

Oh my God. Internal screaming, welcome once more. I thought you'd given up years ago. I try to keep a calm face, but I feel my tendrils begin to shift under my skin and, judging by the sudden paleness every Marine in the room is experiencing, my eyes have changed- red irises, black sclerae, as they always do when using my abilities. Keep calm. Act like it's intentional. "I see. So, that is not a problem anymore, right?"

"How exactly did you kill him?"

"He was old, but I was sure it was him. Saw him practicing with his sword, once, that made it a certainty. So I cut him down, carved off his head, and came here for the bounty."

"With that knife?"

"No."

"Then with what?"

"You always ask this many questions? He's dead, and I'm claiming the bounty."

The Captain regards me for a long moment, then nods abruptly. "Very well. You want the payment in cash, I assume."

"Yes." I control myself, force my eyes back to normal, and nod.

They seem very glad to see the back of me, and so I walk quickly into the small town that's grown around the base, thinking to myself.

I have a bigger budget than I thought, but the goal's the same nonetheless- I have quite a few purchases to make, and I want to be off this island as fast as possible. I'm already feeling the first pangs of hunger and eating someone near a Marine base is just asking for trouble.

Luckily, one of the things I'd brought with me had been a food supply. Pork jerky, well, long pork, ha ha. It'd last for long enough that I could make landfall on a larger island, Yardam, and investigate the mountainside. One cliff in particular had been marked out a location to forage under.

Large cities like those on Yardam meant a high suicide rate.

I shake my head and stop thinking grim things for a bit. I've got funds, I've got a boat, and I've got a plan.

Beyond the seven Zoss demanded as his price- the seven usurpers, he called them- I had a few ideas on people that deserved to be dealt with. But most of them were far beyond my level (see: Admirals, and by extension pretty much all the Celestial Dragons, ditto the rest of Marine high command) or would be dealt with without me lifting a finger (everyone Luffy put the smackdown on). All of that was stuff in the East Blue or on a specific part of the Grand Line, though, and I didn't want to touch any of that. Newspapers had told me that, at the very least, the Paramount War hadn't happened yet, and Zoss had told me Roger was dead, but I had no idea of the dates beyond that, or any real way of knowing if he'd started his journey at all yet.

With my luck and nature, I'll run into him as a full-fledged antagonist. After all, it's hard to go darker than 'eats people on a regular basis'. Could even qualify as grimdark.

The question is, what exactly do I do? Be a captain? There were those who were worse to their men than I'd be, for less reason. But did I want to do that? Worries for later.

Oh, and by the way, screw you, ROB or God or whoever's responsible. Just your friendly daily reminder from a guy who went so crazy he had to be beaten back into sanity.

As if in response, a gust of wind blows down the dirt road, raising a minor dust storm. I squint, and look for a spot to duck out of the wind, which is only intensifying. There. Looks like a storefront. I stumble inside, blinking dust out of my eyes, and look around.

That...that is a lot of masks.

"Welcome to the Hall of Masks," a man says suddenly, appearing from behind a stand of befeathered full-face masks that vaguely rememble owls. He...is difficult to look at. And not because he's ugly, but because his incredibly garish clothing, including what I'm pretty sure is a Hawaiian shirt and a feather boa larger than an actual boa, blends in so well with the riot of color that is the merchandise that the eyes slide right off him.

"Uh...thank you." I'm not even sure I can see his actual body under all those clothes. Huh.

Fuck it, might as well make use of the place. "I think I should get a mask. I can see you have a lot in stock."

"We have masks for just about every occasion! Parties, festivals, ritual dances, wars, weddings, masquerades…"

Wars? No, Kaneki, roll with it. This is One Piece, there are no sane people.

"And what were you looking for, young man?"

I shrug. "Something I can fight in, that I can fix if damaged...hmm. If it can be red and look... birdlike, that would be best."

"Not a problem, not a problem at all! Come, let me show you, a mask must be fitted properly, after all…"

Before my brain can gather itself I'm stuck in front of a mirror, staring at myself.

I don't look like a captain. Red coat or not, I still don't look like one. It's only now that I'm in front of a mirror that it becomes apparent how...off...it looks. I'm not a captain, and I'll never be one, I think to myself. I take off the coat, thinking quietly.

Brown hair, cut down practically to the skull- my tails were sharper and more dexterous than any pair of scissors- skin that's refused to tan despite years under the sun, eyes that can switch between blue and white to red and black with an instant's thought...hmm.

I catch the man out of the corner of my eye, carrying a box under one floral-printed arm. "I don't suppose you sell things other than masks?" I ask.

"Oh, masks must be made with more than just a face being covered," the man says with a nod. "Yes, we have much. But first, the mask itself- everything else can be made to fit it, but the mask is essential, yes. Here!"

I take the box, and open it carefully. The mask that glares back at me is a half-face one, meant to cover the eyes and nose but not hide the mouth or jaw. It flares down to a point, a beaklike portion covering the nose while the rest looks meant to go over the ears, making a suggestion of feathers. Round lenses, clear, high-quality glass, reflect my own eyes. Most of it is made of a dark red wood I don't recognize, but bits around the lenses have been stained a brighter color.

I put it on. It fits perfectly. I grin at myself in the mirror, and change my eyes. The lenses flare red, something in them capturing the color perfectly. "I like it."

"Very good. One should always enjoy the mask they wear. Now, to go with it, young man... I do not believe you will be a leader of men, but you will be strong, and for that…" he trails off, muttering to himself, and I let him speak philosophically as he heads for the back of the shop.

I get the impression that the moment I step outside this shop, it's going to vanish. It seems like that sort of place. Too...perfect.

The man comes back with a black tricorn hat and a black jacket. While the hat is simple, the jacket... I honestly can't tell if those are actual feathers or if the design has been pressed into the leather. The eyes say the second but touch says the first. I put both on anyway.

Huh. I look good.

"How much does this cost?" I ask as I straighten the hat on my head.

"For you, young man? Five thousand beri should suffice."

That is... alarmingly cheap. I give the man a look. "If it's this cheap because it eats my soul or something I'm going to be very annoyed."

"No no no, such a thing would be horrendous! But if you insist, fifty thousand will be the price."

I'm paying more, and yet I feel much safer. Fuck it, why not.

I pay, and exit the store carefully, refusing to look away. It stays there, stubbornly. Solidly.

Nope. Fuck that. I'm ignoring it now. So long, Shop That Wasn't There Yesterday, your trope is now done!

It's only after I enter the bar that I remember I can't actually drink alcohol.

Wonderful.

0000000000000000000000000000000

As it turns out, the bar served coffee as well as alcohol. It was brewed in a pot that was probably old when the Pirate King had been executed, but it didn't matter.

I'd been a coffee addict before becoming a ghoul, and being restricted in my choices had only intensified that addiction. So I drank happily, and for long enough that the sun had begun to set by the time I walked out of the bar, several dozen beri lighter and enough caffeine to kill any normal person heavier.

I make my way down to the docks, then sniff the air warily. Gunpowder, tar, and a reek of salt layered over nervous sweat and tense muscles.

Hmm. A sailor, one familiar with weapons, which meant Marine or pirate. Out at this hour...more likely the second one.

I pause at the end of the dock, my skiff just a short distance away, and turn warily, tails itching to be let free.

It's just an old man, in a tattered set of Marine whites, missing his left arm. Huh. Was expecting something more... intimidating.

"You want something?" I ask flatly.

"You... you're the bounty hunter, right?" the man asks, voice wavering.

Not really a career, but if it earns some cash..."Yup. Who're you looking for me to find?"

The old guy clears his throat. "My grandson."

"Okay, what happened to him and why are you coming to me about it? There's a Marine base just up the road, if you need children retrieved."

The old man laughs. "The Marines? Ha! Might as well kill the boy myself as set the Marines on him."

"What the hell did he do?"

"Fool boy ran off to be a pirate, of all things. I tell him to stay at home, be a doctor, but no, apparently he'd rather stitch up bullet holes than do something worthwhile. Marines won't be of any help- I asked, and they told me it's only because of my service they're not hunting the boy down right now! No respect for their elders these days, I-"

I hold up a hand. "Okay. Again, why me. A bounty hunter needs a good relationship with the Marines, or they don't get paid, and this is sounding like something that'd piss them off good and proper."

The old man seems to shrink in on himself. "...there isn't anyone else who'll do it," he finally says.

Fuck. Now I feel bad.

"I don't want you to bring him back. Boy'll just make further trouble, anyhow. But...he said he was headed for Yardam, and I hoped…"

"What?"

"I have a letter. If you find him, just...give it to him. Please."

Alright. Less likely to cause too much trouble. "Sure. Was headed for Yardam anyway. What's your name, old man? And his, come to think of it. And a face for the name wouldn't hurt."

"Grigori Rasputi, my son's Grigori Vinci. Boy doesn't look a lick like me. Took after his father, the brat. Skinny, black hair, probably got a grin on his face. Brat. I have money, if…"

"Nah. Like I said, was gonna be sailing for Yardam anyway. I'll keep an eye out for the kid." I tip the edge of my tricorn, then hold out a hand.

"Oh! Right, the letter…" Rasputi rummages in his pockets with his only hand and pulls out a yellowed envelope, which I take and tuck into an inside pocket. He looks at the skiff quizzically. "Tide's not right to be sailing out," he notes. "Nor the wind. How're you going to get out to sea?"

I grin. "That, old man, is a secret."

"Bah. Fine, don't tell me. But deliver that letter, you hear?"

"I hear ya, old man." I climb into the skiff, and pull out a set of oars, setting them into the tiny vessel's oarlocks and starting to pull. Rasputi waves as the dock pulls away at a decent clip. Tide doesn't matter much when you've got strength and your own healing factor handles muscle tears and other fatigue symptoms like they don't exist.

I wait until the island's a smudge on the horizon before I put the oars away.

"One tail, two tail." The red appendages glow faintly in the darkness.

I coil them up into spirals, and shove them into the water before spinning as quickly as I can manage, keeping the motion up as the water froths and the skiff leaps forwards.

Fuck steam engines, I made my own screw propellers.

Hours pass as I wait for the caffeine to wear off, following the compass and the stars. Yardam was practically a straight shot north.

Fuck, whoever this kid is, I hope that he doesn't end up at the wrong end of a rifle.

It takes way too long for me to fall asleep.

Yardam's a fairly well-populated island. A prosperous town under a strong Marine base, a trading port that has little trouble from pirates thanks to said Marine base...basically if it weren't for the high population and the 'convenient' mountain I'd have trouble getting food. Well, getting it without causing investigations and/or panic.

The docks are fairly empty as I tie up the skiff and walk, yawning, into the town proper, toting an empty pack on my back. Past the town is the Marine base, partially dug into the mountainside, and then the forests and the mountain itself. I'll have to wait until nightfall and hope I get lucky.

My stomach growls.

There's a square up ahead. Maybe I can find a coffee shop or something. And maybe I can ask around and find this Vinci kid.

Huh. There's a crowd.

And a gallows. With Marines guarding it, a black-hooded executioner standing by with a hand on the lever, and a young man in irons with his neck in the noose. Off to the side is a pile of shroud-wrapped bodies.

Shit. An execution. I squint, staring at the guy who's been unfortunate enough to piss off the Marines. He looks nearly as gaunt as me, with a mess of black hair, wearing prison stripes.

Wait. Skinny. Black-haired. Shit shit shit. I strain my ears to hear the Marine reading off the list of charges, hoping that-

"-under these charges, you, Grigori Vinci, have been sentenced to hang by the neck until-"

God fucking damnit.

This isn't my fight. I could just walk away, let the Marines hang the man for calling himself a pirate. Or for doing worse, who knows. I could collect what I needed, never deliver the letter, and just keep going.

Fuck that shit.

"One tail, two tail, three tail, four," I say flatly, letting the pressure at the small of my back burst free and take form. By the time the closer members of the crowd have turned at my sudden announcement, two of my tails have launched me over their heads, a third cutting the noose, and a fourth snatching Grigori up as I land on the execution stand. Bullets patter off my tails, one slamming into my shoulder, but I ignore them, and instead launch off again, taking Grigori with me as I bound over the rooftops.

The bastard's laughing like a madman as I hit the ground three streets away, dropping him to the dirt. The idiot pops back up again, grinning. "That. Was. Awesome! Also, who are you, and what are those?" Before I can react, he starts prodding one of my tails, babbling scientific terminology that I barely even remember. What the hell? He was condemned to die about five seconds ago, and all he cares about is the biology of his rescuer? Roll with it, Kaneki, nobody is sane on this planet, least of all you. "Yoshimura Kaneki, those are Red Scales, and you're Grigori Vinci, grandson of Grigori Rasputi, right?"

He stops, then turns to look at me, blue eyes gleaming. "Why do you want to know?"

"Old fart gave me a letter. Figured it'd be poor manners to let you hang before I delivered it," I say, pulling the battered envelope out. Vinci snatches it from my hands, and shoves it into a pocket.

"I'll read it later. But I need your help before I do."

"You could just ask, if you're trying to convince me to keep you alive," I say flatly, retracting my tails. The idiot grins.

"My way's a lot more fun, though, isn't it?"

"This is going to be one of those situations where I end up as a meat shield while you do something stupid, isn't it?" I growl. He shrugs. "Retrieving my tools is not a stupid action. Now come on. They're in the Marine base, and unless we hurry I think we'll have a difficult time getting them."

He runs off, and I groan. Then follow.

And that, everyone, was how I met my captain.

000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

Yardam's Marine Base is an impressive set of fortifications, I'll admit- high walls, strong towers, everything in order- but the gate is just...wood. Iron-banded wood, three times my height, but still wood.

And there's no Marines on the battlements or cannon to force me to take cover as Vinci and I run up the ramp towards them. Heh. South Blue security, I suppose.

"One tail, two tail…" I jab forwards with two fingers as I keep running, overtaking Vinci.

"Scale Lance!"

Two tails twine themselves around each other, before shooting forward, slamming into the seam between the gates and punching through with ease.

"Open wide…Kyahahahaha…." The hinges squeal, and I hear shouts from the Marines inside, but despite all the efforts to stop the tails, the gates still open.

Revealing a lot of guns and cannon, and a platoon's worth of grinning Marines. I blink. "Huh."

Gunfire fills my ears. And continues to do so, before finally petering out as smoke fills the air.

I exhale, and relax slightly, letting the shattered remains of cannonballs and bullets slough off my tails.

Vinci laughs. "Dahahahaha...you're pretty tough," he says, stepping out from behind me. "Thought we were gonna die."

"You could look less happy about it," I grumble quietly.

"Crap! I think they're still alive!" I hear a Marine shout from the cloud of gunsmoke.

"Three tail, four," I say softly. "Where's your stuff, brat?"

"I doubt there's a big enough age difference for you to call me that, but like as not it's in their evidence vault. Two floors down, I think. The cells are three down. Pirate crews are in there, but they like to take the captains out for hanging…could come in handy."

"Hmph." I pop my neck. Smoke's starting to thin, not enough to see the bastards, not yet. "I'll cut a path, you grab your gear?"

"Dahahaha...sounds like a plan, bird guy."

There's something looming in the smoke…

I grin as the blade of some ridiculously oversized polearm swings down towards me, held by a giant of a man in a Marine coat, and I throw my tails up, crisscrossing them.

The blade hits them, and stops dead. My grin widens. "Hello, dumbass."

Two tails twine around the shaft as the Marine pulls back the blade instinctively, bringing me with it, right up to face height.

The idiot's face as he sees me heading straight for is going to be a fond memory for years to come.

"Scale Hammer." My tails blur.

I hit the ground before the Captain does. I land on my tails, he lands on his face.

"Commander Akaishatsu! No!"

I ignore the screaming of the Marines as they begin to back away, none willing to run but nobody wanting to fight me. Not after I just knocked out their leader.

I get a glimpse of Vinci slipping into an unattended door, and then look around at the circle of Marines.

"Well?" I ask, my voice carrying. "I'm a pirate. You're Marines. Do what comes natural."

They charge.

Vinci was having a pretty good day, all things considered. Sure, hanging wasn't fun but hey, someone had come to rescue him! Should've known Gramps would've sent someone along.

The fact that that someone was making an excellent distraction and had allowed him to sprint into the main tower of the Marine base without being noticed at all was just a bonus, really. The only problem with that, really…

"Hurry! They need reinforcements at the gate!"

Was that every Marine in the base was heading right for the ruckus, and the hallways he was heading down didn't exactly offer much in the way of hiding spots.

"Hey, wait- a prisoner's loo-"

Vinci hit the squad in the hall before they could even raise their muskets, slamming the heel of his palm into the chest of the closest.

"Cardiac Trauma!"

The Marine dropped, and Vinci ducked the swing of a musket butt as another stepped in, before hitting the unfortunate Marine in the jaw. "Mandibular Trauma!" Two down, four to go. He settled for throwing the broken-jaw Marine at his buddies and shoving his way past the writhing clump of soldiers, pausing only to yank a cutlass from the belt of one of them.

Seriously, they all moved so slowly- the only reason he'd even been caught was because their commander was way too strong, and the fact that Vinci just couldn't dodge bullets.

Well, not yet. A few more operations and a lot more research...but first he needed his tools. This hunk of metal was...not ideal.

Oh, look. More Marines at the stairwell.

"Prisoner loose in-"

He swung the blade, blocking the Marine's own attack, and then slammed a finger into the man's abdomen. Pressure point, three centimeters below diaphragm. "Neurotomy!"

The man dropped, legs numb and unable to function for the next several hours. Vinci grinned at the remaining Marine, and brandished his cutlass.

The Marine ran. He'd probably come back with reinforcements, but it didn't matter.

Two levels down, down the hallway in the direction of the entrance, door on the left...no, the right. And...it was locked, the door solid oak plating. Well. He could fix that.

"Xylem Trauma!" Splinters of wood went flying, and Vinci stepped in, flexing his hand. Okay, punching the wood hadn't been his smartest idea, regime of augmentative medicines or no. He'd probably snapped a phalange- it'd heal, but it still hurt.

There were his tools, though.

The lab coat was the important thing- he'd made it himself, out of what white canvas he could scrounge, just to improve its durability, and so it was crisscrossed in rather clumsy stitches holding various parts of it together...but it was still his, and its pockets were filled with a wide variety of useful tools. Two canisters of anesthetic gas, a third filled with a special vitamin, and a half-dozen scalpels went on a bandolier, and his bonesaw rested on his hip. Last was his black bag, filled with the most valuable medicines...and the most deadly poisons. He didn't bother changing out of his prison stripes- not enough time- but he did take a moment to pull on his good boots instead of the slippers they'd given him.

"I should have known it would be you causing so much trouble," a brittle voice said from behind him.

Vinci almost spun, but the click of a pistol being cocked told him that would be immensely stupid.

"Captain Ikasutsu," Vinci said, very politely, as he turned around slowly.

The Marine Captain did not look happy. Part of it was the cracked lens on his glasses, and part of it was the loaded gun pointed at Vinci's face- one of half a dozen he was carrying on him- but most of it was probably due to the cracked ribs and visible facial bruising the Captain was sporting. Bruises Vinci had put there before the threat of being riddled with holes had stopped him.

"Pirate," the Captain replied venomously. "I assume it's a friend of yours causing havoc up above? No matter, I'll deal with them after I handle you."

Vinci glanced around, and took a step back, raising his hands slightly. Ah. There was the cutlass, right where he'd left it…

"Don't-"

The pistol ball slammed into the brick wall as Vinci faked a lunge for the weapon, then dove straight at the Captain, drawing a scalpel from his pockets. "Incision!" The tiny, razor-sharp blade cut right above the Captain's eyes, and blood practically sprayed from the cut as Vinci forced him back.

Ribs on left side are cracked. Possible mild concussion. He'll clear eyes with his left hand, draw a gun with his right...now.

"Biopsy!" The scalpel punched straight through the Captain's hand, pinning it to the gun and pinning said weapon to the man's chest. Vinci left it, and wound up for a kick as the man stumbled back.

"Testicular Trauma."

The Captain hit the ground foaming at the mouth and unconscious.

He knelt down and removed the scalpel, and checked the Captain's pulse. He'd live, the scalpels hadn't cut anything important, missing arteries and bone. Good.

Ooh, and the guy had been carrying keys.

Vinci smiled.

He'd gone to sea to find the secrets of life itself, to create something better than anyone could ever be- and some of those techniques he'd already used on himself, nothing surgical yet but time would tell. But if he got caught that easily again...Yoshimura wouldn't come to save him again.

He needed a crew. People who'd work with him to find all the secrets the world offered, to cut it apart and study it. Yoshimura could be a start, if he was willing...but two people couldn't sail a ship alone, and Vinci meant to head for the Grand Line, where legends and monsters dwelled.

Well, Fate appeared to be looking out for him. Because there were thirty or forty pirates whose captains had been hung today who were awaiting transport to Impel Down. And Captain Ikasutsu had the keys to their cells. Well, now Vinci had them. Hah.

Vinci whistled as he headed back down the corridor, twirling the keys on a finger.

And then the stairs exploded.


Where the hell are they finding this many Marines? And how the hell did they follow me into the base with a cannon?!

"Fire!"

I block with my tails, but they've apparently learned that regular cannonballs did diddly, because this one explodes, hurling me down the stairwell with a shower of broken stone. Oh, look, stairs.

Ow. Ow. Ow.

Oh look, a landing.

Ow.

I raise an arm defiantly as my bones knit back together. "I am okay!"

The grinding noise from up above gives me just enough warning to roll into the hallway before the entire stairwell collapses.

For a minute or so, I just lay on my back and try to concentrate on not being concussed. I don't think it's working.

Mask and jacket are completely undamaged, though. That's quality craftsmanship.

"Well, we're trapped." I turn my head in the direction of the voice. Oh. Vinci. In a lab coat covered in Franken-stitches. Cool.

Yup, definitely a concussion. Heal, damn it.

"Hey, you okay?"

The world snaps back into extraordinarily painful clarity, and then the pain vanishes, taking the floating feeling and exhaustion with it, but making me feel half-starved in the process. I ignore it, and get to my feet. "Fine."

"Great! Then you can help get us un-trapped. Can those appendages of yours dig?"

I look down as my stomach rumbles. Hungry. Can't eat yet, but hungry. "The prison cells. But that's still part of the tower."

"Yes, but you can dig outwards, too, right? And through the ceiling here? Just get us back to the ground floor."

"Then why enter the cells at all?"

Vinci smiles. "Can't steal a Marine frigate with just the two of us, now can we?"

"You. You are crazy." I grin. "I like it."

"Good! Now go beat up the floor until it gives way. Pretty sure the hallways match up perfectly."

"Alright. One tail, two tail...Scale Hammer!" The stone cracks as my tails smash into it, and then crumbles away, filling the air with dust. Judging from the shouting that drifts up from the new hole in the floor, we got the right place. Or we just found a bunch of Marines. Let's find out.

Vinci just jumps right into the hole. Sigh. He still hasn't read the letter, so I don't think I can let him get himself killed. I drop in after him, landing in a narrow hallway with cells on both sides.

Found the pirate prisoners. Yay.

"What the hell...who are you guys?" one of them, a beefy dude with a truly amazing beard asks. He smells delicious...no. Not here.

"I am Grigori Vinci, but all forty of you...can call me Captain. Once we get out of here, at least."

I lean back on the opposite set of cells as the forty-odd pirates in prisoner's clothes start shouting.

"Hell no!" "We'll only follow Captain John!" "Are you crazy?"

"They're all dead," Vinci says flatly.

Dead silence. Ooh, I made a pun.

Might still be slightly concussed, too.

"They hanged everyone, were going to hang me, and they're gonna come after me since Yoshimura over there helped me get away. So it's just us." Vinci smiles, and jangles a set of keys. "I've got the keys to the cells, I've got a scary guy, and I've got a plan. So, are you ready to get out of here, or not?"

That's when five sets of chains loop around my wrists, ankles, and neck, pulling me spread-eagled against the bars. Accomplishing nothing save annoying me, really, they can't even pull hard enough to actually cut off oxygen.

"Give us the keys, or he dies!" an aggravatingly deep voice shouts from directly behind my right ear.

I raise an eyebrow behind my mask, and smile at Vinci. "And who would these guys be?"

Beefy McLargeHuge answers instead of the doctor, looking nervous. "They're...they're the Lanius Pirates. They crucify people. Don't let them out!"

"That's right," the voice growls. I turn my head to the side, and get a faceful of ugly. Seriously, nobody should still be alive with that much burn scarring. Oh, and they're keeping me 'restrained' with their own manacles. How cute. "Captain Kaisar got hanged? That leaves me in command. Now let us out, or bird boy dies."

"Heh." Well, guess what? I don't have to worry about going hungry after all. "One tail, two tail, three tail, four. Multiple Scaled Spikes."

The chains on my wrists and ankles vanish as their owners are impaled, and I twist around, freed hand grabbing the burned moron by the forehead as my tails shear through the bars in the process of turning. I smile, and dig my fingers in, feeling skull give way until the man finally goes limp. I toss him into the cell with the others, trying to ignore the smell of spilled blood.

"They are no longer a problem," I say flatly. "Now, if you want to escape, either climb on these tails or on each other."

"What...what the hell are you?" one of the pirates asks. I shrug.

"Either cursed, an escaped science experiment, or one of my parents was a fishman whose fish species had a thing around tentacles. Dunno. Now move."

Vinci tosses the keys into the cell, and the pirates scramble to get the door unlocked. They're distinctly nervous about my tails ferrying them up to the next level, probably because, well, I just impaled four idiots on them. But I'm careful to not hurt them, despite the fact it would be so easy to take...nope. No. Not here.

It takes a while, but eventually they're all ferried up to the second level.

"Alright!" Vinci says, clapping his hands. "So, guys, there's an armory close by, and an evidence room if you want to go-"

The pirates collectively stampede past him.

"-looking…" He sighs. "Plans. Nobody listens to them."

"Because you aren't scary enough," I quip. "Go put the fear of god into them. I'll catch up."

Vinci gives the hole a look, then looks at me, then back at the hole. He nods. "When this is over, we need to talk."

Shit, has he figured it out?

He has. I can see it.

Shit shit shit shit shit. My tails flex, pointing themselves towards him. "About what?" I growl.

"What you are. You're going to be on my crew-" -wait, what- "-and that means I'm going to be your doctor. And that means I need to know your needs. Dietary or otherwise."

My eyes narrow behind the mask. "How'd you figure it out?"

"You started drooling after spilling blood. And...there are legends, from Murky Island, about a tribe of red-tailed, black-eyed demons that ate human flesh in the jungle there, guarding the lost treasure of Black Hawk Sandor. You're one of them, aren't you?"

I should kill him, before one of the other pirates can overhear this, before everything goes to shit. But the thought's gone as he fearlessly walks past my tails, and hugs me.

"Whatever it is," he says, looking me in the eyes. "I will find a way to cure it. A way to let you be normal again."

"And if I like being this way?"

"If you did, you wouldn't bother to hide it," he says with a smile. "So. Do what you've got to do. I'll keep an eye out."

Something in me makes me toss him the tricorn on my head, and sketch a salute. "Aye, captain."

I jump back down into the hole, with the five corpses, and get to work.

0000000000000000000000000000000000000000

I don't know what I was expecting, but a complete lack of Marines was not it.

Okay, there are a lot of Marines. But they're the ones I already beat into sweet oblivion, so they don't count.

"Where the hell have they all gone?" I muse aloud as the pirates- now rather heavily armed- follow me and Vinci out into the base courtyard. "They manage to chase me into the tower, with a damn cannon, but we're leading a mass breakout and they're nowhere to be seen?"

"Shh…" Beefy McLargeHuge, who's appropriated a gigantic axe, cautions. "Stop tempting fate."

"They're probably down at the docks," Vinci says cheerily.

"What makes you say that?"

"Large breakout of uncontainable pirates, with the Captain and his second-in-command incapacitated, standard procedure is to cordon off escape routes and call in for reinforcements."

Everyone stops running for a moment and stares at him.

"Hey, my Grandpa made Commodore. And wanted me to be a surgeon for the idiots. He drilled me until I repeated transponder snail codes in my sleep."

"Less talking, more running!" I shout, using my tails as makeshift stilt-legs.

I'm not sure what the townsfolk make of this- a bird-masked man running on glowing tentacles, a laughing doctor with a snazzy tricorn and a fistful of scalpels, and forty-one screaming people armed to the teeth and clad in a mixture of prisoner's clothes and whatever bits of piratical clothing they'd decided to take with them. They don't make an appearance.

The Marines, though...the Marines open fire the moment we're in sight, a disciplined line of muskets and cannon.

And, thanks to my outstretched tails, it accomplishes nothing, even as musket balls plow into my unprotected body. I take a step back from the force. Nothing more.

I smile. "Scale-"

"Out of my way."

A blur rushes past me, upends a cannon, and begins beating Marines unconscious with other Marines. Just...what. "What...am I looking at?" I mumble to Beefy as we watch the Marines start running in several directions, pursued by the blur.

"Grigori took some weird pill thing, started putting off smoke, and then ran off to beat them with each other," Beefy summarizes.

"Huh." I stare at the chaos. It's ridiculous...and yet mesmerizing.

"So, ship?"

"Yeah, should probably get on that."

We watch for a bit longer.

"Are you sure he should be Captain?" Beefy asks as one of the Marines is sucked into the tornado of violence, and then hurled out missing most of his teeth.

"I don't want the job. You?"

"You think I want the price on my head?"

"Point. I'll have one already anyway. What's your name, anyway?"

"Rubeus Jack."

"Huh. So, Jack, let's go steal that ship."

"My blood! He punched out all my blood!"

"Sounds like a plan, bird-man."


Urrgh. They were moving? Back and forth, on a rhythm. Like a...like a boat!

They'd done it, then. Yay. Also, ow. Head hurt like crazy.

"Huh, you're still alive," Yoshimura commented. Vinci groaned and opened his eyes. Yep. Boat. This was definitely a cabin. Though the lantern burned at his eyes.

"So, mind explaining what the hell you did, why you did it, and why I shouldn't be hauling you back to your grandpa since you clearly need a sense of self-preservation beaten into you?" The...well, demon couldn't be the correct terminology, mysticism like that had no place in the world. Ghoul? He ate human flesh, it was close enough. The ghoul seemed rather unaffected by the whole thing.

Right. He wanted an explanation.

"Monster Mode. I call it that," he managed to say, noticing his throat was dry. Yoshimura handed him a glass of water, and though the effort made his muscles hurt he sat up and drank it slowly, taking in the room. It matched the captain's cabin on a Marine frigate precisely.

The glass was empty already. Huh. "It's an overcharge of my body. I take an Overdrive Pill, something I've made, and it...allows greater...everything, but the consequences are a bit, uh, problematic. What did I…"

"Rendered about three quarters of the remaining Marines unconscious, the others wishing they were, then face-planted into the dock. I dragged you on board. Got my skiff on the way out, too."

"Oh. Good."

"So why do that? We could've taken them."

"Like you said. I needed to prove I was captain. I can't do that if you're the one doing all the fighting."

"Brat. Fine, then. You're the captain."

Yoshimura tossed the black tricorn hat onto Vinci's lap.

"Now go talk to your crew."


Vinci regains his dexterity with alarming speed, it seems- he could barely shuffle out of bed at first, but a few laps around the cabin and he was moving like normal. And now, with all the assembled pirates were waiting out on the deck, with me at his shoulder and Jack at the other, he looks as confident as ever.

He walks out, and grins in the sunlight, looking out over the waves on all sides. "Well, here we have it," he says. "Freedom. We can go anywhere we please, do what we like. Hell, we're pirates! That's what we're meant to do! But as for me…" His smile widens as he puts a boot up on the railing, and a chance breeze sends his labcoat billowing majestically behind him. "Like I said when I broke all of you free: I've got a plan. Those of you who don't like what I put forth, you're free to leave on the next island. But for the rest of you, the ones who want to see everything the world can throw at you, to find every hidden secret, to live as no poor land-bound bastard ever could...I ask you this. Will you sail with me? To the Grand Line, and to the end of the world?"

The cheering damn near pops my eardrums. Huh. It's not every day you see a group so devoted to committing suicide.

"So what's the plan, here?" I ask Vinci quietly as we head back into the ship.

"What's our state of supplies?" the captain asks Jack. The big man shrugs.

"Could be worse. Plenty of food and fresh water, the ship's well-maintained. Got a few of the crew scrubbing Marine insignia off it or painting it over, and we've got powder and shot for more than long enough, assuming we aren't trying for a full-on battle."

"Funds?"

"Found a strongbox in the hold with a hundred thousand. That's what we've got."

I raise a hand. "Um...there's about a hundred million on my skiff."

"How the hell-"

"I collected a largish bounty before all this craziness. So, that should be helpful," I answer Jack. "Long story, and kinda personal."

"Still, it helps," Vinci says. "Alright. Jack, right?"

The man nods. "Yeah."

"You're quartermaster now. Congratulations. Now, who's been navigating?"

I raise a hand. "Stars and swearing at people, mostly," I admit. "I'm no expert at sailing. Mostly been making for open water, but have a decent idea where we are."

"Can we make Murky Island?"
It takes me a moment to remember exactly which place he's referring to. It's close to where I started my journey off, as islands in the Blues go. And it's somewhere I really wasn't hoping to go back to.

"Should be pretty easy. A few days travel."

Vinci smiles. "Then set a course, mate. I've got a plan."

"You're hunting for Black Hawk Sandor's treasure?" Jack asks. "Crews vanish trying that, Captain."

"Why would I hunt for something that doesn't exist, or is impossible to find? No, we're going there to redecorate the ship, take on supplies, and keep moving. Murky's the closest island that has a town and doesn't have Marines. Best to keep low and quiet, and do what needs doing."

Jack looks relieved. "Aye, Captain."

"Oh, and could you round up any of the crew with medical knowledge? I'll need to talk to them, got some ideas they'll need to help me with."

"Um...aye, I'll get that done."

"Excellent. Oh, Kaneki, you're now first mate. And in charge of getting these laggards into fighting shape."

"What."

"Fighting shape? I know this crew, Captain, they're all veteran pirates," Jack growls. "If you think otherwise…"

"They're pirates. But we're headed for the Grand Line. They'll need to be more than what they currently are, if we want them all to survive," Vinci says. "And I have no intention of losing anyone because we neglected to strengthen ourselves. And my own designs are more...invasive, than I think anyone would want. So, Kaneki, strength and stamina training."

I nod. "I'll see what I can do."

They're a crowd of disparate mooks at this point, so I can't just drop Master Zoss's training regime on them...well I wouldn't even if they were as strong as me, I couldn't find the giant animals to fight anyway.

Still.

I've got a crew, I've got a captain, and I've got a job.

Time to get to work.

Chapter Text

Murky Island is...well, a large part of it lives up to the name. Creepy-as-hell forests, shrouded in mist, the fog extending into the town on most days. Despite that, the town's harbor is thriving...likely because many pirate crews make stops here, both the adventurous sort and the greedy. The latter...well, flashes of half-remembered violence and madness told me I'd probably been keeping the South Blue crime rate down rather effectively. Most gave up and left after weeks of being harried by other monsters in the forests, and many just vanished, like Jack had said.

Our vessel is almost unremarkable as it slides into harbor, sails furled and every hint of Marine ownership scrubbed away. We'd even taken a day to pull down the sails and completely remove the Marine insignia, replacing it with the Jolly Roger Vinci had come up with- a grinning, circular skull, lines of stitches leading from each corner of the triangular nose to the edge of the symbol. Getting that on the mainsail had taken just about all the paint that'd been stocked in the hold, but we'd managed it.

My fingers tap a rhythm on the portside rail as gangplanks are extended and Jack starts organizing men to get supplies- first among them, proper clothing. Prison rags weren't exactly the best things to wear. Next on the list was fresh water, food, and whatever citrus could be found. After that, they'd start looking for their own gear, whatever bits of personal equipment they wanted. Minus Jack's official cut for supplies and a good amount held back for emergencies, everyone got around five hundred thousand to do their own shopping.

The town itself seems quiet, shrouded in morning fog. Beyond a rough complement of trading vessels and fishing boats, there's only one other ship of note at the docks- a towering galleon with a figurehead like a running wolf.

"Checking out the competition?" Vinci asks, flopping down on the rail beside me. "Those're the Hound Pirates. Nasty bunch. Probably treasure-hunting."

"Define nasty."

"Oh, the usual. Torture, murder, the odd rape or twelve, really, they're not discriminate."

"Really." I feel my tails start to shift under my skin. "You want me to follow them?"

"If they go into the jungle, see that they don't come out," Vinci says with a smile. "I'd rather not have to deal with them later."

I flip him a salute with two fingers, and leap down to the docks.


Vinci had to admit- having capable people doing things for him was much better than his original plan of signing up with the first pirate crew that needed a doctor. It let him wander about the town as much as he liked, so long as he kept a Transponder Snail on him.

Kaneki carried one, too, just in case. Though what could actually hurt someone with that potent a regenerating ability, Vinci didn't want to know.

He wasn't planning to purchase anything, and a town like this probably didn't have the specialized equipment he needed, while Jack was busy getting the raw materials he did need. But he wandered anyway. He caught a glimpse of Kaneki, but only barely, as the ghoul followed a grungy-looking man, his first mate de-masked and looking without a care in the world. For once. Did he feel all that guilty about siccing him on the Hound Pirates? No, not particularly. Better he dine on actually evil people than suffer hunger pangs when the only food around was his own crew, and besides, his current demeanor was a pretty big difference from him being grumpy in combat, or a slightly different kind of grumpy while putting the crew- and Vinci- through some of the most torturous exercises he'd ever seen. In Vinci's professional opinion, those were skirting the line between harsh training and outright torture, just barely keeping to the former's side of the equation. Effective, though. Even the weakest of the crew, a 90-pound weakling with the unfortunate name of Digby Sioux, was getting strong, and quickly. It was putting a strain on their supplies, too, fueling that much effort every day. Still, they'd make it work, though it'd be tough going unless they could either steal or make some cash. Maybe he could use his talents?

"Help! Is anyone a doctor?"

Well. Speak of the devil and he shall appeareth. Vinci grinned- internally, nothing hurt first impressions like his usual smile when it was a matter of surgery- and followed his ears, taking the scene in at a glance.

Bar, decent enough, smashed window, man on the ground, woman- probably wife- pressing a wadded-up piece of cloth to his torso, not doing much to stem the bleeding. Looked like a cutlass wound, hadn't broken past the ribs but was definitely risking intrusion into the abdominal cavity. Likely fatal without treatment. Luckily, he was here.

He'd already rolled up his sleeves and set down his bag before the woman even noticed he was there, and she recoiled slightly. Oh. Right. Introductions.

"I'm a doctor," he said quickly. "What happened?"

"One of those...those pirates, wanted free drinks. He attacked my husband, then he ran off, he…"

"Okay, ma'am, your husband's going to be alright."

Wound wasn't fatal. Hadn't broken into his guts, which was good. Stitches and bandaging would do the trick, the cut muscles would likely take a while to heal fully but would nonetheless heal. Needle. Thread. Cotton bandages. His hands worked quickly and steadily, knitting together torn flesh and skin.

Man was unconscious, pulse steady.

Stitching, done. Bandages, tied off. And two pirates entering the bar, looking intent on trouble. Vinci closed his bag with a snap, and straightened up, palming a scalpel in one hand and playing out thread for his needle with the other. "Can I help you gentlemen?" he asked, very politely.

"Fuck off, doctor," one growled, cocking a pistol.

Vinci sighed. "So uncivilized. Oh, well. Stitches."

"Wha-"


Finding one of the Hounds was easy. They were loud, stupid, and practically paraded around with their dog-skull symbol on full display. Keeping track...about fifty of them, decently fed and armed, but definitely not Grand Line material. Not as strong as my own crewmates, one for one...huh. We hadn't given ourselves a name, or given the ship a name, yet. Would have to rectify that at some point.

Anyway, a few hours of watching from a distance gave me a good idea of their numbers. Four major problems, though. First was their captain, or someone who I assumed was their captain. Hadn't been able to get a look at him, he'd been holed up in his cabin, but one of the Hounds had gone in and been hurled out at a speed I wasn't sure I could manage, so that was worrisome. Meant he was a tough customer. Second was a fairly creepy fellow, bald as an egg, in a black cloak. The other Hounds kept their distance from him on deck and in the town. Third was a thin fellow in a full-length tunic of sorts, who carried a long rifle everywhere he went and had a tendency to vanish up onto the rooftops, making my own job difficult. Fourth, and the one I was currently following, was a heavily built man with an absolutely massive sword on his back, a man who didn't fit the mold the rest of the crew set for him. If it hadn't been for the dog-skull on his black coat I'd have thought he was on a different crew entirely. He was actually polite, for one thing. He hadn't threatened to murder anyone, had actually physically restrained someone who had, and generally wasn't a complete asshole drunk on the fact that nobody really dared stop the pirates from doing what they pleased.

It was confusing.

Right now, large tall and beardy was sitting at a coffee shop of some kind, with me lurking- yes, that is exactly what I was doing- on a nearby bench.

Hm. Coffee.

You know what, fuck it. Might as well try something direct, and if I had to fight him I'd just use my tails and hurl him into the harbor.

I drop into the seat across from the man and grin as widely and unsettlingly as possible. "You're a very strange fellow, anyone ever tell you that?" I ask.

The man narrows his eyes. "No." He sniffs the air. "You're the one who's been following me all day."

"Fair enough. How could you tell?"

"You smell like dried blood and coffee."

"Really. Hell of a nose you've got," I say lightly.

"You going to tell me why you've been following me and mine around all day?"

"Only if you tell me why someone like you signed up with a crew like the Hounds. A captain like 'Black Dog' Wyald...well, it doesn't seem to fit the way you act."

The man actually growls at me, and puts his elbows up on the table, exposing forearms that look more like chunks of ham. "Doesn't seem to fit how, exactly?"

"You're not a burning pile of dogshit with an attitude like literally everyone else," I reply, widening my grin. "You're actually quite pleasant. So, why sign up with a rapist and murderer?"

"That's personal," he snarls. "Now fuck off."

I cock my head slightly, and stand. "Fair, fair. I was just curious, you know. But can I ask one last question?"

"If you leave me the hell alone afterwards, fine."

"Do you plan to look for Sandor's treasure?"

He folds his arms. "Yes."

"Then try not to die, Hound," I say politely.

Well. Looks like I've got a hunt tonight.

00000000000000000000000000

Rubeus Jack looked at the pinned-to-the-ceiling pirates. He looked at his captain. He looked back at the pirates again, noticing this time that the stitches keeping them in place had also been used on their mouths. Someone- either the captain, or the bartender's wife- had put a bucket under the two to catch the falling drops of blood. He looked back at the captain, noting absently that the five of the crew he'd brought with him were doing the same thing.

"Well. Shit," he said flatly. "What're we going to do with them, sir?"

"Well, I was planning to test a few medical experiments out that I couldn't really use on myself…" Vinci said idly, twirling a scalpel in one hand. "Alternatively, well...I have my own methods of disposing of them." He smiled, very widely.

One of the Hounds wet himself. The bartender's wife hurried over with another bucket.

Rubeus just sighed. "You do realize this means a lot of trouble? The Hounds'll go looking for their missing crew sooner or later."

"Hounds were going to make trouble anyway, just not for us. Now we get to kill them and take their stuff," Vinci said flatly.

One of the Hounds made a whimpering noise.

"Quiet, you," Jack snapped. "Sir, you sure about this?"

"As sure as ever."

"Alright." He pulled his transponder snail from his pocket. "Yoshimura, now. And rope in the main unit back on the ship."

Finding that thing had been a stroke of luck. The captain swore he could get it to listen in one Marine communications, but thus far no progress. Right now the babies were the most-used ones.

Puru puru puru ka-click.

The snail's face morphed into a rough approximation of Yoshimura's unmasked face. "What's the problem?"

"Captain picked a fight with a couple of Hounds. What're we dealing with?"

"Fifty mooks, a sniper, a brute, and some creepy fellow. No idea what the captain is like but I'm thinking dumb muscle," Yoshimura said quickly. "I'll take care of the officers. Captain?"

"Well, time to figure out how strong he is and why," Vinci said with a widening grin. "I think I'll take him alive."

"Ship's crew?" Jack asked, trying to ignore his captain's quiet giggling.

"Yeah?" one of the pirates drawled.

"Lock down the ship, load the cannon, and if they start piling onto that galleon, sink them."

"Ayuh, on that."

The snail's face changed again, now trying to imitate Yoshimura's beak-mask. "Looks like I'm hunting early today," he mused.

"What?"

"Ask the captain. Should I start things off?"

"No," Vinci said. "We need time to get ready."

"Uh, guys?" the man on the ship- Nelson, that was his name- said nervously. "A bunch of them just left the ship. Two big guys with swords are leading them...and they're talking about going after...monks?"

"Oh, the guys up on the hill? I'm having tea with them right now," Yoshimura said flippantly.

What?

"Let them," Vinci said. "Let's get these two out of here, yes? And then we go raise hell."

Could be worse. Looting the Hounds would let them augment their funds. Yoshimura's little bit of bounty-hunting fun wouldn't last forever, after all.

And it wasn't like they didn't deserve it, Jack figured, looking at the bartender sat up against the wall, and his wife tending to him.

"Alright," Jack said. "But what Yoshimura said...what is it, captain?"

A look passed over Vinci's face. "I'll tell you when we get everyone back on the ship," he said, cold all of a sudden.

That would have to do.


Bosque Herman couldn't get that man's smile out of his head, or his incessant questioning. It just kept...gnawing at him.

Why sign up with a rapist and murderer?

Stupid, simple questions, with no idea of debts owed or ties deeper than blood, but annoying ones anyway. He had no illusions about who he was working for. But he could try to keep the worst of the boss and the crew's excesses contained. Couldn't he? Wasn't that enough, to balance out what he had to do…

"You awake, boy?" his captain asked. "I asked if you were ready to head out."

Herman blinked, and nodded, following his captain out onto the deck of the Devil Dog. The sea air helped clear his thoughts, at least a little.

Grit Wyald was a giant of a man even in pure human form, twice the size of a normal human, hairy and crude, mostly covered in the massive black cloak he favored. His face looked like it had been carved from stone, with a thick black pelt of a beard providing the role of moss. The hilt of a truly immense sword, a slab-sided thing larger than Herman's own blade, poked over one shoulder. It was a visage Herman had seen every day for the last fifteen years.

His home was burned to the ground. He hadn't seen who'd done it, only barely remembered his mother telling him to run, the screams that had made him run even faster. It was only hunger, after three days of starving, that had made him brave enough to come anywhere close to the village.

And everything was gone. Just ashes left. And the man sitting in the ruins.

The man looked up as Herman drew closer. "So, boy, you survived. Good. You know who did this?"

Herman shook his head, afraid to venture any closer.

"Pirates, boy. Pirates. Just you and I left, here. So, here's how it is. We go and kill the bastards together, or I leave you here. Which are you going to choose?"

The choice was easy, put that way.

"Boss?" he asked cautiously, as Wyald finished yelling at the crew on board to pull their heads out of their rectums and get ready to leave. "Are you sure this is the way to go?"

Wyald grunted. "Sure it is. The monks...those little bald bastards know more than anyone else in the town. They'll talk to me. Hell, Grit Sandor founded this town, I deserve my damn inheritance. They'll see that."

"Even if they don't believe you?" Herman asked tentatively.

Wyald glared at him, and growled, a sound that practically sent Herman's tail between his legs. "They will. Whether they want to or not." He turned back to his crew. "Alright, boys! Let's go introduce ourselves to the bastard monks!"

They'd gotten lucky, this time, finding treasure loaded up on the privateer they raided.

Herman almost felt bad about being part of the slaughter, but three years of hard work on a rough crew had told him to bury that deep. Besides, this treasure was worth all the hardship and evils they'd committed to get it, right?

"You know what these are, boy?" the Captain asked, holding the two nearly-identical, swirl-covered fruits in his hands. "Devil Fruits. Legends. Power, at a price, boy. So. You ready to get strong enough to take what you want from this world?"

Put like that...how could he refuse?

Wyald and the Hound Pirates moved out, and as always, Herman followed.

Even if the bird-man's smile nagged at him more and more every moment.


Dayavin Tenzin regarded the man sitting across from him levelly. The young man had come to the monastery, looking grim, and hadn't said a word since. Considering his silence, though, he'd been polite, and acquiesced to tea. Tenzin did not mind, in any case. Many who came here required silence to order their thoughts properly.

The young man hadn't touched his tea, but as Tenzin watched him he sat up slightly straighter. "I...don't know where to start," he said quietly.

"The beginning is typically the best place."

"Heh. You dispense koans for free like that?"

Tenzin was silent.

"Fine. How to start…"

The young man was silent for long moments. He closed his eyes, then opened them. When he did, they had changed, whites turned to bloodshot black, blue irises a glowing red. Tenzin showed no reaction, but internally he was ready if the young man proved to be some kind of demon. There were legends and rumors….

"Is it possible," the young man asked, "to be evil as a fact of nature? Not due to choices made or intention, but just by living?"

"I would prefer to think that nobody is bound by their nature," Tenzin replied. "What...exactly, is your condition?"

The man smiled. "I'm not human."

"'Human' is a rather broad category," Tenzin said calmly. "You will have to muster more than a serious eye condition to convince me you aren't."

The young man laughed. "You're unflappable, aren't you?"

"I have lived a long life and had few regrets. You feel as if you are evil, that is why you asked your first question. What you should be asking is, if you believe your nature to be evil, whether or not your actions and intentions can outweigh that nature."

"And what do you think, then?"

"That depends on your nature."

The young man sighed. His eyes shifted back to normal. "Fair enough, old man. Not sure why I came here, anyway. No idea what I expected to find."

"Whatever you are looking for, I hope you find it," Tenzin said, as the young man stood.

The young man nodded. "So do I, old timer."

A ring pierced the relative silence, and the young man dug a transponder snail out of his pocket. "Mind if I take this outside?" he asked.

Tenzin nodded, and the young man left.

000000000000000000000000000000000000

The monastery is perched on one of the island's few hills, the tower of the main chapel rising high above the thick outer walls. I perch myself up on the battlements, and watch the Hounds make their way up from the town. That's got to be just about all of them, with the officers, and a ludicrously huge man who has to be the captain, leading the way.

I chuckle to myself, and jump down from the walls, walking towards them with my mask on and my hands in my pockets.

"Can I help you gentlemen?" I ask politely.

I hear the man I'd met with earlier- funny, he looked almost like a miniature, less hairy version of his captain- growl threateningly. "You again."

"Me again," I admit. "So, you the captain?" I ask the huge man.

"Why do you want to know, boy?"

"Oh, just wondering how a man of such disreputable reputation keeps a man of basic civility loyal to him."

"Now, that ain't none of your business, is it?" the big man growls. Aw, he isn't confused by words longer than three syllables. So much for stereotypes.

I shrug. "Was simply curious. Another question: what's your intent, regarding the fine people living in this monastery?"

The captain glares at me. I don't move.

"We're gonna have words with them."

"You need guns for that?" I ask, tilting my head slightly.

"If they decide to keep shut and not tell us what they know, might be," the massive man acknowledges. "Now get out of my way."

I crack my neck in response. "I'm afraid I can't let you hurt innocent people any more than you already have."

"You can't take all of us, boy."

"Watch me. One tail, two tail, three tail, f-"

Blam!

My tails push me to my feet, only for a second gunshot to ring out and another bullet to slam into- and through- my gut, hurling me against the monastery wall. I grin as the sniper and the creepy bald guy step out from the lineup of officers. The gunman's weapon smokes gently.

"Vasilij, Vandire, deal with him," the captain orders.

"Yes, Captain Wyald," the sniper says robotically, loading another round into his rifle. I hack up blood and force myself to straighten up as my body finally finishes healing the bullet holes. "You'll have to do better than thaaaat~," I sing-song.


Even as distant as the monastery was from the docks, Vinci still heard the gunshots.

"We're out of time," he commented to Jack. The big man paused in the midst of corralling the various crew members, and looked in the direction of the hill. "I'm still not liking these odds," Jack said flatly. "There's forty-three of us. Fifty or sixty Hounds, probably. And he's alone against all that. Demon or not...not sure I wish that on anyone."

The crew and Jack had taken the news about Kaneki surprisingly well. Maybe it should have been less of a surprise- Vinci knew about half of them had had captains that were as bad if not worse, and Kaneki hadn't actually done anything that hadn't helped them.

There had been a surprising amount of inelegant blubbering from the more emotional crew members, in fact, something that made no sense in Vinci's mind. You'd think hardened pirates would be more...jaded?

Well, it didn't matter. The crew was ready as it would get.

Vinci stepped out onto the railing, and whistled sharply, drawing the eyes of the entire crew. "BOYS!" He ginned. "We're going into a hell of a fight. Over there, one of our own, strong though he is, is fighting alone against sixty hardened pirates led by a man with a bounty of forty million beri. They're a tough and vicious lot….and we, we're the remnants of a half-dozen defeated crews, barely out of prison, low on funds and riding a stolen ship." He paused, letting that sink in. "Or, we were. But now, we are one crew, free men, the finest on the seas. We're the worst nightmare for those dog-loving idiots! Now and forever- WE ARE THE NIGHTMARE PIRATES! SO LET'S GO SEND THEM TO HELL!"

wall of noise slammed into his ears as the crew erupted into cheers and stormed down the gangplanks in the general direction of the monastery, brandishing a variety of weaponry. Vinci stood there for a moment, blinking.

"I've created a monster, haven't I?" he asked Jack. The big man just grunted.


"Scale Scythe!"

Herman leapt back as the demon's tails flashed out, barely missing him, and cut down three of his fellow Hounds who were too slow. Vasilij's bullets had torn chunks of flesh from his body, the damn thing's blood was all over the place, but it just healed, and kept coming. Every time one of the crew, even Captain Wyald, made to break past it, it focused on them, driving them back into the fray. Even as Herman waited for a follow-up, the Captain made a rush for the monastery entrance, drawing the demon away and giving the others a bit of breathing room.

"Vandire," Herman growled, raising his sword to ward off an absent-minded blow that nearly wrenched the blade from his hands.

The bald interrogator raised his head from where the ship's doctor had dragged him, ignoring the harried man's orders to lie still so that the demon-inflicted gut wound could be treated. He'd gotten off easy. Vasilij was lying sedated where he'd been laid down after the demon had ripped off his arm. "I got him at least twice with my knives," the man wheezed. "Anyone else should be dead."

They should. Vandire's poisons were toxic enough to put down a gryphon, even with a scratch. But the demon, naturally, just kept fighting as if he hadn't been cut at all.

A barrage of tail strikes drove the Captain back, and Herman caught his eye as some of the forty or so remaining Hounds attracted the monster's attention. The Captain nodded.

Time to get serious.

All it took was a moment of focus to begin the changes. Fur sprouted over his body, muscle swelled, and sounds and scents he'd barely been able to notice before became omnipresent as his ears and nose shifted, becoming doglike. To his side, he saw Wyald undergoing the same transformation.

The differences between them were small. Wyald's transformed muzzle was shorter, his body shorter-furred, but both of them now towered over the demon. Herman hefted his sword, the massive weapon now seeming small, and spoke alongside his Captain.

"Shepherd Style-"

"Black Dog Style-"

"-CALL OF THE WILD!"

The Hounds start pulling back as the captain and his subordinate begin to transform, giving me a bit of breathing room. I jam two tails in the ground and lean on them as unobtrusively as possible, trying to squint past rapidly blurring vision. It feels like my blood is burning in my veins...poison? If it wasn't for my regeneration I'd probably be dead by now. As it is...I hope Vinci and the others show up soon.

I can barely hear them shouting over my pulse pounding in my ears, but both of them charge forwards, blades swinging at me. I barely have time to raise my tails into a guard before they're on me.

Sparks fly from every blow as steel meets the half blood, half muscle substance of my tails, and I'm forced back.

Fucking Zoans, powered up in their hybrid forms…

The two move like one person. When the Captain advances, his second steps in to keep me from pressing the attack. Where one strikes high the other cuts low. They are, almost literally, a perfect team, and their assault pushes me further and further back until I'm pinned against the monastery wall. And they still keep pressing forward, until it's taking everything I have just to keep them at bay. A tail is sliced into ribbons, another crippled temporarily by a blow from the captain that nearly cuts it apart, and I fall to my knees as both of them slam into my remaining tails with a series of overhead strikes.

And that's when the wrinkly, orange-robe-clad old man I had talked to earlier falls from the sky and hits the captain in the face with a shovel.

000000000000000000000000000000000

The captain reels back, teeth and blood flying, and I leap to take advantage- only to find myself pinned to the wall by the crescent blade on the other end of the monk's weapon, the tips digging into the stone as the blade itself presses down on my neck. I slump back against the wall, letting my tails vanish, and focus on healing, watching and listening while I wait.

"You will not profane this ground any further," the monk hisses, ignoring the horde of pirates and the swords levelled at him by the captain and his subordinate. "Neither of you will spill more blood."

"That a fact, old man?" the captain asks, sounding amused. "Fine, then. Put 'em up, boys."

The sigh of disappointment from some of the Hounds are kinda funny. Less so is the captain's smile. But weapons get put away. I raise my hand slightly. "Um, a little help?"

The monk yanks his shovel-staff out of the wall without even looking at me. I stagger slightly, before leaning back against the wall, acting like I don't care. "What do you want, pirate?" the old man asks the captain.

"I want what's mine by right of blood, holy man."

"By spilled blood one can lay claim to a great deal. You will have to be more specific."

The captain slams the point of his sword into the ground, and leans on the hilt, grinning. "My name is Grit Wyald, and I want my inheritance as Grit Sandor's descendant. That clear enough, old man?"

Props to the old dude, he still looks unruffled. "Sandor had no children."

"Not with his wife, no," Wyald says flatly. "But his blood still lives on. Now, your boys have been here since the town was founded. I'd wager real gold pieces to wooden ones you know where that inheritance is."

"If you go looking for his treasure, you will find only death."

Wyald throws back his head and laughs. "You think I give a damn about chasing some phantoms of gold? I know as well as you do that he sank it all into founding this little shit-hole." His smile vanishes as he glares at the monk. "No, old man. I want what was his. The blade he slew five demon kings with, and the armor he wore while doing it."

The monk doesn't move. "As I said. If you go looking for it, death is all you shall find."

Wyald growls. I crack my neck as my body finally finishes off the aftereffects of the poison.

"I have spent my entire life, to earn what is mine by right," the huge man growls. "Crew, ships, stolen gold and desperate battles...I've done whatever it's taken to become strong enough to gain my birthright. And you think-"

"I know what you've done," the monk says calmly. "You've killed islands, razed towns to the ground. Huir, Trasero, the Benedictines. Sabues, where you slaughtered every man, woman, and child."

"That's a lie!"

Oh? The subordinate's spoken up? And he looks pissed.

"The Silver Hunter Pirates razed Sabues! We sunk them ourselves! You're lying!"

Now why would he care so damn much about one island?


The monk had to be lying. He had to be.

"So, boy," Wyald said, as they watched the flag of the enemy ship sink beneath the waves. "How do you feel now? They're dead, every man of 'em. Sabues Island and Kuroso Village are avenged. So what'll you do now?"

Herman tore his eyes from the last pitiful remnants of the enemy crew as the rest of the Hounds left them to drown. "I...don't know."

It had been so long...what else was left?

"I think….I think I'll stick with you. Captain."

Wyald's smile wasn't his usual fearsome grin. It looked...content. "Aye, boy. All right."

The words didn't make sense otherwise. If the Silver Hunters hadn't killed his home, that only left...Wyald. And that was nonsense!

The demon's words echoed in his mind again.

Why sign up with a rapist and a murderer?

Like it was any better! He knew the century-old legends as well as anyone else. The smirking creature who even now was lounging against the wall had done worse than anything his captain had ever done…

"It is not a lie," the monk said quietly.

It had to be one. Herman turned, looking up at his captain, practically begging the man who'd given him the revenge and the second home he'd needed to say something, to deny the monk's words, to tell the man in orange the same thing he'd told Herman, that the Marines had pinned a crime on him that for once he was innocent of…

Instead, he saw an expression that, even on Wyald's transformed features, he recognized. One he'd never expected to see.

Guilt.

"Boy…" the man began.

"No." The word transformed into a snarl halfway out his mouth, and he raised his sword. "Why? Was it funny? Was that it? Seventeen years of lying to me? Did you all get a laugh?" The others, the people he'd thought were close as brothers to him, were backing away, and the demon's tails had sprung free again, but he didn't care. All he cared about was the bastard in front of him.

"Boy...I did what I had to do," the bastard said. "That's all I've ever done."

Something deep in Herman's mind made a quiet snapping sound.

The next thing he knew, his blade was caught on the flat of Wyald's own, the man's arm not budging an inch under the force of his two-handed blow.

Then Wyald's free hand slammed into his chest, and he felt stone shatter under his back.

Darkness claimed him.


I look at Wyald, then at the massive hole his subordinate's flying body had smashed in the wall. I see the steeple crumble down in a crash of masonry, and the monk goes white.

"Go help your brethren," I say flatly, putting a hand on the man's shoulder. "I'll deal with this one."

"Deal with me?" Wyald growls. "You could barely hold us off before, boy. What makes you think you can beat me?"

I grin widely, and my tails twitch. "Well, for starters, the angry mob that's coming up the hill."

"Whu-"

I'm in midair before he can fully turn and notice my bluff. "Scale Cross."

Props to Wyald, he's fast enough to catch the twin blows of my tails with his sword, right at the crossing point of the two slashes, but the impact alone sends him crashing to the ground, sending up a massive cloud of dust. A cloud he comes out of swinging even before my feet have properly touched the ground.

"Black Dog Style: Iron Hammer!"

What-

Wall!

Blinking, I push myself out of the pile of rubble Wyald just smacked me into like a particularly fleshy golf ball. My whole body hurts, right done to the bones. I ignore it. It'll heal.

Don't know where the monk's gone. Don't care. The massive werewolf-man stepping through the wrecked remains of the monastery wall has my full attention.

"Kyahahahaha….come on, Black Dog. Surely you can do better than that?" I taunt.

"You want better, you little-"

We both jump as a massive explosion sounds outside the walls, followed by the roar of what sounds like hundreds of angry people. The hell? Was there an actual angry mob now?

This...was somehow Vinci's fault. It wasn't anything based on reasonable assumptions, more like a feeling.

A feeling that is immediately validated as a familiar lab-coat-clad shape rockets through the air and punches Wyald in the fork of the legs before appearing next to me, grinning. "Together, then?" Vinci growls, physically shaking with the effort of staying still.

"Where'd you get the mob?"

"Town got curious, joined in when we said we were going to flatten these idiots. Now let's gogogogoGo!"

Rubble shifts behind me, and I spare a glance over my shoulder to see a much battered and re-humaned subordinate claw his way free, clutching a new sword in his hands. "Count me in," he growls, hefting the black-colored...nodachi?...easily despite the fact it's nearly as long as he is tall. Damn thing looks more like a hunk of raw iron than a sword. But hey, more the merrier.

I smile, and tilt my head, making my neck pop.

"You think I'll stop?!" Wyald shouts, forcing himself upright again. "When I'm this close to my goal? When I can see the blade in your hands?! I'll take it from your corpse, you ungrateful brat!"

"Shut up and die you overgrown mutt." With that little piece of advice, Vinci launches himself forwards, scalpels in hand. "Amputation."

Just like with every other attack, Wyald's fast enough to put his sword between it and him.

But this time...this time the blade shatters, and the Zoan staggers back, bleeding from a half-dozen gouges the shrapnel has gouged in his body. "Incisions!" A white-colored blur flickers across Wyald's throat, before a dozen more gashes erupt all over his body, and the giant man sags to his knees, clutching his jugular. "Full-Body Trauma!"

I let my tails dissolve as the man goes flying into an intact section of wall, destroying it utterly. I turn to the Hound- well, ex-Hound- and shrug. "So, you seem like a decent guy. What's your name?"

"Herman...Bosque Herman," the man says, staring at the ongoing beating. "That's your captain?"

I grin. "Yup. Real nightmare to fight, ain't he. You got any real attachment to the rest of your ex-crew?"

The man grimaces. "Fuck them. They kept…" He looks away for a second. "Fuck them," he repeats.

"Alright. Well, since you're not part of a crew, why not join ours?"

He blinks, and stares at me. "I was just trying to kill you a few minutes ago. What even…?"

I flap a hand at him dismissively. "Pssh. Kill me? My old master tried harder than that and he was half-dead from old age. Besides, at least I know you're a decent fighter."

"So you're crazy in addition to being a demon."

"Let me guess, legends. And yes, I most certainly am. But I'm honest about it, and hey, where else are you gonna go?"

Herman closes his eyes, and sighs. "Don't you need your captain's approval to recruit me?"

"Right, I'll ask him. Oi, Vinci!"

My captain precipitates out of the air, still shaking slightly and with a distinctly creep coating of blood on his coat. "What?"

I jerk a thumb over my shoulder at Herman. "Mind if this guy joins up with us?"

"Dahahahaha, no problem. He'll be...really...interesting…" Just like with our escape from the Marines, his eyes roll back in his head and he goes limp. This time, though, I catch him before he can fall. "You heard him. You coming or what?"

Herman takes a step forward, and stumbles, nearly falling. I grab him as well, getting a shoulder under his arm and letting him lean on me. "Guess so. Come on. When Franky-light over here wakes up he'll fix whatever injuries you got...got to convince this idiot to stop exhausting himself every fight…"

00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

The party's in full swing, and shows no sign of stopping. Vinci woke up about an hour ago, downed a near-lethal amount of rum, and from what I'd last seen was juggling scalpels to entertain a small crowd of kids. Jack was keeping a watchful eye on some of the less...reputable…members of the Nightmares, hammer close to hand.

And me and Herman?

"Okay, I know my existence terrifies a good chunk of the population and I can't eat the food anyway, but what are you doing up on a roof like a particularly mopey pigeon?"

"You're one to talk, bird-boy," Herman growls. I pass him a large tankard, and he sniffs it warily. "Black coffee?"

"It's either that or, well, the scarier rumored bits," I say with a shrug. "Apparently, my captain filled the rest of the crew in on that little secret, so since you're part of it you deserve to know."

"Hmph." He downs the tankard, then shivers. "Shit, now I'll be up all night."

I sit down next to him, looking at the town. The ever-present fog makes the celebration below seem ghostly, almost. "So. Not going to talk about it?"

"Not on your life. It's done."

"Wyald's still alive, you know. Tough bastard, Jack had to knock him out the rest of the way. After we leave, the Marines will take his crew off to Impel Down. They'll rot."

"And you think I should care what happens to them?"

I smile. "Nope. But they're only taking the crew. Not the officers. Those 'resourceful' fellows will 'slip away and escape' while the party's going on."

Herman glares at me. "And you get fed. That the price the doctor agree on, to get you on his crew?"

"Nah to both. Pulled him out of a tight spot, and he's actually pretty charismatic when he isn't doping himself up on some chemical concoction. And as for their 'escaping'..." I shrug, and twirl a set of keys on my fingers. "Well, wouldn't closure help? You didn't get to cut the bastard with that shiny new sword of yours, after all."

I like to think of myself as someone who knows his way around a highly disturbing smile. And so I can confidently say that Herman's expression is at least an 8 on the Mr. Teatime scale.


The guard, one of the townspeople, had left the second he'd seen the demon's eyes change, leaving the basement of the home they'd stuck the officers in empty, save for the prisoners. The rest of his former crew were in actual cells, but the three dozen or so surviving Hounds had filled the town's jail all the way to capacity.

He had an idea of what was going to happen to the bodies of the ones who hadn't survived.

All three of the crew's leaders looked much worse for wear. Vasilij was short an arm, Vandire had a massive number of red-stained bandages wrapped over his torso, and Wyald...well, Wyald resembled a giant, bearded mummy. All three of them were chained, Wyald to the point that very little of him was visible at all.

"So, the traitor returns," Vandire wheezed. "Here to gloat? Or here to feed us to your new demon friend?"

The demon in question shrugged. "Eh, I'm good."

"I'm not a traitor," Herman said flatly. "If anything, you betrayed me first."

"We took you in! We gave you a home! Would we rather we killed you?"

A growl cut through the air as Wyald shifted his bulk, the one eye not covered by gauze opening. "Vandire. Shut up."

The bald interrogator fell silent, shooting Herman a glare.

Herman very carefully crushed the feeling of guilt that expression brought to mind under his heel before he turned to his former captain. "Wyald."

"Herman."

"So. Everything you did...it's pointless now, isn't it. Every village you raided and pillaged, everyone you killed...and yet, right at the end, you lost. How does that feel?"

"Lost?" The bundle of chains shook, and it took Herman a moment to realize that Wyald was laughing. "Maybe so, boy, maybe so. But I see that blade. And I know its name. Amakatta. The Great Grade miaodao. How do the monks feel about you plucking Sandor's own sword from the rubble?"

"They haven't asked," Herman said flatly. "What? Me taking it means you've won?"

"Heh...you haven't looted the Devil Dog, have you? You'll know what I mean…"

Herman ground his teeth together. Then he closed his eyes, and breathed out, letting go.

"Yoshimura Kaneki," he said to the demon. "That was the name you chose, wasn't it?"

"Yeah, it was."

"I do not care what happens to any of these men. Do whatever you want."

The demon looked at the three bound captives, and grinned. Four bloodred tails burst free, swaying like cobras.

And then those tails vanished as Kaneki silently walked away.

"I'm not your executioner," he said flatly as he passed Herman. "You want them dead...do them the courtesy of wielding the blade yourself."

Vandire laughed. "You think the bitch has the balls to do that? He'd-"

Amakatta shrieked free of its sheath.

The Hound officers never made a sound.


"Where'd you get a guitar?" Vinci asks as he approaches me from where I'm sitting against the mainmast of our ship.

I smile, and strum experimentally at the thing, before frowning and adjusting one of the pegs. "It was part of the stuff on the Devil Dog. I don't know...seemed like a good idea to grab it."

"Instead of treasure?"

"What would I do with that? If I need money, Jack'll hand something out. Grabbing a bunch of gold is kinda pointless anyway, and besides, I think disorganized looting-"

"DON'T YOU FUCKING DARE!"

One of the Nightmares actually becomes briefly visible as he flies over the Hound ship's deck, before slamming into the mainmast.

"Kinda pisses him off?" Vinci finishes with a raised eyebrow. I nod. "So, how's our new crewmate settling in?"

"Herman? He's still broody. Can't say I blame him. But he's getting better." I take another stab at the guitar, and tilt my head as I pluck out a few notes.

"Do you actually know how to play that?" Vinci asks.

I shrug. "I'm gonna learn. Feels...right, in a way." A sour note makes me wince. "I'm going to need a lot of practice."

"Heh. Alright. Well, once your frustration gets the better of you, I want you in my lab. I managed to pick up some new equipment and I think I finally have a way to get samples out of you that doesn't have your durability and regeneration interfering." A almost demonic grin flashes across his face. "There is a lot I could learn from how your body functions, and maybe I'd even be able to figure out a way around the...less pleasant parts."

I give him a lazy salute, and return to my guitar-experimentation.


Herman stared at the letter on the tiny desk in his equally tiny cabin.

Herman, it began.

He knew the handwriting. Wyald's.

If you're reading this, I'm dead, but you've managed to get away, and the Devil Dog with you. Good.

Consider this my last will and testament.

You're captain now, of whoever's left. That's the first part.

Second part...isn't so easy.

I've...made a lot of mistakes. I'm not a good man. I never was. I've reaved and raided for decades, with all that entails. And...it's time I tell you the truth about Sabues.

It continued on, telling Herman things he'd already known. Part of him wanted to burn it now, but curiosity- and a need he refused to acknowledge- pushed him on.

I understand if you'd hate me by the time you've finished reading this, if you want to burn the ship and all its crew to make up for what I took from you, and I know nothing could make up for what I've done...but you're still as good as a son to me. And if you're reading this after I've finally gotten what I've committed so much evil to gain, if Sandor's arms and armor are still aboard...they're yours.

My son.

Forgive me.

-Wyald

Herman stared at the letter for several more minutes. Then, slowly, he picked it up and walked in the direction of the galley.

He didn't notice that someone was already in there until he was already in front of the fireplace.

"Something on your mind?" Captain Vinci asked idly, stirring the flames with a poker. Herman caught a glimpse of burning parchment before he snapped his eyes back to his new captain. "A lot," he admitted.

"Hmm. Well, new guy, talk if you want. I'm a doctor, and while my psychological training isn't what I'd like it to be, it's still the best on the crew."

Herman's eyes shot back to the embers of the fire. "Looks like we both have letters to burn," he said lightly. "Yours as dark as mine?"

A shadow crossed Vinci's face. "Depends on your point of view. Some good. Some bad. Nothing that changes my plans."

"Alright. Mind if I…?"

"Be my guest."

Herman tossed Wyald's letter into the flames.

He watched the damned thing crumble to ashes...and let his regrets burn with it.

Chapter Text

I have no idea how Vinci managed to get this much surgical equipment, or how he managed to retrofit a section of the ship's storage to be his lab without me actually noticing. To be fair, I have been pretty bad about noticing things for the week or so since we've left Murky behind. Hell, I'd even somehow missed the fact that we'd painted the ship's hull a distinguished grey with a red deck, or that we'd named the damn thing. The Ends Justified.Really? Being a little unsubtle there, Vinci.

Personally, I blamed the horse-doses of caffeine I was consuming, far more than my usual intake, as I tried to figure out how to play the guitar properly. I was doing better, but clearly I needed different priorities if I was starting to miss so many things due to obsession over one task.

"You know, usually when I cut someone open when they're still alive, they tend to be a lot more explicit about it. Especially if they aren't getting anesthetic," Vinci comments.

I don't move, and not just because I'm on my belly while Vinci cuts open my back, exposing my spine and muscles. "Do you have any anesthetic that would actually work?" I ask instead, looking away.

"Fair point. Now, you feel this?"

It's...a strange sensation. Like he's poking at...not a blister, but something filled with fluid. Can't quite think of a word that isn't creepy. "Yeah. Is that where my tails come from?"

"Looks like it. And, here's the interesting part- you've got more. There's two more right here, but there's also a couple other spots...looks like upper back, middle back, and your tailbone all have their own clusters."

What was the official term...Kakuhuo? Something like that, I wasn't well-versed in the lore before coming here and however long I spent being batshit in the jungle, added to the two years of training, has jarred a lot loose, for both franchises.

Whatever. Focusing on what exactly I remember is actually fairly helpful for keeping my mind off the fact that my back is almost-literally flayed open.

"So even more tails, then," I grunt.

"Maybe not. All of the other clusters are...underdeveloped. I'm not sure what would be necessary to make them functional just yet."

There's a brief moment of pressure, and an additional spike of pain.

"Alright. Got my samples, I'll close you up and administer the counteragent for the suppressant."

"How the hell did you even figure that out?" I grumble as he goes to work.

"It's actually a medical treatment for hyperhemophilia. A bit pricey and far too difficult to make outside of a clinic, but it seems to do the trick here."

I freeze. "...do I want to know how?"

"Well, we know your regeneration is centered around your blood, now, dahahaha!"

"Please stop doing science to my body," I groan, resting my forehead on the cool metal of the examination slab.

"Now that I have those samples, plus the bits I retrieved from the Hound officers, don't think I'll need to."

"How is that reassuring, and yet terrifying?"

"Because you know that my research transcends both mundane intellect and almost every sort of ethics laws in existence?"

"If you clone me I will make you eat your own limbs," I deadpan as Vinci jams a syringe into my back and my skin begins to regenerate along the cuts he'd made. When he taps my shoulder, I slide off the slab and begin to pull my jacket back on. Poor thing had taken a beating during my fight with the Hounds, and now my own rough stitches blended into the feather-patterns. At least they weren't totally noticeable, and I'd manage to patch the rents up.

"So, World's Most Terrifying Doctor, initial findings?" I ask.

"Hm...well, based on the initial blood samples...one, you're probably a very shitty prototype for a super-soldier program, two, I'd bet that you're either biologically immortal or damn well close."

I freeze. "Care to explain?"

He shrugs. "Alright, so, I picked up a few strange differences. First, your bloodstream is filled with malformed cells that aren't erythrocytes, leukocytes, or thrombocytes...er, red, white, and platelet cells."

I nod. "I know my biology. No need to elaborate."

"I managed to get a couple isolated, and I'm pretty sure they're what your tails are made of. They seem to be some strange cross between neurons, myocytes, and erythrocytes. They can slot together or separate, they respond to nerve signals, but they thrive in a liquid medium like your blood plasma... fascinating little things. But here's where it gets weird. I tested other blood samples, from the rest of the crew, and I found some that matched. Far fewer, but they were there. And the strongest of the crew had higher concentrations."

"Okay, so?"

"I think that someone figured out that these C-cells- they're shaped like a capital C- existed. They're damnably hard to find and in normal people...well, I had to come up with a specific test to isolate them from everyone's bloodstream except yours. They're about one in a million for anyone else, but for you they're about five percent of the cell life in your blood. But! That massive quantity is probably the secret to your durability, since the cells link together in response to an attack, and to your regeneration since they can coordinate far more easily than a normal healing response."

"And the... eating people?"

Vinci frowns. "I'll need to examine your digestive tract samples, but I think that the hyper-concentration of C-cells needs to be replenished, and that your own body can't do it without outside help. The response to anything not human flesh or coffee is probably engineered in…"

"Why the engineering theory, again?"

"Because I think a large enough injection of C-cells would work to turn someone from a normal human into...one of you. Making a superhumanly durable, deadly soldier, who can grow their own weapons, don't require normal food, and who can take on entire pirate crews single-handed? I'd make these in a jiffy if it weren't for the cannibalism."

"But what about the immortality?"

"Oh, that's easy. Your regeneration probably keeps age at bay. That, and the fact that while the legends of Murky's 'jungle demons' extend more than a century back, they stop being reported almost exactly when you say you left the island."

I let out a breath. "I...need a bit to think about this."

"Take your time. We are pulling into Walker Island tomorrow, though. Did you notice that decision?"

"Hush, you, and yes I did. We're getting the best weaponry we can, right?"

"Black market, but yes, we are."

"Good. You need me for anything in particular on that island?"

Vinci taps a scalpel against his palm for a moment, the glass-edged blade shining. "Hmm. I'll send a couple of the crew with you."

"You don't trust me?" I ask with a teasing smile.

"I do, but try to be nice to them. The less terrified the others are of you, the better."

"Jack been complaining?"

"Your being locked up in your room or otherwise not in the mood for talking doesn't help, either."

I shrug. "Fine. I'll try to be more personable to the crew. Put them at ease."

"Good man. Now, get out of here. I have cell cultures to analyze."

"Ja, ja, I'm going."


Jack slumped forward, panting for breath. The former Hound next to him did the same, both of their respective weapons being held in death grips.

"How...the fuck...are you...this strong?" the Hound growled. "You could barely keep up with me and Wyald before!"

Kaneki laughed. "What, I could barely keep up when I was being poisoned within an inch of my life, and you expect taking me in a straight fight to be easy? You should know better." The ghoul shrugged. "But let's take a break. I don't think beating the two of you into the ground is quite the objective here. After all, you've still got cardio next."

The man grinned with no small amount of sadism, but Jack ignored it in favor of taking heaving breaths, trying to shove some strength back into his shaking legs. He was stronger than just about anyone else on the crew, but Kaneki- and Vinci- were on a completely different level, more monsters than men. Well, at least in Kaneki's case it made sense. Vinci, though…

Jack shook his head, spraying a not inconsiderable amount of sweat from his prodigious beard, and rolled his shoulders before starting the downright sadistic run Kaneki had mandated for him. There was no real benefit to questioning the origins of Vinci's outright terrifying strength.

Not when he needed to get that strong himself.

Running around the Ends Justified's deck, carrying his weapons and a backpack filled with ballast, put him a step further towards that goal, no matter how bad the ache in his muscles. And he was still doing better on the run than most of the crew, despite being built more like a gorilla with a steroid habit than a runner. It was both baffling...and entertaining.

An ordinary vessel, even in the Blues, couldn't dedicate as much time to mass training as they did and not pay the price in watchfulness and combat effectiveness. And in the South, the wildlife was a bigger threat than that of pirates or Marines alike…

"GROAARRRR!"

Case in point, the battleship-sized Greater Aquamarine Crested Serpent that had just surfaced to port, making a threat display to drive them away from its hunting grounds.

What? His last crew hadn't had much for him to do and the only books on board had been on the local sealife. He could practically quote the damn things down to the footnotes.

Jack grinned, and hefted his hammer, all feelings of weariness gone. "Hello, beastie. You're dinner."

"Gruhr?"

One thing the book hadn't mentioned, though, was that Serpents could most definitely show fear.

"Ukko!" THWACK!

One very dead sea serpent and a rather annoyed ship's cook later, Jack caught a bit of space to himself, glad to have finished his training on a high note.

They'd pull into Walker by the time the day was out. And he needed a heavier hammer- this one was practically feather-light at this point.

0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

Walker Island is... interesting. While it apparently provides a plurality of weaponry to the Marines around the world, thanks to the outright massive arms factories that are visible looming in the distance...it also provides, via a thriving black market, arms and armor to pirates and criminals. There's no Marine garrison, and the Walker Arms Company's own goon squad provide all the security, which would explain it. Selling to both sides? That's just good business, especially when the Company can supply the black market through middlemen. All an open secret, but the threat of Walker's armories going full pirate keeps the Marines from taking the place over.

Also, the place is fucking freezing. I don't know what meteorological abomination spawned this place but it feels like someone decided dumping a chunk of Siberia in the ocean was a smart idea. I can see my breath, and the rest of the crew isn't doing much better.

Thankfully, one of the things we picked up on Murky was a lot of new tailoring. We have a sort-of uniform now, mostly white or grey jackets lined with fur and with our crew's symbol on the lapel. Subtle? No. But we're pirates, subtle went out the window a while ago. And more importantly, they're warm.

Only the 'officers' of our crew are exempt from the uniform, but we still show that we're part of the crew- I've used my stitching to pick out the Jolly Roger in white on my jacket, Vinci's done the same with his lab coat, while Jack had apparently gone the masochistic route and had it tattooed on his chest. Herman, for his part, has it on the backs of his gauntlets. The mutt's nose allowing him to literally smell the weather had caused Vinci to appoint him as navigator, which I wasn't disputing in the slightest. Someone else figuring out how to get where we wanted to go was perfectly fine in my book.

"You two ready to go?" I ask, tapping my foot on the deck as we pull up to the docks. If I was still squishy and human, I'd be bundled up, but I'm not, and so the only additions to my jacket are a pair of fingerless gloves and a dark red scarf that's wrapped all the way up to my nose.

The two crewmates Vinci assigned to follow me nod, both of them shivering slightly. Lewo Ostavila's one of the three women on the crew, a tough-as-nails bitch who's one of the nastier knife fighters on the crew. And Dobre Pavilno, while kinda weedy, is still a hell of a marksman.

"Alright. So, we've got a list of hardware that Vinci wants us to acquire, got the money, and got the ability to scare our way to a discount. Any ideas where to start?" I ask as we head down the gangplank.

Pavilno shrugs, taking a drag of his cigarette. "For the small arms? I know a guy, Antonin, who's good enough to get his hands on Walker's latest weaponry. Greedy bastard, but it's worth it."

"And the cannon and blades?"

"Can't help on the heavy stuff, but Fairban O'lean makes his own blades and gear," Ostavila notes. "Good quality. Not masterworks, but it'll last on the Line." She pauses. "Sir, we are going to head for the Line, right?"

I nod. "I'm not sure what Vinci's end goal is, but he wants to go through the whole world, the Line included. Why?"

"It's just...well, it's basically hell."

I laugh. "Oh, you haven't seen anything. It's after you get into the New World that you enter hell, because the ones who make it there? They call the first half of the Line Paradise."

Ostavila's tanned skin, practically turned to leather by years of sun and salt, still manages to go pale. "What the hell are we in for?" she mutters.

"Oh, don't worry. Once you lot are strong enough, I'll start giving you tutoring in some of the really nasty stuff that'll actually let you all survive this," I say with a grin. "Speaking of that, we need some multiple-ton weights, too."

Pavilno makes a squeaking noise. Probably fear. I throw an arm over his shoulders. "Relax, gunner. They aren't for you, they're for the officers. After all, we're going to have to be real monsters by Blue standards to make it on the Line, right?"

"I- I guess you're right," he stammers.

"When it comes to how tough enough training can make people? Of course I am," I say with a smile. "Now, let's go purchase some portable death!"


Walker Island's black market was most famous for weaponry in all its diverse forms. But that wasn't what Vinci was looking for today. Nor was it the more mundane chemicals and solutions he needed for his work- Jack was handling those purchases.

No, his target today was based around a single conversation he'd had with Kaneki.

"So, you think all these changes are surgical, or are they DNA-based?" Kaneki asked.

Vinci looked up from the slide he was putting together- a blood cell stain. "DNA?"

"Um...shit, deoxyribonucleic acid, the basic building block of your bloodline?" Kaneki said, sweatdropping. "Do you...not know about that?"

"Nobody knows about that," Vinci growled, slide forgotten. "But apparently you do. Explain."

"In the middle of the cell, the nucleus, it's highly compacted and extremely small, but it's basically the code every individual cell uses for building anything living. If you change it you can change physical traits, but you've got to map the whole thing out first and that's kind of a shit-show, and why are you smiling like that?"

Vinci's grin widened as he cracked his knuckles. "I think," he said, enunciating carefully, "that your little tidbits of knowledge are going to be a wonderful gift to the scientific community. Now, are you going to explain how you know all that?"

"My past is mysterious, wooooo~"

Vinci felt a vein pop on his forehead. "Fine. But explain everything. Now."

"On it!"

DNA. Despite Kaneki's reservations, Vinci didn't think it would be so difficult to crack open a 4-letter code based around creating simple protein structures. But none of the equipment he had on board was suited for examining anything that small...hence his sojourn into the black market.

From examination would come knowledge. From knowledge would come power. And from power…

Well. First he had to determine if he could actually examine the things. From there it would be a lot of chemical work and careful puzzling...but he would make progress.

He'd told Jack to purchase specimen tanks for a reason, after all, and it wasn't just for lab animals.

No...it was for something else Kaneki had babbled about. A legend from his home, he said, but the mechanics seemed sound enough...though the name seemed a bit underwhelming.

Primarch? Ridiculous. He knew he'd name this project Apotheosis.


"So, thirty-three Kalashnikov semi-automatics, twenty Izhmash shotguns, twelve Dragunov heavy marksman rifles, six Silin gatling weapons, forty Tokarev revolvers...you are making quite a dent in my inventory," Chokhov Antonin grumbles. I don't know why everyone here speaks with a Russian accent, and part of me suspects my sanity would not survive me learning why. But it's certainly made negotiations entertaining. I smile. "Money's good, though, ain't it?"

"Bah! True enough, and I suppose I can let go of that much for what you are offering. As a gift, I shall include a goodly amount of ammunition to go along with your shipment. Call it good will for making such a purchase."

"I'm also told you move weapons acquired...less reputably?" I ask carefully.

"I have been known to do such things, yes," Antonin rumbles.

"Well, what would you say to an assortment of ex-Marine weaponry?"

"I would say you are playing a dangerous game...and then perhaps take them, for a reduced price. Better than any you would get, most do not trade in such things and serial numbers and such will need to be destroyed. Not difficult work but ensuring that my shipments are not traced by the good men in white is...aggravating. We can arrange the transfer alongside my delivery, yes?"

"Not a problem. Here's your advance." I thunk down a stack of bills. "How long will it take to get everything together?"

Antonin shrugs. "A couple days, at least. Moving that much ordnance without it being obvious enough that Walker Arms will 'take notice'...again, not precisely difficult, but a hindrance, you see?"

"Fair enough. We'll be there."


With most of the crew out purchasing supplies, and no real job to do with the ship safely docked, Herman had decided to meditate.

He wasn't a swordsman- or, rather, he didn't think of himself as one. Being a swordsman implied skill and flourishes, fancy footwork and extravagant bullshit.

Fuck that. His job wasn't to be subtle or quick or deceitful, his job was to cut down the enemy. And... alright, it sounded ridiculous even in his head, like some mystic trying to pull a con... but it seemed like Amakatta felt the same way.

Yes, a blade having a mind of its own sounded nuts, but he could turn into a giant dog, so clearly sanity was long dead.

And so he tried something he wouldn't have considered otherwise. He sat cross-legged on the deck, his sword laid across his lap, closed his eyes, and breathed.

In. Out. With every exhalation, he let go further. Of fear, of anger, of every emotion and thought. His breath steamed in the freezing air, and the cold nipped at him even through his fur-lined cloak. He ignored it.

For long moments, nothing happened.

And then he felt…

RagekillhuntbloodformybladeSKULLSFORYOURTHRONE-

His eyes snapped open, and he stared down at the blade he held in a deathgrip, blood trickling from the palms he'd gashed open grabbing it.

"You…you're a bloodthirsty thing, aren't you?' he murmured. Amakatta seemed to shiver, and Herman grinned.

"I can work with that."

000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

"Enjoying yourself?"

I grin at Ostavila's acrid tone, and flip the trench knife into the air, catching and balancing it on a finger. "Maybe I am," I admit. "After all, Fairbain gave us a fair price for the weapons, and Jack managed to find us an ordnance dealer pretty damn quick. We'll be off in a week and there's no problems on the horizon, so why worry?"

She sighs. "Fine. But stop spinning the damn thing around. It's not a toy."

"No, it's a well-made and very lethal weapon," I shoot back, before sliding the knife- a foot-long chunk of sharp metal topped by a knuckle-duster- into my belt. "But fine."

"Why did you go and buy it, though?" Pavilno asks. "No offense, sir, but it's...not as good as what you can already do."

I nod. "True, I'm tougher and meaner using what I've already got. But it's also distinctive, and obvious. If I want to have even a bit of anonymity, I can't just wave my tails at every would-be mugger."

Ostavila leans back in her chair, scanning the bar's patrons again, while Pavilno nods, sending his frankly ridiculous-looking black pompadour bobbing. "Guess that makes sense," he says. "But who'd mug you?"

"You'd be surprised how stupid people can be," I mutter into my (shitty) coffee.

"Personal experience?" Ostavila asks.

I shake my head. "Just observation." A bit of memory flashes through my head, of a certain green-haired idiot getting lost down a straight hallway.

The bar door creaks open, and Ostavila looks up at the sound before freezing. I follow her eyes…

"Okay, should I be terrified or not?" I ask lightly, looking at the man who's just walked in. He wears a blue-and-white full-face mask lined with holes, blond hair spilling down to his waist in a way that would probably make whoever produces Dragon Ball start screaming for a lawyer. Strange-looking bracers on his wrists, probably weapons of some kind, and a sheath at his waist with two blades inside. Not especially intimidating, even so, because he's built like a reed.

He stares at me, and I realize my comment's carried through the entire bar.

"Are you joking?" Pavilno hisses, sweating slightly. "That's one of 'Captain' Kid's crewmates!"

"And you can tell that...how?"

"Because he's got a bounty. 'Massacre Soldier' Killer. Fifteen million," Ostavila deadpans. "His boss is three times that, through sheer brutality."

"Huh." I give the unfortunately named man a nod. "You here to stare or drink?" I ask with a grin.

Ostavila's forehead hits the bar table with a dull thunk. "You're insane," she drones. "Completely and utterly."

"You didn't realize that earlier?" I ask cheerily.

I turn back to Killer, and blink. Somehow the man has pulled up a seat at our table, and has armed himself with a massive mug of beer, with a bendy straw, all without making a sound. And considering we were on the other end of the bar from the entrance...

My grin widens. "You're fast."

"And you're mouthy," the man grunts. His mask turns from side to side, taking in Pavilno on my right and Ostavila on my left. "And fellow pirates," he continues, in a slightly lighter tone. "What's your end goal?"

"That's our captain's call," I say with a shrug. "Myself, I have obligations to be met in the New World, and need to get stronger to survive fulfilling them. You?"

"My captain's searching for the One Piece."

The bar goes still.

And then some idiots start laughing.

I can feel Killer's eyes twitch, and the glare he levels at me as I reach across the table and put a hand on his shoulder.

"How about you dumb fuckers shut the hell up?" I say, voice pitched just right to sound casual but to carry across the entire bar. "The One Piece is real, and-"

More laughing, and my eyes twitch themselves before shifting into black and red. I let go of Killer's shoulder. "My friend, it appears we need to educate these idiots in the finer points of piracy," I say, very calmly. "Do try not to murder them, though. Viscera is so hard to clean out of floorboards, and I'd like to avoid any trouble with Walker Arms's goons."

"Fine by me," Killer says. "Captain wants us to stay low today anyway."

"Ostavila? Pavilno? Watch our backs," I add, picking up a chair and swinging it experimentally.

Everything after that gets a little...fuzzy.


"So, that's how it started?" Jack said, in a tone of mild disinterest as he watched the chaos raging through the black market.

Kaneki nodded. The ghoul didn't look any worse for wear, and though the two of the crew with him looked shaken, neither of them had any wounds either.

Which was surprising, considering how the situation on shore was rapidly going from 'riot' to 'small war'.

Jack took a deep breath. "And how, exactly, did it turn into...this?"

Kaneki scratched the back of his head, smiling. "Apparently some people believe in the One Piece, others don't, and it kinda...escalated."

"Uh-huh. And the Kid Pirate who started this whole thing?"

"Oh, he's right over there," Kaneki said cheerily, pointing out a small space in the fight where a masked man was using someone as a makeshift flail. "He's got a bigger stake in the fight, so figured I'd let him work out some stress."

Jack suppressed the urge to work out his own stress on Kaneki's skull. All it'd accomplish would be hurting his hand.

"Please tell me you at least arranged for the guns to be delivered," he grit out.

"Small arms, blades, and the chaser cannons Vinci wants for the bow, everything's arranged." Kaneki glanced over at the docks as lines of men wearing brown uniforms and Walker Arms's circle-and-W logo began to converge on the riot.

"You're lucky," Jack growled, and Kaneki cocked his head. "They're stopping it before it reaches the warehouse district."

"So?"

"So we're not stuck here for even longer thanks to the people we paid losing their wares to fire or looting."

"Oh." The ghoul shrugged. "Guess I am lucky, then."

As it turned out, he didn't need to slap some sense into Kaneki's skull- Ostavila was more than willing to do it for him.

It was amazing how fast weaponry could be delivered on this island, Herman mused as the crew fell upon the crates of ammunition and armaments like a pack of starving wolves. Only ten were being held back- literally, in a couple cases- and that was because Jack had conscripted them into installing the triple-barrelled guns they'd custom-ordered the replace the Ends Justified's Marine-standard chaser armament.

"Crazy bastards, aren't they?" Kaneki said from his spot next to him, leaning on the railing. The ghoul first mate grinned. "Getting all worked up about guns and swords."

"Not everyone can be a demon like you and grow their own weapons," he growled back. The first mate just laughed.

"Fair, fair. At least they're not actually fighting each other over them."

"HEY, YOU ASSHOLES!"

"Huh, well, a fight found us anyway," the first mate deadpanned. Herman just stared. Some ostentatious-looking fucker who smelled of hair gel and murder was shouting obscenities from the edge of the docks, accompanied by the masked guy Kaneki had talked about.

Hadn't that guy been locked up during the riots?

Meh, pirates, he probably broke out or got broken out. Herman was actually a little surprised it had taken a week.

"What fresh hell is this?" the Captain growled as he stepped out onto the deck.

"Pretty sure Captain Kid's pissed at us for some reason. Not sure why, I was on the same side as his guy during the brawl last week," Kaneki mused.

Vinci sighed. "Okay. I'll find out what's going on." He stepped up onto the rail, straightening his tricorn. "WHAT DO YOU WANT?"

"FUCK YOU THAT'S WHAT! YOU KNOW HOW HARD IT IS TO BREAK SOMEONE OUT WITHOUT ALERTING THE ENTIRE FUCKING ARMS COMPANY ABOUT IT? REALLY FUCKING HARD! I WANT MY POUND OF FLESH, ASSHOLE!"

"Kaneki, are you sure you didn't fight any Kid Pirates during the brawl?"

The first mate cocked his head. "Killer over there had my back. But I'm pretty sure tall, ginger, and veiny over there isn't thinking rationally."

"Okay, great. WE DIDN'T HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH YOUR GUY GETTING LOCKED UP! GO BEAT UP WALKER IF YOU WANT TO FIGHT SOMEONE!"

"FUCK YOU YOU STITCH-LOVING WEIRDO! YOUR BOYS STARTED THE DAMN BRAWL IN THE FIRST PLACE, NOW COME DOWN HERE AND TAKE YOUR DAMN LUMPS!"

The Captain sighed, and pinched the bridge of his nose. "He's not going to leave unless I fight him, is he?"

"Nope," Kaneki and Herman said simultaneously.

"Wonderful. Herman, get us ready to sail. I don't know how tough this guy is but I don't want to stay here any longer than we have to. Kaneki, handle Killer."

"Damn. Do I have to-"

"Don't kill him, just keep the crew and the ship safe."

"Fair."

Vinci vaulted the rail, and Kaneki followed.

Herman, for his part, started yelling at the crew to get their asses onboard.

What? It wasn't like Vinci was going to lose to a two-bit punk like Kid. Wyald had nearly three times the bounty, and he'd been beaten like a steel drum. Victory was certain.

000000000000000000000000000000000000000

"So, you seem pretty level-headed, why sign up with the angry ginger?" I inquire curiously, deflecting a swung scythe with my knife.

"God damn it Kaneki, you don't get to do that to everyone you meet!" Herman yells from the sidelines.

I flip him off and then duck another one of Killer's telegraphed blows. Neither the masked man and I are actually fighting, more just throwing random slashes at each other so that nobody gets hurt. Vinci had gone Monster Mode and yanked Kid off somewhere at ludicrous speed, and I'd sent Pavilno and Ostavila in their general direction with a transponder snail, just in case.

"Kid? We've known each other since we were little," Killer says flatly as he blocks my knife on the flat of his right scythe. "He's an asshole, sure, but he's got a dream and I'll be damned if I don't help him achieve it."

"Gonna be kinda hard once my captain beats him down for his dickishness," I say with a smile. Killer just grunts, and swings a bit harder than normal, forcing me back a step.

There's silence for several minutes as we put on a show, neither one of us really willing to actually fight. Then Killer speaks again.

"This is stupid."

I grin. "Fighting because our captains our when our crews don't really have anything to fight over? Yeah."

Killer lowers his scythes. "Fuck this. Do you know how to play chess?"

Huh. I smile. "Yes. Yes I do."


The South Blue Marine Headquarters was a massive edifice, a perfect example of centralized power and grandeur.

It was also drowning in paperwork.

Marineford only concerned itself with assigning bounties to pirates that made a real name for themselves, the edge cases that might actually make it onto the Line. Less than one in a hundred of the pirate crews out there both wanted to and were able get past Reverse Mountain. That left the other ninety-nine to SBHQ, and while they weren't the island-obliterating, all-destroying threats that their ilk on the Line could be...they still were threats to the people of the South Blue.

And right now the proverbial smoke-filled room where bounty prices were assigned had someone new to worry about.

Five men sat there. Three were responsible for the smoke in the room, all of them going through cigarettes as though there was no tomorrow. One man, in a pure white coat, sat at the head of the table, the remaining four split evenly on each of his sides. Each of the four lacked coats, instead wearing basic suits.

"We're certain he's the captain?" one, a man with a small goatee, asked.

"We weren't sure initially, given the subordinate taking the lead in the prison break...but after what happened on Murky Island we're sure of it." his opposite number replied.

"Taking down a pirate like Wyald...how much damage did that cause?"

"Surprisingly little. The subordinate concerns me more, to be honest."

"Hmph. He should," The oldest-looking man among the five stated. "Given what little we've found of the Lanius Pirates, and the 'escape' of the Hound officers…"

"Don't tell me you think that backwoods superstition is true?"

"I don't. But it's more than possible a fishman or Devil Fruit user is taking advantage of it. Or that we have someone who believes they're one. Right down to the cannibalism."

The man at the head of the table leaned forward. "And the brat has managed to get someone like that in his service. To say nothing of the other pirates he's pulled together under his banner."

"Commodore...they're dregs," the goateed man said.

"They're dregs that he had the charisma to rally together and rebrand as a new crew," the man at the head of the table countered. "Look at the facts. Rubeus Jack, bosun of the Account Pirates. Bosque Herman, third mate of the Hound Pirates. Various members of the defunct Account, Trawler, and Eyetooth crews. And a monstrously strong individual who managed to put a third of Yardam's garrison in traction on his own and who needed heavy artillery to be delayed. Add to that the fact that his grandfather was an ex-Commodore who responded to a request to speak with him with high explosives, and we may have a situation. The only reason I am not advocating for a task force being assigned to crush these...Nightmares...is because he seems to be a moderating influence on a collection of disparate monsters. As it is...the bounty stands. For both him, and his officers." The man stood, and walked over to the wall-length window that dominated the window, looking out over the town. From this high up, they could see the edges of the harbor, and the cages and gibbets that served as a warning to every pirate that had ambitions in the direction of the Line.

"And if he comes here...when he comes here...we will crush him," he said.


"Check. And mate."

I glare at the chessboard, then at Killer. "How the hell are you this good?"

The man shrugs. "Practice."

"Knew I should have suggested poker. You can cheat at poker," I grumble.

"You'd also lose money at poker," the man says. He's smiling. I can tell.

Where someone like him got a chessboard, I have no idea, but at least someone dragged over a few crates for us to sit on and play. The rest of the crew's keeping a distance- I think they're not too certain of how to handle something like this.

"Urgh, fine. Play aga-"

Puru puru puru-click.

"What?" I ask flatly.

"Oh, God…" Pavilno sobs.

Oh, shit.

"Vinci...THE CAPTAIN'S DOWN!"

I'm fast. Killer's faster…

But he is not prepared for me to raise my hand and simply catch the scythe he swings at my head. Nor is he prepared for my tails to burst free and strike. One coils around his ankles, a second seizes him by the throat. The last two crush the mechanisms of his scythes- and, judging from the splintering noises, breaking at least one bone in the hands and wrists under them.

"I'm sorry about this," I say quietly. "But my crew comes first."

"Heh- argh- I'd do the same." The masked man looks at me. "Looks like I've lost. Maybe if you hurry, you can trade me for your captain."

I shift my tails slightly, coiling one so that Killer is held aloft, arms pinned to his sides.

And then I run, as fast as I can.

My captain needs me.


Vinci knew he was done.

The frenzied high of Monster Mode had come and gone, and it had taken everything he'd had to stay standing after that. His breathing was erratic, each gulp of air seeming to weigh a ton.

He'd thought he could take the hotheaded idiot before the effects wore off. And judging from the way the bastard was favoring his right side and not moving the arm where Vinci had grazed him, if he'd actually been able to hitthe bastard it would've been a short fight.

But instead he'd had to waste precious time as the bastard pulled a storm of weaponry out of the buildings around them, bullets and blades keeping him at bay and on the run.

Two daggers hurled themselves at him, and he couldn't muster up the strength to dodge.

Upper thigh. Left shoulder. Pain.

"Fuck, you were a tough bastard," the idiot said, walking closer, dagger in hand.

Vinci managed to force his head upright, and glare at him. The idiot's sneering smile vanished, and Vinci's vision swam as a fist cracked against his skull.

"You going to look at me like that? Savor that. It'll be the last thing you see."

The knife moved.

Vinci's world went dark.

It didn't end, though.

"You're gonna remember me. You and your whole damn crew."

The knife cut again, carving a matching pair of lines on his face.

"You're gonna remember right up to the-"

"Enough."

He couldn't see, could barely think past the pain. But he knew that voice.

Kaneki had come.

Pressure at his neck, cold metal. "Get the hell back!" the idiot shouted. "Or I kill him now."

"Do that, and your first mate dies as well. And then you."

"You think you can take me?"

"It is not about thought. Let him go, and I'll let mine go. Nobody else gets hurt today."

The knife at Vinci's neck vanished, and he was shoved forward. Before he could hit the ground, something warm wrapped itself around him. To his pain-addled brain, it felt... comforting.

He didn't hear what happened next, or feel Kaneki's stride. Instead, he slipped away into unconsciousness.

Chapter Text

"How's he doing?"

Oyeplet Akis- one of the four people Vinci had been educating on medical techniques- shrugs, lighting a cigarette. "He heals fast, I'll give him that. We'll be able to take out the stitches in a couple hours, and the knife wounds didn't hit anything vital…"

"You're stalling."

He exhales a cloud of smoke. "We couldn't save the eyes."

"Fuck."

"Yeah. We're waking him up soon. Hopefully he'll have something to figure it out in his head."

"That's the best you can do?" I ask.

Akis doesn't react, beyond glaring at me. "We've been learning for barely a month. We could handle normal injuries, but we can't put a new set of eyes in his skull that easily."

Breathe. In. Out. "Okay. I'll be up on deck. Let me know when he wakes up."

"Already planning on it."

Pravilno and Ostavila fall in behind me as I walk, silent.

The bright light and the smell of the sea aren't much comfort. We'd left Walker behind in a hurry, as soon as we could get everyone on board. And…

"So do we have a heading or does he want us to go kill the bastards?" Jack rumbles, arms folded.

I stare the bearded man down. "He's still unconscious. But we've got a heading anyway. Herman!"

"What?" the dog-man grumbles, leaning on the quarterdeck railing.

"Crucix is the closest island without a Marine garrison, right?"

"So we're running," Jack says sourly. "That's your call? Didn't take you for a coward, ghoul."

"We take on the Kid Pirates...we already nearly lost the Captain. And it ain't my call to ask you to die...or to leave our Captain where he would die if I fought and killed the bastard."

The big man grimaces. "You certain of that?"

"Magnetic abilities. He already had Vinci by the throat, I had to talk fast to get us both out of there alive. You think you'd have the stones to make that kind of choice? Warring with some hotheaded punk would get us nowhere."

Jack doesn't say anything, but he stops looming so obviously.

"Herman. Course, Crucix. Now."

"On it!" our navigator yipes, before vanishing back to the tiller. I stare at the few crewmen on the deck. "Got something to say?" I ask coldly.

"The captain gonna be alright?" one of the men asks.

"I…"

Crew of hardened killers, like as not they'll turn on Vinci if they think he's weak.

And yet…

And yet.

They didn't turn on me. Or even try. They've let Herman into their ranks. They've...fuck it. If they pull anything, I can sail this ship on my own if need be. Would have plenty of supplies to do it with.

And that was an entirely horrifying thought. Moving on!

"I don't know," I admit quietly. "More likely than not, he'll pull some science out of his ass and be back to full strength or better soon as he wakes up. But...hell, I don't know. But I know what we're going to do on Crucix..."

I grin as the crewmen lean forward, so obviously curious it hurts.

"We're going to park ourselves on the island, away from prying eyes, and I'm going to put every one of us through training that will ensure even little asthmatic Timmy over there-"

"FUCK YOU, IT'S HAY FEVER!"

"-can force-feed Kid his own feet next time we run into him. And I'm going to train myself, the captain, and the other officers using every scrap of knowledge I can find, and make sure this never happens again. So get your asses in gear and start sailing."

The men practically sprint to their stations on the sails. I smile thinly, and walk back inside. It's the work of a moment to get what I need from my cabin.

Fingers on the frets and the strings.

Breathe in. Out.

And play.

"The King and his men

stole the Queen from her bed

and bound her in her bones

the seas be ours and by the powers

where we will we'll roam…"

Silence holds out for a moment, and then Pravilno nods, joining in as I keep going. A few bars in, Ostavila adds her voice.

"Yo, ho, all hands

Hoist the colors high

Heave, ho, thieves and beggars

Never shall we die!"

That seems to be the spark, and as I keep playing, eyes closed, a violin adds its tune to the dozen-odd voices on deck, mournful and slow.

"Now some have died

and some are alive

and others sail on the sea

with the keys to the cage

and the Devil to pay

we lay to Fiddler's Green."

I feel the ship turn as the sail catches the wind, seemingly straining to run with the music as the chorus roars out. It shouldn't be this easy to play, to sing in tune, and yet it is. It's as though I'd been playing this instrument my entire life. I don't question it. I just play.

"Yo, ho, haul together

Hoist the colours high

Heave, ho, thieves and beggars

Never shall we die!"

The click of boots on the deck and the sudden silence that falls make me open my eyes.

Vinci.

The docs had been kind enough to give him a blindfold. But the wounds were still obvious, barely healed- only healed at all thanks to whatever he'd been dosing himself with since I'd met him. One on each side, stretching from the corners of his mouth up to his ears, crossed by the parallel lines of deceptively neat slash marks from where there'd been stitches. Two more, the right slashing across the left, where his eyes had been.

He smiles, and gestures for me to keep going.

"The bell has been raised

from it's watery grave

Hear it's sepulchral tone.

A call to all

pay heed the squall

and turn your sails to home…"

His voice fades away, a moment's rest, and then…

"YO, HO, HAUL TOGETHER!

HOIST THE COLORS HIGH!

HEAVE, HO, THIEVES AND BEGGARS!

NEVER SHALL WE DIE!"

And as the last notes fade away, Grigori Vinci, our blind, mad, and fearless captain, throws back his head…

"DAHAHAAHAHHAHAHAHA! THAT'S MORE LIKE IT, YOU BASTARDS!"

And laughs.


The screams stopped.

They had been going on for ten hours, and at last, they'd stopped.

Herman was probably the only one who'd heard them. None of the others had the hearing his Zoan fruit granted him, and he knew who'd been screaming.

And why.

The lab that was shoved into the cargo hold had thick walls, thick enough that he couldn't hear anything that wasn't on the level of that damned caterwauling, but they hadn't talked about it in the lab. He'd heard all of it- Kaneki's quiet acceptance, Vinci's grim talk of necessities, Akis's objections. Parts of it had been obscured by the sea and the need to keep the Ends Justified on course...but he'd heard enough.

Whatever Vinci had been working on wasn't properly ready. But the Captain wanted it done anyway. And he had need of Kaneki's eyes, to replace his own, and his tails, to cut quickly and efficiently.

The sound of the ghoul ripping out the former was still keeping Herman up at night. And was throwing off his sparring with the man, who didn't look hurt at all.

He pushed it out of his mind, and turned the wheel a few degrees to port, sniffing the air. The wind was with them, and if it kept up they'd make Crucix very soon.

But why had the screams stopped? Could the Captain be-

SLAM! "YOU WOULD NOT BELIEVE! HOW MUCH THIS HURTS!"

Oh, never mind, he was fine.

00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

That is a lot of smoke on the horizon.

"That's definitely Crucix," Vinci muses, one hand on the rail and the other holding his tricorn in place against the gusts of wind. His new eyes...well, they aren't his old color, or mine- either of them- for that matter. The irises gleam gold in the sunlight. "Now, what the hell happened?"

"Pirates, probably," Jack mutters. "No permanent garrison, they'd be easy pickings for a crew that wanted to take the town."

"Hmph. Kaneki?"

"Well…" I shrug. "If they aren't going for Marines, and just want to hurt civilians...probably weak. We gonna fight them?"

"If it is pirates, and they're the reason for that smoke...yeah. Spread the word, I want the Sirins manned and cannon loaded."

"I'll get on that, then," Jack mutters, before turning and leaving with his hammer on his shoulder.

There's a moment of silence. Vinci scratches at his chest, where I know the Y-shape of the surgical scars are still healing. I should know, I put them there.

"You holding up alright?" I ask, too quietly to be overheard.

Vinci grits his teeth, and I see his knuckles go white as he grips the rail tightly. "I'll be fine," he says flatly.

"One tail." The appendage whacks Vinci across the back of the head, dislodging his tricorn. Vinci whirls on me with a snarl, and I let it dissolve.

"You're being broody. That's my job," I say with a smile.

"Fuck you, Kaneki."

"You're not my type, Stitches-for-Days."

"Jesus. Why- argh! Why aren't you worried about this? Why doesn't anyone seem to care that I lost? I...I failed. I'm the captain, I'm supposed to be stronger than that."

I shrug. "It happens. Is it gonna happen again? No. And nobody else got hurt."

"But I-"

"Vinci. Stop being an idiot."

"Pretty sure I'm supposed to give the orders," Vinci mutters, picking up his hat.

"Doesn't change the fact that you need to stop being an idiot. Look. I'm still not sure what you had me cut you open to implant. I'm pretty sure you aren't entirely sure what it'll do either. But you'll get stronger. Probably stronger than me, if you've got the willpower. Doesn't matter if you lost one fight. You won't lose another...and hey, if you need practice, I'm betting we've got a crowd of assholes to fight soon enough. What the hell brought this funk on anyway?"

Vinci glances at the smoke on the horizon. "Don't know. Whoever is responsible...the thought of pirates doing that reminds me of the flame-haired bastard, I guess. Also, damn scars itch. They should be healed by now."

"Red Scales...well, they don't leave what they touched unmarked."

"You do realize I'm going to need samples to figure out the mechanics behind that quasi-mystical bullshit you just said, right?"

"Save the syringes and knives for after we help the village, you nutjob."

"Fine, you ungrateful Luddite."

"Pretty sure I'm not against technology."

"Well, I couldn't think of a better phrase. You're too philosophical to be a Philistine."

I suppress a smile as Vinci grins. There. Mission accomplished.


There was a chill in the air, and as far as Herman was concerned it had nothing to do with the freezing winds that had propelled them from Walker Island, or the generally cold climate in this region of the South Blue.

Ends Justified swung into Crucix's harbor with cannon out and utter silence among the crew.

Kaneki tapped Herman on the shoulder, and pointed silently to starboard. Herman followed his finger, and caught a glimpse of a burned-out hulk, charred right down to the waterline. Even with the black char, the green of the Marine-issue hull paint could be seen.

And the smoke...the smoke was upwind, but he could catch what it smelled like.

Kaneki licked his lips. "Someone is cooking long pork."

Herman suppressed a shudder at the ghoul's expression, and focused on more important things. Like shouting at the more hapless crew members to take in the damn sails, did they want to ram the island, lower the damn anchor, et cetera.

It gave him time to watch the docks, as well.

They were...pristine. There was no sign of battle, not even scorch marks. If it hadn't been for the remnants of the Marine vessel and the half-dozen other boats- small fishing vessels- tied up on the docks, he'd even call them deserted. As though the island had been emptied out, leaving only the smoke and bodies that were certainly deeper into town behind.

Jack visibly shivered. "This place ain't right," he said flatly.

Kaneki's nose wrinkled, and Herman sniffed the air before frowning himself. Something...wasn't quite right, exactly as Jack said.

Herman nodded to the guy hanging at Kaneki's left shoulder- the one with the Yakuza pompadour and the pistols- and gestured him over. "Got more of those?" he asked, pointing to the lit cigarette in the man's mouth. Pompadour nodded slowly.

"Hand them out."

"Why?"

"Because if I have to keep smelling human bacon I'm going to probably go insane with paranoia," Kaneki added, interrupting Herman. "Pass them out, Pravilno."

"Fine, fine...crazy bastard."

The tobacco-smell was almost overpowering, and Herman resisted the urge to wheeze- an urge Kaneki succumbed to with ease- but it was still a lot better than the previous scent.

Vinci leaned on the rail, his usual smile looking strained. "Jack, Kaneki, keep an eye on the boat. Herman, get ten men, you're with me. We need to figure out what's going on here."

Why him? Kaneki was the stronger fighter, and Jack had a cooler head. He was just...oh.

Take the navigator and the captain, and even if most of the crew got it into their heads to run they wouldn't be able to. Clever man.

Granted, Kaneki probably wouldn't run, unless it was towards the smell. Creepy cannibal bastard.

Herman took a drag on his cigarette and started shouting again. It didn't take long before ten men- some of them looking rather annoyed at having lost bets or other contests with their counterparts staying aboard- were joining them in walking down the gangplank and into the still too-silent town.

Screw this. There had to be something, even if in human state his ears weren't good enough to pick it up. It was the work of moments to shift fully over to his animal form, dropping forward onto four legs as his cloak and clothes melted into his fur. Amakatta remained on his back, its sheathe held in place by a braided leather cord. He loomed over Vinci, and the man smiled. "Nice doggy."

Herman shook himself, and padded forward, sniffing at the air. There. A scent of living, breathing human, thin under the smoke and burnt-flesh stench, but there.

He bounded forward, and the others followed him in the hunt.


"Well I know of sin by the things momma prayed,

An' I know of Heaven by the line at its gate.

I know of Truth and the Grand Line's way,

Some come drink the water if you wanna be saved."

"Don't drink the water if it's not from my stream,
It's all still water if it's not flowing free.
Don't drink the water at the watering hole,
Cause if you ain't got money, it can't save your soul."

My memories are strange, I decide. They're so tattered I can't remember what my name used to be, what my age truly is, what I did during what was apparently a century or more of jungle-wandering...and yet old songs come as easily as what I ate for dinner last week.

Old songs and-

I WILL BE THE PIRATE KING!

A man's dream will never die!

That is a captain's burden. Don't hesitate. Who are we going to rely on if you falter?

Aren't you the one being hurt? The government says your existence is a crime, but no matter what kind of weapons you may hold, just being alive isn't a sin! THERE'S NO CRIME IN LIVING!'

Death...is never an apology!

They think that... something so trivial... can kill me... I need no assistance... I... I am... I! AM! WHITEBEARD!

Fall, Noah….

D. shall bring forth a storm once more…

-other things, impossible things. And yet I know they're true. That everything around me I once read as fiction...well, at least I know how destiny is supposed to go. Might as well be there when everything goes to shit.

I pause, realizing I've stopped my song, and shake my head before returning to the tune, letting it echo in the empty streets.

Jack's keeping in touch with Vinci and the recon group. He'll tell me if something goes wrong. For now, why worry?

"And all God's people

Said amen

And all God's people

Said amen."

There's something moving, in the shadows, coming closer to where I sit at the base of the gangplank. I don't show any sign I've noticed, and judging from the sounds coming from the ship none of the crew have noticed- that or they're smart enough to imitate me.

"I know of sin by the things momma prayed,

I know of heaven by the line at its gate.

I know of truth and the Grand Line's way,

So come drink the water if you want to be saved."

Whoever they are, they're clever enough to avoid notice, keeping to the lengthening shadows...but it's not enough to really mask their smell...fear. Fear and adrenaline, barely kept running.

"Nobody prays unless they lose a son.

They don't believe in God 'till there're wars to be won.

But I know of lies by the truths I been told,

And the biggest one's that we're not growing old…"

I launch into the last bit of the song with intensity, and am rewarded as the runner stumbles, falling to the cobblestones with a bit-back cry.

"It's not a sin if it don't make me cry!

He's not the devil 'less there's fire in his eyes!

Oh it ain't the Ghost if it don't speak in tongue,

And it's not a victory till the battle's been won…"

They get up slowly, staring at me.

"And all God's people…

Said amen.

And all God's people…

Saaaiid Aaaamennnn…."

My eyes flick over them, evaluating. She's young, can't be any older than I appear to be, skin the same nut-brown shade Zoss's was, black curls held back in a bushy ponytail. She stares at me, then at the ship, eyes watching the sails and the men on board.

Pistol at her hip, but the rest of her clothes look hard-worn, the knee of her pants torn open over a bleeding gash she's clearly earned from her tumble and is just as clearly ignoring.

"You're...you're pirates."

Okay, pretty standard reaction…

"Thank God."

Aaaand that isn't.

000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

It only took minutes before they- and by they, Vinci really meant himself and Herman- heard it.

It was a wonderful and terrible thing he'd done to himself, really. Even he wasn't sure what the end results of implanting the prototype King's Heart into himself would be. The initial ones, though…

His senses had caused him a lot of pain, and it'd taken hours to adapt to them. Hours that had been spent screaming his throat raw, never stopping as accelerated healing kept his vocal cords in top condition…

Nope, not thinking about it.

Still, it'd been worth it. Everything,scent, sound, sight, everything, was clearer and sharper. The shadows hid nothing. And he could hear every word of what was unmistakably a sermon.

"-vigilance, my brothers and sisters. We have built our kingdom, and God's gifts let us defend it from the tyranny of the World Government, but there are still many who would see us undone! They must be rooted out, and cast upon the pure!"

A highly disturbing sermon at that.

"Well, this explains the smell," he muttered quietly to Herman. "You hear it too, right?"

The immense dog, a black-furred, ludicrously shaggy animal that more closely resembled a particularly happy bear than anything else, flicked an ear and nodded. "Creepy," he said flatly.

Vinci pointed a finger at one of the crew- Rotes, that was his name- and tossed him the baby transponder snail. "Call up Jack, tell him to get ready to go now."

"Not playing the hero?" Herman muttered.

"I don't want to be around when the World Government razes this island to the bedrock," he replied flatly. "They've already killed Marines, and that just means the actual hammer that hits this place is going to be horrifying. Vice-Admiral horrifying."

Herman's ears laid back, and the rest of the men exchanged looks. Rotes looked like he was about to soil himself.

"I'll just, uh, call him then."

"Good. I'm getting a closer look at the place."

"Wait, what-"

Before anyone else could react, Vinci had begun to scale the nearest house, fingers finding minute cracks in the bricks and mortar. It only took moments to clamber up onto the roof. Another moment to orient himself, follow the echoes of the ongoing sermon, growing more unhinged by the second.

It made his blood simmer, but he held it down. Mastered it.

Part of him knew it was stupid to be getting closer. He knew it was dangerous, and pointless.

But he had to see. If only so someone would remember what was being done here.

It wasn't as though any records would be left after the Marines finished their work.

As he jumped across rooftops his mind flicked over what little he knew about Crucix. A decent trading spot, not large enough to need a Marine garrison, nothing really of note at all. Only real thing that made it stand out was its location close to both Walker Island and Hangman's Town, which made it a good stop for people heading for the Grand Line. Pirate crews or traders would load up on supplies here, make a run on Hangman's for what they couldn't get here- usually medicines, fresh fruits, and other inter-Blue goods- and then make for the Line. And that was it.

It didn't explain...this.

"We have burned away much of that which has weakened us, my brethren, but more still remains. Those few cowards lurking in the forests scheme and plot against us, and they will not rest. Their wicked master will drive them onward, but we are RESOLUTE! We WILL NOT falter to their corruption!"

Just a little farther…

Two rooftops later, and he came upon a courtyard, one filled to the brim with people. Most of the town's population looked to be crammed into the square...but Vinci didn't even acknowledge them.

His eyes were for the stakes erected just in front of the rooftop he was perched on...and the mounds of burnt wood and bone around them.

Part of him started screaming quietly. He ignored it, locked it away, and turned his eyes to the man making the speech, screaming his devotion in front of the gothic structure of the church.

'Flat' was the first thing that came to mind. His eyes picked out features easily even at this distance, but for half a moment he doubted them. Surely nobody could look that strange? Hell, it seemed like he'd been smashed face-first into a wall as a baby. Beyond the face structure that could keep a plastic surgeon in the black for decades, he looked strong enough- hard to tell, most of him was hidden by a dark brown robe. Even his hands were covered by overlapping bandages, like boxer's tape. No jewelry, nothing ostentatious.

A fanatic, then.

What concerned him a bit more were the four men in armor flanking the priest. Knights of some sort? The one at the priest's right hand had to be ten feet tall at least, his armor more ornate than the other three- or the twenty more knights standing in ranks on the church steps. Probably their leader, and he looked like he knew how to use that bisento he was carrying. Second on the right was squat and portly-looking, no swords visible but a pair of outsized pistols on his hips. First on the left did have a sword, a straight thing with a classical crossguard. Last of them was a knight only wearing the breastplate and helmet of his armor, carrying a massive double-headed axe.

Okay. Recon done. Time to get the hell out of-

Vinci threw himself to the right just as a pistol ball the size of his fist passed through where his torso had been tenths of a second earlier, and rolled down the side of the roof just in time to dodge a second shot that sent tile splinters raining down.

"AN ASSASSIN? AFTER HIM!"

Well, shit.

He ran, and hoped Herman had heard the shouting and had enough sense to do the same.


I reach over to touch the young woman's shoulder, trying to break her out of her staring-

Aaand she immediately shoves the barrel of her pistol right under my jaw, her other hand grabbing mine in a crushing grip. Well, probably crushing for normal people. On me, more like slightly firm. Seriously, Timmy the Asthmatic (and bar for Weakest Crew Member since Digby had bulked up) has a stronger grip.

I raise an eyebrow as she turns, keeping me between her and the ship.

"Really? You're glad we're here, and then you shove a gun in my face?" I say lightly. "Your planning leaves a lot to be desired."

"Shut up," she says shakily.

"No, but seriously, what is your plan? Shoot me, and you'll just make me angry."

"Bullshit. You're human, just like everyone else. And I'm not taking any chances- I'm getting the hell out of here."

"Human? Kahahahaha…" I don't bother with the chant, and my tails burst free, the tips curling around to point centimeters from her eyes. "You have no idea what I am," I say with a smile. "Now, are you going to be polite?"

She doesn't move at all, just narrowing her eyes at me. Ballsy. I sigh, and shove the pistol aside with a finger, something she doesn't resist, before stepping back. Not out of reach of my tails, but out of hand range. "Fuck."

"Yeah, that's the usual reaction. So, posturing done...let's start over a bit more sanely, yes?" I ask lightly. "What's your name?"

She's shaking. Pretty sure that's not normal. Oh, right. I let the tails go, and back up a bit myself. "Your name," I prompt again. She shakes her head, and visibly straightens. "Bertram Lauren," she says. "Yours?"

"Yoshimura Kaneki. Now, miss Bertram, why exactly did you think it was necessary to pull a gun on me?"

"Hey, Yosh? She gonna be a problem?"

I wave Pravilno off without even glancing up the gangplank. "No. I'll handle her. Keep an ear out for Vinci and the others calling in."

"Ya, I hear you."

"Are you...the captain?" Lauren asks.

I laugh. "Nah, miss, my captain's looking for the rest of the people who're supposed to be here. Makes you part of the mystery too, ya know. You know what happened to them?"

Her eyes go blank for a moment, and she stares fixedly into empty space for a second, not even breathing, before shaking herself out of it. "Yes," she says, very quietly, "I do."

"Alright," I say, gently. "We'll leave that for later. Back to what I asked earlier. Why the gun?"

She stares at the pistol still in her hand for a second before holstering it. "You're still pirates," she says, in a slightly stronger voice. "Didn't think you'd be willing to do anything unless I threatened you into it."

"And if I'd just killed you for trying?"

She practically snarls, and I take another step back at the sheer rage in her expression. "Better that than dying on a pyre like the rest," she growls.

"Kahahaha...so what's the thing you want so badly you'd wager death for it?" I ask, trying to sound laid-back. Pyres? That meant nothing good.

"Getting the hell out of here and onto the north side of the island. I...I don't know how to sail any of the fishing boats, and all the exits...Machitus has men watching every other way out of town. I've been out here for weeks hoping someone would show up."

"Well, you got us." Okay, the situation is bad enough that she considers pirates an attractive option. Time to call Vinci and get the fuck out of here, ASAP. "Now get your ass on board. Why the north side, though?"

"Before it...started...some people were talking about hiding in the woods there," she says carefully. "I know the paths. If they're there...I need to get them out of here."

"Hmmph. You'll have to wait for our captain and navigator to get back, but it won't be much trouble. Like as not they'll help you out."

"But...you're pirates."

"Just means we'll ask for payment, or not. Our captain…" I shrug. I'm not sure myself what Vinci would do. Sure, common decency and all, but he's been uncommonly ruthless at times. A conundrum.

"KANEKI!" Oh, that's Jack. "GET UP HERE!"

That doesn't bode well at all. Nothing about this has boded well, though, and so I yank Lauren up the gangplank after me, tossing her into Pravilno's hands (I hear the sound of a fist hitting a pompadoured skull almost instantly) and vanish into the ship, right into the transponder snail room where Jack is waiting. "What?" I say, as if I hadn't just sprinted all the way there.

"Kaneki? Good," Vinci's voice says, coming from the snail. "Everyone ready to go? We're getting out as soon as we hit the docks." A gunshot carries over the connection, followed by the sound of a volley and cries of distant pain. Far-off, I barely make out the same sounds.

"Found the locals?"

"Yeah, and they're nuts."

"Not all of them. Got one on our ship. Haven't gotten anything out of her yet, but she says she knows how to meet up with some people who've fled the town. Captain...what happened here?"

Vinci's snail-mediated expression turns grim. "Nothing good, Kaneki. Fine. This woman, we'll listen to her, but first we need to get out. Get the men ready to repel boarders."

"Aye, captain."

00000000000000000000000000000000000000000

It's easier to hear them before we see them. Gunshots, screams, and the roar of an angry mob. Shit, how many nutjobs were there?

"Kahahahaha...this is going to be interesting," I say, leaning on a rail as my tails wave slowly. Jack just grunts.

Everyone is at their places, guns and gatling manned, and the tension in the air is thick enough to cut with a knife. So I do what seems logical.

I throw back my head and laugh. Pravilno, Ostavila, and Lauren all look at me like I'm insane, and most of the crew joins them.

"Come on!" I shout. "You think whatever they have will stop us? Worst that'll happen is some of you die, and we all know the captain would like as not drag your sorry carcass out of hell just so he could yell at you for making him do so! So laugh, you sons of bitches! We're kicking the asses of people who deserve everything that's coming to them and more!"

And right on cue, Herman, Vinci, and a half-dozen of the crew round the corner.

They'd left with ten, where- no, four of them on Herman's back. Not moving.

And then the horde comes around the corner and I stop worrying about casualties. One of them, a giant of a knight, is closing the distance quickly. Too quickly.

I don't Shave. I'm not quick enough for that kind of technique, at least not enough to do it reliably, or in the right direction. But two of my tails launch me forward fast enough that it makes little difference.

"Scaled Guard!"

The knight's bisento slams into my crossed tails, and for the briefest moment I'm stuck in midair, straining against the blade- and then the man finally overcomes my momentum and sends me flying back the way I came.

Luckily the railing, and my spine, break my fall a bit. Ow.

"I'm okay!" I announce from the slightly splintered deck.

"Stop doing stupid shit, Kaneki," Ostavila deadpans, helping me up- and ow my spine just kicked back in, god damn do my legs hurt.

"Yes ma'am no ma'am, three bags full ma'am," I mutter, flicking my tails- and shit, the fucker managed to put a notch into them. A notch that is pretty much gone now, but still...hrm. "Well, I pity the Marines who clean up this mess now," I say lightly, cracking my neck and returning to my spot on the rail. Well, next to my old spot, given the hole in the railing.

Huh. The big guy's fallen over, tangling up a good chunk of the mob as others try to help him up. Did I…

"WOO! Nice one, boss!"

Well. Guess the impact hit both ways.

"Eat Newton's Third Law, bitch!" I shout at the horde as Vinci and crew blaze up the gangplank, Herman shifting back into human form mid-stride and dumping four groaning and bleeding crewmen to the deck. The medics are on them in seconds.

BRRRRRRTT.

The Silins, three of them on this side, spin up and tear ragged holes in the mob, which recoils, men dropping like flies as the bullets do their bloody work. I make out, over the gunfire, someone exhorting them to keep going, and they start to rally as the men slack off their volley.

And then the cannons fire their loads of canister shot.

It's long range for them, long enough that the knights in their armor are probably fine. But most of the mob isn't so lucky.

Lauren vomits over the side of the ship at the same time as Jack starts shouting orders and our sails are unfurled to catch the wind, starting us out of harbor. The crack of rifle fire chases us, a couple shots putting holes in our sails and others forcing people to take cover, but we've been waiting and the wind is in our favor.

"That was too damn close," Vinci mutters as we pull out of rifle range at a decent clip. "They're fast little bastards."

"And now about fifty of them are dead little bastards," Jack says. "What're your orders, Captain?"

"You. Girl."

"My name is Lauren," she replies a little shakily, spitting over the side.

"It could be Poofy McPrincessy for all I care. Where the hell are we supposed to land on the north side, and where do we go from there?"

"You're the captain, then?"

"Of course I'm the-" Vinci stops, and takes a couple deep breaths. "My apologies. Being chased by a mob of screaming fanatics is not exactly entertaining."

"You really break out the long words when you get stressed, eh Captain?" Pravilno observes nonchalantly.

I sigh. "Pravilno?"

"Yeah?"

"Shut the hell up."

"Yessir."

"Okay," Lauren says, very carefully. "I know the landmarks, I can guide you to a good landing spot once you circle back around."

"Good. Talk to Herman, he's the one on the wheel. Beard, sword, hair as though he's been marooned with only a sharp rock to keep himself trimmed. Got that?"

"Yes, but... who are you?"

"I am Grigori Vinci, Captain and surgeon of the Nightmare Pirates, and I am currently out of fornications to give."

I think I'm going to treasure the expression she makes at that statement.


Running any sort of refugee camp was difficult.

Running a refugee camp without much in the way of supplies was even more difficult, but manageable.

Running a refugee camp without much in the way of supplies while keeping activity and foraging down because they had to hide everything from discovery by a bunch of outright nutjobs with horrifying power was asking the impossible. Marines did the impossible every day, though, so it could- barely- be done. Theoretically.

Doing the above with only six surviving men was literally undoable, but Seaman First Class Higgs was doing his best anyway. He'd be damned if he failed these people again.

He couldn't take the fight to the crazy bastards in town-

-the roar of flames, the screams of dying men-

-but he could try to keep the non-crazy ones alive enough for the Marines to send backup. Branch 48 might've gone down, and Captain Mortvi with the ship to boot, but he was a Marine no matter what. Serve and protect.

"Sir? We've got a problem."

He sighed, not even able to work up the energy to remind Seaman Dimo that he shouldn't be calling him 'sir' when he wasn't even a Petty Officer. "Another one, you mean. What is it?"

"The northern cove, sir. There's a ship there. And…"

"Spit it out."

"I recognized the symbol, sir, from the bounties we got before...before-"

-the ship dying to a storm from the heavens-

"Before we got taken down, yes, but which ship."

"The Nightmares, sir."

Shit.


It was a hidden irony that a large part of Impel Down's hidden Sixth Level was surprisingly comfortable.

Granted, the sections where important death row inmates were left to rot were as dank and grim as could be expected, but that was because they were going to die. There was no need to care much for them.

The ones who couldn't be killed- or, more often, couldn't be allowed into public light even for an execution, for fear of what they might say- had it better. Not good, but tormenting them further was pointless and counterproductive. And so Level Six inmates kept decent clothing, were allowed mediocre food, and got some news of the outside world. Mediated by Warden Magellan, of course, and prone to being taken away over minor infractions...but they had them.

"Hey, Voorhees!"

The man being addressed looked up.

The first thing one thought of when looking at him was that he could pass for a fishman. It wasn't just the appearance, though his teeth were filed to points and he had a look that wasn't quite human. It was the eyes. Cold, dead, black pinpricks, like a great white's. The snow-white suit he wore and the pale blond of his hair reinforced the sharklike impression.

"What?"

"You said you wanted to know if...well, you know. Here. Take a look."

The man took the newspaper- a South Blue rag, and a week old, by the makeshift calendar the inmates had- and leafed through it, going straight to the bounty pages.

And he smiled.

"Hello, brother."


Vinci had not been having a good day.

Very few people who had been pursued by a band of fanatical religious nuts would call the day that happened on 'good' in any case, but it burned worse when he couldn't turn around and turn those same nutjobs to mincemeat. The mob and the knights would've been easy...but something had one-shotted that Marine frigate, and if the brief clash between Kaneki and Bisento Knight was any indication, the ones in charge were tough bastards even without pulling out something on that scale.

And then there was the possibility of a Vice-Admiral dropping by for a friendly firestorm at any moment. And the fact that he was pretty sure his grandfather was dead, or at the very least had made a series of cunning plans to fake it.

Add it all up, and Vinci's usually easygoing mood was virtually nonexistent by the time a group of assholes in tattered Marine whites confronted them with rifles raised.

They wanted to fight? They got one.

Gramps had tried to teach him as much as he could, before everything. Making him ready for a career in the Marines. His body wasn't strong enough to do half the things Gramps had told him about though. Hadn't been strong enough.

The King's Heart thundered in his chest, filling his veins with fire as he eyed the Marines and his crew- even Kaneki, who was bulletproof- panicked for tenths of a second.

The world went slow.

He hadn't been strong enough, outside Monster Mode, pushing his body to the very limits each and every time.

Hadn't been.

Ten steps in the blink of an eye. That was key.

It felt like moving through syrup, but he pushed on, and before the men in Marine whites could pull their triggers he was behind them, surgical thread wrapped around their necks and pulling tight.

Then the burning in his legs flared into positively obscene levels, and he fell to one knee, pulling the Marines down with him.

The world went back to normal, and Vinci heard Kaneki laugh even over the undignified choking noises the Marines were making.

"Didn't know you could do that, Captain," the ghoul commented as he walked up. As the man's tails hovered over the Marines Vinci loosened the threads, letting the poor bastards breathe a little.

"Wasn't sure I could," he muttered. "Hell on your legs though."

"Fucking...pirate…"

"That's Mister fucking pirate to you, Marine," Vinci grumbled, getting back to his feet. "Now, going to explain why you were trying to conduct an ambuscade? We are returning one of your own." He let go of the threads, winding them back up around the tiny spools he'd sewn into his lab coat's sleeves. "In all seriousness, did you really think you could take on a whole pirate crew with...six people? Hell, half of you look like you haven't eaten a decent meal in weeks."

"Returning on of our- you're not here to go after the town?" one of the Marines asked faintly. He gave Kaneki a glance.

"Tried that, little too warm a welcome," the ghoul said with a smile.

"No, we don't give a damn about your town full of nutjobs," Vinci muttered. "Where is she...girl! Get your ass up here!"

"Dammit, I told you my name Scarface!"

Girl had fire to her. And had recovered from her brush with actual fighting pretty quick, more credit to her. If she could actually fight he might even consider poaching her for his crew. But that was for later.

The girl came up the beach where the rest of the crew was waiting, joining them at the entrance to the formidable forest that dominated this half of the island. Ends Justified rode at anchor in the small cove she'd pointed out. She gave the captive Marines a glance. "Look, they agreed to drop me off here...wait, you guys...so some people survived from that Marine ship after all…"

Vinci stepped back, and gave Kaneki a nod. The man's tails dissolved away, letting the Marines scramble to their feet.

"I am growing far less interested in finding out what happened to this godforsaken rock by the second," Vinci mused, palming a scalpel and twirling it between his fingers. "And none of you gentlemen in white have answered my question. Why the ambush? We weren't threats."

"You're pirates, and we recognized your symbol."

Something of Vinci's surprise must've shown on his face, because the Marine chuckled. "Yeah, you're big shots now. All four of your officers. 'Berserker Hound' Bosque Herman, twelve million. 'Thundering Hammer' Rubeus Jack, eight million." The man's eyes flicked to Kaneki's masked face. "'Butcher Bird' Yoshimura Kaneki, nineteen million. And you. 'Alley Doc' Grigori Vinci, twenty-eight million."

Huh.

000000000000000000000000000000000000000

"So, we're wanted now. Doesn't really change much…" I muse.

"WOO-HOO! TWELVE MILLION!"

I sweatdrop. "Except the fact that Herman seems way happier about it than he's been about...anything, really."

"BREAK OUT THE SUPPLIES, BOYS, WE'RE GONNA PARTY!"

What? Vinci?

"Party? You're going to-"

Vinci grabs Lauren mid-sentence and whispers something in her ear, and she frowns, then nods.

What are you planning, captain…

"Kaneki, with me."

I don't question it, I just fall in step as everyone in the crew starts to grab stuff from the Ends Justified and start a truly impressive party.

Where did Jack even get a grill? Or that bright pink apron?

"You're planning something," I murmur.

"Dahahahaha...can't a man just enjoy a party?"

"Maybe...but you're you. You're crazy, and it's in-character...hmm. Still think you're planning something."

"And what makes you say that, 'Butcher Bird'? A better name than mine, heh."

"Yeah, 'Alley Doc' isn't exactly terrifying," I say. "And for what makes me say that...well, Lauren and all the Marines just ran into the forest, right after you whispered to her."

"Dahahaha...fair enough, fair enough. Simple. We've got plenty of supplies. And anyone who escaped that hell...they won't."

"You think people got out?"

"Not enough bodies on the pyres to match the population of that town, even adding the crazed nutjobs to the count. A lot got out." His eyes gleam gold. "And townspeople without access to farms and the fishing industry, no supplies except what they carried with them, and only hunting to get more since the town itself is filled with madmen? Don't know how long this's been going on, but they'll welcome a free meal."

I chuckle. "And it makes it easier to talk to everyone if their first impression is a party?"

"That too. Got a song in mind?"

"A few," I admit with a grin.

"Then go rally the band, best to put some music to it."

"Aye, captain. Bowes! Murdock! Alcorn! Vernon! Grab your shit, boys, we're gonna put on a show!"

The men in question, the ones with a touch of musical knowledge, scramble for their instruments as I jump up to the deck and head for my cabin and guitar.

"And a one, a two, a one-two-three-"

"Oh whiskey is the life of man
Always was since the world began
Whiskey-o, Johnny-o
Rise her up from down below
Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey-o
Up aloft this yard must go
John rise her up from down below."

I have no idea where half the shit we've pulled out was packed in our holds. Jack probably knew, and whoever he had pack it all up, but hey, it wasn't my job to know. But the beach looks like a giant picnic, folding tables and chairs scattered all over the place, the more perishable foods all over the place, the crew going through alcohol like a mower through grass…

"Oh whiskey is the life of man
Whiskey from an old tin can
Whiskey-o, Johnny-o
Rise her up from down below
Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey-o
Up aloft this yard must go
John rise her up from down below."

The chance of a Marine attack, or the nutjobs following us, or anything else...doesn't matter.

Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

"Now whiskey made me pawn me clothes
And whiskey gave me a broken nose
Whiskey-o, Johnny-o
Rise her up from down below
Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey-o
Up aloft this yard must go
John rise her up from down below."

I wish I could say I knew exactly when they started to trickle in, but I never really noticed. They just...arrived. People in battered and tattered clothes, worn down, many of them thin with hunger, children and adults and male and female. Most unwashed and unkempt, flinching at contact, on edge like rabbits.

They bleed in around the crew, and the crew takes them in without a reaction.

"I thought I heard the old man say
I treat me crew in a decent way
Whiskey-o, Johnny-o
Rise her up from down below
Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey-o
Up aloft this yard must go
John rise her up from down below."

I'm pretty sure I see some of them weeping, even as I catch the eye of the Marines, hanging at the edges of the ongoing party. Not happy, but letting it happen. Not like they could stop us, heh. I grin, and nod to them.

"I treat me crew in a decent way
Give them whiskey twice a day
Whiskey-o, Johnny-o
Rise her up from down below
Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey-o
Up aloft this yard must go
John rise her up from down below."

How many are there? A hundred, at least. Fewer than there should be. Vinci looks me in the eye, and jerks his head to the side before talking to an elderly man who had probably been stout at some point. I get it. Finish up.
"A glass of whiskey all around
And a bottle full for the shanty man
Whiskey-o, Johnny-o
Rise her up from down below
Whiskey, whiskey, whiskey-o
Up aloft this yard must go
John rise her up from down below…"

I set down my guitar, and nod to Bowes. "Keep it going, I've got to talk to the captain."

The man gives me a grin, and starts up the familiar tune of Bink's Brew on his violin.

Navigating the press of bodies is easier than I expected. The crew gives me space due to rank, and the survivors...well, someone topping six foot in a mask is intimidating enough, and the whispers following me indicate I've got a...reputation.

Heh, suppose it was inevitable.

Either way, I reach Vinci quick enough, to find that Jack- sans apron- and Herman have done so as well. Huh. Between the two of them and the bird's nest of bushy white on the old man, I'm getting beard envy.

Focus, Kaneki.

"What's the trouble, Captain?"

Vinci stares at the old man, ignoring my question. "All right, we're here. Now start explaining."


The ship that was slowly coming into harbor looked like a wreck- no, it was a wreck, barely floating, sails torn, and with gaping holes scattered like hungry, splinter-toothed maws all across the hull. As he watched, one of the mizzen masts cracked and began to slowly lean to the side drunkenly, pulling scaffolding and stays with it before finally falling back across the behemoth's deck with a exhausted thud.

Kirill Garcetti simply watched.

The ship seemed abandoned, but...no, it had made its way into harbor, and he knew the vessel even if the symbol of the cross was no longer present on its tattered sails.

Machitus.

The priest was a good man. Had been a good man, more like, it was doubtful he'd survived with his ship like that. A pity. Garcetti hadn't attended the man's sermons often, but a large portion of the town had loved the man. Wasn't hard to see why- a man of God who preached that everyone could secure a place in Heaven by the sweat of their brow was bound to be loved by a town that made most of its money off selling the results of said sweat.

Thundering footsteps behind him announced the arrival of Knight-Commander Reuel, the leader of the thirty or so knights who guarded the church and the town. The man was a powerful fighter, and for all the mayor's misgivings about the church having so much power, it paled in comparison to the thought of having to deal with the less scrupulous pirate crews without their assistance. Most pirates didn't want to start trouble, but there were always a few who thought they could take the place over.

"Commander."

"Mayor."

"You are higher up than I am. Can you see anything?"

The knight shaded his eyes, squinting at the vessel. "I believe…"

SLAM! "MY CHILDREN! I I HAVE RETURNED!"

"...yes."

The Commander vanished down the docks, taking long strides, and Garcetti watched as the bulky figure of the priest- who looked far healthier than since he'd left on his voyage several months ago- met him on the gangplank that had been tossed down from the decrepit ship. The men clasped arms, and Machitus grinned.

Garcetti decided to leave the two to their reunion.

….

"What do you mean no entrance! He's back, we want to see him!"
"No entrance means no entrance," the knight said flatly, ignoring the growing crowd. "The father has asked to not be disturbed."

"But why? Look, we just want to use the church. We've been doing it while he's been gone, and we just..."

"No visitors."

"Uh-huh. And what about when the mayor comes asking about the stuff you've moved off the ship?"

"No visi-"

"What 'stuff' would that be?" Garcetti inquired mildly, having been standing there for the past five minutes.

An old man had to have his hobbies, and one of his personal favorites was approaching someone silently, especially when it was some sort of commotion. The faces they made as they questioned just how long he'd been standing there warmed his curmudgeony old heart.

"U-uh…"

"Well?"

"They...moved a bunch of crates and stuff off the ship. The night before we burned it."

"Hmmm? And nobody thought to tell me?" Garcetti asked genially. "Well, good sir, what was in those crates?"

The knight began to sweat, visible even with the face-concealing helm he wore. "I can't-"

The gates of the church creaked open, and all conversation stopped.

Machitus looked...battered. His nose had clearly been broken, flattened against his face, and a few faint bruises were still present on his features. But the priest still smiled. "My children, there is no need for this conflict."

"Father Machitus!"

"What happened? Your face-"

"Your ship-"

"Your men-"

Machitus raised his hands, and the crowd quieted.

"My children. My voyage- my pilgrimage- was a thing of wonder and terror. I left you, swearing to return when I found the truth of things...and though the travails and trials I encountered were terrible indeed, and claimed the lives of my faithful companions...I kept my faith. For that, I was rewarded with a revelation, with truth."

"A revelation?"

"Tell us!"

Machitus shook his head slowly, frowning. "It is not ready, my children. The Lord gives us many miracles, and this...the mortal mind struggles to understand it. I am deciphering and contemplating it, but regrettably I must remain undisturbed." The priest's gaze was sorrowful. "I am sorry to delay our reunion so long, my children, but rest assured, when I fully understand the wisdom the Lord has imparted with me, I shall share it with all of you."


"And what did he share? Fire, and death, and miracles, aye, horrible things. Half the damn town crowded around for his 'revelation', whatever it was, and they went as crazy as him," Garcetti finished. "Tossing whoever they could catch onto the pyres, yelling like madmen. Those of us who made it out...well, it's been a long two weeks. So...thank you, for this."

Vinci nodded, taking in the information. "It isn't any trouble," he said with a shrug.

The mayor's story told him plenty. More than he'd wanted to know, maybe, but still…

Vinci caught the eye of one of the Marines, and gestured for the man to approach. The whitecoat was clearly reluctant, but he did it anyway.

"What the hell you want, pirate?"

"We saw your ship on the way in. Burned to the waterline. How'd that happen?"


The distress call his ship had picked up- barely, the signal so degraded no real detail could be made out- worried Higgs. Crucix may have done trade with pirates and rogues at times, but that was inevitable for every island that didn't have a Marine garrison or a dedicated army. It wasn't likely that it was pirates, then. But what? Plague? A famine?

A famine would explain why the docks were so empty…

It was problematic. They had minimal supplies and the cold in this region, while not enough to actually prevent snail calls, kept them from transmitting the massive distances they normally could. Branch HQ had no idea they were here for the moment, and if it was a famine they wouldn't be able to help much or request further assistance.

He could see the Captain worried just as much, the man pacing on the foredeck as Higgs coiled some line that some laggard had left lying about.

"Ahoy the ship!"

Well, someone was alive after all. Higgs- and a good chunk of Branch 48's crew to boot- made their way to the rail.

Jeez. Higgs wasn't exactly a looker himself, but the poor bastard standing at the end of the dock hailing them looked like someone had chopped him out of stone.

"What happened here?" Captain Mortvi called down.

The ugly bastard smiled. "Revelation. You have no business here, Marines. Go now."

"We received a distress call. What 'revelation' do you mean?"

"The truth of the very world. I will not ask again. Leave this place."

"This island is part of the World Government, and we are obligated to assist it," Mortvi replied frostily. "We will not leave until-"

"Genesis Wrath."

Incongruously, impossibly, a scythe of flame lanced out from where the ugly man stood, cutting up through the deck of Branch 48's ship, the heat making Higgs's eyebrows crisp even at a distance.

And then the world dissolved into a roar and white light…


"He must've hit the powder magazine or something, tore the ship to shreds," Higgs says quietly. "I remember waking up, briefly, and...I know it sounds insane but I saw him throwing lightning at the survivors. Me and a few others managed to swim away...we met up with the others, and that was that."

"So nobody knows what happened here?" Vinci asks, equally quietly.

Higgs shrugs. "Might be a merchant vessel or something picked up the original call, but if they did it's not too likely that there'll be any help from the Marines for a while. 'S been nearly a week since we lost our ship. They would've arrived by now."

Vinci takes in a breath, lets it out. "Alright." He looks at the people still milling around the party. "Alright."

His face goes still for a moment, before his grin returns, wider than ever. "Well then. Jack, Herman, Kaneki...get the boys ready to roll in the morning."

"What're we going to do?" I ask, more for the benefit of the non-crew in the conversation.

"Do?" Vinci's grin widens still further as his irises burn gold. "We're going to go practice medicine."

000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

Ends Justified swarmed with activity, the armory the center of the chaos as men carried crates of ammunition, sharpened swords, and generally made themselves ready for the fight that would start in the morning. Weapons were being loaded, belts tightened, knives and axes given one last check.

Vinci, for his part, was examining a rather strange weapon.

It didn't have a place, really. Not in the remnants of personal kit that tended to accumulate on a warship, because the pirates had started with nothing save Marine-issue weaponry, stolen from their captors. And they hadn't purchased anything on Murky or Walker that matched it. It was a scythe, the blade turned upwards so it was parallel to the haft, a crosspiece welded in place perpendicular to the cutting edge, the whole thing fitting smoothly together into a seamless whole. The cutting edge, along the inner surface to the blade, was razor-sharp.

Vinci hefted it in his hands. Good balance despite how crude it looked. Hmm.

Yes, this would do nicely.

"What the hell are you doing here?"

Pravilno's voice drew his attention, and he watched as the pompadoured man confronted Bertram Lauren, who was loading rounds into a lever-action rifle with cold efficiency. "I'm going to fight," she said flatly, their words easy to pick out as those around them started watching the argument instead of moving or talking.

"Do you even know how to-"

"Yes. My mum and dad ran one of the local shops. Sold weapons to all comers." Even halfway across the armory Vinci could see her eyes go hard. "They weren't lucky and they weren't faithful. So I'm gonna fight."

Pravilno snorted, folding his arms. "You ever been in a fight?"

"Seen worse than anything my bullets will do to them," the young woman said monotonously.

Vinci thumped the butt of his newly acquired scythe against the deck, and both of them flinched. Utter silence descended as Vinci watched them both.

"Welcome to the crew," he said flatly. "Try not to die."

Lauren snorted, cockiness back as if it had never left, and worked the action of her gun. "I won't."

Vinci left them behind and headed for his lab, balancing his scythe on his shoulder.

Kaneki was already there when he entered, jacket and shirt off. "What exactly is it you need my blood for?" he asked flatly.

Vinci shrugged as he set his bag on a counter and leaned his scythe next to it. "There's something I'm going to try with the crew. I've tested your blood on cell cultures."

Kaneki went still as Vinci pulled a large needle- one made of a tungsten-steel alloy and one that was more typically used on the most heavily armored South Blue wildlife, since even ordinary steel near a joint or vein couldn't break the skin.

"What...exactly happened?" Kaneki asked cautiously.

"Damnedest thing. It bonded with the normal cells, then started trying to regenerate them all. Had to incinerate the lot, but before I did...well, it was making more of their cells. Not yours, and not ghoul ones."

"So…"

"So I'm going to see who wants some temporary- or maybe permanent- augmentation. We're outnumbered at least three or four to one. And we've got some tough bastards to handle ourselves, which means we can't handle the crowd for the crew."

"So you're going to inject them with my blood and hope it makes them tough enough to even the odds. Without having tested it."

"Only half a dozen, it's not only your blood in the serum, and unfortunately yes, but they'll all be volunteers."

Kaneki ground his teeth. "Fine. It fucks them up permanently though, I'm putting them down. We don't need more of me."

"If that happens, I'll swing the blade myself," Vinci said. "That's the captain's burden. Now hold still. If you're tense it'll just hurt more."

It was the work of moments to draw enough blood from the ghoul, the liquid a far brighter red than normal vitae and slightly more dense as well. He nodded to Kaneki. "You've eaten?"

The ghoul shrugged. "Long salt pork. Not exactly tasty but it's not as though I have options."

"Indeed you don't."

"So why half a dozen?"

Vinci grinned. "It's how many gas masks I have to modify into aerosol dispersal masks right now. Tell me- how do you feel about your own oni hit squad?"


The sun's fallen, but we're still planning, the crew's officers, the leader of the Marines, and Lauren gathered under a tent.

"I didn't get too close to them, but they're mostly staying in their homes except when Machitus calls them together," Lauren reports, looking over a crude map of the town. "I think they assemble at dawn to pray or whatever he wants them doing, they all go to the square and the church and stay there for a while. Easy to steal food from them then, there's nobody to pay attention."

"So if we hit them in the morning they're all in one spot, too crowded to maneuver...good sight lines, too," Jack notes.

"One of their knights is a damn good shot. Nearly took off my head with his pistols when I climbed the rooftops," Vinci adds. "We won't be able to do it quietly...but there's entrances here, here, and here."

"Split up, ten or so to a group...block the way from there and cut them down?" I muse.

Vinci shrugs. "Could work. Marines, you decent shots?"

Higgs frowns. "Decent enough, pirate. What are you thinking?"

"I'm thinking we can get you up on the roofs and you can fire from there while we do our work on the ground. No offense, but you lot are half-starved and I don't think you're up for a melee."

The Marine deflates slightly. "Fine."

"Kaneki, you and the oni are with me. We'll be going for Machitus himself. If the knights get in the way, well…"

"Rip and tear?" I ask flatly.

"Smart man."

"Hrrm." I tap the map. "You sure we can't bring some of the Sirins along?"

"Moving artillery through the woods isn't a good idea," Vinci says.

"There's a cove closer to town, past the forest," Lauren says. "If we can land there…"

Vinci nods. "Should even the odds. Can't spare the men to take all six...takes three to carry and they're lacking carriages...but place them with the groups on the ground, they'll hold them off, turn the place into a killing ground."

"You think talking about the plan in such detail means it's doomed to go wrong?" I muse idly.

"Shut up, Kaneki."

"Yessir."

Someone whistles outside the tent, and Vinci's head snaps up. "Come in!"

Pravilno enters quickly. "Got the six you asked for," he says briefly. The volunteers for Vinci's...experiment.

Vinci nods. "Alright. Excuse me for a moment? Kaneki, with me."

I follow him out of the tent, taking up a position behind him as he looks over the six volunteers. Good men, all of them.

I wish I could remember their names.

"You know the risks?" Vinci asks quietly. All six of them nod. "Alright, then." He pulls a stack of dark red masks from his bag, and starts handing them out. "They're preloaded with the dosage, the toggle switch is by the jaw. There's enough in there to last you for maybe half an hour."

The men exchange glances, then nod, and don the masks easily.

Six oni glare at me in the dark, and despite my trepidation I smile.

Ends Justified slid into the cove- a smaller one than the one on the island's north side, but as close to town as promised- with nary a splash, even the anchor chain lowered with care and as much silence as possible. Herman smiled thinly as he locked the wheel in place and hurried to join the men crowding down the gangplank. Three of the Sirins were coming with them, too, though they'd be short of ammunition compared to shipboard- one could only fit so much on their carriages.

Herman stalked over to one of the twelve-man groups, looking around at the others.

Kaneki and a six-man group in dark red oni masks were speaking quietly as they and the captain joined up with another six. Jack was heading one of the dozens, and the Lauren girl and Kaneki's usual shadows were among their members. That left his own men. He looked them over with a critical eye, and sniffed the air. No fear- just anticipation, and the smell of well-cared-for weaponry. He grinned, and nodded. "Let's go."

As one, the Nightmares moved out.

00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

The first man dies just as dawn is breaking. He steps outside of his house, catches sight of us, and opens his mouth.

Ostavila puts a knife in his throat before he can make a sound. Darting forwards, she grabs the hilt of the blade and cuts the man's throat, dropping the body to the ground with a thump. The leathery-skinned woman catches my eye, and I nod slightly. She fades back into Jack's group silently.

Vinci looks forwards, ignoring the body. "Must've been a straggler," he mutters. "I can hear most of them up in the square. Ready?"

"Always," I answer.

The crew breaks out into a trot, Jack's group splitting off to loop around and cover the farthest entrance to the square while Herman's stays with us. The other two entrances to the courtyard are fairly close, ad the crew should be able to back each other up.

As we draw closer, I can hear more of Machitus's preaching. It's...creepy. Very creepy.

"Strength, my children, is what matters! Our Lord gives us gifts, yes, but we must be strong enough to wield them. Strong enough to break our enemies and drive them before us, for in that way we earn the Lord's favor! And we are strong...we will be the strongest! The strongest of all, and that makes our cause the most righteous in the Lord's eyes! We are an army of those who understand the true word!"

Herman's group splits off, leaving just ours.

The crowd doesn't notice us at first as we enter the square, all of them enraptured by the crazy bastard speaking on the church steps. All of them...they look normal, a bit ragged and disreputable...but then I get a good look at their eyes. Blank, staring eyes. The crewmen murmur slightly at the complete lack of reaction, the sheer alienness of it, and despite myself I'm more than a little unnerved.

Vinci, though...Vinci just laughs, the sound cutting through the preaching with ease and causing the flat-faced man to glare. "You dare…"

"Oh, I dare," Vinci calls with a grin.

"You and your pack of demons and monsters have no place on holy ground," Machitus pronounces, and I see weapons- crude, makeshift weapons, but weapons nonetheless- begin to be lifted by the populace.

"Demons? Monsters?" Vinci says, lighting a cigarette. "Heh. We're nothing so small. Fire at will!"

The Sirins roar, and at this close range there's no escape for the crowd. Against my will, my mouth waters at the scent of spilled blood as bullets rip through their packed ranks, tearing them down- only for the knights to rush into a shield wall, one that holds firm against the hail of ammunition, somehow.

-RRTTTTTTTTT-click-click-click-click…

"Shit, out of ammo already?" I grumble, crouching slightly as the dozens of surviving fighters recover their nerve and the knights unfold from their shield wall, drawing swords. "And here I thought this was gonna be easy…"

"Dahahaha...never is, Kaneki," Vinci says with a laugh. "Let's finish this. Charge!"


It fought.

It was a roaring engine of destruction, a jittering beast barely kept going on dregs of regeneration as the most potent combat cocktail in existence thrummed in its bloodstream and lungs. Its sword was long gone, lost in a shattered collection of bone and blood and flesh, and it fought with bare hands.

Name forgotten, soul forgotten, injuries and tiredness and mortality forgotten. Only orders in its skull, golden-eyed words from golden-eyed man.

Hunt! Kill! Maim!

Five more around it, spilling their own blood and others, scent right while all others were wrong-wrong-wrong, a sixth even stronger behind and the rest all traces and symbols and shouting.

It flipped over a spear-thrust, and its backhand tore the jaw from an opponent as it grabbed another man's neck and squeezed.

Hunt! Kill! Hate!

A kick shattered another man's sternum as it dropped the twitching body and dove forwards, shaking fingers taking up a wood-axe and tearing into bone and brain.

And then it and its brothers were through the crowd, facing armored heroes in tin and steel, all glints in dull sunlight. It snarled in hate and its brothers howled with it as they ran, crashing into the line of shields.

"Judgement."

It flew back, trailing blood and bone, breath rasping through fractured bone and cracked mask, and it landed on its feet with a snarl. Arm broken, fingers missing, ignored.

It launched forwards again, under the shields, quick as thought, and buried its hands in soft-crumpling steel and crushed the life from their throats. They dropped, and its brothers rushed into the gap, wary of the crushing shields, quick as vipers as they turned the formation into a slaughterhouse.

Hunt! Kill!

"Burn."


Vinci leaned to the side calmly as a pillar of flame rippled past him, letting the heat roil over him and ignoring it. He kept walking, his eyes focused on his target.

Machitus.

Vinci didn't care what faith he followed, what gifts he had from heaven. Whatever had happened to him was something more than that. The man was a tumor, and he'd be excised.

The fat knight ran past, clutching a bazooka in one hand and a shotgun in the other, and Vinci ignored him. The axe-wielding knight followed him, and Vinci ignored him too. His crew and the cult battled around him, and Vinci ignored that as well.

He even ignored the clash of metal against metal- and C-cells- to his left and right as Bisento Knight and the dandy with a sword tried to strike at him and were blocked by Kaneki and Herman.

Machitus smiled, and stepped forward, ignoring the slaughter occurring on both sides of him as the remaining oni clashed with the knights. "Have you come to kill me, then?" he asked. "You will find it a difficult undertaking."

One of the oni leapt at the priest. Without looking, his hand shot out and grabbed the man by the head, halting his charge. "Judgement."

The oni's mask shattered as the man went flying back, neck clearly broken. Machitus smiled. "No matter your artifice, it cannot compare to the power of the heavens," he pronounced. "Bow, as all must."

Vinci grinned, but there was no humor in it. "The heavens?" he said, hefting his staff. "No matter the power of your gifts...there is nothing faith can give you that I cannot discern and turn against you." The King's Heart pounded in his chest as his grin widened. "That is the nature of man, to investigate and tinker- and you've given that up, turned from thought to blind obedience to the voices in your head." His smile vanished. "And for that, I'll kill you. With my weak, mundane, mortal tools, you mad fool." He leveled his scythe as Machitus's smile vanished, and launched himself forward, Shaving mid-step. "Greater Amputation!"

Blood flew.


"Falcon Stoop!"

Herman grunted slightly as he blocked the blond-haired swordsman's overhand blow with Amakatta, taking a step back. Not because the bastard was strong, but because he kept-

-he dodged to the side, deflecting a thrust as the blond shouted another fucking pretentious phrase-

Kept trying to spit him like a pig. And every damn counter got absorbed by that fucking buckler in the man's off-hand, as though his strikes weren't even hitting it!

Steel shrieked against steel as he swung Amakatta in a short, harsh arc, forcing the swordsman back as the power of the blow cracked against his guard, too quickly for him to put the shield in the way. The man backed away, before pausing. "What is your name, pirate?" he asked, smiling.

"Bosque Herman," he grunted, lowering Amakatta slightly. "What's it to you?"

"I like to know the name of those who I honor with combat," the dandy said. "I am Knight-Sergeant Jordan...and you will die on my blade."

"Confident little pup, aren't you?" Herman growled. "Fine then. Take your best shot!" he called, lowering Amakatta.

Just as expected, Jordan darted forwards, aiming to spit him again as he shouted something about courts and fans.

Right before the bastard could touch him, Herman shifted form, gaining two feet in height and a couple hundred pounds of fur-covered muscle in an instant, and grabbed the man's shield by the rim, yanking it away and ignoring the pain of the man's steel toothpick opening a gash along his ribs. Amakatta swung, and faced with losing his arm or dropping his shield, the dandy chose the former, dashing back out of reach again.

"So you have the form of a dog as well as its lack of honor," the dandy commented as Herman hurled the shield aside. "How appropriate."

Herman snarled. "Honor means nothing, you little shit. I am a swordsman- I cut down the enemy, nothing less! Now, let's end this, blade to blade!"

"Fine, then," the dandy replied, taking up a two-handed grip on his sword. "Silk Whirlwind!"

"Last Laska!"


"It's no use," the knight taunted as bullets spalled off his armor. "Everything you fire merely increases the potency of my weapons. For instance…"

Lauren cursed, and ducked behind the dubious cover of an abandoned cart as the enormously fat bastard pointed his bazooka at the closest pirates, men who were charging him with swords and axes. "Pharisee's Wind."

The blast of- she had no idea, honestly, air, energy?- sent them hurtling back with bone-breaking force.

"Gagagahahaha! You can't break me! I, Knight-Sergeant Martin, am stronger than any of you!"

Well this fucker certainly liked to hear himself talk…

Fuck! Even armor good enough to turn bullets should've been shaking him like a pea in a can with the number of hits he'd taken. Internal bleeding, bruised organs, fractured ribs...and he fucking walked it off! Maybe if she could get a bullet into his visor...but he'd shoot back before she could line it up right, the second she popped out of cover.

She couldn't do it. She was going to-

"Hey."

The acrid smell of cigarette smoke cut through the haze of gunpowder and fear. She opened her eyes- when had she closed them?- as Pravilno put a hand on her shoulder. What the hell was he doing? Why wasn't he fighting?

The man grinned. "Got a plan? He's a tough bastard, and Jack's too busy fighting that other guy to handle him."

"Come out and die you little insects!"

"Aaand he might be working himself into a rage since everyone else is finding cover," Pravilno noted.

"Why the hell do you expect me to have a plan?" Lauren hissed. "You damn well know I've never been in a battle before- you're the pirate! Hell, you didn't want me fighting in the first place!"

Pravilno frowned. "I...don't like to see young women in danger. I had a sister, and one day-"

BOOM!

The half of the cart Pravilno was hiding behind burst into a rain of splinters, the explosion hurtling Pravilno away from her as she was knocked back. She felt wood slice into her skin, some far too close to her eyes for comfort.

Ow….


Axe and hammer rang together as they clashed again, and Jack snarled. His people were getting hurt, or worse, because he couldn't put down this bastard fast enough.

"What is the matter, pirate? Unhappy because you cannot aid your comrades?" the axe-wielding nut said with a far-too-pleased grin. "Come, now. Let me break you, so that I may prove my strength in the eyes of the Lord."

"You keep yammering on about that," Jack said flatly. "Pretty sure the good book doesn't have anything about pyres and murdering in it."

"The old faith? Oh, no. That is long dead. This is a new faith, of strength and blood and iron. And you have your place in it, as everyone else does."

"You're near as mouthy as that priest of yours," Jack muttered. "Fine, you want strength? Ukko!"


The battle is clear around the two of us, people giving us space. Not out of respect, but because the knight is waving his bisento around like mad and any cult member who intrudes in my space ends up impaled by my tails.

"Scale Cut!"

"Lion's Pride!"

The force of his strike nearly sends me reeling, but the rest of my tails rush in, forcing him back for a moment. I drop into a crouch, heaving for breath, and he leans heavily on his bisento to do the same.

"You are strong, demon," he says. "But I have the will of the Lord behind me. Evil cannot defeat good."

"You call this good?" I snarl. "Pyres of the dead, driving others out into the woods to die?"

"The Father opened my eyes to the Lord's will. What he desires is good, and to oppose it is evil. That is the simple fact of the world."

I can't help it. I laugh. "So that's what you really think?" I mutter, straightening. "Well, then. I suppose it's a good thing."

"That you die here?"

"No. That when I tear you open and feast on your heart, I'll know I'm doing the world a service. Now come on, Commander Reuel. Come and kill me, if you can."

000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

Vinci dodged Machitus's palm strike by inches, and slammed one of his own into the man's chest. "Fracture Trauma!"

The flat-faced priest went flying, crashing through the doors of his church and reducing them to splinters in the process. Vinci leaned on his staff, panting, and probed at the crisscrossed gashes one of the priest's blows had left in his left arm.

Hmmph. Shallow.

He considered. Blows from the right hand produced massive kinetic force. Blows from the left, cutting force, x-shaped. The former he hadn't let impact him, but he hadn't had a choice with the latter...and he'd felt something in the priest's hands, obscured by the bandages but there nonetheless. Round and hard and definitely not an actual palm.

He grinned. Interesting.

"Get him!"

Three knights charged at him, swords drawn. One dropped mid-step as a bullet punched a hole through his helmet. That left one on each side.

"Tracheal Trauma," Vinci said flatly, spinning his scythe and slamming the butt of it into the throat of the knight charging from the left. Knight on the right got two steps further before Vinci's scythe spun back around and parted his head from his shoulders.

There was a dull whump as the knight collapsed onto the cobblestones, and the man's body jumped back into the air before falling again. Vinci knelt down and flipped the body over, noting absently that cracks had spread from the impact point.

Hmm. Even more interesting. Now let's see...he'd fallen shield-first…

The man's shield, like all the others, was an antiquated kite-style thing with a prominent boss higher up- and said boss was cracked just as badly as the cobblestones. A bit of quick work with a scalpel pulled it off entirely, revealing an odd-looking...shell, he supposed. Spiral-shaped and lined with holes. He pried it free easily, bouncing it in his palm.

"Gifts from the Lord, heh," he muttered. "What are you, little shell…."

His eye caught the gathering light seconds before a lance of flame burst from the ruins of the church, just enough to let him dodge to the side.

Machitus did not look happy. Then again, it wasn't as though being thrown into your own church was a cause for joy, Vinci hypothesized. The priest's right hand smoked gently- probably the source of the flame- while his left carried a large tome. "You are rapidly becoming an annoyance," the priest snarled.

Vinci laughed. "Oh, is that all? I'd think that killing off your army of cultists would make me more than that."

Machitus glared. "My losses can be replaced. Why don't I show you how?" He raised the tome in one hand, and Vinci caught a glimpse of embossed silver letters- before gunshots sounded and the upper two-thirds of the book turned into confetti.

Machitus's expression was something he would treasure.

"You...you…"

"Why, Father, I'm amazed. Is this little thing what finally makes you lose your compos-"

Something- a shift in his stance, or maybe just a current of air- warned Vinci to step back. It saved his life as a boot-clad foot passed right through where his head had been, cratering the ground as it impacted. Vinci barely managed to block with the shaft of his scythe as Machitus spun in place, slamming a textbook-perfect kick that sent him skidding back across the cobblestones.

"You little bastard," Machitus hissed. "HEAVENLY WRATH!"

Vinci's world turned into pain.


Herman snarled as the little bastard's blade nearly took a chunk out of his arm. The nimble sabre cut a long gash, nearly cutting tendons, before he slammed his own blade into the man's guard and forced him back again.

"What's the matter, dog? I thought you wanted a match, blade against blade?" the dandy taunted. "Tell me: is this the first time your fury has failed you? The first time you've faced someone with skill? You aren't worthy to carry that blade."

Herman saw red, and Amakatta howled. He swung, only for the dandy to slip to the side, laughing.

"Clumsy, a fool brandishing a hunk of raw iron! And now…" The dandy kicked up a familiar shield, snatching it out of the air. "How can you beat my defense, dog?"

Amakatta shrieked through the air as Herman tried to part Jordan's head from his shoulders.

The boss of the buckler slammed into his chest as the blond knight ducked, and the bastard grinned. "Deliverance."

Pain ripped through him, dozens of crisscrossing gashes opening up on his torso as he staggered back. He spat blood, joining the growing puddle on the cobblestones as he slowly fell to one knee, leaning on his sword.

No. Not like this.

"Is that all, dog? I suppose I've bled you enough."

"No," he managed to growl, staring at the man through blood-clouded eyes. He stood.

"Let me tell you a story," Kaneki said quietly as Herman panted on the deck, flat on his back. Why? Why couldn't he cut the bastard? Even with Amakatta…

"Let me tell it to you as my master once told me," the ghoul said, not even winded. "There once was a man, a swordsman of great renown. His name and title was Abaddon Wagner, Lord of the Edge of Heaven, Bearer of the Executioner's Blade, and Councillor of the Sevenfold Kingdom, and his powers were mighty enough to earn him status and acclaim.

One day, Wagner gathered his retainers, who were hungry for tutelage. "Lord Wagner!" said his sandal bearer, who bore the name Navier, and was a doctor of high learning, "What is the first step on the path to Mastery?"
"There are no steps," replied Wagner, "It is zero-sum with your reality. It is not measured in finger-lengths."
"Lord Wagner," said his bodyguard, who was named Mendel, and who had broken armies with the strength of his limbs. "Is the path to Mastery the path of struggle, then?"
"No," said Wagner, "One may attain it without any effort at all. It is, in fact, the antithesis of struggle."
Wagner's steward, who was burdened with the name Mahbub and knew much of war, was very discontent with his master's evasiveness. "Lord," he said, "Allow us lowly men some small measure of understanding. For sympathy's sake, and the sake of we good and loyal servants, please tell us in plain language the nature of Mastery."
"I will tell you precisely what Mastery is," said Wagner, "It is a continuous cutting motion."

"I...don't understand," Herman managed to wheeze.

Kaneki smiled. "Neither did I. But one day you will."

"Cujo...Howl," he growled, before his vision turned to blood and thunder.


"Do you know what is best in life?" his opponent asked casually as he backed out of the range of Jack's hammer.

"What?" Jack spat.

"To break your enemies, drive them before you, and hear the lamentations of their wo-"

A blur of blood and broken metal smashed the axe-wielding knight aside, followed closely by the black-furred hulk of Herman, in full dog form.

Jack blinked for a moment as the dog-man pounced on the faintly groaning shape of the axeman. Massive jaws closed around the man's neck, and jerked sharply.

There was a small snapping sound, and the man went limp.

Okay. That happened. Right.

"Bosque?" he called out, getting a rumbling growl in response. Jack looked the dog-man in the eyes. The blank, bloodshot eyes.

Great. Another berserker. Jack frowned, and tapped his hammer in one hand. "Oi, navigator!" he shouted. "Snap out of it!"

The gigantic dog's growl deepened, then cut off as Jack pointed his hammer at it. "Bad dog. Go back to being human."

The animal huffed. And then its eyes rolled back in its head and it faceplanted into the cobblestones, turning back into Herman mid-fall.

Judging from the sound, the dog-man had broken his nose in the process. Oh, well, it wasn't as though he could look any worse.

"Help…"

Jack glanced at the form of the axeman, who was pinned under Herman and something that had probably been a person before Herman's dog form had gotten to it. "And why?"

"Can't...feel anything. Cold…" the man whispered.

Shit. Alright, then. "What's your name, then?"

"Howard…"

"Then rest, Howard." There was only one kind of help he could give at this point.

His hammer came down.


I'm starting to regret my choice of opponent.

If I could just reach the overly tall bastard this fight would be over in seconds. But no, I had to pick the one incredibly strong guy with the sense to use his height and reach and make it even worse by waving around a polearm.

I dodge another strike, and grit my teeth as Reuel's bisento cuts into my upper-left tail. How the hell is he pulling it off? These things are able to cut steel! My other three tails dart forwards, forcing him back and cutting a shallow groove into his gauntlet.

"Hmmph. I know your tricks, demon. Those tails are your weapons, no? I wonder...is the rest of you so strong?"

I grin. "You're welcome to try, knight."

He hasn't hit me hard enough or gotten past my tails. He doesn't know about my regeneration, probably thinks only the tails can do it.

This will be interesting.

"Very well. Black Fury!"

"Scaled Guard!"

Blows rain down on my crisscrossed tails, cutting away at them bit by bit. I go to one knee- and hide my grin even as a pair of immensely strong slashes sever each pair, leaving me defenseless.

"Blade of Shadow and Flame!"

His next strike hits me in the collarbone, and keeps going, cutting into ribs and one of my lungs, barely avoiding the heart. I stagger, grabbing on to the haft of the weapon to stay standing. "Con- congratulations," I cough, bringing up blood with my words. "You cut...four of my tails."

I grin up at him.

"Too bad...I have six. Scale Lance."

He could let go of his weapon, but he hesitates, trying to pull it free against the grip I have on it. That fraction of a second is all I need to push free a third pair of tails from my back and send them punching through his breastplate and into his chest.

He falls to his knees as I push his weapon out of my body, torn muscle and bone knitting closed behind it.

"Now...I think I made a promise about your heart," I say with a smile.


Pravilno wasn't moving. The amount of blood on the cobblestones told Lauren all she need to know. If he wasn't dead, he'd be finished soon enough. But she kept crawling towards him anyway, even though every movement sent shivers of pain through her entire body, especially where she could feel a row of splinters in her leg.

"What are you trying, girl?" the fat knight inquired.

She ignored him as she grabbed at Pravilno's pistol, dropped on the ground. Her fingers closed around the smooth, blood-soaked wood, and she drew strength from it.

"Oh? A weapon? Is that little thing your final attempt?"

"Shut. Up," she managed to growl as, shakily, she stood.

The knight laughed, looming over her, pointing his weapon at her. She didn't shiver, or falter. "What do you intend to do, little girl? You cannot pierce my defenses."

She smiled. "I know," she said, making her voice as mocking as she could manage. "I was just waiting for him to get behind you."

The knight whirled, only to find nobody there.

She gathered her strength, and jumped, an arm scrabbling for the fat man's neck and finding purchase even as a metal-clad arm tried to reach back and tear her off his back.

"Gunnery Special: Point Blank," she snarled as she shoved the weapon into the slit of the man's visor and pulled the trigger.


Vinci was vaguely certain he shouldn't be tasting ozone.

Or blood.

But he was anyway. Why…?

"Do you have any idea the cost I paid for that knowledge, to be deserving of the Lord's attention?!" Ah. That was why. "Heavenly Wrath!"

Another bolt of electricity, another surge of pain as muscles locked up and nerves screamed...but this one was less than the ones before it.

Ba-bum.

He chuckled, even though it felt like swallowing glass. "So simple…"

"Do you know what that book taught me? Taught us all? You foolish little Philistine…" Machitus's voice seemed distant, and at the same time far, far too close. "Let me educate you. I sailed for months, searching, searching for something that would let the world make sense again. My crew of faithful died around me, from plague or storm or pirate, and all seemed lost as my ship was becalmed, empty of supplies and unable to sail…" The man's voice choked off for a moment, before resuming, even louder. "And then the Lord saw me! A ship fell from the skies, laden with supplies, with weapons and goods...and with His Word. I took it, I read it, and I understood, for the first time, what the world was like."
Ba-bum. Veins shifted under Vinci's skin, a network obeying no rhyme or reason...except his own. Strength surged into his body, and he found it in him to stand, facing the preacher as he ranted.

"This world...this cruel, blood-soaked world...those who the Lord loves are the mighty! Those who take what they want from this world, those who have the strength to defend all from every enemy! You know this is true- the Marines, the pirates, the Emperors and the Warlords, they rule not through the right or the will of the masses, but because they are strong! They are holy! They are right! As I am right, boy, because you are not strong enough to stand against me. You never will be, for the Lord has decreed for me to spread this message, to all the Blue Seas and across the Grand Line! I will kill you. I will kill your crew. I will take your vessel, and I. WILL. RULE!"

Vinci smiled.

Babum-babum.

"Rule…" he whispered, before he raised his eyes to Machitus's. "Rule? As a barbarian, through the strength of your arm? You….dahahahaha! You are no ruler! You call your tools and your creed heaven-sent?"

Babum-babumbabumbabum….

Something in him surged, and lightning crackled over his arm, dancing over clothes and skin as both his hearts, mortal and Royal, beat even faster. "What your god grants you, my knowledge can equal…" he snarled, taking a step forward. "And surpass, a thousand times." Another step, and Machitus's shock faded as he lifted his own hand, blue lightning to mirror Vinci's yellow crackling off it. "And it always will."

"Very well," the priest said. "You are the last test I must vanquish. Now come! Strike me down! HEAVENLY WRATH!"

"Shave. Electroshock Excision."

Vinci landed on the cobblestones with a thump.

Machitus landed with two.

00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

"What the fuck…" I mutter with a bloody mouth as Vinci somehow starts making fucking lightning and rips Crazy McNuthouse in half. I scrub it away with the back of a hand and sprint over as my captain goes to one knee, panting.

"Christ, Vinci, what the hell did you do?" I ask as I offer him a hand up. He grins.

"Dahahaha...well, the King's Heart is meant for a King. And before a King can rule the world, he must rule himself."

"English, you nutjob," I growl.

"Fiiiine. The glowing gold organ I grew in a glass tube and linked to my veins gives me a bit of shapeshifting and regeneration. Anything I have knowledge of, I can imitate."

I stare. "You're bullshit and your science is bullshit."

"Yep, dahahahaha…" His grin thins as he looks over the silent battlefield, and he nods to himself. "Alright," he says, starting to roll up his sleeves. "Time to get to work."


There was a light. Was he...supposed to go towards it? Wasn't that the whole schtick?

Maybe it was...but he had people to keep looking after. Right?

Yeah. He did.

It wasn't time to-

"Clear."

Lightning clouded his vision, jittering down his skull and filling his veins with fire.

Pravilno's eyes snapped open- and almost immediately closed again, because the captain grinning down at you was something nobody wanted to wake up to.

The sound of a scalpel thudding into the wood of the operating table less than an inch from his ear convinced him to open them again, though.

"Welcome back to the world of the living, Mr. Dobre," Vinci hissed. "Now, let me explain something to you. In the past twenty-four hours, I've been electrocuted, lacerated, battered, and generally kicked about, and the rest of the crew is almost as bad off. If you think I'm letting you die from something as simple as blunt force trauma, you have another thing coming. You. Do. Not. Have. My. Permission. To. Die. Understood?"

"N-n-noted," Pravilno stuttered as Vinci's eyes flared gold.

"Good. Now get off my operating table."

Pravilno practically leapt off the bloodsoaked wood, vaguely noting that he'd been stripped to the waist and that there were an awful lot of new surgical scars on his torso, a pair of facts he filed away for freaking out about later.

"Oh, and Mr. Dobre?" Another trio of scalpels slammed into the doorframe right next to his head and hand, and he jerked back. Vinci's grin never faltered. "If you're stupid enough to get injured because you decided to start an emotional backstory in the middle of a battle...next time that happens, I'll geld you and see if it makes you less stupid."

Pravilno gulped. "Understood," he managed to squeak out.


"All things considered, we got off light," Jack said.

Vinci grunted as he watched the party. It was going surprisingly well, considering a pall of pyre smoke was still faintly visible even as far from the site as the docks were.

It said a lot about what the townsfolk had done to each other that the survivors didn't want to bury the ones Machitus had led. Not even those few who'd had family among the army.

Vinci had made sure that that book, or rather its remnants, had gone on the pyre. He still wasn't sure what exactly had made Machitus so confident in it, but it had done...something. Something he didn't yet have the knowledge to explain.

Yet. But that was why he wanted to go to the Line. The knowledge was out there, he simply had to find it.

The battle hadn't left the Nightmares unscathed. Just about every member of the crew had been wounded at least once, and while much of it was minor...the oni were still in critical condition, as were several others who'd been cut down by that one fat bastard Lauren had taken out.

Speaking of said bastard…

"Looting done?" he asked. Jack nodded.

"Like you said, captain, nobody's touched the shells. We found a couple dozen more in the church, hidden under some floorboards. Not sure what they all are…" He paused, and shuffled awkwardly, an almost ridiculous motion from such a big man.

"What happened?" Vinci asked flatly.

Jack shrugged. "A couple of them started fooling around with the ones we took from the knights, one of them dislocated a shoulder, another's got a couple fractured ribs. Medics patched them up, though."

"Heh. They figured out to leave them be, then?"

"Real damn quick."

"Good."

There was a bit of silence, broken only by the sounds of the celebration.

"We're still going to train, and take on supplies, right?" Jack asked quietly.

Vinci nodded. "More of the former. I don't think they have much to spare."

"That'll mean we'll have to sneak into Hangman's Town, captain." And avoid the Marine garrison there, his quartermaster didn't say but Vinci heard anyway.

He shrugged. "We'd have to do that anyway. Better that when we do, we're stronger."

Jack nodded. "Aye, captain. How long are we going to stay?"

"Couple weeks. Recover on the first one, train on the second. And I'll be getting Kaneki to help me with teaching everyone who can some of the more...impossible things."

Jack gulped, but straightened his shoulders. "We won't let you down, captain." He paused. "And...the girl?"

Vinci looked down from Ends Justified's rail. He caught Kaneki for half a second, surrounded by children, of all things, telling some sort of story. Herman, meditating in a corner and being imitated by half a dozen young men with trimmed branches instead of swords on their laps. Even a couple of the oni, masks pushed up on their heads as they limped around, laughing and joking with the other partiers. And the Lauren girl, smiling as Pravilno told some story that was like as not as truthful as it was moderate. He smiled. "I said she's crew, didn't I? She proved herself...and I think it'll be interesting to see what she becomes capable of."

"Aye, captain."


Burning, the fire in her bones and turning her flesh to steam and screams-

Lauren practically catapulted out of bed, gasping for air.

Fuck. Nightmares again.

She wasn't a scared little girl. She shouldn't have been having these...these horrors in her dreams.

She shook her head, trying to dispel the last traces of the dream as she padded out of the tiny cabin she'd been granted- something the pirate captain had given her when she'd asked to stay on his ship rather than in her far-too-empty home, even with the captain staying docked in town.

Fuck it. She needed to clear her head. Walls were too close here, too confining.

To her surprise, someone was up outside as well, the dark making it difficult to tell exactly who.

One of the deckboards creaked under her feet, and the figure turned. Red irises flared, and she took a step back, nearly falling back down the stairs.

"Let me guess, couldn't sleep," the cannibalistic first mate snarked.

Fuck. It wasn't as though he was going to attack her. The day after the battle, the captain had filled her in on Kaneki's...condition. It was horrifying...and the man was unquestionably a monster...but she'd seen him telling stories to children, playing music…

"You coming up or not?"

She shook her head, and stepped out onto the deck. There was a decent breeze, and as she walked up to the rail she felt some of the cobwebs in her head clear away with the smell of salt.

There was silence for a moment.

"Why're you up here?" she asked.

Kaneki shrugged. "Don't sleep much. Volunteered for the night watch. You?"

"...nightmares," she admitted.

"Hrm. You feel guilty?"

"What? About killing him? I…" She shook her head. "No. Didn't...like it, but it was him or me. It's about everything beforehand." She sighed. "Fuck, and here I thought being a pirate would help me move on or something. Instead all I've done is brood."

"Grief's allowable," Kaneki commented vaguely. "There's no shame in it...or in anger."

"What, you think I'm going to break down over losing my parents to those bastards?" she said flatly. "I'm not that weak, and we put the bastards who did it in the ground."

Kaneki shrugged. "Like I said. No shame in grief or rage." He turned to face her, and despite the dark she caught the gleam of a smile. "Whatever you feel, conquer it and move on. That's my philosophy."

"It work?"

Another shrug. "Keeps me from feeling too guilty about what I've gotta do to survive. So, yeah."

"Huh."

Kaneki shifted his weight slightly as they both remained silent, the only sound the waves lapping at the docks.

"You sure piracy's what you want?" he asked quietly.

"What, you think I don't have the stomach for it?"

"Nah, you've got grit...but being a pirate more often than not means killing people. We aren't saints."

She glared at him.

"I mean people who weren't responsible for the deaths of most of the people you loved," Kaneki clarified.

Screams and flames, the pleading of the condemned-

"I'll be fine," she said shortly.

"Suit yourself." Kaneki smiled. "By the by, training starts tomorrow. You're gonna have a lot of catching up to do."


"Okay," I say very calmly. "I can understand the medical education. And the tools that go with it. Makes sense with how you were planning to set out. I can even understand you having learned some borderline-insane doctoring stuff before you left, you're a smart guy."

Vinci grins nervously as my eyes shift.

"BUT HOW THE FUCK DID YOU MANAGE TO SMUGGLE A SIX POWERS SCROLL WITH EVERYTHING ELSE?! WHY THE FUCK DID YOU EVEN HAVE THAT? I THOUGHT YOU COULDN'T EVEN USE THE DAMN THINGS!" I scream, abandoning all pretensions of calm at the sheer bullshit I'm faced with.

"Marine commodore grandpa," Vinci says calmly.
"You're fucking joking. That excuse can't excuse him committing what I'm pretty sure is treason...fuck, even if he was retired…"

"Did I ever tell you what happened to my parents?" Vinci said, suddenly extremely calm in a way that makes me back up fast.

"No," I say. "What's that got to do with the Six Powers scroll?"

"There was a major campaign conducted...twenty years ago. I was a baby at the time. Twelve fleets, assigned to scour the West Blue from the Calm Belt all the way to the Red Line. My parents were supposed to be part of it, but they sent me to my grandpa in the South Blue beforehand. I think they wanted to make sure I couldn't be caught in the crossfire as they went after all the criminals. But here's the thing...that campaign was meant to have 13 fleets. Except the 13th Royal Flotilla, the one my parents were part of...it objected to the campaign. It objected to hunting down an eight-year-old girl, Nico Robin, the Devil Child of Ohara. And for that, the Marines...no, one Marine, killed them all." His voice is perfectly steady, and the meeting room is utterly silent. Not one of us dares say a word. "My grandpa was already retired. But he wasn't happy with what happened...or why." He smiled. "I have very few things to remember my parents by. A few scientific texts my mother loved, some of my father's medical tools. And this scroll, where they recorded everything they knew about combat and the human body." He smiles. I start sweating. "So please, don't call my small inheritance treason, hmm?"

"Our captain is terrifying…" Herman mutters, sweating profusely.

I nod. "Sorry, captain. Just a bit of a shock, is all."

Vinci sits back in his chair. "It's alright. Bit of a touchy subject, dahahaha…" he replies.

"Okay," Jack says. "So we've got the means to learn these...Six Powers."

"Ehh…" Vinci says with a shrug. "Sort of. Most of the crew will probably only be able to do one or two for now. And everyone's got their specialities." He smiles. "You guys, though, you're officers. I'm going to expect all of you to be at least functional with the full set."

"In a week, captain?" Jack asks, while Herman leans forwards, clearly interested. I just sigh. This is going to be hell to time properly, getting an entire crew up from Blues standards- tougher than normal Blues standards with what training we've done, but still Blues standards- to people able to handle at least one of the Six Powers...and working them out myself. In a week.

Vinci grins, and pulls out a small bottle of bright red pills. "Yes, in a week," the captain says, tossing the bottle to Jack. "Those little things are basically hyper-concentrated vitamins. Plus a rather unethical blend of my own personal creation."

"Unethical?" I ask sharply. Vinci's grin widens.

"Well, they are harvested from a rare species of humanoid…"

"First off, fuck you for making me wonder what you'd been getting up to, and second off...STOP FUCKING USING ME AS A STEROID YOU BASTARD!" I shout, slamming my hands onto the table.

"Dahahahaaha! But your cells are so useful!"

"So wait, we're eating bits of Kaneki?" Herman inquires, looking at the bottle with a grimace.

"Nope, just things I grew from bits of him and then extracted the useful stuff from. I'm pretty sure it won't make you ghouls. Mostly. Maybe."

"Your confidence in your own science is so reassuring," I say flatly.

"Hey, if it works it works. So quartermaster, start distributing them among the crew, one pill for each of them should more than suffice."

Jack nods, slowly. "Aye, captain."

Chapter Text

I flop onto my back, panting.

I don't think I've ever been this exhausted. Not even training with Zoss, and that had been...interesting.

Fucking Six Powers bullshit…

"Dahahaha, Kaneki, aren't you supposed to be a regenerator?"

"Cram it, captain," I mutter. "Even I have my limits, and y'all might be hyped up on those pills, but I've got to make do with long jerky." I sit up slowly, wincing as my muscles protest in ways I haven't felt for a long time.

I thought I was a bit of a slave driver when it came to strengthening the crew, but Vinci's on a whole nother level. Endless repetition and drill, only broken up by sparring matches meant to force everyone to develop one or more of the Powers.

It was definitely helping, though. I pull a packet of jerky from inside my jacket and munch on it as I watch the others work for a few moments, catching my breath. Twenty pairs of fighters square off against each other, some of them blurring momentarily as they try to execute Shaves, others blocking attacks with bare hands, a few flowing past their opponent's blows instead of running away or blocking. Nobody in the grunt teams have managed a Tempest Kick or a Finger Pistol, but according to the frankly disturbingly detailed descriptions in the Grigori family's scroll both of those were the more difficult of the Six. What's weirding me out is that, out of everyone, Lauren is one of the ones picking it up the fastest, especially Paper Art.

Hm. Something about beginner's luck and/or not having to un-learn bad habits? Or maybe she's just talented.

Vinci's taken up my spot against Herman, while Jack is dealing with both Pravilno and Ostavila at once and doing a decent enough job at it. I don't know where Ostavila got a meteor hammer or when she learned to use it, and frankly I don't want to, because that woman terrifies me.

Where the hell does she even keep all those knives, anyhow? It's not like she's got an abundance of hiding spots, even with the jacket she's got only shorts and a shirt, not exactly concealing clothing…

"Can we talk, boss, or do you want to keep looking?"

I blink, and stand, turning to face the group of six that's approached me. "I'm not your boss," I say with a shrug. "That's the captain's job."

Marshall Eka, Charny Dui, Douglass Tina, Cara Percy, Tancred Pamca, and Cha Chandos. I made sure to remember their names, this time. I'm glad they all survived, but the degree of attachment they're displaying is a little...disconcerting.

Eka just shakes his head at my refusal. "Call it what you like, boss. The nose don't lie."

I narrow my eyes. "Explain."

"You know why we didn't go after the rest of the crew while we were raging, boss? Because your...hell, I don't want to call it scent, sounds creepy, but that's what it is...well, we could tell who was the strongest of us. Still can, actually...and no, we've been talking and it don't look like we've got the weirder bits of your powers, but you are the boss. Everyone else on the crew just smells a bit like you, but you're the source."

Well, great.

"Alright," I groan. "Fine. I'm the boss to you. What's it you want to talk about?"

Eka glances towards his comrades. They nod as one. "Think you can handle six on one? With the Dials? We're...still a good bit tougher than the others, it looks like, and sparring against each other isn't helping us get stronger."

I look them over. Each of them carries an Impact Dial- probably because they're some of the crew who can handle it without blowing out a shoulder- and Tina and Pamca, the most heavily-built of the six, have Axe Dials as well. It's a good thing Vinci dug up a list of the damn things and how they functioned among Machitus's loot...I really didn't want to say what they were and make him wonder.

I grin, and crack my knuckles. "Fair enough," I say to the six. "Pretty sure the captain intends to work us all till we drop. So, demons vs. a bird of prey, start-"

I push, tired muscles screaming at the effort but complying, and come out of the Shave right next to the near-albino wall of muscle that is Pamca. My heel slams into the side of his head and sends him bouncing off into the forest.

"-now," I finish with a grin.

The remaining five all look at me.

Six sets of irises flare red, and the fight's on.


"One thing I never figured," Herman muttered as Ends Justified slowly drew towards the island. "Why the hell didn't those Marine bastards try to call up more reinforcements to deal with us? Hell, think some of them were waving when we left."

"We cleaned up one of their messes," Kaneki muttered back. "Figures they'd be a mite more accomodating. Now these guys...don't think so."

Vinci grinned at their conversation as he took in Hangman's Town. The town itself was bustling, a product of being the South Blue's entrance to the Grand Line, the last chance to stock up on resources...and also due to the strong Marine garrison whose base dominated the skyline in the distance.

As for what gave it the name...his vision, ever-so-steadily improving, could make out the field of gibbets and cages that marked Drop Spit, the promontory extending out to Vinci's left from the town itself. Bare, windswept, and morbid. Pirates didn't last long here unless they were strong enough to take on the garrison, and given the reputation the Captain here had…

He shook his head. There was a reason they were taking Ends Justified in with the unmarked spare sails and no flag. They could pass for a privateer or a heavily-armed private vessel this way. So long as nobody got noticed…

He looked over his crew. Jack had cut his immense beard down to a frankly hilarious set of mutton-chops, and was wearing a double-breasted green coat to conceal the tattoo of the Nightmare symbol on his chest. Kaneki had grown his hair out slightly and discarded jacket and mask in favor of short sleeves and sunglasses. Herman had added an extremely wide-brimmed hat (the right side folded up to not interfere with his sword draw) and had discarded his usual black cloak for a blue hoodie. The rest of the crew had made similar preparations, the normal white jackets going away and replaced with a profusion of casual clothing and strange bits and pieces- where Lauren had found a purple waistcoat, black coat, and red-banded black top hat he'd never know. He had a feeling she was concealing a decent chunk of their armory under that getup.

For his part, Vinci had reluctantly discarded his lab coat in favor of a hooded grey cloak, the cowl deep enough to hide his face. That was the problem with his scars...instantly recognizable and memorable. The cloak would also be fairly suspicious, but it couldn't be helped. He glanced up at the cloudy skies. At least it'd be believable with the weather the way it was…

"Money's going to be short after this, with what you want me to get," Jack grumbled as their ship made its way to the docks. "You sure about this?"

"No idea if the equipment'll be on the Line," Vinci said back. "And if money's a problem...we're pirates. We'll figure something out."

Kaneki chuckled. "Aw, but we've had such a good streak of only killing assholes," he said with a grin. "Sure you want to break that, captain?"

"Named the ship what I did for a reason, birdy," Vinci replied.

"Huh. Never did ask what those ends were gonna be."

"Tell you what...when we head over Reverse Mountain, I'll fill you all in...if you all tell me your own reasons."

Kaneki went still for a moment, then shrugged. "Fair. It's an interesting tale for me, so at least the crew won't be bored."

"There's the proper way to think of it. So, you got plans?" Vinci asked.

Kaneki glanced towards the six oni, off in their own little group. "Thinking I'm going to take my share of the cash, buy up some better clothing and some decent weapons for the others," he said. "You?"

Vinci shrugged. "Jack's got most of what I want on his list. I'll be making a couple...interesting purchases, though."

"Illegal?"

"Mostly because the chemicals in question are some of the deadliest poisons extracted from South Blue wildlife, yep," Vinci said casually.

Kaneki sighed. "You're nuts, captain."

"Would you have it any other way?"

00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

Herman did not like most books.

He wasn't stupid- he knew how to read and write, and do his numbers- but he still didn't like reading. Half the damn things written down were about pointless shit like times when Noble Kusotaba the Numpty-Somethingth had dipped his crumpet the wrong way during a tea ceremony hosted by Kusotaba the Other-Ludicrously-High-Number and started a war. The remaining half seemed to be mostly random stories, instruction manuals for useless hobbies, or porn.

All in all, there were only three categories of books Herman tolerated. The first was swordsmanship manuals- not for teaching, they were rubbish at it, but for the fact that most pirates who thought they were decent swordsmen picked up one of said manuals and tended to follow it religiously. The second was ship classifications, and that was because knowing the maximum speed of a given vessel was always useful. The third and last was the category to which the book he was currently reading belonged to.

Amakatta, the Berserker's Blade. Great Grade Sword. Forged in 1338 Kaienreki. Attained Graded Status in 1341 Kaienreki, after sundering the armor of the Giant King Ymir and striking him down, according to legend. Traditionally passed down the line of Grit, the last known wielder being Grit Sandor, who used it to slay, again, according to legend, five 'demons of great power, who referred to themselves as the Hand of the Uncaring God'. Vanished in 1383 Kaienreki, current status unknown. Other names: 'The Sundering Blade', 'The Giantslayer'. According to legend, is cursed (see: Kitetsu line).

He nodded, and touched Amakatta's hilt. Cursed...well, that made sense.

Now, what was the name of that thing Kaneki had mentioned...nothing in the Great Grades, or the Skillful or Basic Grades...that left…nah. He'd have heard the name before, right?

Despite his own misgivings, he flipped to the section of the Meito book concerning Legendary swords.

Well, shit.

Atamajokyo, the Executioner's Blade. Legendary Grade Sword. Forged in 1066 Kaienreki. Attained Graded Status in 1067 Kainereki, after, according to legend, shattering the form of Niyoku Michael the Heavenly Tyrant with a single stroke, and destroying much of the island on which the conflict in question was fought with the same attack. Clearly exaggeration. Nonetheless, is considered a relic of the Arima line, allegedly descended from the legendary heroine who wielded it, Arima Ali Zun, the Queen of the Third and Single Eye. The Atamajokyo, under its name of 'The Executioner's Blade', is considered one of the Seven Relics of the Arima Line, traditionally divided amongst the seven councillors to the ruling monarch of the Sevenfold Kingdom, located in the New World. According to myth, if Atamajokyo's wielder betrays the monarch, it will attempt to kill the wielder by driving poisoned needles into his or her body via its own hilt. This is obviously superstition, as the last of the Arima line, Arima Zoss, was deposed in 1533, and no reports of the death of its current wielder have been recorded.

The New World? Kaneki had a great deal of explaining to do.


Vinci moderated his smile as he entered the building. Grinning like he usually did, when entering a place like this...well, it was bad form, and tended to be rather disconcerting to the clerks.

"Can I help you, sir?" one of the men asked as he approached the desk.

"Yes," he said. "I was wondering- do you have any animals available for adoption?"


"Surprised you found a place like this so quickly, boss," Eka muses, scratching at his black beard as he scans the bar. We'd managed to get a booth large enough to fit me and all six of the oni.

I shrug. "It's easy to tell where good coffee is. We're just lucky they sell other things as well."

"Yeah. Coffee's good, but ale's better," Tina says. The woman's Amazonian physique seems a little too large for the booth...albeit, next to Pamca, it doesn't seem all that intimidating, the oddly pale white-haired man filling up enough space for two people of normal size, and not an ounce of it fat.

Dui sniffs. How someone as fastidious as him ended up on a pirate crew I have no idea...ditto how someone with dark blue hair exists. Probably dye. "Ale," he says disdainfully. "Give me wine any day."

"You're drinking whiskey," Percy notes. The shaved-headed prizefighter leans back in his section of our booth, clutching his own mug of ale.

"Because the vintages here are dreadful."

"How the hell are you a pirate?" I ask flatly.

Chandos laughs, nearly dipping his beaklike nose and mustache into his coffee in the process. "He's got you there, dandy. Half the time you act more like high society than a buccaneer."

"I see nothing wrong with manners," Dui says, sounding offended...before chuckling. "We've all got interesting stories, though."

"Ah, thass great," Tina slurs, and wow she got drunk fast. What the hell is wrong with her metabolism? "Tell usssss..."

"You're a druunk."

Percy too? The hell?

I glance at my own drink for a second...and then catch the bartender, watching our booth intently. I wait for him to look away, then sniff my own drink.

Shit.

I put out a hand just before Pamca can take his first mouthful of ale. "Don't."

Everyone glances at me- and then each of them put down their own drinks, untouched save for Tina and Percy, who are quietly bickering.

I sigh. "Figures. Looks like I need to work on disguises," I say, very softly, as a couple of men in Marine uniforms enter. "Get the two back to the ship. I'll see what time I can buy you. Draw them off."

"Sure, boss," Eka says, putting a hand on the dagger at his waist. "Think you can handle what gets sent you way, or should I call up the captain?"

"Nah. Keep it quiet." I slide out of the booth and stand, putting a hand on my trench spike as I swagger to the Marines, who are speaking quietly with the bartender.

Sloppy. Very sloppy. But let's see how long we can make the charade last. I grin-

Okay that's a shotgun pointed in my face.

So, three seconds?

I smile at the bartender, who's holding the shotgun and sweating profusely, as I close my hand over the end slowly. "Now, now...no need for that mess. Would cause an awful lot of trouble." I see the man's fingers start to pull the trigger. "Iron Bo-"

Boom!

Agh! Fuck! "Goddammit you son of a bitch fist-fucking mother-f-" I keep ranting as the lead shot falls from my hand, a few pieces staying stuck in the mess of burnt meat that my palm currently is. Note to self- work on fucking Iron Body.

"You're under arrest, pi-"

Schunk. Schlunk. Thump-thump.

I straighten as two bodies- and two heads- hit the floor within moments of each other, and glare at the one responsible. "Was that really necessary?"

Killer's masked face regards me impassively. "You looked like you needed a...hand."

I flip him off with my burned hand. "Don't fuck around with puns. You know how much trouble we're going to be in now?"

The oni have made it out the back. Good. If I have to fight him...hmm. Wonder if he's gotten stronger.

Killer shrugs. "Not as much as my captain was planning to cause anyway. And yours too."

I groan. "Kid's going to look for a fight again?"

"He was planning to blast the hell out of this place anyway. Spotting your ship in harbor just meant he's going to try to call out your captain again. If he's alive."

Why would he question- right. He cut out Vinci's eyes, he'd probably assume our crew murdered him and got a new captain. Fucking psychopath.

"He's alive. And pissed," I say. "You going to fight me now, or you just here to deliver aggravating messages?"

"Was planning to make it look good, but…" he glances at the Marine corpses, and at the terrified bartender hiding under said bar. "Want to go kill the Commodore in charge of this base?" he asks.

"You ask like you think I'm into killing Marines for the hell of it."

"Bastard hangs more than just pirates. Anyone who associates with them, for one. Even children. I mean, we'd kill him anyway, Kid wants to make a statement, but this makes it easier."

I blink. Well, then... "Sure. I could eat."

"...huh. So the bounty crimes are real."

"You're surprised?"

"Not particularly."

"Good. Now, try to keep up, Massacre Soldier."

"Try not to get in my way, Butcher Bird."

We walk out of the bar.

I blink.

"Hey, Killer?"

"Yeah?"

"Were this many armed Marines in front of the bar when you walked in?"

"No, Kaneki, no there weren't."

00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

"Captain, why do you have a pack of hounds?" Lauren asked dubiously, watching as Vinci was practically dragged onboard by a trio of shaggy and gigantic mutts.

The captain grinned. "Reasons, very good reasons."

"Is it an abomination against the laws of nature?" Pravilno asked as he leaned back on the rail, puffing away at his cigarette.

"For once, no," the captain said with a shrug.

"Then...what, then?" Lauren asked, looking at the dogs. One meowed, and she sweatdropped. "Are you sure they're all dogs?"

"Oh, right." Vinci drove a hand into the ruff at one dog's neck and pulled out a kitten. "And this little guy. For catching any rodents aboard ship."

"Oh, so you don't have a dog that meows," Lauren said. "Good. For a moment I thought sanity was dead."

The dog meowed again, and Lauren facepalmed. "Forget what I said," she mumbled.

"How'd you get back- sit, mutts- faster than me?" Vinci asked curiously. "Thought you were going to get more guns."

She glanced over at Pravilno, and Ostavila beside him.

"I know a guy," the pompadoured gunslinger said.

"And I knew how to convince said guy to...move a bit faster," the leather-tough piratess said with a sly smile.

Vinci blinked. "Okay, fair. But I don't see any guns."

Lauren smiled, and shot her hands forwards. With a scraping sound two derringers appeared in her hands like magic. "Two two-shot snub pistols…" The guns vanished back into her sleeves and the holsters hidden there in an instant, and she reached under her coat, pulling free a sawn-off shotgun from her back. "...a ten-gauge double-barrelled shotgun…" She twirled, sending her coat flaring and concealing the motion as she holstered the shotgun across her back and grabbed at the leg holsters the coat normally concealed. "Two mare's-leg rifles," she continued, spinning the weapons without cocking them before returning them to their place and pulling on the leather strap across her chest, yanking the folded-up weapon on her back into place and pulling the thing into ready configuration. "...and a 1.00 caliber anti-everything assassin's rifle," she said with a grin. "What do you think?"

"Dahahaha...how do you carry the ammunition for all that?"

She grinned, and held open the sides of the coat- and the dozens of loops and pockets within. "I have bullets for days."

"Bullets for days?"

"Bullets for daaaays~"

"Dahahahaa, you've really got a lot of firepower squirreled away. Ain't got nothing on me, though."

She raised an eyebrow. "Really, captain? Prove it."

"Alright." Vinci tied the leads of the three hounds to the rail and dropped the cat on the deck, where it vanished through a grate into the lower decks. He shook out his hands, and Lauren noticed some of the crew watching, with more popping up by the second.

"Let's start things off with the scalpels," the captain said with a grin. He shook his hands, and a half-dozen of the tiny surgical knives embedded themselves in the deck. Vinci paused, frowned, and wriggled his hands again.

A massive flood of scalpels erupted from his sleeves, clattering to the deck and forming a knee-high pile of pointy metal.

Lauren stared. "How the hell do you not cut yourself while moving?"

"Practice," Vinci said. "And now the surgical thread." A half dozen spools joined the pile. "And the bonesaw." Clang! "And, let's see, various chemical reagents," he added, as a dozen large jars and glass tubes with bright contents joined the pile. Lauren instinctively took a step back as she read a couple of the labels on said jars. "And then of course the combat drugs." Another dozen bottles, these containing pills of various kinds, including the ones she'd taken alongside the rest of the crew during training. "And last but not least, my handy-dandy magic murder bag." Thunk. Vinci grinned. "Anyone able to beat that?"

Ostavila considered the pile for a moment. Then she took off her coat, and shook it once.

The resulting flood of weaponry nearly reached her waist.

"HOW?!" Lauren, and just about everyone on the ship screamed simultaneously.

"Practice," the veteran pirate said with a smile.

"Ahoy the ship, who's- DOG!"

Something slammed into Lauren, nearly sending her over the rail. She staggered, clutching the massive- book? The hell?- to her chest.

"Hoosa good boy, is it you? Yesit is! Yesitis!"

"Worf!"

"Bork!"

"Meow!"

Lauren carefully lowered the ludicrously oversized book to the deck, and peeked over it.

That was...Herman. Baby-talking a trio of dogs that looked like they ate little old ladies for a living. Wrestling with them.

"What the hell am I watching…" she muttered.

"Okay, I've been near Kaneki while he's been eating, and that is still the most terrifying thing I've ever seen...but I think this makes the top ten," Vinci said distantly.

"Are they trying to kill each other or trying to- okay, he just let them off leash and transformed into a dog, definitely playing," Pravilno said, equally distantly.

Sweatdrops abounded as the quartet of dogs rampaged across the deck.

"Let me guess," Ostavila muttered quietly, gathering up her weaponry. "This is exactly what you had in mind, captain."

"Dahahahaha….pretty much," Vinci admitted as he returned the pile of scalpels and surgical equipment to their proper places. "That, and I want to see if it works on Kaneki, too."

Lauren pictured the thought of the ghoul frolicking with dogs. She shuddered. The image was just...way too strange.

"Ahoy the ship!"

Jack's voice. Finally, someone sane. She let go of the mega-book and rushed to the rail.

Who the hell were these assholes?

"Dahahahaha! Looks like you were pretty successful, Jack," Vinci said, sauntering down the gangplank to greet the huge man and the twenty or so others arrayed behind him. They looked like street thugs and criminals, why...oh. Right. Pirates.

"Look in the right places, even in a Marine town, there's somewhere to find crew," Jack said. "The supplies should've arrived before...oi! Bowes! It loaded?"

"Supplies're all good, bosun!" one of the crew- Bowes, she guessed, she'd seen him play shanties with Kaneki- shouted back.

"Alright! Cap'n?"

"We'll sail soon as we can, get the men on board," Vinci said with a nod. "Welcome to the crew, lads. The Line awaits, and it'll be...dahahahaha...interesting."

For a moment, Lauren thought some of the men were going to turn back, several of them visibly turning pale. But they followed Jack on board.

"Ahoy the ship!"

third one? And this asshole sported a mohawk and greasepaint, like some demented combination of a clown and a punk rocker. The captain looked visibly taken aback, before sighing. "What?"

"You Vinci?"

"Damn straight. Who the hell are you?"

"Just a messenger. Captain Kid wants to meet you, on Drop Spit."

The captain froze. Lauren gave Pravilno a look as the pompadoured man approached the rail. "Who's Captain Kid?" she whispered.

"Shit, you joined after...some punk with magnetic powers that went after us. Cut out the captain's eyes. He got new ones, but still...shit. He's calling the captain out again? This isn't going to end well."

"So, Vinci?" the punk clown rocker asked. "You gonna come with me, or-"

Lauren didn't even see Vinci move. One second he was standing there, the second he was holding the clown rocker by the neck, the man making sputtering noises as he dangled a foot above the ground.

"No need," the captain said, in an extremely calm voice. "I can find my way just fine."

There was a muffled cracking noise, and the rocker went limp.

Vinci walked back up the gangplank to utter silence. The crew, Lauren included, watched, wondering what he'd do next.

Vinci smiled. A soft, normal, gentle smile. "Jack? Put this away for Kaneki later," he said calmly, dropping the body to the deck. "I'll be gone for a little while, if that's okay. Now, where's Kaneki?"

The distant bulk of the Marine base went up in flames.

000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

"Oh god the Marine base is burning!"

"Water! Get buckets!"

Vinci ignored the screams and panicked running of civilians and low-ranking Marines alike as he walked through the streets, scythe on his shoulders. The wind, a good one, right out of harbor and straight for the Line, tugged at his cloak, showing the lab coat underneath, and he had his hood down, and yet none tried to stop him.

He didn't particularly care if they did, but cutting down their ineffectual attempts to bar his way would have been tedious.

The King's Heart thundered in his ears, twinned to his own heartbeat. He wondered if what he had created resented being forced into him early, half-made and uncertain as it had been. He wondered if it knew that the one responsible for that was who they would be facing.

Distant, but he caught sight of a flame-haired figure. Out on Drop Spit, just as promised.

Kid.

Vinci's lips drew back from his teeth in a smile that wasn't a smile at all.

The stones under his footsteps turned to dirt, then to sand, and then to bare rock, as he walked out to Drop Spit. The cages and gibbets clinked and clattered in the wind as he approached. Kid turned.

"Huh," the punk remarked. "So Carr's dead, then?"

Vinci didn't answer.

Kid spat to the side. "Fine. Didn't like the fucker much anyway. Still, surprised you're alive. And with brand-new eyes, heh." He cocked his head. "Your little bird isn't around to call me off anymore, nursey. Got Killer keeping him busy on a little...errand. So...let's finish what we started. Attract!"

Chains and manacles uncoiled from the gibbets, and launched themselves like striking snakes at Vinci, pinning his arms to his sides as they coiled around him.

Vinci sighed.

Idiot.

"Do you know what happens when you run electrical current around a piece of metal?" he asked conversationally.

"Does it look like I give a fuck?" Kid asked, gesturing and causing the cocoon of chains to tighten to uncomfortable levels.

"You should. It demagnetizes it. Degauss." Electricity burned through his veins and flashed over the metal, and the chains dropped to the ground. Vinci stepped over the pile. Kid took a step back.

"Now," Vinci said, keeping the calm in his voice as his heartbeats cranked up, "Let's try this again."


"You aren't killing any of them."

I shrug, absent-mindedly using one of my tails to swat aside a sword-wielding Marine. "Not much point, is there? Also, why is the base on fire?" I ask politely, as one of the burning buildings collapses.

Killer shrugs. "Rest of the crew isn't exactly restrained, maybe they did it?"

"Eh, fair." I dodge a hammer-wielding Marine's strike with Paper Art- one of the Six I'm actually decent at, unlike Iron Body, Moonwalk, and Finger Pistol- and kick him in the side, sending him flying.

"What did you mean by there being no- hrrn- point?" Killer asks as he uses his spinning scythes to cut down a group of Marines.

"Whenever there's something wrong with a Marine base, it's usually at the top. Captain being an asshole, and the Marines can't do shit about it because said captain could kick their collective asses. Same applies to Vice Admirals, even the Admirals. Rank and file aren't necessarily evil shits, just unable to do anything about the evil shits."

"So kill 'em. They don't have backbone."

I tank a fusillade of bullets with my tails, grin, and send the offending cluster of Marines scattering like tenpins. "See, this is why you keep getting bounty increases. That sociopathic behavior won't help at all in the New World, you need allies if you don't want to be lackey to one of the Emperors."

"The hell do you know about the New World?" Killer grunts, using his latest opponent as a springboard to start tearing into another cluster of Marines.

"A lot more than you know, Slicey McDicey," I say. Hmm. I'm out of people to fight. Where-

"Gavel."

SLAM!

Owww…

Hello Mr. Butterfly, where are you going? I hope it's nice…

"Conviction."

Then the gigantic hook-claw-thing clamps onto my ankle, and I'm yanked out of the cozy pile of rubble and up into the sky as the equally massive chain goes taut.

"Sentencing."

A fist, one I barely make out as belonging to a normal-sized human, slams into my chest, cracking ribs and sending blood flying out of my mouth as the hook is torn from my ankle and I go sprawling into the dirt.

"I suppose I should have expected you to come here," the blurry shape that my vision is gradually resolving into the form of a tall, grey-buzz-cut-haired Marine in an officer's coat says. "But allying with the Kid Pirates? Did you forsake your previous captain with such ease, pirate scum?" He picks up the claw-hook, holding the sickle at the other end of the long chain in his off hand, and starts paying out chain for the weapon as he begins to swing it slowly.

"Scum?" I wheeze, hacking up what would probably be a worrying amount of blood if I wasn't what I was. Alright. One foot on the ground. Get up, Kaneki. "You hang children, and you call me scum, Marine?"

"Hang- what on earth are you talking about?"

Ribs healed? Yup. Tails- "One tail, two tail, three tail, four. You think I'm stupid? Word is anyone who even associates with a pirate goes to the gallows."

The aging Marine looks incredulous. "If we enacted such a policy, a third of the civilians on this island would be dead and the remaining two thirds tearing this base down around our ears. What kind of fool do you take me for, pirate?"

I stare at him.

Sniff the air. I'm not Herman, but…

Oh.

"I'm a fucking idiot."/"You're a damned idiot," the Marine and I say at the same time.

I sweatdrop as I take a step back. "And here I was, thinking Killer was actually presenting me with a decent moral choice…"

The Marine's face is utterly impassive. "You had no idea Massacre Soldier Killer was lying to you about whether people deserved to be killed."

I sigh. "Would you excuse me for a moment?"

"Ordinarily, no, but since I'm assuming you intend to kill your former ally over there, yes."

"Right. Shave."

I launch myself forwards-

"Gavel."

-and immediately get snatched by that weird hook-claw and slammed back into the dirt.

"You truly seem to have a difficult time telling when someone is lying to you."

"Fuck...you…" I wheeze. "And also...Scale Lever." My tails shove hard against the confines of the claw, forcing the metal open and hurling me upright in one motion. "Fuck this shit, I'm out- Shave!"

My vision shrinks to a tiny tunnel as I barely keep up with my own speed, hurtling out of the Marine base as fast as I can, Shaving like a madman despite the ever-increasing burn in my legs.

Fuck.

Fucking stupid of me, to just fucking assume-

No, Kaneki. It's done. Can't be undone.

Fuck. Fuck this, I'm going back to the ship and we're leaving this fucking place.


"PREPARE TO CAST OFF!" Jack shouted.

"What about the captain, bosun? And the boss?" Eka, the leader of Kaneki's personal following, asked, looking back at the still-burning Marine base.

Jack pointed towards the town, where a red-tinted black blur was rapidly approaching, growing more defined by the second. He mentally counted to five, set himself, and extended an arm out to the side. "Iron Body."

Kaneki, clearly unable to see where he was going, slammed into his arm, and stuck there like a pigeon on a glass window before falling to the deck with a thump. "Anyone get the number of that semi-truck…?" the ghoul mumbled.

Jack shook his arm out with a grimace- even with Iron Body, stopping the idiot had hurt- and gave Eka a pointed look. The man shrugged.

"Okay, fair enough. The captain?"

"We'll swing by Drop Spit and pick him up on the way. And I just took a look with the spyglass- trust me, he's fine."

Well, that was entirely debatable, but Jack didn't want to make the entire crew panic more than they had already started doing from the moment Vinci- an eerily calm and composed Vinci- had walked off the gangplank as though nothing at all was going on. In truth, Jack was worried. Not about Vinci losing the fight- there was no way the captain would let that happen a second time- but about starting some stupid vendetta. Even if the captain decided to kill Kid instead of doing something stupid like 'paying him back in kind', the survivors would be pissed...and Killer had a hefty bounty of fifteen million. Not a touch on the crew's combined, or Kaneki's or the captain's, and most of it was for brutality rather than fighting skill...but still. Tough enough to take on the Line, in all likelihood.

And if Vinci left Kid alive, to take some kind of revenge for his own maiming...there was no telling what would happen. And Jack didn't like that. He was a pirate, not a sentimental fool, and leaving enemies alive to pick up the pieces meant nothing good in the long run.

Ends Justified seemed to growl as the ship pulled out of harbor, wind lending speed to their sails.

But it appeared the Marines had other ideas, a ship- heavier than the Ends, with massive cannons on their bow- charging towards them.

Jack smiled.

"RUN OUT THE TRIPLE GUNS!" he barked. "GIVE THEM LEAD, BOYS!"

"AYE, BOSUN!"

"HERMAN! POINT US RIGHT AT THE BITCH!"

"AYE, YA FAT BASTARD, RIGHT ON THAT!"

The Marine ship fired, the range too long even for their heavy cannon, and the shots went wide, splashing into the sea. One slammed into the town and detonated, but Jack ignored it.

A pair of massive triple-barreled cannon pushed free of the twin gunports at the bow of the Ends.

And his ship roared.

00000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

I pick myself off the deck, and stare at the rapidly sinking remnants of the Marine cruiser. "Holy shit," I breathe. "Our guns can do that?"

"When you pay out for ship-killer shells, yes they bloody well can," Jack says with a grin. "You should be proud, bird boy. That bounty you brought in paid for the damn things." The big man's grin vanishes. "Captain's off fighting Kid on Drop Spit. We're going to swing round and grab him. What the hell happened?"

I give Eka a look. "You tell him yet?"

The oni shakes his head.

"Fine. Bartender figured us out and planned to drug us and turn us in, Marines walked in, Killer showed up and killed them, things escalated, and I bailed after figuring out Killer'd been lying about how much of an evil bastard the local Marine boss was."

I look at the smoke and flames still engulfing the base. "Hopefully the masked bastard's dead now. Captain was a hard nut."

"Coming up on the Spit now!" Herman shouts, and I walk to the rail, narrowing my eyes and trying to pick out where Vinci and Kid must be fighting. It's no good- I don't have the kind of vision the captain has. I grit my teeth, and push my tails out, letting them lash at the air.

"So he's the Butcher Bird…"

"Scary, scary…"

My neck cracks as I glare over my shoulder at the twenty or so men huddled together on deck, looking around. "You the new meat?" I ask flatly, tails going still.

Going by how several of them are starting to sweat I probably could've chosen a better phrase to describe them. Oh, well. I grin. "Well, welcome to the crew, lads. Let me tell you how things work. You'll grow strong, you'll perform impossibilities, and you'll help us sail for the line. And you'll obey orders, first the bosun, then me, then God His Own Self, and last and most important of all-"

Lightning cracks from every bit of metal on the Spit, a shining blue web of light sending shadows across the deck.

"-Captain Grigori Vinci," I finish, grinning like a madman.

KRACKA-THOOOM!

The twenty new recruits look at each other. Then at me. Then, as one, their eyes roll back in their head and they collapse to the deck, foaming at the mouth. Heh.

"Oi, you crazy bastard!" Herman shouts from the deck. "You damn near fried us!"

"Wasn't me!"

"Wasn't talking to you!"

Who-

"Captain on deck!" Jack shouts, and I turn. How the hell- where had Vinci come from?

Judging by his uninjured state and the blood on his cloak and lab coat, he'd won. Easily.

"Vinci," I say. "Kid's dead?"

Vinci looks at me, and his eyes flare gold as he smiles. "No," he says, calmly. "I've done much worse than kill him."

I shrug. "Good."

"What's our heading, captain?" Herman calls.

"The Mountain and the Line!" Vinci shouts back. "We've got wind in our sails, don't we?"

"Aye, captain, setting the course!" Herman yells. "We'll hit Reverse Mountain in a week!"

Vinci nods, and thumps his scythe on the deck for a moment, clearly thinking things over. Then he looks at the unconscious pile of men. "Really?" he asks. "Someone deal with that," he orders. "I'm going to clean the blood out of my clothes. Kaneki, with me."

I fall into step behind him as he walks below decks. "Captain…"

"Yes?"

"What exactly did you do to him?"


"Get up."

Kid didn't move. He barely had the strength to breathe, much less obey...whatever that freak doctor had become.

"I said get up, you bastard."

His arms and legs felt like jelly, burning jelly, but he put hands on knees and stood anyway. He'd be damned if he died on his belly. "What...what the hell are you…"

The freak grinned, as electricity crawled over his body and his eyes glowed like torches. "Many, many things."

"Fuck...you.." No choice, he had to hit the bastard with everything he had. Even exhausted as he was, he couldn't give up. He raised his left arm-

"Electroshock Excision."

-and then he didn't have it anymore as the freak's scythe cut through his shoulder like nothing, the crawling electricity burning the wound shut behind him.

Kid didn't give the freak the courtesy of screaming. But it was close.

The freak's hand closed around Kid's throat, and then slammed him into something- wood, splintered...one of the gibbets?

Kid smiled. "Do it, then," he said, coughing as fractured ribs grated against each other. "Finish me."

Vinci raised the scythe. And then let it fall, the point sinking into the loose soil of the Spit.

What. What. What.

The freak squatted down in front of him, the aura of lightning fading. "You wanted to be King, didn't you," he said, very quietly. "You took my eyes. Would've done worse if you could...I should kill you. Dahahaha, Jack's probably going to lecture me about this…"

Kid, for once in his life, kept his mouth shut. He was fairly certain if the freak kept talking long enough he could lift that scythe...he'd just need to move his hand…

"But here's the thing. That treasure at the end of the Line? The One Piece that you so badly want? That's my goal, too. You want it for fame, or for power...I want knowledge. I want to see what Roger saw...and so...I'll let you live, Eustass Kid."

Kid lost his weak grip on his power at that statement. The freak's grin widened.

"See, I know how you think. And there's nothing worse I could do to you than leave you broken, knowing that your dream is going to be taken by someone else."

"You...you-"

The butt of the staff pressed against his chest. "Of course, that doesn't mean I'm going to leave you even halfway able to fight us anytime soon. Defibrillate."

Kid's world vanished in a crack of thunder.


"Shiiiiiit," I say flatly. "Okay, one, that was fucking badass, and two-" I grab him by the lapels and snarl in his face. "ARE YOU TRYING TO START A FUCKING PIRATE FEUD?!"

"Dahahahaha….it's going to be fun isn't it?"

I drop him, covering my face with my hands. "Sanity is dead. It's dead and I'm looking at the guy who killed it."

"Meow."

I glare through my fingers at the obviously hallucinatory Saint Bernard. Seriously, meowing dogs? I prod it.

Oh, wait. It's real.

Right, Kaneki, sanity is dead, must really keep up with that. "You, dog!"

"Meow."

"Why are you doing this."

"Kaneki-"

"Nope, nope, fuck this. I'm taking this weird meowing murder-hound, going to my cabin, and I'm going to wait for the universe to make sense again."

"Okay, you might be in there for some-"

"Don't. Start."

Ignoring everything. Walking to cabin. Sitting on cot. Okay.

Breathe, Kaneki, breathe. Sure, your captain just ensured that the guy who'd eventually get a bounty higher than Luffy's would be wanting to straight-up murder everyone on this crew and then use their bones as musical instruments, but everything's going to be okay. Definitely.

"Meow."

I stare at the dog. "You are a fucking weird animal…" I mutter, scratching the gigantic dog behind the ears. "Where the hell did Vinci find you?" I'm assuming it's Vinci. Or possibly Herman, given the man's Devil Fruit. "And what the hell does he intend to do with you?"

"Meow."

"Fuck it." I cross my legs, close my eyes, and try to focus. Maybe if I meditate I can stop freaking out well enough to sleep.

0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000

"And...let them go."

The men let their weights- ballast stones and similar ludicrously heavy things- slump to the deck, all of them panting from the exertion of keeping the things aloft. Kaneki grinned, and it was telling of their state of exhaustion that none of the new recruits even flinched at the highly disturbing expression.

Lauren waited as Kaneki talked with some of the new recruits, tapping her foot with impatience.

It was kinda funny. A couple weeks ago, she'd have never thought she'd be as strong as she currently was, but right now she was pretty sure she could swing one of those weights barehanded. One pill a day, the captain's orders, and she was growing stronger than she'd ever thought possibly. Meant she had to eat a hell of a lot more than she thought possible, too- she'd seen the same results across the crew as everyone packed away the kind of food needed to sustain the amount of energy they were burning.

It took longer than she'd have liked for Kaneki to finish with the greenhorns, but eventually she managed to catch his eye.

"You need something?" the ghoul asked, rolling his shoulders- which, come to think of it, was the most stretching she'd ever seen him do. Probably his regeneration letting him avoid the consequences of not doing so.

"Want to spar?" she asked. "Can't exactly use my weapons on anyone else. 'Cept maybe Herman, his Iron Body is ridiculous."

"Sure you don't want to wait until we get to an island?" he asked, cocking his head slightly.

"No telling what's on the other end of Reverse Mountain," she said. "I need to get better at fighting with what I've got, and you're the only one I can practice on."

"So I'm a target dummy, heh. Fine. Oi! You lot! Clear the deck, last thing we need is stray bullets hitting you idjits!"

With groans and a few good-natured insults, the crew cleared off, most of them moving to the forecastle where they could watch. Figures. They'd love a good fight.

Kaneki pulled off his jacket and tossed it against the base of the mast. She raised an eyebrow, and he shrugged.

"I get enough blood and holes in the damn thing from regular fighting," he said. "I'm not cleaning it up and sewing it back into working order over a spar."

"Fair," she said, taking one of his expressions. "You ready?"

Kaneki cracked his neck, his eyes snapping into their altered state. "One tail." The stated organ sprang into existence in an instant as Kaneki dropped into a crouch, lowering himself to all fours. Lauren reached behind her back for her newest weapon. "Defend yourself."

Kaneki was fast, much faster than her. But he was clearly going easy on her, and that made his forward lunge just slow enough for her to pull the cut-down version of that fat bastard knight's bazooka around and slam it into his chest, stopping him in mid-air. Lauren grinned.

"Gunnery Special: Wind Lance!"

Kaneki's eyes bulged out as she pulled the trigger, and then he went flying off the ship and into the ocean.

There was dead silence for a moment as the crew gawked.

Lauren grinned. "Wonder if that makes me first mate?" she muttered, running a hand over the bazooka. She really needed to find a way to thank the captain for making the weapon more portable...though he'd been more interested in the cables that had come with it- something about charging the Breath Dial with input from the Impact Dials…? Eh, wasn't her problem.

"GROAAAR!"

"Um...guys?" she heard Pravilno ask from the crowd. "I think a Sea King just ate our first mate."

"GRO-ERRGUH!"

"Oh, never mind, its head just exploded."

Lauren waited patiently, and sure enough, Kaneki, absolutely drenched with blood, climbed back over the rail a few moments later. He glared at her.

"That was one hell of a dirty trick." He grinned. "Good job. Think you can do it again?"

She grinned back, and levelled her bazooka. "Come and find out, bird boy."


"Okay, captain, I can handle a lot of things...but why is Eustass Kid's severed arm floating in a giant glass tank?" I ask. I'm fairly certain at some point after Vinci guaranteed Kid would be trying to murder us I may have snapped even further. That, or my brain has simply given up trying to apply rational behavior to my captain. Either way, I'm asking more out of curiosity than anything else at this point.

Apparently Vinci had gotten Jack to shell out for improved lab equipment during our short stay at Hangman's Town. Now the lab has six glass tanks surrounded by machinery and a great deal of other devices that I have absolutely no idea about the functioning of. Probably something sanity-breaking and/or abomination-producing.

"Well, Kaneki, it's simple. Kid has a Devil Fruit, yes?"

"Either that or a...magnetic personality."

"Never make a pun again, by the way. But yes, a Devil Fruit. I'm trying to see if I can locate the differences between a normal human and one who's eaten a Devil Fruit- DNA changes, physical alterations, something."

"And you need it in a tank because…"

"Well, I don't want the thing to rot, now do I?" He tips his tricorn back slightly and gives me a look. "But why'd you come down here? Surely it wasn't to ask about my experiments."

I cross my arms. "Honestly I'm worried you're going to use the dogs as experimental test subjects. I like dogs, captain, and so does most of the crew. 'Cept maybe Lauren, she's prickly enough to be a cat person."

"Dahahaha...really, that's what you're worried about? If I wanted animal testing, I'd have ordered Jack to buy some pigs. No, Kaneki, they're not test subjects."

I relax slightly.

"I mean, what I'm giving them isn't experimental in the slightest, so they aren't being used to test anything."

I glare at him, and Vinci chuckles. "Alright, alright, fine. They're getting the same stuff the rest of the crew is. Turns out they listen pretty well to orders even without formal training, too…"

"So what are they?"

"Morale boosters. Also, it amused me to bring them on board, so I did. That assuage your concerns?"

"Barely. Still worried about the oni."

"Ah." He sighs. "You mean the whole...pack-mentality thing they have with you."

I nod.

"Well, if anything, it provides valuable data about your people's natural state, I suppose…"

"This isn't a damn joke, Vinci."

"I know, I know, don't bite my head off...look. They haven't taken any further doses, right?"

"Those pills of yours count?"

"No, the concentration of your cell cultures in those is less than a thousandth what the concentration in the oni gas is."

"Then no, they haven't."

"Alright. Whatever happens to them after the next fight in which they do...I'll keep an eye on them, and see if they start turning into, well...more of you. It's not as though we lack for your kind of supplies, though."

"You'd let them turn themselves into monsters?"

Vinci frowns. "You think you're one?"

"Eat people. Nothing more to say about that. Less of a monster than others, maybe, but still a monster. But I didn't get a choice."

"And you…" Vinci stops, and sighs. "We're pirates, Kaneki. We'll kill people either way. If there are more permanent effects than the ones they've already suffered, I'll try to reverse them. If I can't do that...would you honestly consider killing them, for taking the power they needed to protect their crew?"

I open my mouth. Stop. Close it.

"No," I say quietly. "Not in cold blood like that."

"There you have it. It's slim odds, Kaneki, remember that. Don't do something you'll regret, purely because you're afraid of what the future could hold. If you do...you're little better than the Marines."

There's a knock on the door. "Captain?" Eka calls. "Boss?"

"What?" we ask at the same time.

"We're coming up on the Mountain...Jack says there was something you wanted to do?"

Vinci grins.


He'd seen pictures, he'd read books about it.

It still didn't compare to the sheer size of the mountain growing on the horizon, or the wall of rock extending on both sides.

Ends Justified was making a hell of a clip, faster and faster as the currents tugged at them and the Calm Belts loomed on either side. It took two men to hold the ship steady in the increasingly hostile currents, clutching at the wheel, but it mattered little.

"Here we are, men…" he called, looking over the crew as they all watched. "Right on the edge. Heading for the Line, just as I promised! Dahahahahaha...it's a hell of a sight, ain't it? Well, boys, I said I'd tell you the why of things, why I've taken you to this place...and I keep my promises."

He looked to the mountain. "I want to see what's on the other sign of that mountain. And so we're going to go there. We're going to sail the Line. And I will become Pirate King! Not for power! Not for fame! But for the secrets of this world, the ones kept hidden from all of us!" He dropped his voice into a whisper, one pitched to carry to every ear. "A scientist makes the impossible reality. A researcher searches for that which nobody can understand. And a doctor...a doctor denies death, to the end! And that is what I shall do! That is my dream: I shall search out every secret and treasure of this world...and at the very end of it, I shall find a way to immortality for all mankind! What say you? Will you follow me, to a better future?"

"AYE, CAPTAIN!"

His grin widened fit to split his skull. "But I can't achieve my dream alone...nor can I expect you to give up your own to serve mine. So tell me, my officers: what do you desire? What are your dreams?"

There was silence for a moment. And then Kaneki stepped out of the crowd of crew.

"I want...well, it's simple. There was a kingdom in the New World, which my master hailed from. His councillors, seven of them, turned on him, and deposed him. I want them dead, and once that debt is paid...once that's paid, there's still greater monsters that only another monster can handle."

Herman stepped up to his side. "What I want? I want enemies to face, I want to prove my strength to the world!" he shouted. "I will prove myself as a warrior...and that is all I want," he said, more quietly.

Jack nodded as he joined the dog-man. "I want nothing for myself," the big man said. "But I want to be there. I want to see what you do, captain."

"I want to never be afraid," Lauren cried, joining the officers.

More and more of the crew joined in, cries for wealth and fame and adventure joining the tide, and Vinci raised his arms until at last the tide abated. He pointed his scythe at Reverse Mountain. "It's all on the other side," he said simply. "Let's go take it. FOR SCIENCE!"

And then the currents grabbed them, and there was no more time for speeches.

Chapter Text

"Bwoooo…"

"Captain?" I ask faintly.

"Yes, Kaneki?"

"That is an extremely large whale."

"Yes it is."

"With a horrendously-drawn Jolly Roger on it."

"I noticed that as well."

We look at each other, and grin at the same time.

"I love this ocean," we announce simultaneously.

"STOP ADMIRING THE BEASTY AND HELP GET US AWAY FROM ITS JAWS, DAMMIT!" Herman shouts from the quarterdeck.

BWOOOO!"

"SHUT THE HELL UP YOU OVERGROWN PILE OF BLUBBER!"

Laboon's eye focuses on our ship for a moment.

"Herman, you fucking idiot," I say flatly.

"BWOOOOOO!"

"We're all gonna die!" Eka says with a laugh, pulling out a pack of cigarettes. The rest of the oni laugh with him as Laboon somehow vanishes into the waters of the Twin Capes, revealing…

"That is a very large shipwreck," I mutter, taking a cigarette from Eka.

"Herman! Bring us to the island! Looks like there's survivors," Vinci orders, shading his eyes.

"Aye, captain," Herman says, in a much more subdued tone of voice.

Ends Justified creeps towards the bulk of the wreck and the nearby lighthouse.

I light a cigarette, sit back, and try to let go of the massive adrenaline rush Reverse Mountain put me through. It's a pity- presumably people like Cross got to see the world laid out before them when they hit the summit...but I was too busy holding on to the rail and cursing every deity I could think of for putting me on that hell-mountain.

Wait a sec…

"Bwooo…"

"Easy, big fella," I mutter as Laboon's bulk begins to tower off our port side. "Not gonna give him any trouble, just want to help."

"Bwoooo…"

The whale lowers himself in the water, just enough for his eye to watch us. The crew seems to collectively shiver.

"Oh, come on," Jack says. "It's an Island Whale. They aren't hostile unless you start trouble with them. Smart buggers, too."

I blink at him. He shrugs. "I can have hobbies, too."

Ends Justified's keel grates on sand, and Vinci nods. "Look."

That's a lot of bodies. One's moving. The others aren't.

I recognize the moving one, bent over one of those still forms, and I nod to Vinci. "We going to help?"

"Of course. Jack."

"Aye?"

"Get the crew moving, check the ship over for any damage. Didn't much like how rough the way up was. Me and Kaneki will deal with this."

"Understood, captain."

We hit the sand, and approach Crocus, who seems more focused on his patient than us. The man's back is to us as he kneels in front of an unconscious or dead man, obscuring both his patient and his face from view...but not hiding that ridiculous flower-shaped hairdo.

"If you're here to fight, it will not go well for you," he growls, not looking up.

"Not our interest, old man," Vinci says. "I'm a doctor. Got supplies, too, if you need them."

There's a pause, and I see one of Crocus's hands vanish into the black bag laid next to him in the sand before pulling out a very large syringe. "Get over here, boy," he growls. "Need an extra pair of hands for this." Vinci nods to me and walks over, frowning as he does so. I don't draw any closer, instead looking back over the wreck and the bodies. The ship had been big- a lot bigger than our own, some great bluff-bowed galleon...probably had been what killed it, running down Reverse Mountain at such a speed that the vessel couldn't take the strain.

The cigarette clouds the smell, but not nearly enough.

"Please…"

I follow the sound, and wince as I come on someone who's still alive. And, judging from the size of the spar through his gut, beyond even Vinci's skill to heal. I kneel down beside the poor bastard, and unhook my canteen from my belt before using my coat to support the man's head. He looks like a classical pirate, big red coat and hat and all.

He coughs. "Water...please…"

I manage to trickle some into his mouth, and he smiles. "Was not...expecting this…" he wheezes. "Tell me...did we..?"

"Make it over the Red Line? You did. Paid a price for it."

"My crew…?"

"Dead, from the looks of it."

"And me dying...heh. It was...not to be, then." He stops, taking deep breaths. "I had...so much to do…what is your name?"

"Yoshimura Kaneki."

"Kaneki...I am Morgan Piers...would you do a dying man...one last kindness?"

"If need be."

"Make it quick."

I nod. "Morgan Piers...I give you mercy."

My tail flashes in the sunlight, and I close the man's eyes.

I suddenly feel a pressing need to be elsewhere.


"I will be honest," Vinci said as he clutched the mug of tea Crocus had offered. "I am amazed he's still alive."

"That one man...he's hanging on...and much tougher than the rest of that crew, rest their souls," Crocus said gravely. "Damned young fools." He gave Vinci a look over his glasses that nearly made him quail. "Quite like your own crew. Don't think I didn't notice your first mate's nature...or where your crew started putting the bodies. Is it only him?"

This old man knew what- how? Vinci nodded slowly.

"He sane?"
"As much as our sort can be," Vinci said. "How did you know?"

"Isn't the first time I've seen his kind. Or fought them. Roger had a hand in their destruction, after all."

"Roger," he managed to squeak. "Gold Roger. You...you sailed with the Pirate King?"

Crocus nodded. "Had to leave lighthouse duty to another young fool while I did, but he...made refusing very difficult, in his own way." He sighed. "Normally I'd be winding you poor rookies up, but it seems in poor taste after, well…"

Vinci shrugged. "It's how it is. Least we saved one...though I don't like the look of him. Worse than the trauma of the wreck's happened to him."

Crocus glanced at the cot where they'd laid the poor bastard down after making sure that he wouldn't die right that second. "Agreed, though I'm not sure what sort of toxin was used on him."

"I have a few options, even if we don't know," Vinci offered.

Crocus's mouth thinned. "Derived from your first mate?"

"Not in quantities enough to matter," Vinci said.

"I don't like it...but I doubt he'll live without your intervention." Crocus nodded. "Do whatever it takes, brat."

Vinci grinned. "Ordering me around, now?"

"Bah, you know what I mean. Now go get whatever tools you need, I'll keep an eye on him."

Vinci got to his feet. "Sure thing, old man. And I'll be sure to ask about what you know right after."

"After One Piece?"

"After knowledge...and I may be wrong, but Roger didn't seem the sort to bury mere gold and jewels at the ends of the earth."

Crocus smiled. "You might be right in that, brat. You might be right, indeed."


First there was nothing, a sweet, numb embrace.

And then there was pain, setting every single nerve and vein in his body on fire.

There was nothing again as his mind recoiled from that agony.

This cycle repeated several times. Until...

"Okay, try it again, this time with the red syringe," a voice said, piercing the numbness in a way that for once didn't bring the immeasurable agony everything had caused since he'd been poisoned.

The numbness vanished, but this time there was no pain. He felt...good. Great, even.

He opened his eyes.

A man with black sclerae and red irises was looking at him.

He closed them again, took a few deep breaths, and reopened them.

Nope, still there. And now there was some guy who looked like he'd fallen onto several very sharp objects face-first.

Wasn't his life wonderful?

He swallowed, and coughed. "So...I'm alive after all," he muttered. "Could I...get some water?"

Scarface provided a canteen, which he took small sips from- wasn't his first time dealing with dehydration.

The scarred man smiled. "Welcome back to the land of the living. What's your name?"

"It's Gin."

Chapter Text

"As I walked by the dockside one evening so fair,
To view the salt water and take the sea air,
I heard an old fisherman singing a song,
Won't you take ma away boys me time is not long,
Wrap me up in me oil-skin and jumper,
No more on the docks I'll be seen,
Just tell me old shipmates, I'm taking a trip mates,
And I'll see you some day in Fiddler's Green."

The music helps. Keeps me focused on playing my guitar and singing along, rather than on the fact that we've found Gin, of all people. Keeps me focused away from what Crocus knows about me.

"Now Fiddler's Green is a place I heard tell,
Where the fishermen go (if they don't go to hell),
Where skies are all clear and the dolphins do play,
And the cold South Blue Islands are far, far away."

Jack's found a few leaks and other problems below the waterline from our passage, so we've run Ends Justified up on the beach to look him- yes, ships are usually female, but it doesn't seem to fit- over. A couple of the more architecturally-inclined of the crew are checking the seams, but the rest...well, a glad-to-be-alive celebration seems perfectly normal.

"Wrap me up in me oil-skin and jumper,
No more on the docks I'll be seen,
Just tell me old shipmates, I'm taking a trip mates,
And I'll see you some day in Fiddler's Green."

Vinci...well, he'd filled me in on what Crocus knew, before Gin had woken up. It's funny. I'd nearly forgotten the man existed...come to think of it, whatever happened to him in the story? He never reappeared after Krieg got his ass handed to him.

I'm just glad Crocus didn't press the issue, instead swimming out to where Laboon's been hanging around. Maybe my presence brings up some bad memories, or something.

"When you get on the docks and the long trip is through,
There's pubs and there's clubs and there's lassies there too.
When the girls are all pretty and the beer it is free,
And there's bottles of rum growing from every damn tree.

Wrap me up in me oil-skin and jumper,
No more on the docks I'll be seen,
Just tell me old shipmates, I'm taking a trip mates,
And I'll see you some day in Fiddler's Green."

I should be asking Crocus for details. Not just...wherever I came from, but his own voyages. The things he's seen. I hope Vinci's already done that. Don't see him among the crew…

"Now, I don't want a harp nor a halo, not me,
Just give me a breeze and a good rolling sea,
I'll play me old squeeze-box as we sail along,
With the wind in the rigging to sing me a song

Wrap me up in me oil-skin and jumper,
No more on the docks I'll be seen,
Just tell me old shipmates, I'm taking a trip mates,
And I'll see you some day in Fiddler's Green."

"Come on, Kaneki," one of the crew half-sobs. "Play something lighthearted!"

I smile and shrug, before nodding to the rest of the band and stepping aside. I've got questions to ask.

Even if I have a feeling I won't much like the answers.


"I used to belong to another crew," Gin explained. "Don Krieg's."

"Never heard of him," Vinci said. Gin chuckled.

"'Course not. He barely lasted minutes on the Line...and then when we fled back to the East Blue, he went up against some kid he really shouldn't have. I…" He looked down at his hands, and sighed. "Krieg wanted to take over this floating restaurant, and the chef there...first person to show me real kindness in a long, long time. I couldn't kill him...but couldn't go against him, either." He shrugged. "Krieg got knocked out, me and the surviving crew headed off in a boat...and minute he woke up, he threw me off. Literally. Swam my way to the nearest island, refused to die. Ended up in Loguetown after a while...signed up with a crew that looked strong, and well…" He shook his head, then looked at Vinci. "Thank you," he said quietly. "For saving my life. But...what's the deal with your first mate?"
Vinci shrugged. "Oh, nothing much. Just a obligate cannibal with enough self-hatred to power a small city provided you could build a dynamo to run off it."
Gin's stare almost shifted the bags under his eyes, before the near-skeletal man shut his eyes and took several deep breaths. "Okay."
"So, you going to join our crew?"
Gin sputtered.
"Give the man some time to mourn, captain," Kaneki's voice said from the door. Vinci glanced over. The ghoul seemed on edge, arms folded and fingers tapping rhythms on his elbows.

"You alright, Kaneki?"

The ghoul grimaced. "You mentioned that Crocus knew what I was...that Roger fought my kind. Trying to psych myself up to go talk to him about it."

Vinci looked at Gin and waggled his eyebrows in a way that meant 'see? Told you.'. "I'm pretty sure he won't stab you if you go up to that whale and try to talk to him," he said. "Go give it a shot. And if he does stab you…"

"Yeah, yeah, I can walk it off. Fine, then." He looked at Gin, and his eyes flicked to their altered state for a moment. "I mean it, captain. Let him come to terms before he chooses another crew."

The ghoul left.

Gin chuckled. "Melodramatic bastard, ain't he?"

"Oh, you have no idea," Vinci said with a grin. "I think it comes with the immortality."

"Obligate means...he has to eat people? Right?"
"Working on that, but for the moment, yes. It's not as though we're short of corpses."

"My crew…?"

"Dead is dead." Vinci raised his hands at Gin's expression. "Easy, dahahaha...we buried them. Couldn't fit them in our holds at this point, and we've got more than enough to keep him going for a long, long while. We're pirates, and the dead are shells...but even the dead can get some respect."

Gin narrowed his eyes. "Good," he finally said. "Didn't know them long, but they didn't deserve to be food." He stood. "What's the state of my ship?"

"Keel's snapped like a twig and a good chunk of the starboard side's missing. Aft end's gone, too."

Gin nodded. "Works for me. My cabin was on the port side."

"Going to collect your effects?"

"Something like that."


Crocus was old, but his Observation Haki was as sharp as ever. He knew that Kaneki was approaching long before the ghoul even reached Laboon, and so he sat himself up on one of the hatches he'd built into the immense whale and waited.
He didn't have to wait long as the ghoul launched himself out of the water and began to climb using his hands and feet. Odd. He'd expected him to use his tails, despite the risk of cutting Laboon.

Maybe that was why he wasn't, but personally Crocus doubted it. He'd seen, fought, and nearly been killed by the brat's kind before, and care for others outside their own kind was...rare. And those few times more like someone with a favorite pet than anything else.

He waited, and after several minutes, Kaneki pulled himself over the horizon of Laboon's body. The ghoul looked around, and then approached slowly.

Crocus sighed. "What do you want?"

"Answers. I...hell, old man, I didn't even know where I came from, and according to Vinci you fought and killed my entire race. Got no grudge against you for that, mind. Anyone stupid enough to piss off a D...yeah, not the smartest move."

He knew. "You know Roger's actual name," he said flatly. "How?"

The ghoul shrugged. "Make a trade? Answer for answer?"

Crocus kept silent for several seconds, watching the ghoul slowly tense as Crocus stared...and stared...and stared

The ghoul laughed. "I like your sense of humor, old man. Fine, then, I'll answer first. I know his name the same way I know that a boy in a straw hat on a ram-headed caravel painted that Jolly Roger on your compensating-for-something-sized whale. I read it."

Interesting. And needing a great deal of elaboration, but that would come. Crocus sighed. "If I answer yours, you'll tell me more?" he asked flatly.

"That's the plan."

"Fine. We were on the Grand Line when we ran into one of your kind. Bastard had razed an island to the ground, and while he could pass for human, just like you...well, most of his underlings were out of their minds. Was a nasty fight, and he ran for it. Roger...well, he wasn't exactly happy, and we tracked him down, found a laboratory where he was cloning more of your kind, and tore the place apart. Never did find out where he came from, anything like research notes burned with the labs...but the leader of that pack did mention a 'Father' of some kind. We never found any others, though."

Kaneki sighed. "Hell. Alright, that makes sense. Vinci did figure I was a shitty experiment of some kind…" He shrugged. "Fair's fair. But I doubt you're going to believe me when I explain."

"I sailed in the New World, boy. There is very little I will not believe. Tell me."

Kaneki told him.

Crocus listened. Then he began to laugh.

Chapter Text

"BWWWOOOOOOOOO!"

Vinci gaped. What the hell was that whale doing? Dancing? And...that was definitely a smile.

He grinned as the crew panicked, screaming about the 'angry' whale, and laughed. Kaneki clearly was doing something right.

Gin whistled. "Your first mate?" he asked.

Vinci nodded.

"Hm. Let's hope the whale's dancing doesn't wash away what's left of my ship." He walked away.

Vinci watched as Laboon settled into the water, slightly less deafening in his bellowing. A speck of red detached itself from the massive bulk of the whale and fell into the water, before rocketing towards the shore. Kaneki hit the beach at a fair clip- and barely avoided one of the bonfires the crew had set in the process, before tripping over a chunk of driftwood and faceplanting into the sand at Vinci's feet.

"I'm okay!" he declared, voice slightly muffled.

Vinci chuckled, and hauled the ghoul to his feet. "What'd you say to the beast?"

Kaneki smiled. Not the usual all-too-joyful fighting grin...something smaller, and more peaceful. "Told him about someone he misses dearly," he said. "Also...got a bit off my shoulders, metaphorically speaking."

"Going to tell me about it?"

"What do you think?"

"Given your tendency to bottle everything up and never talk to people, likely no," Vinci quipped.

Kaneki laughed. "Fine, I deserve that. Still not going to tell you, though…"

"That's just unfair," Vinci complained, which just made Kaneki laugh harder.

"H-hey," the ghoul said, containing his amusement. "Where'd Gin go off to?"

"Said he was going to collect his stuff from the ship."

"Hm." Kaneki sniffed at the air. "Got to wonder how he's still alive. Poison, shipwrecks, starvation…"

"People are tougher than you might give credit," Vinci said with a smile. "Just because you keep getting injured doesn't mean it happens to everyone else."

"Heh. Still thinking on getting him on the crew?"

"Unless he wants to take over from the old man in managing the lighthouses or something, definitely."

"Why, though?"

"Same reason I let the Bertram girl on. Want to see what he becomes."

"That why you asked me to join?"

"Oh, no. You're already interesting."

"Huh." Kaneki stood there in silence, watching the still on-going celebrations. "We...do have a Log Pose, right?" he eventually asked. "Can't remember if you got Jack to buy one."

"Three, actually," Vinci said, pulling one from one of his coat pockets. "Only way to navigate that doesn't involve the stars, I've got no intention of being without one."

"Good. Got any idea where to go?"

Vinci grinned. "Not a clue. Never found any maps. You?"

"Only thing I have is an Eternal Pose to my master's old kingdom," Kaneki said. "I know there's seven possible routes...and one is apparently an early dead-end, but that's it."

"Well, best pick one at random when we're ready to go, then," Vinci said lightly. "Hopefully it'll be somewhere we can pick up work...or loot, if we're desperate."

"Raiding...not sure I like that, captain," Kaneki said. "I know we're pirates, but do we really…"

Vinci shrugged. "People'll fall in line. Won't kill unless we have to."

Kaneki sighed. "Fair enough, captain. Maybe we'll get lucky and some rich asshole on the next island will pay you to save him from a life-threatening illness."

"It'd have to be an exorbitant amount. And honestly? Who'd charge that much?"


Two islands down the Grand Line, a certain mountain witch sneezed.


"Eh, fine. We'll figure something out, anyway," Kaneki said. He whistled, and one of the dogs- Kant, Vinci recalled- trotted over.

"Meow."

Right...he still had no idea why it did that.

"I'm gonna check out the lighthouse," Kaneki said. "Yell if Gin decides to do something stupid."

"Why do you think he will?"

Kaneki shrugged. "Until proven otherwise, I will assume people will make the dumbest possible decision provided it makes things more dramatic."

"And your proof…"

"Look in a mirror, captain. Come on, Kant."


Morning dawns clear and surprisingly cold, and with Kant trying to nuzzle me awake.

"Gerroff, dog," I mutter, shoving the Saint Bernard away as I sit up on the edge of my cot. Feh. Need to stop drinking coffee late, it's fucking with my ability to wake up…

I crack my knuckles, pull on fresh clothes, and head out of my cabin and onto the deck.

It's...silent.

There's no Laboon offshore. Actually, there's no shore at all, just water all around.

Nobody on deck. Kant's gone. Even the waves...are...still…

"This is a dream, isn't it?" I ask out loud. "Joy. So, what's going to happen? Fighting my own subconscious or some bullshit?"

"No, nothing so simple," an echoing voice says.

I turn, and sigh. "Let me guess. ROB. And taking the appearance of Truth? Really?"

The pure white figure shrugs, smile never vanishing. "It seemed fitting."

"So you can talk to me. Why here, why now?"

"Far easier to do it on the Grand Line than anywhere else...I'm sure you understand why."

"Hmph. Fine. What's your game, Bob? Why turn me into...this? Leave me stuck on an island in the middle of nowhere?"

"Do I need a reason? Perhaps it was simple amusement."

I feel a vein throb in my forehead. "What. Do. You. Want."

"What I want, little wyrm, is simple. I want change...and your course is already set to cause a great deal of it…"

"Then why the hell did you start doing this? I'm already doing what you want!"

"The old man. You haven't told your companions the truth, and yet you told him everything. It is...interesting."

I chuckle. "So you aren't omniscient after- grhk!" I claw at my throat as pressure cuts off my supply of air.

"I would suggest you keep a more civil tongue in your head," ROB says flatly. "The old man. Why."

The pressure vanishes, and I drop to my knees, breathing heavily. "Because he'd understand," I rasp. "Because I needed to tell someone, actually use the knowledge that's left in my head for something useful. Because my crew hasn't seen the Grand Line. Not yet. Once they have, maybe I'll be able to tell them."

"Hmph. An acceptable answer. I expect a great deal from you, wyrm. You know that." In an instant, he's in front of me, and his hand's in my chest-

"I will not allow you to forget it."

I wake up with the smell of sizzling flesh filling my nostrils, and someone hammering on the door.

"I'm up, give me a second!" I shout, getting to my feet and ignoring the rapidly fading pain that's covering my torso. What the hell had it-

I catch sight of my torso in the small mirror that's in my cabin, and gape.

What the fuck did the bastard brand me with? Four circles, arranged in a column, increasing in size until they hit this weird horseshoe-shaped thing at the bottom. The highest and smallest touches the bottom of my throat while the roots at the bottom of the horseshoe trail off to the sides of my ribcage.

The hammering increases as I walk over to the door and open it the slightest amount. "What the fuck do you want?" I growl at Pravilno, who takes a sharp step back, sweatdropping.

"Sorry, but the captain needs you," he says sheepishly.

"What. For."

"He didn't say. Was talking to that Gin guy beforehand."

I drag a hand over my face. "Alright. Fine. I'll get over there."

Pravilno nods. Then his eyes drop to- oh for fuck's sake.

"So, uh, you sleep in the-"

"Leave."

He vanishes, and I slam the door shut.

Black turtleneck sweater. And pants.

Alright. Let's see what the fuck is going on with Gin.

Chapter Text

My hands very pointedly do not shake as I pour myself a mug of coffee and stalk over to where Gin, Vinci, and Jack are waiting. "What the hell is worth waking me up so early about?" I snarl.

"It's ten o'clock."

"I stand by my point."

"Dahahaha...sorry, Gin, our first mate is a bit grumpy without his coffee."

I'm more grumpy about the still-aching brand the bastard responsible for me being a monster had put on me, but I hold my tongue and drink my coffee.

"To answer your question, Gin wants to fight you."

I nearly choke on my coffee. At least I don't give Vinci the satisfaction of a spit-take. Instead, I cough heavily for nearly a minute, practically bending double as my windpipe objects to the presence of near-boiling coffee.

"F-fight? Grk...why the hell do you want to fight me?" I snarl at Gin, who regards me flatly. "I do something to piss you off?"

"No," Gin says, still staring with admittedly creepy eyes.

"Then why?"

He sighs. "I served one weak captain, and he failed on the line. Found a stronger captain, but his crew and ship weren't strong enough. I'd like to make sure that doesn't happen if I join your crew."

Deep breaths, Kaneki.

"Fine. You want to see how tough I am, whatever. How're we going to do this?"

"I'll call up the crew," Jack rumbles. "You want to take our mettle, Devil Man, but you'll also have to prove yourself to them. Even the greenhorns."

I nod. "Reminds me. How long're we going to wait?"

"Going to take a week to make sure everything's proper and shipshape, and they'll be trained up," Jack answers. He eyes Gin. "It'll help bring you up to proper fighting shape, too," he says neutrally.

Gin bristles. "I'm fine."

"Lack of muscle mass and your facial features suggest otherwise," Vinci says cheerily. "I recommend a high-nutrient diet. You still aren't fully recovered."

"I'll manage."

"Once you join my crew, yes, yes you will," Vinci rebuts with a grin.

Gin shivers.


Well, Lauren reflected, the two of them had something in common- they both looked like shit.

She'd managed to push her way to the front of the crowd via the judicious application of some elbows and being thinner than most of the pirates, giving her a good view of the impromptu ring that'd been set up for Kaneki and Gin's fight.

Kaneki looked frustrated and tired, in a black turtleneck and khaki pants, the bags under his eyes very prominent. Gin, on the other hand, looked as skeletal as ever. Most people would figure that meant both of them were easy marks. But she'd seen Kaneki spar...and while she had no idea what Gin was capable of, he acted confident enough, carrying his cannonball-tipped tonfas with ease.

This was going to be...interesting.

The two of them eyed each other from their sides of the ring. Kaneki held himself loosely- which he could afford to, given his regeneration- while Gin was tense, one of his tonfas slowly twitching back and forth as he waited.

"Well? Get on with it!" Vinci yelled.

Gin cocked one arm back, tonfa starting to spin, blurring into motion.

Kaneki didn't move.

Gin launched himself forward, swinging his tonfa.

Kaneki raised an arm, muscles tensing in a way Lauren recognized as him using Iron Body.

Gin's tonfa slammed into that iron-hard defense- and Kaneki's arm broke like a dry twig as the cannonball kept going, smashing into the first mate's jaw. Kaneki went flying back as Gin's other tonfa slammed into his ribs with bone-breaking force, knocking him to the ground.

Lauren winced. Regeneration or not, that had to hurt.

"Shit, did I…?" she heard Gin mutter.

A ripple of laughter ran through the crew, and the half-starved man looked up. "What's so funny?"

Kaneki sat up, grabbed his broken arm, and shoved it into a proper position with a crack, before grinning. Even from where Lauren was standing she could see his eyes turn black and red as the man stood up. "You're tougher than I thought," the ghoul said.

Was it her eyes playing tricks, or did his teeth look like fangs?

"So're you," Gin allowed, tonfa starting to spin again as he took a wary step back.

"Was gonna go slow, see how much you could take...but don't particularly feel like taking that sort of beating. One tail, two tail, three tail, four." The four blood-colored tails twitched lazily in the air as Kaneki crouched. "Devil or ghoul, let's see which is stronger," he growled.

"Fine by me," Gin said, starting to smile.

"Multiple Scaled Hammers!"

Gin didn't say a word, just swinging his tonfas to meet the striking tails. The impact sent the skeletal man sliding back, and sent sparks flying from the hafts of his weapons, but didn't seem to faze him. With a grunt, he pushed the tails away.

At which point Kaneki Shaved forwards and kicked him in the balls.

Gin went white, but remained standing. So Kaneki hit him again, which did the trick.

Lauren wasn't a guy, but she winced anyway.


Gin fingered his new clothes thoughtfully. Kreig and Morgan hadn't cared enough to institute any kind of uniform, allowing people to wear whatever they liked. These guys...their symbol was everywhere, even tattooed on their flesh in the case of the bosun. And now he was part of that.

He wasn't particularly sad to see his old jacket go. It'd been near to falling apart, anyway. And this new one…

Someone had noticed the serpents on his old jacket, and embroidered a similar set into the sleeves of his new uniform, the bright scarlet snakes coiling upwards from the wrists to sit their heads at his shoulders. The jacket itself was lined with fur that he couldn't identify- whatever it was, it was pure white and very, very comfortable. It poked past the cuffs and the edges of the attached hood. The headband they'd given him was the only thing with the Nightmare symbol, a patch bearing it grinning proudly right in the middle.

"So, what do you think?" the Nightmare tailor asked.

Gin nodded. "I like it."

"Good. Go and talk to the bosun, he said he wanted to see you."

Yeah, that figured. The captain might've been more than willing to bring him on, but the bosun...well, the big man seemed more of a realist than his commander. Another strange thing. Krieg would never have tolerated someone else having a more commanding position in his crew- anyone who looked to be angling for any kind of power over the men had been...dealt with. Often by Gin himself. Vinci, on the other hand, didn't seem to particularly care, so long as his own orders were followed without question. And they would be, he could tell.

The bosun's cabin door was open, and the mutton-chopped man nodded as soon as Gin appeared in his doorway. "Come in, and shut the door behind you."

Gin did so.

"Sit down."

He did.

Rubeus Jack regarded him. "I managed to snag a News Coo subscription before we headed for the Line," he said. "Caught up on some back issues. You're worth a great deal, for an East Blue native. And you've done some fairly horrific things."

Gin tensed, and Jack waved a hand.

"We have a cannibal for a first mate, we're not going to judge you. Just trying to figure out why. Captain won't care, and like as not Kaneki won't either...but I need to know how reliable you are, Devil-Man."

Gin grit his teeth. "I've done what I've been ordered to. Krieg...I respected his strength, and so I followed his orders. No matter what. But I'm not some sick bastard who murders for fun. You give me an order, I'll follow it the best I can."

Jack nodded slowly. "Well, then…" He rose, and extended a massive hand. "Welcome to the Nightmare Pirates, Devil-Man. I think you'll fit right in."

Chapter Text

Vinci was meditating.

Normally he wouldn’t hold with such spiritual claptrap, but he wasn’t after enlightenment or inner peace. Peace meant stagnation and ossification, acceptance of mortality, and that was something he could not allow.

No, he was meditating because it was the best way to clear his head enough for him to work on himself.

The King’s Heart was a chimera, half his parent’s theoretical scribblings and half his own genius and- he could admit it- madness. And it grew , that was the important thing, a Hegelian response to the world, constantly altering itself and through it him, through him the environment, and the alterations of the environment causing it to alter itself once more, starting the whole cycle over. It responded to his will and need...and by now it had spread itself far enough he could start on some more...esoteric modifications. All he had to do was focus.

Altering his bones had already been easy. It had actually come as something of a surprise, but the process he’d intended, plating them in a layer of carbon compounds, had already been started- and by what he recognized as his own C-cells, no less. Still, it’d been extremely simple to speed the process up by having the elements of the King’s Heart nearby start copying more of the cells. They’d also increase his physical strength, so it killed two birds with one stone.

Secondary heart was already engineered in, obviously, and the lungs as they were were efficient enough. Just a slight tweak to their metabolic rate needed. Adding more would be useless for the moment- he had no space for it anyway unless he wanted to crack open his torso.

That would have to wait for a fully-equipped surgery, a lot more training for the medics, and plenty of raw material. That would be a while, probably if or when they got a new ship.

Outside the peace of his meditation, he heard timbers creak slightly.

Hmph.

Spine was easy enough to reconfigure, replacing the easily-damaged arrangement of vertebrae and discs with a complex assemblage of interlocking bone, a perfect protection with the increased strength. Internal organs were surrounded by a seed network that would eventually extend sheaths of honeycombed carbon around them. Slight alterations to stomach acids and digestive system, increasing breakdown of otherwise inedible components and allowing natural production of vitamin C. Increasing myelination of nerves- another thing the C-cells were already doing that he increased the rate of.

And his eyes. Once Kaneki’s, but now his...he’d leave them be for now, the existing enhancements were enough.

The Heart thumped, his guts churned, and as everything settled in, Vinci let out a slow breath, letting the emptiness fade away and be replaced by the familiar walls of his lab. He uncrossed his legs, and stepped out of his chair, testing his movements. A quick glance at the clock confirmed that he hadn’t spent long fixing himself up. Good to know. He had-

Someone knocked on the door to the lab.

-ah, right on time, then. “Come in!”

Lauren entered extremely cautiously, eyes darting around as she took in the various experiments.

Vinci just grinned. “You know why I asked to see you?”

“No, actually,” she replied, a bit shakily.

“Right. I want to put you in charge of the armory.”

“What.”

“You. In charge of our guns. Shipboard and personal. Care, maintenance, and instructing the rest of the crew.”

“B-b-but why?! I-”

“I’ve seen you practicing, and spoken with others of the crew. Pravilno is likely the most skilled with firearms among the crew. And you make him look like a septuagenarian with palsy and a heroin habit. And then there’s the modifications you’ve been making after-hours to the forward armament.” He chuckled at her shocked expression. “You thought I wouldn’t notice our cannons suddenly becoming breech-loading? Or the concurrent vanishing of spare parts from our holds?” Well, Jack had been the one to notice, but that was beside the point. “Whether you admit it or not, you seem to be a prodigy with all things related to gunpowder. So, your promotion.”

“I...don’t know what to say, captain. What exactly would I have to do?”

“Any modifications or upgrades to our weapons, it’s your purview. Talk with Jack to keep yourself supplied. Make sure you’re ready for combat, anyone who needs help with their own firearms skills, it’s your job to make sure they’re at least competent. Same with how Herman is starting to teach swordwork-” -and wasn’t that a sight, the burly dogman having finally gotten fed up with the ‘incompetent fucking flailing’ of his fellow crewmates- “-and with how I’ve been teaching medical care and handing out enhancements.”

“Huh.” She smiled thinly. “I’ve been starting to see diminishing returns in my training. Looks like I’ll have the time to bring the others up to speed, then.”

“Good way to think of it, Gunner,” Vinci said with a widening grin.

 

----

 

“I would’ve expected you to charge forward blindly,” Crocus comments mildly. “Most of the ones who want to be Pirate King tend to do that.”

Vinci sighs. “Knowledge is power. And while the journey would likely be interesting, I’d rather not have it end early because I ran into a dead end on the Line that I could’ve avoided by asking for help.”

Crocus’s eyes flick to me for the barest instant before he nods. “Long as you don’t ask me about Raftel or how to get there…”

“It would diminish the achievement if I did,” Vinci replies smoothly. “Raftel, I want to reach on my own terms.” He pulls a Log Pose from his pocket. “But as for the rest…”

“Safest anchorage is probably Turtle’s Bay. Fifth island out of the seven routes. A haven for pirates and scoundrels of all sorts...and typically the worst of the lot as well,” he adds, giving me another look. “You’ll have little enough trouble, I suppose.” He pauses, then walks over to a weathered chest in the corner of the room and pries it open with a grunt. He pulls out a thick parcel wrapped in canvas, and holds it out to Vinci. “Here. You’ll need this. It’s some of my medical notes on what you can find in the Grand Line.”

Vinci blinked. “And what did I do to-”

“You didn’t. Your first mate did. Now take the damn thing.”

Vinci does so. “Guess whatever he told you and the whale of yours was really important, dahaha…”

“You have no idea, kid,” Crocus says with a slight smile. “No get going. Remember- fifth island. You get lost, it’s not my fault.”

“Yeah, that’s not going to happen. Anything else we should worry about?”

“A half dozen or so islands down that route, you’ll run into a fairly gloomy one covered in ruins and populated by militant apes.”

Oh fuck no…

“The greatest swordsman in the world, Dracule Mihawk, calls it home. Last I heard the brat spent most of his time at sea, but if he’s in residence...don’t even think about fighting him.”

I nod. “It wouldn’t go well.”

“How poorly?” Vinci asks sharply.

I shrug. “Ask Gin. He’ll tell you.”

Vinci nods, and heads for the door, with me following him. “Thanks for the advice, old man. You and the whale take care, now…” He stops dead, and I barely avoid running into him as he turns back around. “Actually, wait, one more question- why does your whale have a poorly drawn skull on it?”

Crocus grunts. “Some brat in a straw hat drew it. What’s it to you?”

“Just curious.”

 

Chapter Text

Thoom.

“Vinci,” I say flatly as the door to the lab- the door made of six inches of solid steel- visibly shudders. “What the fuck is in there?”

The captain opens his mouth. Closes it. “I...may have started running out of material to sample from Eustass Kid’s arm and injected it with a regenerative compound so it would grow back more,” he says smoothly. “Well, at least the countermeasures worked. Wonder what it grew?”

“If it’s a perfect clone of Kid or some other bullshit, I’m punting you off this ship,” I warn. “One tail, two tail, three tail-”

Thoom.

“- four. ” I pull my mask on, and crack my neck as the door shudders again.

There’s a moment of silence, and I practically feel the Oni behind me tense, the smell of sweat and adrenaline rank in the close confines of the ship.

“One week,” I mutter. “Can we have one week on this ocean where things are normal?”

“Judging from the weather we went through on day one, no,” Vinci replies calmly.

 

----

 

“I! HATE! THIS! OCEAN!” I scream through the massive hailstorm that had just replaced the near-boiling temperatures from earlier, using my tails to shield myself from the worst of it as I heaved on a line that normally would take a dozen of the crew to haul.

Icebergs to port!” Herman shouts.

“On it!” Lauren answers. “Gunnery Special: Detonations!”

Ends Justified groans as Herman throws it through another wild swerve, the waves starting to grow even more horrendously huge. I spare one of my tails to grab a crewman who apparently didn’t get the fucking message about safety lines and keep him from tumbling overboard.

“HOLY SHIT THAT’S A VERY BIG WAVE!” one of the crew yells. I spare a moment to glance forward as the hail turns into ice-cold rain, and feel the bottom drop out of my stomach at the sight of a wall of water heading right for us.

“We’re gonna diiiiieeee,” someone else sobs.

“STOW THAT TALK MAGGOT, WE DON’T PAY YOU TO WHINE!” Jack shouts. “KANEKI, HERMAN, DEAL WITH THAT OVERGROWN RIPPLE!”

I plunk the crewman I’ve been holding onto the deck and yank the rope into his hands. “You. Hold this.” Then I run across the deck to the foredeck, joining Herman. “Shouldn’t you be holding onto the ship’s wheel?” I ask.

“Shut the fuck up and do the thing,” Herman grunts, drawing Amakatta.

“Right. One tail, two tail, three tail, four...BREATH OF THE DRAGON!”

“Shepherd’s Style...WHITE FANG!”

It is impressive what you can do with knowledge of Tempest Kick and the strength to apply it to your own slashing techniques.

Unfortunately, that bitch Mother Nature doesn’t give a damn about impressive, and our combined slashes are more a slight denting of the sea than a parting of it.

“This ocean can bite my-”

WHOOM.

 

----

 

We all take a moment to shudder at the shared memories. It was a wonder nobody died. As it was a fifth of the crew were still nursing injuries, and we’d had to rig up a new mizzen mast after one of the larger waves had snapped it clean off.

Then another thoom grabs our attention again as the door visibly deforms.

Is that...a face?

“It’s headbutting the door, isn’t it,” Eka mutters, lowering his dao slightly.

“Well, at least by the time it breaks free it’ll probably be concussed,” Percy adds, tapping his brass knuckles against each other.

Thoom.

“Maybe if we’re lucky, it’ll be unconscious,” Tina adds cheerily, shouldering her spear.

Thoom.

“Probably not,” I say with a shrug. “You honestly think our luck is that-”

“GRAAAAAAH!”

I’m yanked forward at the waist as the door crumples inwards, and the rest of the Oni are dragged after me!

“Of fucking course he has Kid’s magnetic powers,” I grumble as my tails snatch them out of the air, letting their weapons continue to hurl themselves towards the hole where the door used to be. I yank my trench spike out of my belt and let it join them, and the pull on me decreases sharply.

Vinci isn’t affected at all, the prick.

“RAAAAH!”

Finally I get a glimpse of the fucker as the metal slams into the ground, revealing an emaciated and far too naked humanoid form. It leaps forwards- and immediately one of my tails smashes it into the deck, pinning it there.

“Don’t kill it!” Vinci shouts.

“Don’t- captain, are you nuts?” Dui asks, picking himself up off the floor.

The cloned thing keeps struggling, trying to break free of my tail, but doesn’t seem to have the presence of mind to use its magnetic abilities again. Most of it is thankfully obscured by the tail wrapped around it, only its bald head visible. It snarls at me- and I see its eyes.

Black sclerae. Red irises. Just like mine.

“Vinci what the fuck .”

Our captain walks up behind me and peers at the clone. “Well, that is surprising. I suppose, given the relative concentration of regenerative components as compared to the Oni gas or other derivatives...it may have rebuilt itself using ghoulish nature as a base rather than human. I’ll have to compare it to the original arm to make sure.” He grins. “Congratulations, we made another human. We’re-”

“No,” I say flatly. “Do not go there.”

“Grrruh,” the clone supplies.

“And you,” I say, wrapping the thing in my tail and pulling it closer. “How smart are you?” I growl, staring it in the eyes. It glares back, and I feel it tense...and then it looks away and goes limp.

It smells afraid.

I drop it to the floor. “Smart enough,” I say simply, before looking at Vinci. “I’m going to blame you for this,” I say simply. “But fine, I won’t kill it. So what do we do with it?”

“Grrh.”

“Hush, you.”

“Well, clearly it’d be a waste to kill it. And we could always use more heavy hitters.”

I stare at him. The clone reaches up and starts trying to gnaw on one of my tails. I pull the appendage out of reach quickly. “You’re joking.”

“Feed him, see if he acts less like a feral cat, and we’ll see.”

I take a deep breath. “Captain, this is clearly a terrible idea.”

Vinci shrugs. “If he doesn’t learn, we can find out if Devil Fruit characteristics transfer via cannibalism. But it’s more pragmatic to not waste resources. You can control him, right?”

I glare at the clone, who shuffles back, back hitting the exterior wall of the lab. I sniff the air. It’s...strange. A more clear emotional factor than I’ve gotten from anyone else, even the Oni. Fear, respect...submission? Hmm. “He’ll follow me, I think,” I say slowly. “Not control. More a pack mentality.”

“Close enough. We’ll see how it goes. Think he’ll take a bite out of me if I approach?”

I shrug, and take a step back. The Oni do so as well. The clone doesn’t move, but flinches as Vinci crouches in front of it.

“Easy now,” the captain says soothingly. “Not sure what’s going on in that head of yours, but we’re not going to hurt you unless you hurt us.”

It bares its teeth at him, but stops the moment I glare at it. Vinci watches the clone for several seconds, then nods. “We’re keeping him.”

“You do realize we’re going to have to teach him how to actually understand human speech? And clothes? And basic functions in general?” I ask flatly.

Vinci nods. “It will be an interesting case study in learning methods,” he says brightly. “Besides, smile! Being a parent is a beautiful thi-”

 

----

 

Jack looked up briefly as Vinci burst out of and through the deck, ascribed a short arc, and fell into the ocean.

Shit. He’d have to fix that.





Chapter Text

“You know, I thought you’d be angrier about this,” Vinci says absent-mindedly as the clone tugs experimentally at the shirt and pants we’ve given it. Honestly, I’m slightly surprised it could even put them on properly, but it only took a few seconds to figure it out. “Given the whole ‘the world doesn’t need more of me’ thing you had going when I created the Oni compound.”

“Were you intending to make a ghoul?” I ask flatly.

Vinci shrugs. “I intended to grow some additional samples...honestly, the amount of your cell cultures I added shouldn’t have caused a full-on regeneration. It’s intriguing. So, no.”

“And that’s why I haven’t done anything.”

“You threw me off the ship. I’m still pulling splinters out of my clothes!”

“Were you actually hurt?”

“...no.”

“There you have it, Captain.” I look at the clone as it starts gnawing on some of the long salt pork we’ve laid out for it. “You have a name in mind or are we just going to call him ‘the clone’?”

“Well, he’s Subject C...figured just calling him C for now would work.”

“C?”

“You’re A, since you’re the first I’ve worked on. I’m B, because of the King’s Heart. So he’s C.”

“The Oni don’t count?”

“A-1 through A-6.”

“Hmph. Fine, keep your weird classification system. Oi, you!”

The clone looks up.

“You’re C now.”

The clone nods. Wait.

“Can you...understand me?”

A shrug. The clone- C- goes back to eating. He already looks less emaciated, which is tremendously creepy, but not all that unexpected. Regeneration and all that…

“No seriously how the fuck do you know English already?” I ask C. “It’s been…”

“Two hours,” Vinci supplies. “Interesting. Subconscious knowledge? Another point to the theory that you’re a super-soldier experiment,” he muses. “You’d want your cloned soldiers to learn quickly…”

I shiver. “Please stop trying to give me an existential crisis, Captain.”

“Dahahaha...alright. But hey, C, you understand what I’m saying?”

C looks up from the hunk of preserved meat and nods again.

“How about talking?”

There’s a long moment of silence as C frowns intently. Then he opens his mouth.

“I am the very model of a modern cruel experiment,

I’ve a bent of personality, an evil temperament

I’m a fighter through and through, and it’s right down to my firmament,

From cranium to phalanxes, a hunting establishment
I'm very well acquainted too with matters of concealment,

I understand disguises, both innate and from enhancement
About my cannibalism I'm teeming with a lot o' news---
With many cheerful facts about the taste of human thews.”

He grins as Vinci’s jaw drops. “I...learn a great deal from listening.” He taps his ear. “And hear entire ship.”

I cock my head. “Huh. Well, that simplifies things. Not sure how that works, but okay.”

“Neuroplasticity, probably. Also explains why you haven’t memorized everything you’ve overheard as well, if it’s only present early on,” Vinci muses. He looks at C. “Now I have to wonder, what about your powers-”

Someone hammers on the door to the cabin, and we both look up.

“What?” Vinci asks.

“There’s a ship approaching, captain,” Pravilno calls out. “They’re armed, they’re flying a black flag, and they aren’t stopping.”

Vinci grins, and looks at C. “Well, it appears we’re going to get some combat experience for you early.”

The clone matches him grin for grin.

 

----

 

“There’s at least a hundred men there,” Vinci mused, spyglass to his eye. “Don’t recognize the symbol on their flag...aaaaand they’re rolling out a large deck gun. Lauren, educate them?”

She nodded, and pulled her heavy rifle from her back, extending the stock out to its full length as she went prone on the quarterdeck. The scope brought things into sharp clarity, the distant bulk of the ship and the long-ranged deck guns being run out seemingly close enough to touch. That was a very large set of guns...and a great deal of gunpowder barrels sitting open next to them.

“Conditions: mild surf, north-north-east wind eight point five knots, range, two thousand, three hundred, seventy-eight feet. Targets: six men, heavy cannon.” She raised the crosshairs, centering the distance mark on the man holding the gunner’s match, and grinned.

“Gunnery Special: Silent Requiem.”

The rifle bucked against her shoulder, the smell of sulfur wiping out everything else, and she watched through the scope.

And a one and-

The man with the match’s head exploded, and his body fell backwards- dumping the burning match into one of the barrels of gunpowder.

The explosion made Ends Justified shudder, and as she stood back up she saw the much larger vessel’s front mast slowly collapse, pulling rigging with it and causing the enemy ship to practically grind to a halt as pandemonium reigned on the half-destroyed deck.

“So much for pirates being better on the Grand Line,” the captain mused. “Herman! Take us in. We could use whatever we can plunder from their holds.”

“Aye, captain!”

There was a familiar ripping noise as Kaneki’s tails burst free, the ghoul crouching slightly as he grinned. Beside him, his pack of Oni readied their weapons- and that bald-ass clone Vinci had apparently made (word travelled fast, more so when one had to haul their captain out of the ocean) cracked his knuckles, matching Kaneki’s smile tooth for tooth. She huffed, slung her rifle on her back again, and pulled her carbines out of their holsters. Combat. Actual, no-holds-barred, combat. Her palms itched, and she took a deep breath as Ends tacked against the wind and drew closer and closer to the crippled vessel.

It wasn't quite the prospect of the fight ahead that worried her. It was that the thought of it felt...comforting. That a battle of kill or be killed was a soothing thought wasn't what she'd expected to ever think.

The crew began to crowd against the rails, clutching weapons and grappling hooks. She saw Herman and Jack prowl off of the quarterdeck, sword and hammer in hand.

Ends Justified ’s guns crashed, a fast boom-boom-boom as the broadside approximated a ragged volley, one that blew more holes into the front of the enemy vessel, tearing open gunports and the men behind them.

Five...four...three...two…

They roared again, far faster than a muzzle-loader could accomplish, and she smiled. Her work was paying off.

This time the shots were chain shot, and flew into the sails and rigging, ripping through the cloth and rope. One of the chain-linked cannonballs tore through the mainsail and continued on, snapping the mizzen mast in half.

The smoke from the fires stung her eyes as they pulled up across the crippled ship’s bows, like a wolf approaching a dying bison. The Sirins began to fire, pouring bullets across the deck, and though she couldn’t see through the still-burning fires and the smoke, the screams of pain were perfectly audible.

Some of the crew tossed fenders over the sides, and grappling hooks and planks latched onto the bow of the much larger ship as they drew themselves in.

Lauren swallowed her doubts.

It was time to go to work.

 

----

 

Well, Gin was certainly earning his keep, Vinci thought as he strolled onto the splintered and body-strewn deck. The ‘Devil-Man’ had led the charge onto this overgrown galleon, and the trail of crushed and battered pirates was clear as day. Completely different wounds compared to what the Sirins and cannon had done, for one.

“Over here, captain.”

Vinci followed Kaneki’s voice through the smoke. The crew’s officers and the Oni- plus Gin- were assembled, the few survivors of the enemy crew forced to kneel in front of them. Most of the prisoners were wounded to some degree or another.

The back of his eyes itched- probably the smoke- and his vision wavered for a minute. He blinked, and the itching faded as his sight returned to normal.

He looked over the prisoners again. One stood out- a man with a long, sea-green coat, one now marred with blood and soot. He looked up at Vinci with bleary eyes. “How?” he croaked. “We had you dead to rights. How the hell did you destroy our guns?”

“I have someone who’s a very good shot,” Vinci said simply. He looked around. “You fought well,” he said.

“Feh. Four fifths of my boys dead and not a scratch on most of you. Fuck ‘well’.”

“Hm. So you are the captain.”

The green-coated man narrowed his eyes, then coughed again. “Not captain of anything anymore, looks like. But...yes. Captain Calico Harkness, of the Sparrow Pirates.”

“Do you fear death, Captain Harkness?”

“No.”

“Stand up.” He looked to Kaneki. “Was he armed?”

The ghoul nodded, and hefted a katana with an ornate hilt. “Damn near took off one of my arms before I got it away from him.”

“Give it to him.”

The ghoul frowned, but did as ordered, tossing the weapon at the other captain’s feet.

“What is this?” Harkness asked. “You’re letting me go?”

“Hardly. Call it an experiment, Mister Harkness. I want to see what a captain on the Grand Line does. Your choices are simple. You can leave that blade on the deck, and come with us. We’ll drop you off on the next island, even give you a bit of cash so you aren’t completely destitute. Your crew, of course, will be slaughtered and quite possibly eaten by some of the less human of my own crewmates. Or you can pick that blade up, and die in their place.”

Harkness gaped. The twenty or so surviving Sparrows started panicking. Vinci ignored them, watching the opposing captain intently.

The man grit his teeth, bent, and picked up his sword. “Come and get me, patchface,” he said flatly.

“Shave. Neurotomic Cascade.”

His extended index finger flashed out. Base of throat. Forehead. Sternum. Precise offsets with millimeter tolerances.

Vinci Shaved back to where he’d been standing, turned, and walked away.

“Hey! You bastard! Fight me!”

Vinci smiled, and looked back over his shoulder. “You are already dead.”

The captain looked confused. Then he fell to the deck, not breathing.

 

As they walked back to the ship, leaving the few survivors behind on their vessel, Vinci swore he heard Kaneki mutter something about ‘pulling a Kenshiro’.

Chapter Text

“You know, this is somewhat more academically interesting when I’m not the one under the knife,” I muse, watching as Vinci goes poking around C’s spine.

“It feels weird,” my fellow ghoul complains.

“Hey, at least he used anesthetic on you. I didn’t get any.”

“Well, you are the big brother.”

“Kahahaha...only a few days old and already you have a sharp mouth.” Also only a few days and he looks like a bald Eustass Kid, but I don’t mention that.

“Hmph. Let me take your mind off it, since we won’t be interrupted again. Tell me about your powers.”

“It’s...strange. I tried to use them with other parts of my body, but it only seems to work with my left arm. And...I don’t have something like big brother’s tails,” C says absent-mindedly. “What do you see?”

“Well, you still have the clusters that your ‘brother’ seems to have,” Vinci says, prodding at one of the blisters among the bone and muscles of C’s back with a gloved finger. “They’re all as small as the undeveloped ones on your ‘brother’s’, though. Given that your brother is over a century old and has only developed one cluster...you probably won’t be able to for some time.”

“Hmph. And the arm?”

“My guess, you’re a Chimera. You might be built off Eustass Kid’s DNA, but that’s an entirely different thing from letting you use his powers. Honestly, if it was possible to clone Devil Fruit users wholesale someone would’ve already done it. So you get the power in the arm that already had it, but the rest of you is stock-standard ghoul. Quite interesting. It means Devil Fruit powers don’t reside in DNA changes, or at least not entirely…”

I snap my fingers under his nose. “Oi, Vinci. You done looking around?”

“Oh? Oh, yes. I’ll close him up now.”

Thank you,” C mutters.

It’s a bit disconcerting to watch as Vinci administers the counteragent to whatever he’s cooked up to inhibit ghoul regeneration and C’s flesh closes back up as though it was never injured. And yes, I’m aware of how hypocritical that sounds.

“So, we'll be heading into Turtle Bay in...call it a couple hours. You know the rules?” Vinci asks.

“Stick close to Kaneki and the Oni, don't fight anyone, only eat when it's dark and we won't get caught,” C recites dutifully.

“Smart ghoul.”

 

----

 

There were so many people.

C was young, he understood that well, but still, the sheer number of ships- it was something he could barely conceive of. And the people! There were hundreds of them, a cacophony of noise and scent and life that was very close to overwhelming.

But none of it smelled right . Father-Brother Kaneki was the strongest of the right-scents, the rest of the Oni-pack behind him, and the rest of the crew-pack bare traces...and then there was The Captain, who smelled...different. Powerful. And strange. No wonder Father-Brother and the crew-pack followed him so closely.

All the rest of the people here, they didn’t smell like people. Only...prey.

A creak of wooden decking. A whiff of right-scents and old blood.

“You stare any harder at the docks your eyes are going to fall out,” Brother said calmly.

C blinked, and Brother laughed.

“It’s a joke,” he said, grinning, eyes hidden behind the lenses of his mask. “Come on. We need to go get you some proper clothes. And a mask.”

“Do I have to?”

“You’re a ghoul, so yes. Also, masks are interesting, don’t knock them.”

“Hmph. I thought Mister Jack said we were short of money.”

“Heh. Maybe in terms of running a pirate crew, but I’ve got enough laid by to be useful for smaller purchases. Long as we’re careful we can get pretty much anything.”

C nodded. That was good.  

Ends Justified drew up to the dock, and slowly came to a halt. Following Kaneki and the Oni, C walked onto the dock- and stumbled, nearly falling. The land seemed to be shifting under his feet- what on earth?

“Huh. Guess you need to develop land legs,” Brother said with a chuckle.

“Land legs?” he asked.

“Ships move. Islands don’t. Well, unless something has gone horribly wrong. But you’ve never been on land, so it’ll take a bit for your body to get used to it,” Brother explained, offering him a shoulder to lean on. C didn’t want to seem weak, but he leaned anyway. If you couldn’t trust your own blood, you couldn’t trust anyone. That he knew.

“We’re going to have to look around for a spell,” Brother noted. “This place isn’t exactly...reputable.”

A door up ahead shattered as a body went hurtling through it. The corpse- he could already tell it was dead, just from the angle of the neck- hit the ground hard.

Nobody even looked up.

C smiled. This place was interesting .

He looked around carefully as he let go of Brother’s shoulder, his legs steadying with every step. A place to buy masks. Where would one be…

He pointed. “That one?” he asked.

Brother followed his gaze- and froze. “No way,” he breathed. “No fucking way.” He shivered. “Sure,” he said flatly, smelling wary and tense. “That one works just fine.

 

The place, when they entered, was a riot of masks, all colors and forms, so many they seemed to blur together. It smelled very different from the outside, stale and dusty.

“What’s got you on edge, boss?” Bearded-Stocky-Oni-Eka asked quietly, as the rest of the Oni looked around with interest.

“Been in a place like this before. Exactly like this, in the South Blue.”

“Oh,” Oni-Eka said quietly.

“Yeah.”

“You’ve met my brother, then?” a voice said. C stared as a man stepped out from the seemingly-endless aisles of masks. He sniffed the air as he eyed the flower-covered shirt and giant feathered sash that concealed almost all of the man’s features. Couldn’t smell anything under the cloying scent of mothballs and cloth. Hmph. Not food, then.

“Brother?” Brother asked coldly.

“Of course. He runs a place in the South Blue. Sextuplets, we are.”

“Let me guess. One for each sea,” Brother said.

C somehow got the impression of a smile from the animate bundle of horrible fashion sense.

“Just so. Now, masks are your goal, one would presume. For your lesser, or for the pack entire?”

Brother gave Eka a look , and Eka tossed him his mask. Brother handed it to the...man? Man. “Can you incorporate the mechanism in these into whatever mask you make or have in stock?”

The mask vanished into the folds and coils of the gigantic feathered boa. “Easily,” the owner replied. “Six for the pack, and a seventh for the…” The coils shifted, and C felt eyes on him. Weighing. Judging. “...runt of the litter,” the man concluded. “And, I believe my brother sent word of you. If you would have it, I have something I was warned to keep in stock.”

Brother opened his mouth. Closed it. Sighed. “Just...do whatever you do.”

Somehow the pile of clashing colors clapped. “Excellent. You, runt. Follow.”

C hesitated, but Brother nodded, and so he followed the thing.

“You are young, aren’t you?” the thing asked. C just nodded. “Well, that simply means you have potential. A chance to be more than the...runt.”

He suddenly very badly wanted to eat this person, whether they smelled like food or not.

“But that will take time. You need at least the appearance of experience and age, don’t you...hmm. Yes. I think I have something in mind for you.”

 

Chapter Text

The Boss was on edge. Eka didn’t like it much- it made the rest of the Oni on edge as well. Even him, truth be told. It was clear as day- Kaneki was pacing, sure, but the boss was about as subtle as a brick to the face...what worried him was that it was even obvious among the other Oni.

Chandos had leaned himself against one of the shelves, arms folded as he glared at the room over his hooked nose. That was normal, or as normal as he got. The fact that the man’s claymore had been yanked out of its sheath and was leaning on the shelf within easy reach wasn’t.

Pamca was harder to read, but not by much. The huge albino was still. Perfectly, completely still, kanabo held loosely in one hand.

Percy was moving slightly, feet slowly shifting through footwork patterns as the bald, battered prizefighter kept his gaze on Kaneki.

Tina was leaning on the haft of her battleaxe, black hair shadowing her features.

Dui...well, Dui was looking around with almost glacial slowness, one hand on his saber and his dark blue hair pulled back in a tail, away from his eyes.

And himself...heh. He let out a breath, and eased up on the white-knuckled grip he had on his cleaver-like dao.

C would be alright. And if he wasn’t, it didn’t matter what this shopkeep really was. They’d take a price in blood- or the closest equivalent the bastard had. He nodded to himself, forcing his muscles to relax.

As if that was a signal, the sound of the shopkeeper’s voice appeared, drawing closer.

C and the shopkeep came into view, and the tension in the air vanished like a pricked balloon. The Boss grinned.

“Looking good, little brother.”

C grinned back.

The Boss was right- C cleaned up nice. Somehow the shopkeep had found a three-piece suit, charcoal grey with a dark red tie and white shirt. But what really caught the eye was the mask. Bone white, it covered everything down to the mouth. It resembled a skull more than anything else, right down to the partial jaws that flared down from the sides to mirror C’s own, lined with teeth. A slight crest, the same color as the rest, swooped down from his forehead, forming a subtle M-shape that melted into the mandibles on the sides, the topmost points looking almost like horns.

The shopkeep clapped his hands- or, well, whatever was under all those feathers. “You are all satisfied, yes?” he asked. “Good. Now, to the pack…” Suddenly a large red box was in his...fuck it, Eka would call them hands just for sanity’s sake. The shopkeep opened it.

Inside, six half-masks, dark red and resembling fang-filled maws, sat in two neat rows of three.

Dui whistled softly. The Boss glared at him, and he stopped.

“They are not supplied with...whatever it is your captain uses it for. But the mechanisms are closely duplicated.”

Eka narrowed his eyes. “How’d you know? There’s no way you knew we were coming here, not so soon.”

“I did not.” Eka got the impression of a smile. “But I am very quick, and you, good sir, were kind enough to provide me with an example.”

Six masks, that quickly? That was…

Eka sighed. “Guess we’ve got a lot to learn about the Grand Line and the people on it, then.”

“Oh, you have no idea,” the shopkeep said.

C fidgeted, and the Boss growled slightly, before taking a step forwards. “You mentioned your...brother...sent something on. Mind showing that as well?”

“But of course.”

Eka staggered as the weight of the box suddenly appeared in his hands, but he rallied and carefully lowered the thing to the ground. Christ, did he fill the thing with rocks?

The Boss held a smaller box, black, in his hands. He opened it. His eyes widened, and he put the lid back on the box quickly, before bowing slightly. “Thank you,” he gritted out. “What do we owe you?”

“For this? Nothing at all, little cousin.”

Wait, what.

The boss bristled. “You’re like me. The others running the shops, too?”

“We are,” the shopkeep said calmly. “It is...interesting, to meet one of our kind...and something new is an even greater surprise. Who is your crew?”

“Nightmare Pirates.”

“Akakakakakakaka….an auspicious name. I wish you luck, little cousin. You have a hard road ahead, and much to learn...and it is not the place of my brothers or me to teach it to you.”

The Boss gave the other ghoul a rude hand gesture, and turned to go.

Eka swallowed his questions, and followed him out.

 

----

 

Money, money, money. Boring, but sadly necessary.

And that was why Vinci found himself in what passed for a central square in this pirate town, listening to some asshole in gaudy clothing talk.

Seriously, though. He was half-tempted to mug the fellow, even with the mob of goons in plate armor surrounding his little pulpit. There was enough gold thread in his gigantic puffy sleeves to set the Nightmares up for months.

“-the Doge will pay well for strong fighters, and those who serve faithfully will have the opportunity to plunder what they please from the rebels.”

Yadda, yadda, yadda, fight these guys for us and we’ll give you money. Simple.

“-sail tomorrow for the Archipelago, and those who follow us shall be greatly rewarded.”

Booooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooring.

He looked over the crowd. Most were rough men, almost generic. Boring, and likely useless. But a few caught his eye.

A group of men in hooded cloaks, longbows slung over their bodies.

A grey-bearded, heavily built man in an ornate coat, with five others in dress uniforms standing directly behind him.

A massive man in a horned helmet, and a crowd of smaller men carrying shields.

A pair of men, one carrying a gigantic tuning fork, the second anonymous in bronze armor.

Heh. Maybe this could be interesting after all...

 

----

 

Night was fun.

His new clothes and mask were fun, too, but he really liked hunting at night. Parts of the town were quiet, but others were loud and full of light.

Mostly bars. He could tell from the smell of alcohol.

C jumped from rooftop to rooftop, grinning to himself. Brother had gone elsewhere, letting him hunt on his own, saying he trusted that instinct would work well enough.

C wasn’t sure about that himself, but it didn’t matter. He might not have Father-Brother’s tails, but he had powers, and with the knives he was carrying it didn’t matter- magnetic force could propel the blades faster than bullets, that much The Captain had taught him.

Hmm. There weren’t many people around. He’d probably want to hide out somewhere, ambush them. Running someone down would probably be...tiring. And attract attention.

He jumped down from his rooftop.

Edge of town...good. He sniffed the air. There were some people, coming closer, but still distant. He turned the corner. And looked up. And up. And up.

“Hello!” he said brightly to the gigantic man. The guy had bear ears on his hat- that was definitely awesome. And besides, he smelled like oil, not prey. Probably wouldn’t be tasty.

The very large person looked down, a very slow process. “Hello,” he said gravely.

“Who’re you? And where’d you get that hat?”

The large man blinked, clearly surprised. “I have had it for years. And I am Bartholomew Kuma.”

“Oh, cool. I like that name, jishakukukuku...what’re you doing here, Mr. Bartholomew?”

“If you went on a journey, where would you like to go?”

C cocked his head. What kind of question was that? “I don’t know. I like this place here, I guess. It’s interesting.” He smiled. “What about you, Mr. Bartholomew?”

“I have a place in mind. And a great deal of work to do. Now, if you would excuse me…”

“C, what’re you- oh fuck what the hell.

“Brother! I made a new friend!”

Chapter Text

Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck

“C? Go back to the ship. Now.”

“But-”

Oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck oh fuck

Now.”

C looks up at the Warlord- ohfuckwhyishehereohfuckwhy- and then legs it, passing me quickly.

I stare at Kuma, and sigh. “You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?” I grin. “Well, you really should know something about Sabo...Kuma of the Revoluti-”

Ohfuckhe’sfast-

A gigantic palm slams into my chest, sending me crashing into the nearest wall- and the wall after that, and after that , before the rest of what I presume used to be a house collapses on top of me.

For several moments, all I can do is lay there and try not to pass out, as my body tries to knit itself together.

Maybe mouthing off to the deep-cover agent wasn’t the smartest plan...owwwwww…

And then just like that there’s no rubble on top of me, a distant crash and the looming shape of my fourth least favorite Warlord of the Sea telling me exactly what happened to it.

“‘Butcher Bird’ Yoshimura Kaneki. Bounty of nineteen million.”

A hand clamps around my body, and I’m lifted to eye height.

“You will explain the source of your knowledge.”

“Can’t…”

His grip tightens.

“Urgh...government’ll know it…’ll pull it out’ve your skull… Pacifista.

His eyes narrow a fraction.

The sound of shattering glass comes from somewhere off to the side, and Kuma looks to the side- my own neck is a little too shattered to turn and look myself.

“Oh god- IT’S KUMA!”

Okay, screaming, so probably a pirate.

Kuma drops me to the ground- it’s not like I’m going anywhere, I’m pretty sure legs aren’t supposed to bend like that- and vanishes out of my field of vision. Screaming results.

C’mon c’mon c’mon...crack- fuck that hurts!

No. Fuck this.

My tails rip free, slamming into the ground and lifting my very broken body into the air. My vertebrae click back into place, and I raise my head.

Well, Kuma’s kicked the fucking anthill now. Every pirate, corsair, and buccaneer in the town- and all the retired ones who probably make up the ‘civilian’ side of things- is going after the big guy, an astonishing array of weapons and techniques hitting the cyborg. Bullets, cannonballs, thrown blades, fire, arrows…and none of it so much as fazes him. Christ, it’s like watching a chainsaw go through butter.

“Well, you’re in a pickle, aren’t you?”

I turn myself, and glare at that fucking shopkeeper. “And you aren’t fighting the Warlord why ?”

“Now why would I do that? I am, after all, just a simple mask salesman. By the way, you may want to start running. He won’t be distracted for long.”

“You call that breaking my spine? You Warlord bastards wouldn’t know how to break my spine if- OH GOD THE PAIN!

I nod fractionally. “Noted.”

I leg it.

 

----

 

Vinci looked in the direction of the town, and listened carefully to the horrifying noises coming from within.

“Nope,” he said authoritatively. “We are not going to get involved in that.”

There was a barely audible sigh of relief from the assembled crew.

“This is probably Kaneki's fault. Somehow,” Gin grumbled.

“That’s C running over here, isn’t it?” Jack observed. “We can ask him.”

Vinci eyed the ghoul as he ran up to where Ends Justified was docked. He didn’t look injured, which was probably a good sign...but Kaneki wasn’t with him. That...did not bode well.

“What the hell’s going on there, kid?” he asked, pointing to the town.

Something over there exploded violently, sending flaming debris above the rooftops.

C smiled nervously. “Met someone named Bartholomew Kuma, brother told me to run away from him. Maybe they’re fighting?”

Kuma.

Everyone on the crew froze.

“So..what you’re telling me, is that a Warlord of the Sea is currently thrashing our first mate,” Vinci said flatly.

“PREPARE TO CAST OFF!” Jack shouted, starting to run to the ship’s wheel. Vinci grabbed the man’s collar and yanked him back.

“We aren’t leaving without him,” he growled. “Understood?”

Jack nodded quickly, and Vinci let the man go.

“Well, here he comes, so looks like we don’t have to worry,” Gin observed, utterly deadpan.

Vinci’s eyes snapped back to the docks, zeroing in on a tangle of red tendrils that were propelling a battered and bloody Kaneki onward with astonishing speed.

He got away from Kuma, then. Impressive.

Vinci realized he’d spoken too soon as the massive form of the Warlord fell out of the god-damned sky to slam his first mate into the planks of the docks.

There was a moment of utter silence as everyone absorbed the fact they were dealing with someone who could probably kill them all fairly easily.

Vinci glanced back across the harbor. Ships were already leaving, crews he recognized hauling ass. One galley, propelled by oars and skittering across the waves like an oversized waterbug, was probably the vessel of the guy who had been planning to hire them.

Fuck it. He had more important things to handle now.

“Excuse me? Mr. Bartholomew Kuma?”

The Warlord’s impassive eyes panned up to where Vinci stood, and he grinned in response. Kaneki made some muffled noises from the crater he was pressed into.

“That’s my first mate you’re beating down on. I’m going to have to ask you to let go of him.”

“No.”

Vinci shrugged. “Oh, well. It was worth a try. You here on government business, hunting down pirates? Curious, that the Marines haven’t tried this before.”

“For fuck’s sake shoot him or run away, stop talking to the damn combat cyborg,” Kaneki shouted from the ground. Vinci ignored him.

Kuma didn’t respond. Vinci’s grin widened.

“I have to wonder...there’s quite a few pirates making an escape as we’re standing here. What makes us so important? We’re minor players, all things considered. Why hunt down my first mate, specifically?”

Kuma said nothing. Vinci chuckled.

“You’re a terrible conversationalist, you know that? What is it you want?”

Kuma removed his hand from where it was pinning Kaneki to the docks. “Information,” he said flatly, looking down at the ghoul.

Kaneki snarled, getting to his feet. “Like I said, anything I fucking tell you is gonna end up on government logs, sooner or later. You think I want to put a target on my back?”

“Kaneki,” Vinci said softly. The ghoul’s head whipped around, staring at him. “Tell him whatever he wants. You’ll let us go if we do, right?”

Kuma considered. “That depends on the information,” the Warlord said.

Kaneki looked up at Vinci, and the crew lining the rails. “Fuck,” he said quietly, so softly even Vinci’s hearing barely caught it. “Fine. Pass this on to your boss, you bastard tin can. The Chief of Staff is brother to his son, by bond if not by blood...and the Empty Throne isn’t.

Kuma froze. “Acceptable,” he said flatly. His gaze turned back to Vinci. “Now. Run. We never spoke.”

The Warlord stepped back. A breeze blew a haze of smoke between him and the ship.

When it cleared, he was gone.

“...Orders, Captain?” Jack asked quietly.

Vinci thought for a moment. “Get us following that galley. And Kaneki? Get aboard. We have a lot to talk about.”



Chapter Text

 

====

The walls seem far too close.

Most of the officers are assembled. Only waiting on Vinci. Herman’s staying up above, keeping us following the makeshift flotilla of pirates (and one rich guy willing to buy mercenary work like it’s going out of style) fleeing from Kuma’s rampage.

That leaves Jack, Lauren, and Gin, all watching me like I’m a half-tamed animal, sitting around a round table. I think this room was supposed to be an officer’s meeting room or something- it’s located in the central structure around the mainmast, and also holds the transponder snails, the maps, and several other books, most of them in cases and shelves lining the bulk of the mainmast that fills the center of the room.

The only sound is the ticking of the large clock bolted to the table, and the soft snoring of the quintet of transponder snails.

The door creaks open. Vinci walks in.

“So,” my captain says, very calmly, as he takes a seat across from me. “You seem to know a great deal about the Revolutionaries. Despite you saying you’re an amnesiac. Care to explain?”

Oh shit, he’s pissed.

“I-”

Puru puru puru puru...puru puru puru puru…

Everyone stares at one of the transponder snails, ringing like mad. After a moment, Jack stands, picks up the mollusc, and plunks it down on the table, pulling the receiver off with a click.

The snail’s eyes go completely blank, and its features stretch and morph into a massive grin.

“Well, now,” it says. “I couldn’t just let you spill the beans like that. You’re terrible with people, little wyrm. Probably mess it up, and then all the effort I put into this little shell game will’ve been for nothing.”

“Who are you?” Vinci asks. “And what exactly have you done to my first mate?”

“Shishishininini...It’s simple. In his world, there’s a story. A one of pirates and seas and impossible tales, following a boy who’d be King of the Pirates...following a crew that shakes the world itself...but it isn’t this crew. I simply placed him in the right time, place, and body, to intensify the chaos that will result from that boy’s actions.” The snail’s grin widens. “It will be interesting, don’t you think?”

“You made him a ghoul?” Vinci asks.

The snail somehow shrugs. “The body was already wandering around, utterly mindless. I just shucked his consciousness out of his original body and put it in. Left quite a mess back home, too, shishishininininini…”

I snarl. “You utter bastard. I’ll-”

Pain rips through my body, hurling me out of my chair and leaving me curled up on the floor.

“Now, now,” the snail chides. “There’s no need to be rude, little wyrm. You should be thanking me. I gave you a chance to see more than you’d ever do in your previous life. Now you, little scientist...your first mate is quite a treasure. He knows far more secrets than you’d imagine, and for the futures that might unfold, knowledge is most certainly power. I could give you the same gifts…”

I raise my head from the floor, struggling up to hands and knees, and look up at my captain.

Vinci’s smile vanishes like a pricked bubble as he looks down at the snail, his eyes beginning to glow gold.

“You harmed one of my crew. You trapped my first mate in a jungle, far from aid, forcing him into a body that required him to become a monster to avoid starvation. You took him from his home and his family without even asking. You toy with his fate- with all our fates- and you think I will accept a bargain with you? No, daemon, I will not. The burning in his eyes flares so bright I can hardly stand to look at it, as golden liquid runs down my captain’s cheeks and burns the table where it falls. Now get thee gone from this world, unholy creature, and if thou ever touches one of my crew again, I will bring all I can bear to destroy thee until even history forgets you ever were, on every world that is, was, and WILL BE!”

The transponder snail bursts into flames.

There’s a small moment of silence as the flames die down, consuming the snail- and only the snail. Vinci puts a hand to his face, and pulls it away, examining the golden ichor on his fingers.

“Captain...did you just hate one of our transponder snails to death?” Jack asks quietly.

“No idea,” Vinci says absent-mindedly. “My eyes are leaking gold. That’s a new one.” His gaze snaps to me, and I get up as quickly as I can manage.

“Kaneki,” he asks quietly. “Who’s the one?”

I swallow. “‘Straw Hat’ Monkey D. Luffy.”

“Hmph. The one who’s taken the East Blue by storm. You sure he’ll succeed?”
I consider. “He’s got the will, and he’s got the power, for Paradise at least. And...yes. I believe he will.”

“Hm. Alright. This...story...followed him and his crew? Did we...ever appear in it?”

I shake my head. “No. You…” I stop, my throat closing for a moment, and take a breath. “Think, captain. I found you on the gallows. If...if I never came…”

Vinci nods. “Right.” He looks over the officers for a moment. “You got any concerns of your own?” he asks flatly.

Everyone shakes their heads, save Gin, who stares at me. “So you saw Krieg get his ass handed to him, and what happened to me?” he asks.

I nod. “Never saw you afterwards. You got on that tiny boat from the Baratie, and were never seen again. So...”

The Devil-Man sighs. “Alright, that answers that. I’m good, captain.”

“Right.” Vinci claps his hands. “Kaneki, not sure how good your knowledge is, but write it all down. Every scrap of information, no matter how small. Especially about the Grand Line, and how we’ll reach Raftel.”

“What’s your plan, Captain?” Lauren asks.

Vinci grins. “Straw Hat can be King, I don’t care. I just plan on going there. If that means I beat him there...well, we’ve already shanked Fate in a back alley with Kaneki being here, so it doesn’t matter what Straw Hat was originally destined to do, does it?”

“Korokorokoroko...you’re not one to think small, are you, Captain?” Jack says. “Should I tell the men?”

Vinci frowns. “They heard him admit stuff to Kuma...let them know that Kaneki has..unusual sources.”

I raise a hand. “Might be pretty easy to convince them. The mask salesman I told you about...well, he’s creepy enough, and the Oni have probably been spreading stories about him already. Makes more sense than the truth, anyway.”

Vinci nods. “Right. So, any other secrets? Anyone related to someone important? Or have a secret tattoo that makes them heir to an ancient power? Anything ridiculous like that?”

“The guy who you just banished through sheer hate branded me with some alchemy tree thing,” I say, semi-flippantly. “That’s about it.”

“I’m at least fairly certain my grandpa was the guy who invented the revolver and was murdered by Sam Walker for his designs,” Lauren adds, loading fresh bullets into her own weapon. “Take that with a grain of salt, though. Never proved it.”

“Hmph. Anyone else?”

Silence.

“Right, now if there’s no further revelations-”

There’s a knock on the door. Vinci glares at it. “What is it?” he says, with a bit more growl in it than’s necessary.

“One of the other captains wants to call a meeting, sir,” Pravilno’s voice says, muffled slightly by the door. “He’s sent...well, you need to see for yourself.”

Vinci nods. “Kaneki, Jack, with me. Lauren, get to Herman, fill him in- quietly . Keep the boys quiet while we go to this...meeting.”

“Aye, captain.”

Chapter Text

“Vinci?” I ask quietly.

“No, you’re not hallucinating, I’m pretty sure he’s real,” my captain responds, staring, just as I am, at the guy who’s come aboard.

“GREETERLINGS!” the flamboyantly dressed man booms. “I AM SPINOLA MAURICE, COMMANDER OF THE FOURTH COMPANY OF TERCIO MERCENARY ENDEAVORS. FIELD MARSHAL GRENZER WISHES TO INVITE YOUR OFFICERS TO HIS VESSEL, THE OFFSHORE BATTERY , TO DISCUSS A MUTUALLY BENEFICIAL FINANCIAL ENDEAVOR.”

“My ears are bleeding…” one of the crew mutters.

“So are my eyes,” another adds.

I close my eyes, trying to un-see the image of someone who dresses like a colorblind peacock who’d careened through a paint store. I am not particularly successful.

Christ, I think Ivankov was more restrained, at least he was being deliberately campy and ridiculous, rather than...whatever the hell this guy is. So many layers and all of them clashed with each other…

“Kaneki, snap out of it,” Vinci says. I open my eyes, and grimace. Still horrifying. Bearable, but horrifying.

“DO YOU ACCEPT?” Maurice booms.

“First, stop shouting. Second, yes, now where the hell is your ship.”

“PRIMUS, I AM NOT SHOUTING. I AM MERELY EXERCISING THE MIGHT OF MY PERFECT VOCAL CORDS. SECUNDUS, LOOK TO YOUR LEFT.”

I look.

Then I turn back, and glare at Herman from where he’s manning the ship’s wheel. “How did you miss something like that? ” I growl, pointing at the fucking battleship hovering off our port side. Seriously, it’s a full-sized battleship, and I’m fairly certain I can see traces of the old Marine paint underneath the coating of black and yellow bands on the hull. Probably stole it, just like us.

“I didn’t miss, I just didn’t tell you,” the dogman says smugly. “We’re supposed to be working together, aren’t we?”

Vicni facepalms. “Kaneki. Just get us onto that ship. I am almost entirely fed up with this diurnal duration.”

I think about the brand on my chest and the mask that is most definitely not coming out of its black box, and nod in sympathy before pushing out four tails and pulling my mask on. “If you’re coming along, grab a tail,” I growl.

Jack gives the proffered appendage an askance glance before reluctantly grabbing hold. Vinci seems to have no such compunctions.

A-one and a-two...I leap off of Ends Justified , and land smoothly on the deck of the... Offshore Battery . Men in uniforms- yellow and black stripes on the shirts, black trousers- scatter as I let Vinci and Jack put foot on the deck before letting the tails dissolve away.

The walking fashion flashbang lands on the deck next to us just as easily. Hmph. Was hoping he’d have to swim back. No such luck I guess.

“THE FIELD MARSHAL IS BELOW. THE OTHER CAPTAINS, AND THE CLIENT, SHALL BE JOINING US SHORTLY. MY FELLOW COMPANY COMMANDERS ARE ADDRESSING THEM.”

“Are they all this loud?” I mutter.

“NEGATORY.”

“Why’re we the first?”

“YOUR VESSEL WAS CLOSEST TO OUR OWN GLORIOUS TRANSPORT. NOW FOLLOW.”

I give Vinci a raised eyebrow, but he follows the riot of color, and so Jack and I follow as well.

I hope this doesn’t go poorly.

 

----

 

Konig Grenzer was an old man. Unlike some of the old men who insisted upon sailing the seas, he was well aware of this fact. His fists could still shatter stone and his vision was still keen, but every day he was a little bit weaker than the day before. Still, forty years of mercenary work meant he had a wealth of experience few men could match.

Among the many skills and talents he’d amassed over the years, was one that had served him particularly well- the ability to read people at a glance. And he employed it as he swept his eyes across the assembled captains that had heeded his call, and his own officers...who stood behind the captains, ready to strike if one of them did something...foolish.

The first to catch his eye was Quare ‘Toll’ Doppel, captain of the Gear Pirates, and his second in command Foglio ‘Bronze’ Clare, 48 and 18 million, respectively.. The captain was a blunt-faced, serious man, his dark brown trench coat unremarkable, the outsized tuning fork he carried habitually at his side, within easy reach. He was passive, but wary. He wouldn’t strike first. Foglio, by contrast, was clearly on edge, the sounds of grinding gears clearly audible from within the bronze armor that covered him. Behind them, Adolphus Gabriel, his Second Company Commander, stood quietly, immaculate in his grey suit and tie as always. The small and utterly inoffensive man met Grenzer’s eye, and nodded almost invisibly. Good. The Gears were tractable.

Next was the hooded and cloaked form of Arnor ‘Strider’ Skantarios, his features invisible under the all-concealing off-white fabric. The captain of the Ranger Pirates was a 39 million enigma, with none of his crimes listed on his bounty poster. Perhaps merely being a pirate was enough. It would not be the first time. Even with his features hidden, though, nothing escaped Grenzer’s eye. The man was at ease here, confident- or arrogant- enough in belief of his abilities that he didn’t care if he was walking into a trap. A glance at the stocky form of his Fifth Company Commander, Tromp Werth, told him more. The comically short, heavily bearded man eyed the captain with barely concealed disgust, hands on the hilts of his axes. Hmph. The Rangers would be arrogant and insulting, then. That, he could handle.

The man next around the table resembled Werth greatly, if one took his subordinate and stretched him on a rack. A gigantic man, his horned helmet and shaggy blond beard almost completely obscured his face. Eric ‘Hard’ Knutte, the 51-million captain of the Steel Shield Pirates, was experienced, Grenzer would admit. His small flotilla of South-Blue-originating raiders had caused trouble up and down the Line for years. Behind him, Gustavus Frederick, the Third Company Commander, was utterly at ease in a tank top and shorts. The man grinned behind his sunglasses, and leaned against the wall of the room, unconcerned. That meant the Steel Shields would follow, which made sense. Knutte was not an imaginative man, and he’d follow the money.

The Client was next to meet Grenzer’s eye. A rich man, but nervous to be in the same room as so many deadly individuals, even with his armored guards. His name didn’t matter. He was simply the Client, and that meant Tercio Mercenary Endeavors would follow his money. Behind him, Ivan Wallenstein, his First Company Commander and most trusted subordinate, met Grenzer’s eye, and gave him a slow nod. Hrrm. Good, the man actually had the money on board his vessel to pay their price, and the price for all the captains as well.

Last, and in Grenzer’s opinion, most worrisome, was the trio Spinola Maurice had brought in. The Nightmare Pirates. New names. The captain grinned back at Grenzer, a shock of black hair topping a face laced with scars. Grigori ‘Alley Doc’ Vinci, a bounty that had jumped to 38 million but a few days before his crew had come to Turtle Bay. Yoshimura ‘Butcher Bird’ Kaneki, first mate, worth 26 million, and a cannibal. Rubeus ‘Thundering Hammer’ Jack, worth 12 million. The lowest bounty of the captains, but only a few months old, while all the others were known quantities, people who’d had careers in the Blues for years before entering the Line. He’d sent Maurice to them to provoke a reaction, but judging from the flamboyant man’s unusual stillness, they weren’t operating as expected- by which he meant, violence and slaughter.

Vinci met Grenzer’s eyes, and the pirate’s irises burned gold.

Grenzer smiled. Brat had spine, at least.

“Gentlemen,” he said slowly. “Welcome. Marquis,” he added, looking at the client. “Would you kindly explain the contract?”

The Client twitched, then looked around at the various pirates quickly. “Y-y-yes,” he stammered. “I-” He stopped. Swallowed. “I am the Marquis de la Hablarpublico, Minister of the Doge of the Spice Archipelago. The Doge has been dealing with unrest for some years now, but now...now something has changed. Edwyn Roberts, a magnate of industry, has thrown his coin and power behind a rebellion, seeking to usurp the Doge. He has hired a wide variety of blackguards and mercenaries, since the stalwart forces of the Royal Guard are more than enough to put down his pathetic followers. I have been authorized to hire whoever is willing to fight for the Royal Army, to counter these pirates.”

“How much we talking?” Jack asked, leaning forward in his chair.

“Fifty million as an advance, per crew. An additional hundred upon the rebellion being crushed. And...six hundred million to whoever brings the Doge the head of Roberts.”

A surrussus ran through the room at that.

Grenzer linked his hands together and leaned forward, elbows on the table. “Tercio Mercenary Endeavors has five hundred men, and experience in large-scale deployments. I motion that I shall take command of our combined forces. What say you?”

The captains considered.

Knutte grinned. “For a hundred and fifty mil? I’ll follow that, old man. Just don’t fuck up.”

Skantarios nodded. “Acceptable,” he rasped.

Doppel frowned. “You waste my men’s lives, I’ll be unhappy,” he warned. “But fine.”

Vinci...Vinci looked at Grenzer, expression blank. Then he nodded, slowly. “You’ve got the highest bounty, don’t you? Hundred and twenty-one million,” he said with another sudden grin. “Don’t get that without being smart. I’ll follow.”

Grenzer clapped his hands. “Excellent! Now...what are your capabilities? We need to know how many men we have on hand, and how good they are, after all.”

Conversation began, and Grenzer relaxed a bare fraction. This was just another campaign. No more, no less.






Chapter Text

“Let me just say, captain, I don’t like this,” I say quietly, leaning on the rail and staring at the bulk of the Offshore Battery as we sail near it. The weather’s been rough- duh, it’s the fucking Grand Line, enough that the Marquis handed out a bunch of Eternal Poses to keep everyone on course. Ends Justified , Offshore Battery, and Knutte’s collection of longships have managed to stay together, but the Marquis’s galley and the ships of the Ranger and Gear Pirates have been separated.

Good fucking riddance.

“What is it you don’t like? Sailing?” Vinci asks.

“You know what I mean. Not exactly fond of ending up as some royal asshole’s jackbooted thug.”

“Jackboots aren’t the worst thing to wear, you know. Quite useful.”

“Cap tain.

Vinci grins disarmingly and raises his hands. “I get it. Rebels probably have a point, might even be completely justified. We don’t know yet. And when we do know…”

“We’ll be under contract to crush them,” I say morosely.

Vinci laughs, and I glare. “You think that’s funny?”

“I think you forgetting who we are is funny, yes,” Vinci says, a scalpel suddenly twirling in his fingers. “We’re pirates , Kaneki. Minute this Doge turns out to be rotten, we can slit his throat, loot his treasury, and turn our coats to the rebel side, if the morals bother you so much.”

I blink, then chuckle. “Misjudged you, then, Captain. My apologies.”

“None needed. You’re supposed to be the moral compass around here. And having said that, realizing that the anthropovore is our crew’s moral center terrifies me,” Vinci says, utterly deadpan.

I laugh. “Fuck off, Captain,” I say, walking away from the rail and picking up my guitar from where I’d rested it against the foremast. “Well, got nothing else to do, how ‘bout some music?”

“Sure, so long as it’s not depressing.”

“Pff, there you go asking for the impossible from me again,” I say with a grin. “Fine. How about…”

 

Well
Reverend, reverend please come quick
'Cause I've got something to admit
I met a man out in the sticks
A good old mess
He rode a big black thoroughbred and wore a cigar on his lip.”

 

Some of the crew on deck look up as I play, and several begin to nod along with the music.

“Don't you know the devil wears a suit and tie
Saw him riding down the 61' in early July
White as a cotton field and sharp as a knife
I heard him howling as he passed me by.”

 

My grin widens as I let my eyes shift, turning black.

“And he said
I know you, I know you young man
I know you by the state of your hands
You're a six-string picker
Just as I am
Let me learn you something
I know a few turns to make all the girls dance.”

Out of the corner of my eye, far distant, I see Grenzer look up from the deck of the Offshore Battery , the man’s grey braided beard bristling and the sleeves of his black coat billowing in the wind.

“Don't you know the devil wears a suit and tie
Saw him riding down the 61' in early July
White as a cotton field and sharp as a knife
I heard him howling as he passed me by.”

 

My grin widens as I see the old man walk to the rail of his vessel, clearly listening intently.

“Oh...
Foolish, foolish was I
Damn my foolish eyes
'Cause that man's lessons
Had a price, oh sweet price
My sweet soul, everlasting
A very own eternal light.”

 

Even as far away as he is, I can see the sharp intake of breath he makes.

Don't you know that the devil wears a suit and tie
Saw him riding down the 61' in early July
White as a cotton field and sharp as a knife
I heard him howling as he passed me by
Well, the devil wears a suit and tie
I saw him riding down the 61' in early July
White as a cotton field and sharp as a knife
I heard him howling as he passed me by...”

 

----

 

Jack read the first sheet of the large stack of papers Kaneki had produced.

By the third bullet-point his eyebrows were threatening to hit orbit. He forced his expression into normalcy with a grunt, and looked at Kaneki, who was visibly fidgeting.

“This is all true?”

“As much as I can accurately remember, yes,” the ghoul said.

“Hmph. Might as well shoot myself now, then. And- oh God damn it.”

“What?”

“Most of the damn crew heard you talk to Kuma, right?”

“Probably. I can't imagine anyone slept through it.”

“That means they heard you talking about the Empty Throne. Fuck. I’ll have to keep them off shore leave.”

“Why?”

Jack’s eye twitched, and he took a deep breath. He had to remember- Kaneki didn’t understand this world. Didn’t grow up in the Blues, or the Line, or anywhere else the ideals of the World Government held sway. “Do you understand just how important the Empty Throne is? The idea that no one nation is able to trample over another? The fact that the entire time, it’s been occupied...the Marines will slaughter us if they get word of such a thing and take it seriously. And with how Kuma backed off, it’s a guarantee they will if they do hear about it. The last thing we need is someone dropping an Admiral on our heads because our men talked too much while drunk.”

Kaneki leaned forwards slightly. “Don’t you think you’re being a bit paranoid?”

“With how you’re certain that they murdered an entire nation of scholars because of them knowing about the past , not. In. The. Slightest.”

Kaneki nodded. “Fair. Want me to break the news?”

Jack shook his head. “No. I’ll let the captain handle it. Just...how bad is all this?”

Kaneki sighed, then cracked his neck. “Government’s rotten to the core, the Celestial Dragons are raping, enslaving assholes who are utterly immune to prosecution thanks to the threat of an Admiral intervening if you lay hands on one, Donquixote Doflamingo is selling artificial Devil Fruits to Kaido under the alias Joker and using his combination of Warlord and ex-Celestial Dragon status to keep it secret, Vice Admiral Vergo’s a plant in the Marines for Joker, Amber Lead Syndrome isn’t contagious and I’m fairly sure the island was killed off because there was a family carrying the Will of D. living there, there’s a fellow named Blackbeard running around with the Dark-Dark Fruit and plans to usurp Whitebeard who succeeded a few months from now in the old timeline, Straw Hat Luffy is the adopted brother of Fire Fist Ace and the Revolutionary Chief of Staff, the son of Dragon, and the grandson of Garp the Hero, Cipher Pol 9 is real and murderously effective, ditto Cipher Pol Aegis Zero...also, there’s islands in the sky that are inhabited by, arguably, angels.”

Jack facepalmed, and held up his other hand, cutting off the torrent of words. “If I hadn’t had proof from the snail’s mouth I’d be calling you a liar,” he muttered. “Anything usable ?”

Kaneki shrugged. “Not unless we train to the point of being New-World-class and plan on undoing Doffy’s operations, not yet. Might come in handy if we run into the Straw Hats somehow. There’s a few bits that could be interesting.”

“Hmph. Alright. Keep your mouth shut. The fewer people know secrets like this, the better.”

“I’d prefer not to be disintegrated, frozen, or incinerated, so yes,” Kaneki said flatly.

 

----

 

Lauren gathered up her courage, and knocked on the lab door.

Her captain answered, grinning. “What is it?”

“I need your help.”

Chapter Text

“We have to practice down here...why?” Gin asked dubiously, looking around Ends Justified’ s hold. Wasn’t a lot of space, between the walled-off bits where the lab was supposed to be and all the cargo everywhere else.

Kaneki shrugged. “Something about keeping our actual fighting ability a secret. Captain doesn’t trust the other crews, for all that we’re supposed to be working together.”

Gin snorted. “It’s going to be a wonder if we don’t end up turning on each other by the end of whatever fight we’re being hired to participate in.”

“Captain’s making plans for when they try to stab us in the back,” Kaneki confirmed. “We want them not knowing we’ve got armor on when they do...metaphorically speaking.”

“Hmph. And I’m fighting the walking magnet why?

“You are a silicate artillery piece,” said magnet said brightly.

Kaneki sighed. “Glass cannon, C.”

“That is what I said, yes?”

“I have a feeling I should be kind of insulted by that,” Gin said. “Should I?”

Kaneki shrugged. “Insulted or not, doesn’t change the fact that you still need to toughen up. Starvation sticks around, and we’re trying to get you up to speed against the rest of the officers.”

“Not the rank and file?” Gin asked dryly, taking out his tonfa.

Kaneki shook his head. “Out’ve them, pretty sure only Ostavila could take you in a fight. And that’s because-”

“-she cheats,” C and Gin said at the same time.

“Right. So, you’re deadly enough to be officer material...but pretty sure Lauren or Jack could beat you out for toughness, if only because of their knowledge of Iron Body. So we’re going to work on that. And C needs to learn combat in general, so you get to treat him like an indestructible test dummy.”

Hmm. Gin nodded slowly, and cracked his neck. “When you put it like that, can’t really object,” he said, starting to spin his tonfa. C cracked his knuckles, and dropped into a boxer’s stance.

“Thought you were a ranged fighter,” Gin said casually, as his tonfa spun faster and faster.

“Brother says I must improve my non-Devil-Fruit abilities,” the ghoul-clone said calmly. “So I am doing so.”

“Heh. Suppose that's fair... Demon Dance!”

His legs launched him forwards fast enough to be mistaken for a Shave, and his tonfas swung, one from above, the other from the side.

C blocked the overhead strike, his crossed arms visibly bending under the blow, but the second tonfa caught him in the ribs, knocking him down.

Gin didn't let up. Any other opponent, he might've, but a ghoul would heal and get back up in moments. “Hell's Descent!” he shouted, bringing both tonfa down at once on his opponent before he could do more than get up on hands and knees. Bones cracked, and C was driven flat again. Gin backed up, keeping his tonfa rotating. He reminded himself that the purpose here was to teach C some fighting skills, not just crush him in a fight he wasn’t suited for.

C's bones cracked again as his spine visibly reshaped itself under his thin shirt, and the ghoul got to his feet. “You are tough,” he said calmly, returning to that boxing stance. “My turn now.”

C was fast. Not as fast as Gin these days (something he had the captain to thank for...and maybe Kaneki, training sadist though he was), but a decent turn of speed, especially as he was lunging forwards. Good punch, too, solid form- not that it stopped Gin from sidestepping the attack, tonfa hafts lashing out. One on the elbow, the other on the forearm. He applied pressure, working against the joint, and C's arm crunched under the leverage.

Not that it stopped the ghoul's other fist from landing an uppercut against his jaw. Gin’s head snapped back as stars scattered across his vision, but he grit his teeth and swung back. C was too close for his tonfa to build up a lot of speed, but the haft smacking into his chest forced him back a step, and gave Gin the room he needed to swing the other tonfa back around, slamming it into C’s knee. The ghoul stumbled- and then flipped into a handspring, legs coming around in a motion that reminded Gin all too well of Sanji, forcing him to block or take a boot-clad foot to the temple.

Luckily, the packing crate interrupted his flight across the ship’s hold.

“I think we’ll call a halt here,” Kaneki said mildly.

Gin groaned.

 

----

 

The ship’s deck was empty.

Mists surrounded Ends Justified , only a small circle of water around the ship itself clear.

He looked up. The sails were tattered, bare fragments waving. What...what had happened? Where was everyone?

His nose found nothing, save the scent of the ship itself and the sea.

What was this?

“Boy.”

No. No. Nononononononononono…

“Boy. Face me.”

Herman’s legs felt like lead, but he turned. And faced a walking corpse.

Wyald looked surprisingly good for a dead man. Someone appeared to have stitched his head back on, and even connected the halves of his torso that Amakatta had split open back together, thick black stitches straining against his bloodstained clothing.

“This is a dream,” Herman said.

Wyald smiled. “Is it, boy?”

“Kaneki ate your corpse after I cut it apart, and while I’m fairly sure the captain could probably revive the dead he can’t reconstruct a human from shit . So a dream. Or, a nightmare,” Herman said with a calm he was certainly not feeling. He reached for Amakatta, and his hand grasped empty air.

Wyald’s grin widened. “Looking for this?” he asked, hefting Herman’s blade in one hand. “It suits me better, I think, boy.”

Herman’s knuckles cracked like gunshots as his hands clenched into fists. “You’re a phantom. Nothing more.”

“Am I? Tell me.” Wyald waved the blade almost carelessly, and a line of fire carved itself into Herman’s chest, sending him stumbling back. He put a hand to the wound, and his fingers came away bloody. He stared at the blood on his gauntlets. A weapon. He needed a-

In the blink of an eye, Wyald was in front of him, the massive man’s hand on his throat, slamming him into the wood of the mainmast. Splinters dug into Herman’s back, piercing his cloak and armor with ease.

“What are you, boy?” he growled. “A half-rate swordsman, a third-rate navigator, you don’t even have a dream of your own! You have no ambition, no pride!” Herman’s view began to narrow as Wyald’s grip tightened. “What are you, boy? You aren’t even the third-best fighter on your own crew, your job directing the ship could be taken over by any fool with a Log Pose, and you sure as hell can’t cut steel...so what use are you, boy?

Herman’s breath burned in his lungs, fire spreading in his veins as his entire body cried out for oxygen. He couldn’t-

“What use are you?!”

Couldn’t-

“Herman!”

His vision was going dark-

“Herman!”

He was burning-

“Wake up, Herman.”

Gah!

His eyes flew open, and he sat up. Walls. Ceiling. Floor. The lab. The captain. What.

“What-” He stopped, and coughed, his throat feeling like sandpaper. His entire body felt sore, but his airway was the worst. “What the hell…”

“Some short term memory loss, hmm…” the captain said. “How do you feel?”

Herman tried to take deep breaths, ignoring the gradually fading pain in his throat and lungs. “Like shit,” he said flatly. “What happened?”

“You volunteered to test out one of Lauren’s gas grenades. Which one…”

“The hallucinogenic one,” Lauren- great, there she was, standing on the other side of the lab.

“Yes, that. Anyway, you started having muscle seizures, I administered the counteragent, and woke you back up. You remember anything about the hallucination?”

“It was...Wyald. Something about how I was useless,” Herman said shortly, swinging his legs off the laboratory cot.

“Hm. A success, then.”

Herman just growled. The captain chuckled.

“Hey, you volunteered for it. Not sure why , but you did. Actually, if you could tell me…”

“Last I remember was deciding to watch C sort cutlery with his powers,” Herman said, trying to dredge up the memories the captain said should be there.

“Well, that was roughly...twenty minutes ago. So, your motives shall be lost. A pity,” the captain said melodramatically.

“Captain…”

“Yes?”

“Next time I try to volunteer for something, don’t let me. Now if you excuse me, I need to go hit something,” Herman growled, standing and walking out of the lab.

He had training to do.

Chapter Text

Bored.

Bored.

Boooooooooooooooored.

I lean back slightly in my chair as one of Grenzer’s commanders- the boring one in the suit- drones on about armaments across the armada and ammunition counts.

A quick glance across the other assembled captains and officers shows that most of the others, save for Jack and Grenzer’s own commanders, are equally ill-at-ease. Even the Gears and Rangers, whose ships have rejoined us as we’ve drawn closer to the Archipelago and whose captains haven’t had to put up with this bullshit for as long, look annoyed.

I sigh, and tilt back forwards, catching the eye of Grenzer and most of the other captains as I start tapping my fingers on the table. The bureaucrat stops talking, and Grenzer starts glaring.

“You wish to say something, Yoshimura?” the old man says flatly.

“Yeah, let’s lay it on the table. Why’re we wasting time with this?” I ask. “Counting weapons and gunpowder and bullets isn’t something we need to handle personally.”

“Logistics are the foundation of any campaign, Yoshimura,” Grenzer growls. Little hint of condescension there, if I’m not mistaken.

I grin. “Yeah, for you, maybe. But you’re all about numbers, aren’t you? If you’ve got to plan a police action, or an occupation, with only your own supplies, sure, we’d have to ration the damn bullets. But we’re contracted out and we’ve got a royal and his kingdom’s treasury backing us. We shouldn’t be personally handling logistics, we should be training to take on whatever’s waiting for us!” I stand up, glaring at the old man. “We still don’t have the slightest damn idea what’s waiting for us, what state the Royal Guard is in, hell, the only map we have doesn’t take into account what areas might be under rebel control, and the Marquis hasn’t told us shit. We can't get info because apparently the Doge locked down all the ports and News Coos once the rebellion started, so we have no idea what we're stepping into. One hundred, two hundred, even your five hundred, they’re fodder, against strong fighters on the Grand Line, and you should know that. The real fight is going to be down to the captains and officers, and instead of training for that, we’re wasting time with...this.” I wave my hands at the bureaucrat, who looks vaguely offended, and take stock of the other captains.

Knutte is leaning forwards, looking approving. Skantarios is impossible to read under his hood, ditto Clare in their armor, but Doppel is smiling thinly. Vinci, too. Grenzer just looks pissed.

“Boy…”

“I’m older than you, human,” I hiss, eyes turning black. “Do not patronize me.” I meet the eyes of the non-Tercio captains, one by one. Getting their measure. Finally, I turn my gaze back on Grenzer. “I’ll follow my captain’s orders, and he says we’re going to work under you. But I’m done with this nitpicking bullshit. I’m going to go back to the Ends , and train like hell. Anyone who wants to join in and pick up something that’ll like as not save their lives, you can come with me.”

Vinci nods. Almost invisible, I barely catch it, but I know what it means.

He's planning something.

I turn, and walk out the door, closing the entrance to the meeting room behind me.

 

----

 

“HRRRAAAAAHHH!”

Herman and the Steel Shield captain were going at it hammer and tongs, Herman for once the smaller one in the fight and forced to actually dodge the much bigger man’s axe.

Pravilno just lounged on the quarterdeck and watched. Didn’t have a stake in this spar (literally, some of the crew had started betting pools on who’d win what match), and besides, he was on break.

And he’d lost most of his cash betting that C would’ve taken down that Gear Pirate in armor. Should’ve known that bronze would’ve turned out to not be magnetic. She’d beaten the kid down hard with her bare hands and some giant-ass clock hands she’d pulled out of nowhere, and the blood still hadn’t been scrubbed out of the deck entirely.

Heh. Between the kid and Kaneki, the deck was going to end up red, no paint required.

He needed a smoke. There was something in the air lately, whenever there was a headwind, like there was at the moment. Freezing cold, even worse than home in the South Blue.

His hands shook slightly as he hauled out the lighter, a bare tremble, but it was there. He controlled it with an effort of will, and grit his teeth around his cigarette.

They’d been shaking since Crucix. Since the captain had hauled him back from the edge of death. Or back over it.

His hands were fast, his aim was still decent...but it wasn’t what it’d been before.

And it was getting worse, damn it, despite the training and the pills that should’ve healed it like they healed everything else.

He exhaled a cloud of smoke, watching the ongoing spar. Herman was faster than his size would indicate, but the same could’ve been said of Knutte, and the Steel Shield captain had the longer reach with his longaxe than Amakatta could manage.

Herman was keeping ahead, though. Largely, Pravilno figured, because the big guy was fueled by spite and the tears of his opponents.

The headwind blew stronger, and Pravilno shivered, clutching at the worn fabric of his white jacket as if it’d keep the heat in better.

“Not exactly a pleasant place we’re headed to, judging from the weather.”

Pravilno turned to face Kaneki, who had acquired gloves and a bright red scarf from somewhere, the length of scarlet fabric hiding everything below the lenses of his mask. “Thought you didn’t mind the cold,” he said.

Kaneki shrugged. “There’s something in that headwind I don’t like. C, too, even the Oni. It’s...off, and not just the cold.” He shoved his hands into his jacket pockets and exhaled, breath misting in the air. “Still. No matter what, we’ll have a fight at the end...and I’m getting tired of jerky.” The lenses flared red. “You got any plans?”

Pravilno leaned back against the rail, and took a drag on his cigarette. “Don’t think we’re going to have time for shore leave, boss,” he said with his best attempt at a smile. “If the place isn’t colder than the South Pole, maybe I’ll take a look around. But no plans, not really...heard a lot about the Archipelago, though. Mechanical wonders, the buildings heated from the earth itself, the towers of that giant church they’ve got...plenty to see and do if we do have the time, I guess.”

“Hrm. Five islands linked by bridges and a single Log Pose setting...it’s a strange place. Heard their mines pull up all sorts of stuff, too,” Kaneki supplied. He held up a hand. “Let’s see...they call the place the Spice Archipelago for their mines, still don’t get that, but there’s the Bronze Spice that Jack says the Marines buy up in huge quantities, Red Spice that they use as a dye or a toxin, Blue Spice that glows and apparently results in agonizing death if you look at it too long and also gets bought by the World Government, White Spice that I’m pretty sure is just another name for Amber Lead...what else…”

“Black Spice,” Ostavila said, thumping her way up to the quarterdeck to join them. “They burn it for heat, I hear.”

“Heh. Funny, they mine all that and only two and a half of it is actually useful,” Kaneki said with a chuckle. “Who wants to bet that the reason there’s rebels is because the mines are killing off too many people?”

“Sucker’s bet, and you know it,” Pravilno said, suddenly feeling weary. “Where’s your pack of demons, mate?”

“Belowdecks working on Iron Body. Which mostly entails hitting each other with a chunk of piping,” Kaneki said, utterly deadpan. “I’m only up here because they bent it around my head and so gave up on trying to actually inflict lasting damage.”

“And I thought you were bad at that,” Ostavila said with a smirk.

“Eh. Figured out how to make it click,” Kaneki said lightly. He looked over the ship, towards the source of the headwind. “Only a day before we make it there,” he said softly. “Who knows what we’ll find?”

“So long as it includes loot, drink, and women, I’ll be pretty happy,” Pravilno said. “You?”

Kaneki was silent for a moment. Then he cracked his knuckles. “Food’s out...but I think I’ll go looking for that church you mentioned,” he said. “Wonder if the people there’ll be as accommodating as that monk back on Murky.”

“A man can hope, eh?”

“I suppose so.”



Chapter Text

C decided he didn’t like the Archipelago.

For one, it was cold. The island was just starting to come into view, but he could almost make out the ice and snow on the island itself, and the air was absolutely freezing. At least the grey trench coat he’d gotten back at Turtle Bay provided more heat than his normal suit, but still, breathing hurt.

Second was the scent. The smell of harsh, burning smoke seemed to fill the air, just thin enough that he couldn’t identify the source. Underlying it was ice...and the strange, brittle scent of frozen blood.

He could see towers filling the skylines of several of the islands, and plumes of smoke. Communal fires? For something like this place, he could understand.

He looked back at the officers and the Oni, all assembled. Brother looked back, and beckoned for C to join him. He hurried over.

“Remember the plan?” Brother asked.

C nodded. It was a simple plan. Which was odd, because the old man had made it and Brother and The Captain said that the old man was complexity-addicted.

“Form up, everyone except Gin and Lauren joins the other officers, we go to the palace and meet the person in charge. The Dog?”

Gin snickered. C did what Pravilno had taught him to do to people who laughed at him, and firmly raised his middle finger at Gin.

“The Doge, C,” Brother said. “From there, we’ll have to trust Grenzer to take charge and do something useful.” He looked towards the islands. “Doesn’t look like we’ll have that much trouble getting there. No obvious battles…”

“I can still tell there’s blood,” C said.

“Hmph. Maybe we’re too late and it’s all over bar the looting.”

“That’d be nice,” The Captain said. “Get paid to do nothing. But luck is never that good for us, is it?”

“You’re being fatalistic today, captain,” Herman noted.

“Being near a gigantic island that is filled to the brim with toxic minerals and metals will induce a great degree of fatalism, yes,” The Captain said, leaning on the haft of his scythe as he watched the approaching islands. After a moment, he squinted, and rubbed at his eyes, before making an annoyed sound.

“Problem?” Brother asked.

“Nothing. Headache,” The Captain said.

“If it’s a headache, it ain’t nothing,” Brother said.

“You know what I meant, Kaneki,” The Captain said with a sigh.

“Sure, captain. Just don’t have a stroke in the middle of meeting this gilded asshole, alright?”

“I’m not going to- you are just fucking with me, aren’t you?”

Brother grinned. “If that’s what you think, captain. Right.” He turned to the Oni. “Each of you take three guys from the crew, spread out, start figuring out what the hell’s going on.”

Cousin Eka raised an eyebrow. “You want us to be spies?”

“Nah, just keep an ear to the ground and figure out what this place is actually like.”

“We hear ya, boss,” Cousin Eka said, the other Oni nodding wordlessly. They were growing ever more quiet. Probably smelled what was in the air.

“Everyone else should be more than enough to handle most people who come to see our ships...and on that note, look at what’s approaching.”

C looked. It was a very strange ship that approached them, like a fatter, angrier version of the Steel Shield longboats, even though it had oars and sails like the Marquis’s galley. It had a prow shaped like a dragon’s head...which Brother Kaneki was glaring at for some reason.

“Do you not like lizards, brother?” C asked.

Brother blinked, and shook his head. “Reminded me of something,” he said shortly. “Not sure what , exactly…feh. What’s that symbol on their sail?”

C squinted at it. It looked like a double-headed weird bird. And the words…

Ultimum...Iudex?”

“The Last Judge. It’s Latin,” The Captain said, before grinning. “Looks like that’s one of the Doge’s personal ships. Heh. Seems more a pleasure yacht than anything else, have to wonder where they keep the real warships.”

The Captain’s grin widened as the oared ship the Marquis was in charge of skittered ahead to meet its larger brother. “Either way, I bet we’re going to have an interesting welcome.”

 

----

 

They were going to have to be on the lookout for frostbite casualties, Vinci thought idly as they walked down a near-deserted main street, led by a squad of the Ducal Guard- men in fur-covered armor, anonymous behind squarish fur hats, goggles, and balaclavas.

The entire street seemed...frozen over, icicles hanging from eaves and snowdrifts lining the gutters and alleyways. There were very few people out and about, and most of them...most of them gave wary looks to the column of soldiers, mercenaries, and pirates, as if they expected trouble.

Which, to be fair, was entirely reasonable. They were here to cause trouble for certain people. Hopefully not the normal people, but you never knew.

He glanced over his crew. Kaneki had his scarf and gloves, and seemed happy enough in the same battered and patched jacket he always had. Jack was growing his beard out again, and had donned a khaki double-breasted coat to deal with the cold. Herman dressed the same as always, a looming tower of black furs, armor, and leather that made Vinci question the man’s mental stability and/or ability to discern color. As for himself, a fur lining to the old lab coat had been easy enough to sew on, and it was quite comfortable. His own internal improvements to his circulatory system rendered gloves and scarves and the like unnecessary.

The skies were clouded, but it didn’t look like it was time for snow yet, he thought, looking upwards. Decent fighting conditions, even if things were a bit dim, the sun hidden behind said clouds. Likely wouldn’t stay that way for long, though…

He took a deep breath, relishing the bite of the cold. He had little to no idea of conditions here, still, and he didn’t yet have a finger on the pulse of the island chain...but he already could figure some things out.

The Archipelago was five islands, a rough circle of them linked by ancient bridges. But they only had a single Log Pose setting. The reason was simple, once you looked at the shape of the islands, their geological activity, and the actual direction the Pose pointed.

The Archipelago was one island, not five- the five that were above the waves were merely bits of a crater rim or something of a similar construction, like fingertips connected to a hand.

The Archipelago was rich in mineral wealth, and little else. He had little idea how long the Doge had been halting trade, but from what Jack had managed to find out on the voyage (apparently sufficiently large bribes to News Coos could get quite a few things delivered to you, much more than just newspapers) pointed to it not having been long. The Archipelago grew what little food it did in greenhouses, the Winter Island far too cold to support much more than that. With imports and exports cut off by the Doge’s decree- probably an attempt to keep word from spreading about the rebels- there’d be bodies in the streets from starvation soon enough, and their absence now was a decent indicator that things hadn’t completely fallen apart just yet.

Last of all...well, that was Edwyn Roberts. An enormously rich man, nearly as wealthy as the Ducal family itself, who’d come into his wealth by a combination of capitalistic ruthlessness and ingenuity in mining techniques, ending up controlling four-fifths of the Spice mines in the Archipelago. It was said the man could literally smell the valuable veins of the various kinds of Spice in the Archipelago, and avoid the dangerous, miner-killing ones just as easily. One of the briefings Jack had put together included a picture. The man was a caricature of a rich buffoon, features swollen, a bowler hat and tuxedo-clad fool with black, piggish eyes.

Apparently this rebellion, according to the Marquis, was about Edwyn having objected to a minor tax increase on his holdings and injunctions to reduce the activity of the mines, which had been suffering record losses in miners for months...but that didn’t fit at all, unless the pirates he’d hired were so dangerous that they could cow a significant number of the Archipelago’s subjects into not resisting in the slightest...because even from here, Vinci could tell the mines were still running. The traces of their operation were in the air itself…

Their party came to a stop, and Vinci shook himself out of his thoughts to stare up at the bulk of the Ducal Palace. It was a massive structure, laced with snow and ice covering the bright gold woven into what looked like the very mortar, the lower half red and the top painted white in imitation of the background of the Ducal flag. Despite that, though, the walls were windowless save for gunports, and off to either side the bulk of towers bulged out from the corners of the walls.

The gates were filigreed iron, pretty- and, if Vinci wasn’t mistaken, sturdy enough to resist cannon fire. As they creaked open, he saw murder holes lining the lengthy tunnel that passed under the palace walls, places where guns and boiling oil could make mincemeat of anyone entering.

His grin widened as they walked under, past those silent and menacing defenses, and towards a building that, by contrast to the grim massiveness of the walls, seemed almost normal. Large, yes, and painted and gilded in the same fashion, but...it was only four stories high, and resembled a large manor more than anything else.

As they approached, there was a brassy ring of trumpets, and the doors of the manor opened, as a crowd of Ducal Guard and various people in fancy clothing walked out, spreading out to either side in a choreographed fashion.

Well.

It was time to meet the Doge, then.

Chapter Text

I'm not sure what I expected when the Doge started walking out and the Marquis started yammering.

“Doge of the Spice Archipelago, Lord of Sea and Ice and Land, Protector of the Realm-”

An old man, ineffectual, bowed down by his power. A fat fool, swollen with the same. An imbecile or a madman, a Caligula in furs.

“-Head of the Ducal Council, Keyholder of the Armories, Keeper of the Histories, Anointed of-” THWACK.

I was not expecting a seven-foot-tall, scarlet-haired, red-bearded, and heavily muscled man to literally throw his scepter at the Marquis, knocking the man unconscious mid-sentence, before striding forward to meet Grenzer with a beaming smile.

“So you’re the mercenaries, then,” the Doge says, never losing the smile.

“So you’re the ruler, then,” Vinci mutters, barely on the edge of hearing, and I smile behind my scarf.

There’s a zipping sound from off to the right, and I glance over to see that Maurice the loudmouth has had the entire lower half of his head covered in duct tape. The bureaucrat officer- Gabriel? - is holding a slightly smoking cardboard roll. The bespectacled man meets my eyes and gives me a slight nod.

Heh. Guess he’s not so bad, when he’s not giving boring briefings.

Grenzer and the Doge are still talking, but now they’re walking off...guess I’ll follow. Don’t particularly care what’s being said, honestly- the few snatches I get are bits of flattery and political bullshit. Not that important yet, and judging from Jack’s ‘pay no attention to my obvious eavesdropping’ expression, I’m going to get what I need to know told to me later anyway.

There’s Ducal Guard on all sides, lining the walls like suits of armor. Interspersed with actual suits of armor as well. The place looks like something Louis XVI would shake his head at the excess of, I think even the wallpaper is lined with gold foil tracing along the designs of vines and flowers. Also, I’m pretty sure we’re gradually sinking into the carpeting. I look down...yep, that stuff’s ankle deep at the minimum.

I’m not sure if it’s the soldiers or just the fact that this place doesn’t look quite real , but it’s setting me on edge. I can feel my tails twisting under my skin, wanting to be unleashed, and I force the urge down as our party approaches a pair of wooden doors. Simple ones, ungilded.

The door opens at the Doge’s push, and our party shuffles in. Smoke fills the air, the smell of tobacco omnipresent. There’s four men already there, sitting around the round table that dominates the room, and as I watch one of them- a short and pudgy fellow in blue pinstripes and a cigar clamped in a wide-toothed grin- sweeps a deck of cards back together, stashing it in some pocket.

There’s only six empty seats at the table. One, the Doge takes, before motioning for others to sit.

There’s a moment of consideration before each of the captains pulls out a chair and sits. I stand at Vinci’s right, watching the three who were already here.

Pudgy one in blue, smile never wavering as he looks over us with empty eyes. A tall, lanky man, skeletally thin, in a red pinstripe suit, who seems more amused by us than anything, smoking a cigarette. A heavily built man with a uniform full of medals and bling, who looks about ready to keel over at any moment. Not from age, but from what I’m fairly certain is a long love affair with whatever local equivalent of the Big Mac exists. The fourth would be completely unremarkable as a human being were it not for the goatlike horns poking out of his forehead. He gives me a challenging look, and I smile. After a moment, he returns it.

“Gentlemen.” He nods to the armored Gear Pirate. “And lady.”

Wait, she’s a- huh. You’d think I’d notice that, but all I can smell from her is copper and oil, no trace of pheromones.

“My apologies for the secrecy. The Marquis is an extremely effective man when it comes to convincing people to work for me, but he is...less than open with his information, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

There’s a soft ripple of chuckles from the assembled pirates.

“Well. Now that he’s actually assembled you all here, I can finally begin giving you some decent information about exactly why you’ve been hired. Khazrak, the files.”

The horned man tosses down a pile of manila folders.

“Edwyn Roberts...well, I think you all know enough about him. I, like many rulers, have a few friends in the World Government. Enough that when it was discovered that the magnate was starting to plot to usurp my throne...well, I had to take action. He began hiring mercenaries and arming people he trusted in secret- I rallied the Ducal Guard, cut off his supply of arms, and sent the Marquis to hire whoever he could rally to supplement my forces. General Haig?”

The coronary-ready man clears his throat. “Er, yes. The rebels control two of the five islands, though they haven’t dared push into civilized territory just yet, cowardly buggers. Both of the islands were almost all covered in mines Roberts owned anyway, so good riddance to that lot. Anyone who goes near might lose their head, mind, but with your boys helping ours I’m sure we can crush them.”

“You’re an idiot,” Grenzer growls as he puts the files he’s been reading down.

“Excuse me, sir?! I shall-”

“Shut up.”

I see Vinci grin out of the corner of my eye as Grenzer leans forwards, putting his elbows on the table. “Have you even looked at this list of who this fat sack of shit has hired?” Grenzer growls. “Because I have. The Shell King Pirates, led by ‘One Punch’ Xio and ‘Poison Spear’ Jizhu, 87 and 65 million. The Poison Fang Pirates, ‘Acid Breath’ Vehrlovoss, 36 million. A full battalion of the Kreiger Mercenary Group...and the Black Beard Pirates-”

Wait, what. I take a step back, trying to think- How the fuck is Blackbeard here? Why would he even be-

“-led by ‘Black Beard’ Villos, and ‘Black Feather’ Grackle, 75 and 47 million. That is some serious firepower we’re expected to counter.”

Oh thank god, it’s not the giant hippo asshole.

“Don’t sweat it, old guy,” the short guy in blue pinstripes says. “You’re just here to help us out. Can’t exactly cover all the bases, just the two of us, dontcha know.”

“And you are?” my captain asks as he watches the two intently.

“Aw, we aren’t famous?” the tall one in red asks. “Such a pity.”

“I’m Tristo,” the short one says.

“I’m Amico,” the tall one calls.

“We’re the Boondocks Brothers, and we work nights,” they say at the same time.

I struggle not to raise my eyebrows as Tristo chuckles.

“Alright, seriously kid-”

Vinci almost visibly twitches.

“-we’ll be handling a good chunk of trouble, dontcha know. Isn’t much different from the usual work old Goldy here usually gives us. And I suppose those guys in armor’ll be of help.”

I do raise my eyebrows at that. Considering what I saw of the Guard...well, they’d probably make good bullet shields.

The Doge claps his hands. “Well! I’m sure you all have a great deal to discuss, but I must be going. Come to me if you require anything of importance, but I trust in your ability to manage this internal struggle without my...dubious input. General Haig here shall inform you of what assets will need protecting immediately.”

Wait…

Wait.

This is another fucking meeting.

About pointless shit .

Again.

Internal screaming, commence!

Chapter Text

“A party,” I say, voice dead, deadened further by the walls of Ends Justified ’s ready room. “He’s throwing some giant gala, when there’s open war about to break out?”

And Grenzer tapped us for the security,” Vinci confirms, looking annoyed. “Granted, we’ve got the Ducal Guard and the other mercenaries watching the bridges from the rebel islands and most of the streets outside, but internal security is our lot.”

“Why the hell-”

“Because the Doge isn’t an absolute monarch,” Jack rumbles. “There’s a council he’s head of, a parliament that normally runs the country. Nobles. Rich. And they need to be convinced the Doge is strong enough to deal with the rebels...and that things will remain ‘business as usual’. Failing that, we’ve got to scare them enough to think that supporting our side is better than going over to Roberts.”

“Okay, scaring the shit out of people is kinda our thing, I’ll admit. How long do we have before this thing kicks off?” I ask.

“Three days,” Vinci says. “Also, hope you don’t mind a suit. We’re supposed to blend in unless things go completely to shit.” He looks me over, and I fold my arms defensively.

“The Doge better be fucking paying if he’s going to have me in a monkey suit,” I growl.

“Dahahahahaha! Don’t worry, that’s already taken care of. You’ve got an appointment with the tailor tomorrow.”

“And the rest of the crew?”

“They’ll have to make do with off-the-rack purchases. Helps we already have their sizes.”

“Hrrm. You need my input on planning, or not?”

Vinci just grins. “I think if I tried to put you through another meeting we’d have to find a new first mate.”

“You mean a new captain.”

“Don’t get too big for your britches, first mate.”

We grin at each other for a moment, and Jack buries his head in his hands.

“You’ll have to be in charge of the mess, though,” Vinci says lightly.

“What,” I growl.

“Me, Jack, Herman, and half the crew are stuck watching the bridges. Look. Don’t worry too much about it- anyone trying to sneak through or attack’ll have to get through us anyway. You’ve got C, Gin, Lauren, the Oni, and twenty guys to back you up, anyway.”

I sigh. “Guess that means I do need to stay and plan this. I’m getting tired of meetings, captain.”

“I know. But you have ideas?”

“...I’ll need a floor plan, a guest list, and a lot of coffee.”

“That’s the spirit!”

 

----

 

C was feeling...well, he wasn't sure.

He thought it was annoyed. It was very cold where he was perched, now that the sun had gone down. Even with his little nook in the rooftop- among the gargoyles that decorated this place, jishakukuku- the wind still tore at him, made worse by the fact he was taking the brunt of it. A deliberate choice, to let his nose work, but still...very annoying. And worst of all he couldn’t cover his nose, because it was what would give everyone inside the early warning they needed if they were attacked!

“Falcon to Vulture, checking in,” Lauren’s voice came in over the tiny baby snail tucked securely inside C’s coat pocket, away from the freezing wind.

Well, at least he wasn’t suffering alone. Lauren was up here too, and though she was on the lee side of the building, she didn’t have his resistance to cold, being only human.

Well. Maybe he shouldn’t say only. He was...fairly sure Ostavila was human, and she’d beaten him up even after he’d managed to stop some of her weapons. Some. He still needed to get better at moving more than one thing at once.

“Vulture? You there?”

Oh. Right. He had to talk back.

“Vulture here,” he said quietly. “All smells quiet. You?”

“Clear scopes, Vulture. Keep an eye out.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

He almost wished someone would try and attack.

Wait…

He sniffed at the air, the mingled scents of a sleeping city, and snarled before yanking a small telescope out, spotting the black-clad shapes, dark against the night, instantly.

He’d been joking damn it!

“Falcon to Vulture. Saw something...ah fuck, that’s a lot of bad guys. Looks like the Black Beards are coming out to play. How the hell did they-”

“Got a bunch on my side as well,” he said. “I count sixty. You?”

“About the same, Vulture.”

There was a muffled thump from the other end of the rooftop. “One down. Call it in to Mother Hen, then start thinning them out.”

He nodded, and tapped the snail, connecting it to Brother’s. “Vulture to Mother Hen. Black Beards are heading in, entire crew looks like. Prepare for party crashers.”

Brother said several words C was fairly certain he wasn’t supposed to repeat before shutting off the connection. C shoved the telescope back into his coat before pulling a strange left-handed gauntlet from another pocket and putting it on. It incorporated a sight along his forearm, distances noted and marked out on the scope. Lauren had helped him with it. From another pocket, he took a ball bearing, holding it between the index and middle finger of his left hand.

Sight. Aim at the target, a moving patch of black, the glint of a sword barely visible. A bit higher…

“Lorentz Sabot, ” he whispered, as he pushed the ball bearing forwards as hard as he could.

There was a sharp crack and the man’s head exploded, his body tumbling off the rooftop he’d been running on and down to the street below.

One down, fifty-nine to go.

He was going to need more ball bearings.

 

----

 

The party was still going on. High society in all their glitz and glamour and pompous bullshit.

Ostavila kept the sneer off her face like she did all other expression as she moved past the edges of the crowd, grateful that she hadn’t been forced into a dress and instead got to wear the same black suit and tie the rest of the crew did.

The Nightmares lined the edges of the gathering, around the pillars that lined the massive ballroom. Whatever this building was, it was ridiculous. The ballroom alone would’ve made it a major attraction anywhere else, but this was just one small part of the building. Some ancestor of the current Doge had had it built, apparently.

Either way, fancy or not, it was going to be a battleground soon. She could see Kaneki stepping up onto a table, getting everyone’s attention and starting some spiel about an event elsewhere in the building, would everyone please go there and enjoy themselves, after all the acoustics are better there, ha ha ha. The crowd of rich people began to gravitate towards the exits. She tuned it out in favor of approaching her usual partner.

Pravilno looked like he hadn’t slept, leaning in the shadow of one of the ballroom’s fancy columns, smoking a cigarette. He glared at her. She glared back, and he sighed.

“The hell do you want?”

“Hands,” she ordered crisply.

He froze. Then he dropped his cigarette to the tile, crushing it under a boot without looking at it, before shoving out his hands.

They trembled. Barely. Her glare intensified. “You’re going to talk to the captain, after this,” she said.

“Fuck no. He’s got more important things to handle. And-”

“And?”

He looked away, all the cocky gangster swagger he’d affected for the months she’d known him suddenly gone. “And he might get pissed if I imply he didn’t do a good enough job.”

“Our captain? He’d probably take it as an opportunity to improve his work. And-or give you new hands.” She punched him in the shoulder softly. “Woman up. We’ve got a trap to spring.”

She looked towards the rooftops as the soft sound of suppressed gunfire rang out.

Kaneki wasn’t a strategic genius. But he’d still known enough to figure out that there wasn’t anything they could do to really stop a full-on attack, not without collateral damage.

But a trap, with no soft civvies in the way and the enemy coming in right where they wanted?

That changed things quite a bit.

 

----

 

Arnyek Rantas was not having a good time.

For one, the captain had been hired by some rich asshole to back up the pack of half-starved backwater inbreds who called themselves an ‘army of Revolution’. Which meant a lot of trouble and having to bail out said inbreds, naturally. Troublesome.

And then they got told- told , not asked- to sneak across the bridges, spend three days shivering and hiding from the Ducal Guard, all so they could attack some other rich asshole’s party. Even more troublesome.

Now, and most troublesome of all, was the fact that apparently the rich assholes (the ones in the party, not the one who hired the captain and crew) had had the two brain cells required to hire guards. Specifically, god-damned snipers, who had already taken down half a dozen men before the others got to cover.

He certainly wasn’t going to peek out from the fence he was hiding behind and find out where on that lit-up fancy building said snipers were perched, either. Hmm.

He looked at the man huddled next to him, who was trying very hard to remain unnoticed, and smiled before grabbing the man by the collar.

“Boss, wait-”

He shoved the man up against the fence, head in clear view, and just barely peeked his own head out to the side, watching the rooftops of the big central building.

At the same moment there was a sharp crack and the man in his hand went limp, there was, for the briefest of moments, a flash of crackling blue light. That was all it took.

Rantas used his powers, and pulled the sniper forwards with all his might.

A blur of grey streaked overhead and slammed into the building behind him, blowing a hole through the wall. Rantas smiled, and then glared at the few other crew members in sight. “Get fucking moving and go do your job,” he said.

They ran, the pissants.

Rubble cracked behind him. Rantas turned.

“Still alive, huh?” he asked, still smiling. His opponent, a tall, bald guy in a tattered trench coat and a skull-like mask, just cracked his knuckles.

“I’ll see what I can do to fix that,” Rantas said.

 

----

 

In retrospect, Gin figured, having an evacuation plan for the party that didn’t sound like an evacuation plan wasn’t all that bad an idea after all. It got all the high-society idiots out of the way safely without making them all that afraid, and out from under the fucking gigantic glass ceiling that this particular ballroom had.

At least he, and the rest of the crew, were off to the side, safely out of the way of any falling shards, and this ceiling was the only entry point...one that required breaking through C and Lauren’s guard.

But now there were black-clad shapes crawling over the glass, and the sound of gunfire seemed muffled.

He hoped both of them were still alive- C was hard to kill anyway- but...well, hope in one hand, shit in the other.

The crew, Oni and ‘normal’ alike, was ranged out on the edges of the room, the entire place darkened, all the lamps put out. Only one moon, a full one, was out tonight, which made the light relatively weak, scattering faint rectangles over the tiled floor.

Gin began to spin his tonfa slowly, watching the ceiling. Some of the giant panes were beginning to crack as the pirates above hammered away. Several others were untouched as the pirates congregated on them instead.

He smiled, and kept up the rotation, gradually building speed. Couldn’t quite manage Tempest Kick with his legs or with his tonfa, not yet, but that wasn’t his job…

“One tail, two tail, three tail, four ...Breath of the Dragon.”

Four powerful slashes of wind from Kaneki’s tails slammed into the laden glass panes. With so many pirates piled on top, that was all it took, and the panes gave way with a crash, sending sixty-plus pirates tumbling to the floor below in a shower of glass.

Some landed on their feet, including two who didn’t seem fazed at all by the drop. Others didn’t.

He ran a count. Thirty down, dead or just trying to figure out what to do with their compound fractures. About the same still alive and looking around, peering into the shadows. They all seemed dressed alike, like stereotypical ninja in all-concealing black clothing. Sloppy. Black was horrible for stealth.

Two that looked like officers. One looked almost like a less happy version of Kaneki, black clothes, black hair that framed his face, and a mournful expression on his sharp features.

The other resembled an angry walking shrubbery thanks to the gigantic beard that dominated his rotund form.

Gin grinned.

Seven sets of eyes blazed red in the darkness.

All hell broke loose.

 

Chapter Text

Lauren was pissed. For one, keeping her footing on the crenellations and assorted fancy bits of the rooftop, icy as they were, was a pain.

For another...well…

“Ma’am, if you would be so kind as to leave cover, we could conclude our business quite swiftly.”

Apparently the Black Beards had someone who was nearly as good with a gun as she was. Cold-blooded prick had nearly taken her head off with a shotgun blast- a couple pellets had grazed her face, and she knew her cheek would scar- before she’d managed to find some cover and hunker down.

She could hear the rest of the Black Beards clambering about on the roof, and the little cracking noises as they began to break through the glass, but it didn’t matter. Kaneki and the Oni would take care of that. Her problem was the asshole who she had to get a bead on before he found her hiding spot…

Wait, what was she thinking?

She had grenades.

Moving as quietly as she could manage, she reached into the pockets of her coat, pulling free a smooth cylinder with an orange band wrapped around it. Flashbangs. Couldn’t use the gas, the others below hadn’t brought masks- well, save for the Oni, but what they were huffing was far worse than the gas anyway - so that meant misdirection. And/or blinding the bastard.

“Ma’am? This sort of silence is most impolite.”

She pulled the pin and tossed the grenade over the piece of masonry that was serving as cover- some rich asshole’s statue or something.

The instant it cleared the side of the statue, a hammer of sound and air smashed her down, her ears ringing as she gasped for air. Fuck, he’d been faster than she thought...

She got to her feet just as the bastard rounded the statue. Fancy dress, round little spectacles, bored expression, shotgun in his hands. She Shaved to the side, barely avoiding the spread of buckshot, and yanked out her lever-action carbines, firing both. Fancy Pants went down on his ass as two .50 caliber slugs slammed into his chest, and she paused, watching him.

That was when a second bullet nearly took her head off, only another Shave saving her.

She looked down. And then at the roof she’d just Shaved off of by accident.

Ohshitohshit MoonWalkMoonWalk!

She grabbed hold of a gargoyle as her hasty technique barely kept her from dropping, and clung to the lower jaw with both hands as she tried to catch her breath and let the ringing in her ears fade enough to hear.

“Oh, dear, that must have hurt,” a female voice said from above.

“Nowhere near as much as the thought of being without you, my love,” Fancy Pants’s voice answered.

She would have gagged if it didn’t risk loosening her grip on the gargoyle.

“Besides, her bullets could not penetrate this suit. Spider-woven silk is a wonderful choice of garment.”

Motherfucker, was everyone she fought going to be bullet-proof?

And now there were two gun-wielding assholes up there, both of them good at their job, and she couldn’t guarantee a headshot on one or both without being filled full of lead herself.

Fuck.

Okay, this was going to suck.

She pulled herself up slowly, until she was at a point where she could swing a leg over the gargoyle’s neck and actually sit. She needed hands free for this.

She took out a small syringe, wrapped up in a bright red tin case. Inside the syringe itself, blue light flickered and sparked.

“Sorry captain,” she murmured. “Really hate to use this now, but don’t have a choice.”

 

----

 

C did not like this person.

For one, he had weird powers, which he’d used to throw C into a building and was now using to annoy him with debris. He liked this suit, and now it was being ruined. There was also the small matter of his kneecaps being missing, carried away by a chunk of flying debris, but those would grow back soon enough. Clothing wouldn’t grow back.

Second thing about this person that annoyed him: the guy’s nose. It looked like someone had stuck a needle on his face. Seriously, what kind of human being had that kind of facial deformity?

 

----

 

Elsewhere in Paradise, two pirates and a CP9 agent sneezed simultaneously.

 

----

 

Lastly…

“Come on. Is that all you have?”

This person would not shut up.

C got back to his feet as his kneecaps reknit, and pulled hard at the few pieces of metal that hadn’t been buried into the ground by the asshole already, sending them hurtling at the needle-nosed dick.

“Graviton.”

And just like everything else, the dick and his weird powers shoved them straight down into the ground.

“Do you at least understand the gravity of the situation? You dare face me, Arnyek Rantas, third mate of the Black Beard Pirates, wielder of the Pull-Pull Fruit? I am-”

“Annoying? Stupid? Possessed of a very strange nose?”

The annoying man’s eye twitched and several veins bulged. “ Coup. De. Grace.”

C’s feet left the ground as the man’s power yanked him forwards, right onto the man’s sword.

Which snapped off at the hilt as it came into contact with C’s skin.

C’s hands snapped out, grabbing the man’s shoulders in a crushing grip.

He grinned, bit, and tore .

The man’s struggles ceased by the third bite.

Once he was done, C got to his feet. A great number of pirates had made it through.

He still had hunting to do.

 

----

 

Oni, Gin was realizing, were very different people once they started actually fighting people who weren’t officers or other Oni.

Against officers or each other, weapons came out, matching blade against club against spear against brass knuckles. It looked almost normal, even if it was sped up and the clashes of weapon against weapon rattled his bones.

Against enemy pirates...they didn’t even bother.

All of them had simply Shaved into the mass of Black Beards, grabbed someone by the ankles or arm or head, and started beating motherfuckers with other motherfuckers. Kaneki and the guy who was ninety percent beard were off somewhere else, far enough they weren’t his concern.

He barely deflected another pair of thrown knives, and angrily reminded himself to focus on the person who was.

Hellion!” he shouted as he rushed forwards and slammed one of his tonfas into the man who bore an astonishing resemblance to Kaneki. The bastard caught it on crossed knife blades, even as the strike itself made him stagger. Gin almost pressed the attack again, but another thrown knife that passed millimeters in front of his eyes made him step back, giving the black-clad pirate a chance to recover again. Gin steadied himself, keeping his tonfa spinning.

“You are a formidable opponent,” emo-Kaneki said slowly.

“I take my vitamins.”

“Hmmm. Nobody has ever managed to deflect my blades like that. Yes, I think this will be-”

Gin blinked as a flying body slammed the man away mid-sentence, sending him into a wall, which cracked slightly. Eka walked over, the heavyset Oni cracking his knuckles. “Sorry, mate, couldn’t resist,” he said with a sheepish smile.

“You notice how he looks a lot like our first mate?” Gin asked.

“The one that’s been running us till we drop as training and looking happy about it? Oh, yes,” Eka said with a sharp smile.

Gin smiled back. “Want to get some catharsis?”

“Oh, yes.

The poor bastard who had no idea what was coming struggled back to his feet, knives in hand. “Two of you now? No matter. I am Grackle, first mate of the Black Beard Pirates, worth sixteen million. I will not fall to two no-name rookies.”

Gin didn’t answer. He just Shaved forwards, tonfa swinging, as Eka did the same with his dao.

 

----

 

“Okay, seriously,” I say as I Shave to the side to dodge another punch from the beard-man’s hamhock-sized fist. “How the hell does that thing not catch everything? Crumbs, drinks, random objects, small children? For god’s sake, how do you avoid tripping on the damn thing?”

“YOU UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF THE BEARD,”- oh shit it’s another Maurice, god damn it why did I provoke him into opening his mouth- “YOU FOOLISH WHELP! YOU ARE NOT WORTHY OF FACING THE MIGHT OF MY FOLLICLES! I, VILLOS, CAPTAIN OF THE BLACK BEARD PIRATES, SHALL CRUSH YOU WITH BUT THE SLIGHTEST EXERTION OF MY POWER!”

Okay, now he just sounds like a hairier Terry Crews. I dodge another blow, still grinning as I slip on my mask. I dropped the tails after shattering the glass panes, and I don’t think he’s realized who he’s fighting. If he did, he certainly wouldn’t be throwing his meat at- okay no, no, purge that mental image immediately.

“TAKE THIS! ANDROGEN RUSH!”

Wait, why the fuck would he name an attack after a hormone- ShaveShave Shave!

The flurry of punches is much faster than his previous attacks, and only getting faster even as I frantically dodge what’s being thrown at me, backpedaling all the while. Finally one moves just a hair too quickly for me to handle, catching me in the chest. I feel ribs crack as I’m hurled backwards, slamming into a stone wall, and I spit blood as I fall to the floor in a crouch.

I hear a hissing noise and realize it’s me. I cough up a bit more blood before looking up at Villos and grinning.

“You’re fun ,” I say, pushing a levity into my voice I don’t feel. “Not worthy, you’re saying? Kyakahahahahahaha…. one tail, two tail, three tail, four.”

My tails lash at the air, and Villos takes a step back before smiling widely. “So it is true…” he says, mercifully quietly. “Well, then...THIS SHALL BE A BATTLE FOR THE AGES!”

What the hell is he- is his beard moving?

“WITNESS MY TRUE POWER! THE BEARD-BEARD FRUIT!”

Bwuh?

The entire room freezes. I see Gin and Eka actually stumble mid-stride, and the guy who looks oddly similar to me stop as well, before facepalming.

That’s when the lightning hits.

 

Chapter Text

The air feels...frozen.

Moreso than usual, heh.

Why the hell was I told to watch the river today?

Oh, right. Because after scaring the shit out of that one bard the captain wants me out of the public eye. Fair enough, I suppose. ‘Demons’ don’t make for good PR and we need everything we can get ahold of with the public these days, if only to keep the poor bastards from defecting.

I take a breath, ignoring the bite of the cold, and sniff at the air. Clear and icy, not a hint of anyone on the stretch I’ve been told to watch. No, wait…

My tails burst free and wave in the frozen air as I scent a small group on the opposite side, drawing closer. An attack? Over the river...well, the place is frozen, it makes sense, of a sort…and is probably smarter than trying for a bridge, what with how Vinci and Lauren’s more... enthusiastic experiments in explosives have been rigged to send those tumbling if an assault was made…

But this doesn’t seem like a proper attack. Not enough people, I can only pick up half a dozen separate scents…

I lunge forwards, feet digging through the snow- and then the ice as I hit the river- and propelling me forwards at speeds just shy of a Shave. I land just shy of the group, bleeding momentum by falling into a crouching position. They halt, trying to back away, and I take in their look. Not pirates. No crew marks, their clothing is heavily patched stuff that looks…

Oh hell, it’s some of their bargain-basement Revolutionaries, some of the miners Roberts has conscripted into his little temper tantrum. Killing them would just be...not right.

They look at me with wide eyes as I straighten.

“What the hell are you lot doing out?” I say, as evenly as possible. “If you’re trying to sneak across, you picked the wrong place.”

“W-w-w-w-we-” one of them stammers, looking near to pissing himself. I sigh, and point at one of the six who doesn’t quite seem paralyzed by my mere present. “You. Explanation. Now.”

The chosen miner, a burly guy with a beard that rivals that fucker from the Great Ballroom Charlie Foxtrot, blinks. “Mister Butcher Bird...don’t you know what day it is?”

“Friday,” I say. “If you want to go drinking, stay on your damn island. Don’t need to waste bullets on you lot.”

There’s a murmur from the other miners, and the spokesman I’ve picked out looks surprised. “Um...it’s Christmas, sir.”

The fuck?

The miner takes my silence for an invitation to keep speaking. “It’s a holiday, sir, where we-”

“I know what Christmas is,” I say. “Give me a second.”

I run through the dates in my head, tails retracting as I think it over. Fuck, how the hell had I...dammit, how did I miss the damn holiday?

After a moment, I shake my head. “Alright. I suppose you’re here for a truce of some kind? Break bread with the enemy? Kinda expected more of you.”

“We were the only ones willing to try...most everyone else thinks we’d be shot on sight or something, they didn’t want to go.”

“Right. Follow me, keep behind me, and that won’t happen.” I look over them again. No weapons, though a few of them are carrying bags and boxes. Another sniff at the air...no scent of gunpowder or blades...but I do smell baked goods. Hm. Makes me wish I could actually eat normal food, almost, if it meant I could get ahold of what smells like cinnamon rolls…

“Sir? Are you-”

“I’m fine,” I say flatly, with a shake of my head. “Let’s go.”

 

----

 

“Kaneki, am I drunk?”

“No, captain,” Vinci's first mate replied humorlessly.

“I think I should be,” Vinci said as he watched Edwyn Roberts- the man whose head was worth six hundred million - mingling with his crew, as if he didn't care at all about the possibility of assassination.

“How the hell did this happen?”

“Christmas truce,” Kaneki said. “Things... escalated from there. I think there's a party going on now?”

“You think?”

“Well, someone brought enough alcohol to float the entire Archipelago so if it wasn't before it started being one shortly thereafter.”

“Huh.” Vinci stared at the crowd of people who on any other day would be trying very hard to kill each other for a moment longer.

Then he smiled. “You know, I did remember to get you something,” he said to Kaneki.

“If it's lethal I'm going to punt you through the hospital,” Kaneki said dourly.

“Cheer up, Kaneki. For one day, you don't have to worry about anything.”

Kaneki chuckled, and smiled back, thin as it was. “Maybe so, captain. Still can't shake the feeling something's off. And I'm not a fan of...all this.” He nodded at the party.

That didn’t make much sense...granted, Kaneki wasn’t the most social of people, but it wasn’t like he had an aversion to- oh. It’d been a week or two since he’d last fed, hadn’t it, with all the chaos and the constant presence of people who weren’t crew and wouldn’t be nearly as understanding. No wonder he was on edge.

Vinci shrugged. “Head back to the ship if you feel the need. I can handle things here.”

“You sure?”

“Very much so, Kaneki. Go.”

As Kaneki headed off, Vinci considered the crowd, tapping his fingers on the haft of his scythe. Six hundred million and an end to this war, right there, completely off guard…

No. Not on Christmas, of all days.

They’d go back to trying to kill each other tomorrow.

 

---

 

Herman preferred sleeping on the Ends . Even with the lengthy walk from the ship’s berth to whatever guard posts they got assigned, it was still better than sleeping in a barracks or anywhere near one of the Doge’s places.

Ends was much more secure. And much quieter. He knew every sound and scent on it, and none of them were out of place.

So, overall, he was very surprised to be woken up by the sound of Kaneki swearing.

He rolled out of his bunk, Amakatta already in hand, and stalked out of his cabin onto the deck.

He stopped, gaping.

Someone had turned the deck of their vessel into a fucking Christmas theme park. Without, apparently, making a single out-of-place sound. The mainmast was covered in winding garlands, the rigging had tinsel and ornaments all over, and the deck around the mainmast and the rooms around it...was practically covered in packages covered in bright wrapping paper.

Herman’s jaw dropped as Kaneki appeared on the quarterdeck, now silent, holding a single package in his hands. “Either the captain did this, or Santa Claus is real,” the ghoul said, reading the tag on the present. “Kaneki- Good is something you strive for, not something you are. Merry Christmas.

They shared a look.

“Captain’s fucking with us?” Kaneki asked.

“Captain’s fucking with us.”

Chapter Text

The world was frozen.

Lauren looked up, the motion harder than it should’ve been, the air pushing back against her. She could see the tracery of a lightning bolt overhead, crawling through the air towards the lightning rods installed on the building.

She only had moments- it was already getting hard to breathe. She gathered herself up, and jumped. In a moment she was back on the rooftop, moving towards the still forms of the dandy and his overly-dressed sweetheart. Black tux and black cocktail dress. What a pair.

Bullets would take too long to crawl out of their barrels. And her lungs were starting to burn as she walked towards the pair.

She slipped her hatchet out of a belt loop.

One swing. Two.

That little bit of exertion was almost more than she could bear. Her hands scrabbled through her coat, reaching for the counteragent the Captain had concocted for her. The hypodermic hissed as she jabbed it into her thigh, and the world-

-snapped-

-back into motion as she collapsed, feeling like she'd been forced to practice Iron Body for hours. Everything hurt.

“Holy shit what the hell? Who did this?”

Oh. There were more pirates on the roof, ones she couldn't even crane her neck to see from her position flat on her back. Goody. She tried to reach for her gun, but her muscles apparently didn't want to cooperate.

“Look, it's that pirate bitch!”

Oh hell .

“Let's-”

Crack crack crack crack crack.

The thumps of several bodies hitting the dirt seemed like a good thing. She heard crunching footsteps, and then some distinctly wrong sorts of crunching.

Okay, maybe not.

There was the distinct noise of swallowing, and then C walked into view. The bottom half of his mask was practically solid red.

“Need a hand?”

Lauren just glared at the creepy little fucker.

 

----

 

I’m fairly certain I know how annoying it is to fight me, now.

Because dodging and cutting through the near-literal forest of hair-based tentacles is getting really fucking old.

I don't know how to others are coping. If they're smart, they've run and let me handle it. Can't even see anything beyond the thicket of beard.

When the hell did my life become a comedy? Or just become utterly insane?

Oh, right. Probably around the time I decided following the obviously batshit insane pirate doctor was a good idea.

On that note…

“SURRENDER TO THE POWER OF MY FOLLICLES!”

“Right,” I grumble, drawing my tails in close. “It’s time for a shave! Draconic Twister!”

The accumulated wind blades lash out in all directions, tearing the thicket of hair to shreds, and I jump back as tendrils of the stuff stab towards where I’d been standing.

I can't see him, but the reverse is true as well. He only knows where I am when I cut at his hair, and he can't quite react fast enough to catch me lethally.

I sniff at the air, trying to figure out where he is as I cut out again and leap through the air, free of the thicket. The hall's deserted, only the unmoving bodies of Black Beard pirates present. Good. Means I've got space to work.

The man's beard covers half the hall, still moving faintly, his body hidden behind a wall of hair. Can’t figure out where he is...hrrmph.

“YOU THINK YOU HAVE ESCAPED ME? NONE SHALL EVADE MY WRATH! GOATEE GOLEM!”

Wait, what the fuck is he-?

I stare as the beard-forest condenses itself into limbs , forming what is unmistakably a humanoid body...with the bearded bastard himself forming the head.

The head…

I grin, and run.

“YES! FLEE BEFORE MY GLORIOUS MAJESTY!”

A running leap takes me a third of the way up one of the pillars. My tails propel me across the room to the opposite one, and again and again as the golem of hair takes its first few steps forwards.

It raises an arm to swat me from the sky, but even as poor as I am at Moon Walk, the creation is ponderous enough I can dodge easily, jumping off the air and directly at the man himself.

I grin. “Scaled Cross!”

I hit the floor around the same time the man’s head does, two tails slick with blood.

 

----

 

Grackle was beginning to regret his choice of occupation.

“Make it as a pirate, they said,” he grumbled as he ran through the far-too-narrow hallways as fast as he could manage. “Plenty of loot, they said. Now everyone's fucking dead and the Captain's fighting a cannibal monster. Black Talons!” He spun on his heel, hurling a half-dozen blades back at his pursuers, only to snarl in frustration as again they were all deflected or dodged by the two Nightmares.

At least the captain would crush that damned Butcher Bird quickly enough. And if he could just get outside , he could-

A window!

It was a bloody big thing and he didn’t have the time to break it with whatever he could find. This was going to hurt…

Probably less than that spindly fucker’s tonfas, though.

He grit his teeth and put on a fresh burst of speed, accelerating even faster than the running pace that had kept him ahead of whatever technique they were using to seemingly teleport after him, and jumped.

The window shattered, and despite him covering his head with his arms a shard of glass sliced across his cheek and ear, living stinging pain in its wake. No time to deal with it- he hit the ground, rolled, and sprang back up. If he could just make it back to-

Crack.

Grackle fell to the ground as his knee turned into a symphony of pain, worse than anything he’d ever felt before. He couldn’t even breathe , the white-hot hole in his leg blocking out everything else as he curled up into a fetal position, clutching at the bloodied remnants of his knee cap.

There was a thump, and then a weight on his back, and then oh god teeth in his shoulder, biting and tearing and-

“C! We need him alive.”

The weight and the teeth vanished, and Grackle let out a sob of relief.

Someone put pressure on the ruins of his shoulder, and that last spike of pain was enough. Grackle slipped gratefully into unconsciousness.

 

----

 

I’m tired.

Fuck, everyone’s tired. Between the actual fight, the relentless grilling for details Grenzer and his officers put us through that they had the gall to call a ‘debriefing’, hauling off that one guy who half the crew has started calling ‘Kan-edgy’ thanks to his resemblance to me to be interrogated, and the Doge giving personal thanks for handling things...well, hardly quietly, but with a minimum of fuss and with the heads of most of the Black Beard Pirates on stakes to show off to the nobles and rich assholes as a sign of strength...between all that, even I’m pretty much running on empty. All I want, as I stumble into my cabin on the Ends , is to snatch a few precious hours of sleep before the new day…

Which is made more than a little difficult by the person standing in my cabin. One I recognize, albeit dimly.

I don’t say a word. Just close the door behind me, and sigh. “So, I guess those rumors about Roberts being associated with the Revolutionaries are true, then,” I say. “You here to kill me, or just make some threats? Maybe try to bribe me into turning my coat?” I grin. “Might find that harder than you think...Koala.”

The orange-haired Revolutionary doesn’t even flinch. “Roberts can claim what he likes. But he isn’t part of us. The men he sends to his mines are practically slaves,” she says flatly, folding her arms. She’s dressed like anyone else on the Archipelago, favoring heavy furs and one of those hats that makes me want to alternately laugh and start saying things in bad Russian. “No. I’m here because of Kuma.”

Oh, great.

“This is gonna end with me getting knocked unconscious and delivered to Baltigo, isn’t it?”

“Yep,” she says, far too cheerily.

“And it’ll happen without anyone even noticing I was gone, and I have absolutely no choice in the matter, am I right?”

Her grin widening by a couple molars is all the answer I need.

“Well then, fuck y-”



Chapter Text

“Okay, knocking me out, I can understand. But how’d you manage to do it in such a way that I woke up perfectly on time?” I ask with curiosity as I sit back in one of the chairs in the...very white room I’d woken up in.

“You know, most people are more annoyed when I do this,” Koala remarks.

I shrug. “You can’t do any permanent damage to me.”

“That a challenge?”

I let my eyes flick to black. “An observation,” I say with a smile. “Nothing else.”

She takes a step back, then chuckles. “Well, at least Kuma was right about what you were.”

“And it doesn’t bother you?”

“Don’t get any ideas, cannibal,” she says, a bit more frostily. “You’ve got information Kuma thought was good enough to risk breaking cover for and sending Dragon into a tizzy about. But you’re still a pirate, and with enough of a body count to prove exactly why the Marines aren’t always assholes.”

I lean back, changing my eyes back to normal. “Got no choice in my diet, and given time I’m half-certain my captain will find a way around it. Rest of the body count...don’t tell me your hands are clean,” I add, coldly.

Okay, now she looks like she wants to tear me a new one, visibly restraining herself. I just grin.

Again, Fishman Karate or no Fishman Karate, I’ll heal.

...eventually.

I stop grinning as the door opens.

Monkey D. Dragon, looking as though he’s been carved out of stone, glaring at me, is not something that deserves any degree of levity.

Riiiight. Because while the Straw Hats might’ve been close enough that Dragon knew they were good people, I’m on the opposite end, as Koala’s already reminded me. And I’ve poked one of their most important assets.

Alright, Kaneki. Can’t treat this like I would anything else. Most wanted man in the world in front of me. Mask on, time to get serious.

I straighten in my seat, keeping my hands where they can see them, and nod. “What do you want to know?”

“Usually people wait for us to ask an actual question, first,” Dragon says drily.

“You haven’t killed me and you dragged my ass here for what’s obviously a round of questions. I’m a ghoul, not an idiot. So, where do I start?”

Dragon closes the door behind him. “You know who my son is.”

“And your father, and the fact that the kid has two blood brothers” I say neutrally. “Pity about the amnesia, but I can’t help but find it funny that he ended up as Chief of Staff and the entire time you’ve had no idea about him, Luffy, and Ace.”

“Explain. Now,” Dragon says flatly.

“They swore an oath to be blood brothers. Luffy and Ace never saw you rescue Sabo, and Sabo’s amnesia made it so he wouldn’t remember. Fuck, they’re probably both near Alabasta right now, send someone to tell them and you’ll get all the proof you need.”

I can’t read the man at all. Granted, social-fu isn’t my forte at all, but it’s still disconcerting to see just how good of a poker face Dragon can put on. I swallow nervously.

“How, exactly, can you know all this?”

“I saw it happen.” True, in a manner of speaking.

“And Kuma? I doubt you somehow snuck your way into Vegapunk’s laboratories undetected. And your...assertion, about the Empty Throne.”

“The creature that sits there is named Im. And I didn’t need to sneak anywhere. ” Fuck it, let’s do this. “Consider this: what happens when you read a work of fiction? Does the world in those pages cease to exist beyond the book? Is it ink and paper, written down by the dreams of an author? Or is it a reality in and of itself?”

“You are seriously claiming that-”

“Koala,” I say flatly, cutting off Dragon. “Slavery under the Celestial Dragons as a child, rescued by Fisher Tiger, the first human given the Sun Pirates brand, her village betrayed Tiger for her freedom and in the resulting clash the fishman was mortally wounded. The story goes that no human gave him blood...but I know that he really had, through no fault of his own, grown to hate humans so much he couldn’t stand having their blood within him. Tequila Wolf, the seven-hundred-year-old bridge across islands that has been built by convicts and slave labor. The seven levels of Impel Down, five well-known, one hidden, and one secret to the wardens and the public alike, with Ivankov leading it. Kuma, slowly being converted into a machine of war for a purpose even I don’t quite get yet, a deal with the Marines and a double-agent for your cause within the Seven Warlords. And I know how you met Luffy in Loguetown. Stopped Smoker from arresting him. How could I know that when I was in the South Blue the whole time...unless what I say is true? I’ve no Devil Fruit, and none of my crewmates have one that could allow them to peer across the world and through time itself ...but a story, a story is a simpler thing to remember.”

Koala’s gone pale. Dragon looks as impassive as ever, staring down at me.

“Tell me everything,” he commands.

I do.

 

----

 

Kaneki looked like shit. Again.

His first mate clearly hadn’t slept, deep bags present under his eyes. More obvious than even that was the fact he apparently wasn’t awake enough to actually put on a shirt , even with the cold, only wearing his black jacket and leaving the horrifying brand on his entire torso clearly visible.

Ah, well. If he got frostbite, it’s not like it’d actually slow him down. And Vinci had more pressing concerns. Concerns for which having a Kaneki who looked hungover and ready to murder whoever disturbed his consumption of his oversized mug of coffee would be rather helpful.

Grenzer and his band of mercenaries had left a skeleton crew on their behemoth of a vessel, taking up quarters in the Ducal Palace instead.

All that really entailed was that the door he kicked open didn’t immediately shatter. It did, however, slam back on its hinges with a satisfying crash.

Grenzer's bureaucrat looked up from his desk. “Ah,” he said blandly. “Is there a problem?”

“Yep,” Vinci said, equally mildly. “You mind getting your boss out here?”

Kaneki took a very long, very loud sip of his coffee as the bureaucrat stood up and vanished into a back room. Grenzer came out moments later. The man looked as though he’d gotten even less sleep than Kaneki. Good.

“Grenzer.” His voice was as cold as ice.

“Vinci.”

“Explain these fucking orders you decided to hand down, now.”

“It’s meant to-”

“It’s meant to split my crew up and put me on the back line managing a fucking field hospital , is what. You’re putting my men and women under the control of other captains. I want a damn explanation, and if it’s sound, I might decide not to use you as a new test subject.

Grenzer took a deep breath as Vinci glared, the beat of the King’s Heart reverberating in his ears. If he could cause men to spontaneously combust with mere glaring…

He felt something shift in his eyes, and pushed back against it, suppressing the change. It wouldn’t do to actually kill the man, they still needed someone to plan things.

Honestly, he was already discarding the half-formed plan to betray the Doge and loot them all to the bedrock. For one, Roberts, just cause or not (and the bits of information he could get pointed firmly to the ‘no’), was sure to be crushed horribly the moment the World Government took an interest. For a second, he’d lost two crewmen to that pirate captain’s attack, both eviscerated by the man's hair in his initial attack. Blood had to be answered with blood, and Roberts’s dread pirates would bleed aplenty.

“Your crew being split up is not an insult,” Grenzer began cautiously. Vinci bit back a retort, but let him keep talking. For all the simmering anger, he was genuinely interested in the man's reasoning.

“It's because you're an anomaly. Most crews on the Line have a decently strong captain and some barely-competent officers, with everyone else being little more than warm bodies. All the other crews here, excluding my own, have that makeup. Yours...hrm. You have strong officers and men who are actually rather capable in a fight, even if they lack for experience.. I cannot divide my own soldiers- we have to remain concentrated to counter the Kriegers and their numbers. Your men, on the other hand, can be used to stiffen the other crews. And as for your placement in the field hospitals...the Poison Fangs and the Kriegers alike make a habit of attacking places like those. If you're close enough to respond, you can either slaughter or delay them as needed. And your medical expertise is going to be needed more than combat ability in the early stages. Once we draw out the enemy leaders...then, your crew will be needed as a strike force.”

Vinci narrowed his eyes. “Acceptable,” he said flatly. “But don't try to take over control of my own crew again, Grenzer. And you had best be right about those hospital attacks.”

“Eager for a fight?”

Vinci grinned. “More the possibility of getting a new Zoan on my operating table, and one I don't have to worry about keeping alive.”

A bit of a lie, given that Herman was refusing to volunteer for experimentation after the debacle with Lauren's hallucinogens. But he was hoping to probe the limits of that Fruit class's legendary durability if he got the chance.

“I...see. Are there any other concerns?”

“Well, we don't have to worry about the Revolutionary Army sticking their heads in,” Kaneki said. “They don't like Roberts any more than we do.”

“And you know this how?” Grenzer asked, mirroring Vinci's own unspoken question.

Kaneki smiled thinly. “Got my own sources. And this.” He tossed a scroll to Grenzer, who opened it. “Apparently this-  by which I mean, some jagoff trying to use their name to make their enemies more wary of them- happens often enough they made a form letter for it,” Kaneki said, grin widening.

Grenzer closed the scroll abruptly. “Well, then. I think we can go on the offensive shortly. Captain Vinci, will you disperse your men as requested?”

Vinci nodded, and walked out quickly, letting Kaneki follow.

He had more questions for his first mate, but this wasn't the place for them.

 

Chapter Text

“You’re our reinforcements?” Clare asked skeptically, looking the group of a dozen over from her position against the Grandfather’s rail. Their leader looked almost literally dead on his feet, carrying a pair of tonfas and wearing a headband proudly emblazoned with the Nightmare Jolly Roger. “You don't look like a pack of heavyweights.”

“And you don't look like a cast-iron bitch, and yet here we are,” the Nightmare said in an utterly deadpan tone.

Despite herself, Clare smiled slightly. Little guy had spine.

“It's bronze, actually,” she said lightly. “Still, you lot aren't going to be a problem, right?”

“No,” the Nightmare said flatly. “You have a plan, right?

“That's Captain Doppel's job, but yes, we have a plan.”

“Where is he, anyway?”

Clare chuckled. “Sleeping off last night's hangover. And on that note, give me a minute, I'll wake him up.”

It was very simple to manifest a piece of clockwork- a gear, appropriately- in her hand, pushing it free of her palm. Simpler still to hurl it at the bell mounted over the forecastle, eliciting a loud, ringing toll . None of the other Gears even looked up as the door just below that below slammed open and Quare Doppel walked out, tuning fork in hand. He glared at her.

Heh. Still hungover, obviously. Clare gave him a sunny smile he obviously wouldn’t see behind her layer of armor, and waved her hand down in the direction of the Nightmare group. “Look, Captain. That creepy bastard’s as good as his word.”

“You mean Grenzer or our captain?” the Nightmare growled.

“What would you do if I meant the second?” she asked.

The Nightmare shrugged. “Eh. Probably buy you a drink, seeing as how you’re a woman and somehow still have balls the size of your head.”

The captain laughed. “So I guess this means we’re going to start the fight now?” he called. “Fuck it!” He thumped the butt of his fork on the deck, sending a familiar reverberation through the hull of the Grandfather. “Get up, you lazy bastards! We’ve got a war to fight!”

 

----

 

“You know the plan?” Knutte asked long, dark, and ugly- aka the Nightmare navigator, who’d shown up with twenty equally hard-faced assholes.

The big man grinned, baring elongated canines. “Go over the bridge, kill anyone trying to fight us, and keep going as long as we can?”

Knutte laughed. “There ya go!” He turned to the rest of his crew, the two hundred fighting men and women who’d come through storm and ruin and fucking Warlords with him, and raised his axe. “BOYS!” he shouted. “IT’S TIME TO RAISE HELL! WE’RE GOING TO GO FIND THAT PANSY-ASS BUSINESSMAN AND FEED HIM HIS EYEBALLS!”

Judging from the roar of approval, they quite liked the idea. He spread his arms and smiled, taking it in, before turning back to the Nightmares. “Hope you lot can keep up.”

“Oh, that we can, old man,” the man in black said. Knutte sniffed the air, and smiled at what he found. Another Zoan, huh? Fella was big enough even without being in hybrid form, but no matter. He locked eyes with the Nightmare. “Race ya there, then, pup.”

 

----

 

The girl and her coterie had slipped in among his own crew smooth as silk, joining Skantarios as they followed the loping charge of the Steel Shields from the safety of the rooftops.

He had no desire to get caught up in that soon-to-be-ship-wreck, thank you very much. Let the barbarians charge headlong into the fight- it would give him and his room to slip by and strike from a safe distance, as they always did. Getting across the bridge would be difficult...probably best to halt there until the Steel Shields had punched through.

He landed on another rooftop, noting idly that the girl had caught up to him. She seemed to want to get his attention- best to watch her.

“You Skantarios?” she said as she continued running. “All of you guys look kinda alike.”

“Yes,” he said flatly as he leapt off the edge and over the street.

“Good. Supposed to give you this.”

He caught the package- a large bundle of tubes tied together- with ease, and examined it briefly as he kept moving.

Flares. Hm.

“Signals?” he asked, keeping his words clipped. Sharp and crisp, not the half-there accent that would mark out what he was. There was no room for weakness to be shown, not ever.

The girl grinned. “Yup. Grenzer and his overgrown tub’ll provide fire support. Light one and toss it, the red smoke’ll let them know what needs flattening.”

Acceptable. And more help than he had been anticipating from the mercenaries. They seemed to be more likely to wait and strike...which was exactly what he preferred, so he could not exactly fault them. Still, it was different when he was the one who was being left out to dry.

He nodded. “Useful.”

“Damn right.”

He halted on the edge of the last rooftop, staring towards the bridge. The structure was an immense thing of stone and metal, rimed with ice and the remnants of snow from two nights past. There had been mists earlier, but the sun had cleared that away, and the distant buildings on the other side of the seawater river were visible. More than that, he could see moving shapes, people forming into ranks as they responded to what was obviously an oncoming attack.

He unlimbered his longbow, stringing it in one smooth motion. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the girl slowly pull free an immense rifle. She was hesitant...why?

Had the Nightmares sent an unblooded girl? Hmph. Or one with the restraint of a moral compa- ha, no, not in that crew.

It didn’t matter.

The Steel Shields were on the bridge, pounding forwards. He couldn’t hear the gunshots, if they were there, but nobody was falling, the range was too great.

It would be best to reduce the rebels before the Shields could start taking losses. The more bodies between him and the actual fighting, the better.

He pulled an arrow from his belt quiver. Checked it. Straight shaft, fletchings perfect. He nocked, and drew, pulling back on the string until the fletchings tickled his cheek inside his hood.

He drew on his power, holding it within the arrow. Loosed.

“Hundredfold,” he said simply.

His will was done. One arrow became a hundred, descending on the enemy positions. The ranks shivered and broke, lines shaking apart as the wounded fell. They’d reform, but not before-

One of the barricades exploded, a silent fireball rising from where there’d been a cannon. He turned, looking at the girl, whose rifle smoked.

He nodded. At least she’d found some spine.

Then he turned back, drawing another arrow.

There was much more work to be done.

 

----

 

Tristo yawned, earning him a dirty look from Amico. “What?” he said defensively. “It’s not like we’re going to have to get our own hands dirty. We’ve got meatshields for that.”

“I’m standing right here, you know,” the Nightmare first mate said. His little gang of masked hooligans- including the creepy suited guy who’d reportedly eaten a quarter of the Black Beard crew- glared at Tristo, who chuckled around his cigar.

“Yeah, I know it. But you guys are brawlers, not ranged fighters like me and little bro here. And even if you don’t have to jump between the two of us and the bullets, we’ve got a hundred other troopers ahead of ya. And ahead of them , whatever the Gears and mercs have going. Isn’t like we’ve got a lot to worry about.”

The Butcher Bird’s eyes narrowed behind the lenses of his mask, and he nodded sharply. “Fair. Still, ain’t going to be a cakewalk...not if they’re smart. Urban fighting is gonna be ugly.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Tristo exhaled as he walked, sending smoke drifting. “It’s a pity. They used to be friends, you know?”

“Who?”

“The Doge and Roberts.”

“You’re joking.”

“Nah. Real close, those two. Hell, me and bro handled dirty work for Roberts a couple times.”

“Tristo…” Amico said warningly, using his ludicrous height to glare down at him.

“Hey, what’s big, tall, and bearded gonna do? Have me killed? We’re the ones who do that.”

“He could have us do it,” the skull-masked Nightmare said cheerfully.

“You’d be in for a bad time if you tried, kid,” Tristo said gravely. “But yeah, they were close. Me? I figure they were lovers.”

The Nightmare first mate sputtered, before starting to laugh. “You’re a real comedian, ain’tcha,” he said as they kept walking ahead of the detachment of Ducal Guard.

“I’m serious. Think about it...they were real close before, then suddenly they’re both at each other’s throats. Like boom. ” He snapped his fingers. “Then a couple weeks later Roberts starts planning to kill the Doge, right after the Doge raises taxes on the mines he owns? If that isn’t two lovers having an escalatin’ spat I don’t know what is.”

“...you’re full of shit,” the Butcher Bird said.

Tristo grinned, and tipped the brim of his blue fedora. “Find out for yourself, birdy.”

“We gonna actually get to the fighting today , boss?” one of the Nightmares wearing a gas mask asked. As if to punctuate the guy’s complaint, one of the giant hounds the pirates had brought with them barked.

“Day’s still young,” the Butcher Bird said. He looked at Tristo. “You want to come along as we scout ahead?”

Tristo shook his head. “Nah. Too much effort. But if you guys could herd them towards us when you run into the enemy, that’d be great.”

The Nightmare snorted. “Figures.” Red tentacles erupted from his back, and he leapt forward, vanishing into the distance. The other Nightmares, including the hounds, did the same, though without the addition of horrifying appendages.

Tristo watched them go impassively.

 

----

 

This place had probably been a public park at some point, though what a place like the Archipelago would do with a public park baffled Vinci. It wasn’t as though the climate allowed much plant life to grow. And yet there’d been a park, positioned just so so that the distance between it and the bridges that the crews and soldiers were crossing was about even for both sides. Perfect for a field hospital.

So now the park’s grassy hills and small, hardy clusters of trees were obscured by the white fabric of tents and the bulky crates of medical supplies.

Vinci looked over what he had to work with. It wasn’t the supplies that concerned him- even with the thousands of soldiers that were going to be going to war on both sides, they had plenty- it was the doctors.

His own were decently trained. Four men: Oyeplet Akis, Cannule Salk, Sereptal Blackwell, and Crate Escobar. He could trust them to handle anything up to and including major surgery. Nothing like bleeding-edge biological sciences, but they’d keep people alive even if they weren’t innovators.

Next on that were a couple of Palace doctors. Pricks. They were competent, if barely, but they didn’t seem cooperative. Still, he’d just had to glare at them to get them to fall in line, and it seemed to be working.

After that…

The Steel Shields had donated some ancient hag named Seida Laveau. He half expected her to try shaking a stick full of beads over someone or some other sort of ‘magic’ rather than actual medical science, but the North Blue crew had apparently thought her quite helpful, so he supposed she had to be doing something right. He’d have to see her work to judge for himself.

The Gears doctor was currently thirty percent ethyl alcohol by volume and apparently was given to performing surgery while drunk. Vinci had taken one look at the man and ordered a couple of handy Ducal Guard to dunk him in a well until he sobered up, and hadn’t gotten his name- though the dire imprecations he shouted every few moments meant he was still in the process of being recombobulated.

The Ranger Pirates had given him someone who’d shown up dressed as a medieval plague doctor. That creepy bastard hadn’t said a word yet, and was currently giving the Ducal Guard who were setting up the tents a major case of the heebie-jeebies by just...standing there while they worked. He honestly hoped the man was competent and wouldn’t use a technique that matched the date of his clothing. He had no desire to find patients being bled to balance their humours or some other nonsense.

This was what he had to treat the casualties of a major war.

It was enough to set his eyes to itching and cause a headache behind said organs as well.

Well, to hell with it. Shortage of competent personnel or not, he’d fulfill the oaths he’d taken and heal everyone who came in need of it.

Even if he had to push himself beyond human limits to do so, nobody would die on his watch. Nobody.

Chapter Text

Doppel was enjoying himself.

That would be normal in most other circumstances, but here, as gunfire and the sounds of clashing blades filled the air, it was a strange thing.

He laughed as he ran forward, a leap carrying him over the scrum between his own men and the ragged rebels, landing lightly on the barrel of a cannon that had been mounted on one of their makeshift barricades. The gun crew, men wearing the emblems of the Black Beards- hadn't the Nightmares killed most of them?- looked up in horror.

Doppel smiled, knowing it would be the only thing visible in the shadows cast by his wide-brimmed hat, and tapped the butt of his tuning fork against the cannon. “Morning, gentlemen. Steel Canon.

The cannon rang, and the barrel cracked as the gun crew screamed in pain, bleeding from eyes and ears. As they stumbled back, Doppel’s smile widened, and he unsheathed his sword. The gun crew died before the other soldiers on the barricade could reach them, but those soldiers kept coming, waving all manner of disconcerting implements. He swept the tuning fork forwards.

“Heaven’s Canon.”

The blast of vibrating air tossed them aside like chaff.

Doppel grimaced and dug a finger in his ear. Had he screwed up that blast? He couldn’t hear the battle anym-

No, wait, that was because all the rebels on the barricades, and in front of them, were dead. His mistake.

The Nightmares mixed in with his crew were already looting the dead, while their leader cleaned the blood off his tonfas.

Jackals, the lot of them.

The least they could do was let his boys have first pick, after all.

“Alright!” he shouted, grabbing the attention of his crew. “No time to stop, boys. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, and I have a feeling we’ve just kicked the hornet’s nest. Let’s keep moving!” He turned back around, checking the streets. Four roads- three deeper into the city, a fourth parallel to the river. Great. “First and Second Divisions, hold the road and the bridge here. Third, left, I’m with you. Fourth, Clare, center road. Nightmares, you’ve got the right. Let’s go!”

Clare sketched a salute with the ornate, oversized clock hand she carried, and trotted off, followed by thirty of his crew. Another thirty followed Doppel as the remaining sixty spread out along the road.

Did he feel all that bad about sending the Nightmares off alone?

Not really. They weren’t his crew, and if they felt obligated to walk around like hardasses, they’d better be prepared to prove it.

 

----

 

Knutte snarled in frustration as his men scrambled for whatever cover they could find, bullets whipping through the air. The bastards had set up a gun position at the end of the street, and everything else in this direction was blocked off by rubble and barricades. A killing ground, and one he had little choice but to push through.

“Fucking rebel shitheads!” he shouted, before jerking his head back behind the dubious safety of a storefront. Muttering curses, he dug a transponder snail out of his pocket.

“Nightmare! Where are your boys?”

“Pinned down behind you. Why?”

“I’m gonna draw their fire. Can you take out that gun?”

There was a moment’s silence.

“Yeah.”

Knutte nodded, and drew on his power. His body swelled and hardened, plates of armor-like hide covering his body. Claws sprouted from his fingertips and toes, and he hunched forwards as his spine reshaped itself. He smiled, displaying rows of tombstone-like teeth, and fell to all fours.

Bullets skipped off his head and shoulders, deflecting or flattening against the hide that had given him his nickname. It didn’t even hurt, and Knutte kept advancing. His vision was poor in this state, but he could still make out the rebel position at the end of the street, if only because it was hard to miss the constant muzzle flashes of their gatling gun and the rifle teams manning the barricade next to them.

There was a brief moment of pressure as someone grabbed ahold of the hide near his hips, pressure that vanished almost instantly.

“White Fang!”

The gatling gun- and most of the barricade around it- vanished as a blade of air crushed it with all the delicacy of a particularly large hammer.

The Nightmare navigator landed in front of Knutte, sword in hand, and loped forwards as the Steel Shields and other Nightmares poured out of their cover, taking advantage of the sudden disarray of their enemies. A hail of bullets forced the rebels to huddle behind their barricades as his crew advanced, carrying swords and the shields they’d taken their name from.

They might not have been the best shots, but damn if his boys couldn’t lay down the hurt in close combat.

He shrank back down as he turned back to human form, vision sharpening again. The Nightmare navigator gave him a strange look. “What?” Knutte growled.

“Armadillo Zoan?” the navigator asked. “Hadn’t expected that.”

“What the hell did you expect?”

“Honestly? Bear Zoan.”

Knutte gave him the finger, and looked towards the fighting, which was dying down rapidly as several of the rebels ran rather than face his crew.

It begged a question. Where the hell were the enemy crews? This lot was mostly miners and ex-civilians, not pirates. Where had they-

Thump-thump thump-thump .

He dove for cover as the shrieking wail of incoming mortar rounds filled his ears. Explosions began to rain down around him, and he hugged the wall of the nearest shop, cursing under his breath as the sound of his men running- and dying- began to filter under the hell that was being unleashed.

He was going to find the bastards who were doing this and tear them apart, he swore.

 

----

 

The first notice they got of the sniper was when one of the Tercio merc’s heads turned into vapor.

Jack wasn’t a fool- he grabbed the nearest members of his crew and yanked them into the nearest alley, hoping the others would take the hint.

The Tercios broke almost instantly, the black-and-yellow-wearing mercenaries spreading out into the alleyways, and the sniper’s rifle cracked twice more. Jack counted heads. Eleven, twelve, thirteen...phew. Hadn’t lost anyone yet. Now where the hell were those shots coming from?

Another rifle cracked- this one a deeper sound, clearly a heavier caliber- and one of the Tercio commanders- the one who dressed as though he was on vacation- stepped out into the street, carrying said rifle. “Get your butts in gear, people!” he shouted. “Not going to be the first time one of these bastards shows up. Next time, shoot them!”

Well, he and his weren’t going to, that was for sure. He preferred living, and having a hole in his brain was not conducive to that.

He needed to stop hanging around the captain so much. If he wasn’t careful, he’d end up cackling and waving a scalpel around while talking about science in words that had more syllables than a centipede had legs.

Right. Back to the war. He looked over his men, then glanced up. Fuck, he hated fighting on roofs. But if there were more snipers- and there definitely were- it was the best way to avoid being seen. With the amount of attention the mercs on the ground were attracting, nobody would notice an attack from above.

“Rooftops,” he said flatly, before jumping up- and kicking off the air again, propelling himself still higher. The others followed, the few who hadn’t gotten the hang of Moon Walk being carried by those who were skilled with it.

“We’re going to move fast,” he said quickly. “Stay out of sight, let the Tercios move in first, but when the enemy shows up, hit them as hard as you can and keep them from killing our allies. Get me?”

Nods all around.

Jack hefted his hammer.

It looked like he was going to have to work after all. What a shame. He’d hoped being attached to the Tercios would mean back-line duties.

 

----

 

It was quiet.

Which it most certainly shouldn’t have been, because a quarter of the Gear Pirates and the entire Fourth Company of the Tercio mercs had been pushing through here, and the sounds of battle should’ve been audible still.

But except for the dead bodies in the streets- mostly rebels and Black Beard crew, though there were many Tercios and a few Gears- there wasn’t a single damn sign of the enemy.

It made Eka nervous. And the Boss too, judging by how he was practically stalking down the street. Even C had picked up on it, the kid fingering one of the many short throwing knives he carried and walking with his head on a swivel.

Spread out and watch the rooftops , Eka signalled to the others with his hands.

Sixty-three molluscs atop a shell pie, Percy signed back. Eka restrained a sigh. And here he’d thought that they’d gotten the hand of the thieves’ cant.

Well, it appeared they’d gotten the gist anyway. The Oni surrounded the Boss and C, a loose web of bodyguards that covered every sightline.

The sounds of their boots echoed off the empty and frozen streets.



Chapter Text

There was a reason Grenzer preferred fighting to sitting back and running the battle.

“First and Second are holding their ground, but the rebels are pushing back hard!”

“Gods damn it, where the hell is our fire support? I need those mortars gone!”

“Fishmen have breached the ice near Fifth Company! They’re taking heavy losses!”

“They’ve mined the approaches to the main factories. We’re pulling back. We’re not getting paid to die like rats.”

“Has anyone heard where Fourth went?”

The noise.

A dozen men trying to handle communications from just as many transponder snails made for a racket that sent a headache ringing in his brain and made him grit his teeth in frustration.

He glared at the map and its markers.

The Rangers and Steel Shields, with some of the Ducal Guard backing them up, had pushed onto their island, Cherny Dym, but had gotten bogged down in a morass of traps and artillery fire. The Ducal forces, faced with what the few confused reports had indicated were the Poison Fangs and their captain, were retreating, and unless he ordered a withdrawal, the other pirate crews would be surrounded in short order.

Zelenyy, the other rebel island, was little better. The Gears had cracked the initial rebel defenses but the city streets had forced them to separate, and from what he could tell two of their groups had vanished outright. His own men were bleeding and dying as the enemy crews struck from the shadows- or, in the rebel’s case, with human waves.

And his Fourth Company had outright vanished.

And there was still no sign of the Kriegers.

Another snail rang, and Grenzer bit back the age-old urge to glare at the damn thing, before picking it up.

The snail visibly cringed before shifting into the masked visage of that horrifying cannibal the Nightmares had. The second one, not the Butcher Bird.

God, he hated that he had to clarify that.

“What?”

“Well, we found your guys. And the Gear people,” the creepy bastard said.

“And?” Grenzer growled.

“Well, they’re asleep. I think. Mostly. Might be some are dead. Don’t see your officer person, though.”

There was a wet and extremely unpleasant sound.

“Oh! I found him. Is he supposed to be trying to kill us?”

Grenzer’s eye twitched violently.

Then he took a deep breath. “Try not to kill him. If he’s a traitor, I need him alive. If he is controlled by someone else, I would rather he not be dead for something not his fault.”

The snail frowned. “Aw. I thought I could eat him. Okay, old guy, sure.” There was another unpleasant noise. “Hey! Unfashionably dressed guy! I have to beat you unconscious! Come back here!”

The snail clicked and returned to normalcy.

Grenzer took a deep breath, and counted to ten.

Then he picked up another snail.

“Yeah?” the elder and shorter of the Doge’s assassins drawled.

“Change of plans,” Grenzer said shortly. “Move your soldiers to support the Steel Shields. They desperately need the backup.”

“You sure your boys can handle things yourselves?”

“We’ll hold without your help. They won’t.”

“Alrighty then. Amico! We’re gonna go kill some people on the other island instead.”

It took all of Grenzer’s self-control not to bury his face in his hands. Instead, he shut the snail off, and glared at the various people in the room with him, before pointing at Gabriel. The excessively dangerous bureaucrat straightened. “Sir?”

“Make sure everything’s set into place, and prepare to pull our people back across the bridges when I give the word,” he said.

“Yes, sir. Where are you going?”

“Where do you think, pup? The front lines.”

Grenzer strode out, cracking his knuckles as he went.

Fifth Company first. The fishmen were the largest threat for the moment.

 

----

 

“And what have we learned today?” I ask.

“Not to run ahead of the group,” C responds, pulling a knife with a corkscrew-shaped blade out of his rib cage with a grunt.

“How the hell did he even get ahead of us? I took my eyes off him for two seconds!” Eka grumbles.

I shrug. “It’s C. Last time he went somewhere he found a Warlord.”

“I liked him. He seemed polite. Except for when he punched you into those buildings.”

“Riiiight.”

“Um...Boss? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with all...this?” Eka asks, waving a hand at the street that is quite literally filled with slumbering bodies, both Gears and Tercio mercs.

I shrug. “C, did you try waking them up?”

“Well, I tried doing what Jack does when someone oversleeps on the ship.”

“Screaming in their ears?”

“Yup. Didn’t work. And then that rainbow guy came and tried to kill me. Then he ran away again.”

I resist the urge to pinch the bridge of my nose- the mask would just get in the way. Instead I just crack my knuckles. “Right. Let’s go find the bastard.”

“Uh, Boss.”

I look at where Eka’s pointing, at the three figures outlined against the clear sky.

On the left, Foglio Clare in her armor. On the right, Maurice, still dressed as garishly as ever.

In the center...some asshole in black cloak with a tricorn of the same color clapped on his head, holding a flute.

“Hey!” I shout. “What fucking gives? We’re on the same side, you pricks!”

The asshole in the middle actually giggles. “They can’t hear you, you know,” he says. “They’ll only hear me.”

Okay...creepy motherfucker. Probably controlling these guys. “And who the hell are you?” I ask.

“I am Pied Yugendo, second mate of the Black Beard Pirates. It is quite fortuitous we have met here, cannibals.” He smiles. “It will be interesting to watch your own crew be forced to tear you apart.”

Nope! Not dealing with that. “Riiiiight. You die now.”

I start to run forwards, tails bursting free. Yugendo simply raises his flute to his lips, and starts to play. Does he think it’ll help...him…

God, I’m tired…

Heh, C and the others seem to be, too…

Could just, lie down, right here…there’s a nice lullaby in…

What the hell am I thinking? I’m in combat!

I slam a hand into the cobblestones, the spike of pain driving away the clouds filling my head, and push myself up onto my knees, glaring at Yugendo, who is still playing the damn lullaby. I can practically feel the music, trying to worm into my ears.

“Surprised?” Yugendo asks, somehow still playing at the same time. “Ah, well. You can’t resist forever.”

I grin, and slide my trench spike out of its sheath, getting to my feet and staggering forwards. I feel drunk, my limbs not responding properly, weighed down and too light at the same time.

“Do you really think you can reach me before you fall asleep? You can’t inflict enough pain on yourself to keep out my song.”

“It’s not for you,” I grit out, raising the spike, point downward.

This is gonna suck…

“What are you-”

Any other injury, I’d ignore it. Pain is easy to push away, after all.

But now I need pain, to use it as an anchor. And so the white-hot agony where I stab into my body with my own weapon nearly drives the breath out of my lungs.

I stand, and cough, spattering blood on the ground, before baring my teeth at Yugendo and his puppets.

Six tails streak across the battlefield, finding the Oni where they slumber and flicking the toggles on their masks.

The shouts of maddened rage make my smile widen as Yugendo visibly pales, stopping his lullaby. The man takes a step back as I take one forwards, before raising the flute to his lips again and playing a single, sharp note. His puppets- not friends, not allies, can’t think of them as such, can’t afford to be soft - blur into motion.

 

----

 

It was different, this time.

The last time they’d fought under the influence of the drug, from what little Eka could remember, it had been a barely-coherent mess of rage and violence. He’d forgotten everything, turned into an animal, the only thing keeping him from turning on the crew the bare traces of the Boss’s scent that they had.

This time...this time, it was almost as though he was outside of his body, watching the thing fight.

Six of them, moving as one, a pack that seemed to share a single mind. They moved so quickly the world seemed to proceed in slow motion, and their footsteps broke the cobblestones underneath their feet.

And yet they were still losing .

Maurice had never taken part in the training spars that the Boss and the Captain had set up between the crews. They’d had no idea what he was capable of, only the fact that he was worth forty-one million berries. Apparently, what the second-highest Tercio bounty was capable of was becoming a whirling dervish of knives that would have killed or incapacitated all of them in the first few seconds if it hadn’t been for their regeneration. Not a Devil Fruit power, but just an endless number of maiming blades produced from under the riot of colorful clothing the man wore.

Why did he keep ending up fighting those sorts of people? First Kan-edgy, and now their own puppeted ally.

Eka’s body leapt forward, dao cleaving downwards, while Chandos launched himself towards the merc from the other side, his own longsword swinging. Maurice twisted, the latest of his knives deflecting Eka’s dao almost contemptuously to the side as he dodged Chandos’s attack at the same time, popping up on one leg to spin and send his heel into the man’s nose with a sickening crack. Chandos went flying back, and Maurice turned to Eka, a second knife joining the rain of blows he hammered down on his guard. It was only the intervention of Tina, coming in low with her longaxe from Eka’s right, that forced the Company Commander back and let Eka take a moment to breath and let the few cuts he hadn’t been able to block heal. In those few precious seconds, he looked over the wider battlefield. Chandos was pulling himself out of what had probably been a storefront six hurtling Oni impacts ago, mustache bristling above his mask and his breath steaming redly in the air. Pamca had replaced Tina, who was falling back with what looked like a slashed tendon. Percy was helping him, the prizefighter worming his way in close as best he could while Pamca attacked wildly. Dui was pulling himself up from his own landing spot (where he’d been left after Maurice had cut up his belly) and looked angry. Eka didn’t even need to nod to him- the moment Pamca staggered back, fingers holding a spurting artery closed, he leapt back into the fight.

C was still asleep. Someone had shoved him into a corner at some point- probably Percy, honestly, the guy could be incredibly soft-hearted for a pirate- and he was safe for now. And the Boss…

“FOR FUCK’S SAKE COME AND FIGHT ME YOU UGLY BOATRAG!”

The Boss was rapidly becoming annoyed as the Gear’s first mate proved to be oddly effective at imitating him, the six clockwork limbs springing from her back proving just as fast and lethal as the Boss’s own, leaving the two of them in a stalemate as he tried to knock her out without killing her and she tried to turn him into a modern art project.

No time to help him. Percy was flat on his back, clutching at the knife in his chest, and Eka needed to hit Maurice hard before he did something permanent to his buddy.

 

----



Chapter Text

“My liege, is this entirely necessary?”

Doge Alexandrinov XIX looked down at his Chief of Staff, staring through the bars of his helmet. “I am not a strategist, general. Nor am I a monster in combat, like so many of those in my employ. But I am still ruler of this Archipelago, and I will not cower behind the walls of this palace while other men fight and die for my cause.”

“But...my liege, if you fall…”

“If that happens, I have plans,” he said. Friends in the World Government, instructions on who to set to govern the islands...to prepare them for the worst, once the mines began to give out. Enough, maybe, to still allow them to pay the Heavenly Tribute, to prevent them from losing the protection of the Marines that kept the Archipelago from being nothing more than another plundered ruin.

It was ironic. He and Roberts had begun to plan together to keep that fate at bay. And yet their disagreements had brought it home all too soon.

“Still, with no heir…”

“Kazrak. I am going to fight. Now make peace with that.”

The horned man grimaced, and nodded, taking a step away from Alexandrinov’s horse. The Doge turned in his saddle, examining the lines of armored cavalry that had assembled in the palace courtyard. He drew his sword- an ancient weapon that, unlike most of the pieces his various courtiers favored, was utterly unadorned and more like a particularly ambitious machete than a blade of elegance and grace- and pointed it at the opening gates. “Men! We ride!”

The Household Guard, one hundred armored dragoons, thundered down the city streets.

 

----

 

“Black vest, two hundred meters, by the shop front.”

“See him.”

Boom.

“Down,” Pravilno said idly.

Lauren chambered another round.

Pravilno was a good spotter. Surprisingly. He’d seemed too loose to have the right focus.

Herself...she was cold as ice. She couldn’t afford not to be.

“Red cap, one fifty meters, back by the gun crew.”

“See him.”

Boom.

“Down.”

Had to be cold. Thinking about what was on the other end of the scope would get her killed.

“One with the bazooka and the fur hat, one seventy-five, on the barricade.”

“See him.”

Boom.

“Down.”

 

----

 

In a way, Vinci was grateful.

The field medics were the ones who did triage. Sorting out the ones who’d live first and giving them priority to be brought back.

It meant that there hadn’t been anyone who’d died on his table yet.

He tuned out the screaming, begging for their mothers, and various other horrifying noises of medicine, and focused on suturing what had been an arm and was now a stump.

Arteries closed. Wound cleaned. Bandages applied.

He stripped off a pair of gloves, pulled on a new one, and moved to the next patient, someone who’d caught the edge of an exploding shell. Basic shrapnel and burn wounds, blinded eye.

Extract shrapnel, clean, stitch the worst and apply bandaging.

Next.

Broken arm and fractured ribs. Set, painkillers, restrict patient movement.

Next.

Open pneumothorax. Occlusive dressing, chest drain.

Next.

 

----

 

“Go find those Ducal guys, Herman,” Herman said in a high-pitched tone. “I can’t seem to get a hold of them, Herman.” He swung Amakatta, tearing into another oncoming wave of rebels. The bastards just kept coming.

“No, they’re definitely not being slaughtered, Herman,” he continued. “The rebels probably won’t be led by other, very dangerous pirates, Herman.”

His free hand- furred, clawed, and large as an average man’s head- lashed out and grabbed the nearest rebel. “DOES THAT SOUND LIKE WHAT’S HAPPENING?” he roared in the man’s face.

The poor bastard fainted. Herman grunted, and hurled him into a knot of his companions. Things broke.

Where the hell was his support? He’d lost three men already- two wounded, one dead- and he didn’t want to lose more on this damn suicide mission! Hell, the way the rebels were swarming in a few moments they’d be...surrounded…

Herman gaped as a rain of flagstones, random weapons, and flailing bodies, all surrounded by a blue glow, swept down the street. He covered his head with his arms and braced for impact as the wave neared, but nothing happened. After long moments, he opened his eyes again.

The rebels- all the rebels, and the few men with snake-eye symbols that were probably more pirate mercs- were down, crushed by the debris. His men, though, were perfectly fine.

“Hey buddy, mind coming over here so I don’t have to shout?”

Herman looked down the street, to where the two familiar shapes, one long, one short, of the Boondocks Brothers loomed. “What took you fuckers so long?” he shouted back.

“You ever try to run with short legs? It isn’t exactly easy!” the midget yelled back.

“Take a rest, dogman,” the tall one said. “We’ve got this under control.”

Herman glanced at his men. Two more were wounded- severely wounded, that is, there wasn’t a one of them without some kind of gash or bruise- and the rest looked about ready to drop.

He nodded. “We’re pulling back. Let the Guard hold here.”

 

----

 

I resist the urge to snarl in rage as I smash another one of Clare’s clockwork tendrils to pieces, only for the gears and cogs to vanish and for the limb to repair itself, the remaining five lashing out to block my tails from taking advantage of the momentary opening.

I knew the name of her Fruit- the Cog-Cog Fruit. Before, during the few sparring sessions she’d attended, she’d used it to generate gears and clock hands as shields and blades, nothing more. Clearly, she’d been holding back.

One of the clockwork limbs slips through the guard on my right side, stabbing into my chest before my tails coil around it and crush it to pieces. My counterattack rends open the armor over her abdomen, and blood trickles out before being replaced by oil and coppery fluid. Within moments, the tear is patched with a filigree of churning gears.

Can’t hit her as hard as I’d like. Can’t risk killing her. Even injuring her like this is risky. I don’t know at what point she stops being able to transform or whatever else she’s doing to stay in the fight...but she has to lose stamina at some point.

The problem is, between whatever injuries she’s inflicting and the constant bleeding of my own self-inflicted gut wound...I’m starting to grow hungry.

It’s a race, between whether I can hurt her badly enough to knock her out of the fight, or whether I grow hungry enough that I won’t care about whether she stays alive or not.

Problematic.

I jump back, tails lashing out. “Breath of the Dragon!”

Clare staggers as the wind blades cut into her clockwork limbs, and I seize the opening, Shaving forwards and upwards.

Not to attack her. But to slash at Yugendo, still perched on the roof. The cloaked man dodges, but the quartet of slashes clips his shoulder, sending him tumbling down to the street below. Sadly, the bastard lands on his feet- though at least one of the legs attached to those feet bends in a direction it shouldn’t with a loud crack . He raises his flute to his lips just as Maurice slams aside both of the Oni engaging him and lunges for me instead as I fall through the air. My tails block the blades of his knives and knock him aside into the facade of a building, just before Yugendo blows a single note, low and trembling.

I see, in slow motion, as Clare stops moving mid-throw, and reverses her grip on the blade she- oh fuck no, Shave!

My tails lash out as I cannonball into Clare, smashing the clockwork limbs and the blade she’d been driving towards her own throat to pieces.

KANEKI’S WAKE-THE-HELL-UP SLAP!”

My blow dents her helm, and she twitches.

And then screams in rage before kicking me in the balls. I add it to the tally of horrifically painful injuries and don’t give her the satisfaction of reacting as she shoves me away, panting.

“What. The. Fuck!” she shouts, looking around wildly. “The fuck was- why is everyone asleep? What the fuck is going on?”

There’s a series of dull thuds behind me. I glance back. Ah, one pile of mutilated meat in a black cloak and six unconscious Oni. Carry on.

“Asshole hypnotist,” I say shortly, yanking the trench spike out of my gut. “Let’s wake up these people and get the fuck out of here.”

Her eyes harden behind her helm. “Lets.”

 

Chapter Text

Grenzer led the defense. First and Second Companies had entrenched themselves on one of the largest boulevards, a wide-open space flanked by rows of businesses and banks. It made a good killing ground, but the rebels- and the mixed-in pieces of Black Beard crewmen- didn’t seem to care if they lived or died, and a vicious melee had developed as the two sides clashed. Grenzer was holding back, waiting to confront any who broke through. It was because of this that he saw the oncoming shape of the Butcher Bird long before anyone else- the boy was taking the rooftops at speed, tendrils coiled around unconscious shapes as he ran on all fours, betraying just how inhuman he was. Behind him came the armored form of the Gears’ First Mate. Both ignored the battle below, skipping over the wavering lines of his men to approach Grenzer himself. Grenzer swallowed his annoyance at them not stopping to help, because behind them , on the streets themselves, came a hundred and twenty annoyed pirates and mercenaries, who slammed into the attacking force of rebels like a hammer from God.

The boy hit the ground in front of Grenzer, and Grenzer looked him over as he dropped the six men- all wearing masks and all covered in blood- to the ground. The boy was red from the mid-chest down, and looked gaunter than he had but a few hours ago, eyes blazing behind the lenses of his mask.

“Report.”

“Found your men. Hypnotist, second mate from the Black Beards, had them under some spell. Controlled your officer and Foglio, we had to fight them. When he was pinned, ordered them to kill themselves. Saved Foglio...by the time we could get to Spinola, he was dead. Tore the hypnotist apart ourselves.”

Grenzer did not allow himself to react. Maurice...one of his best fighters, a man who’d been something close to a son to him, dead.

He choked down that grief and let it harden. “Understood. Are you combat-capable?”

The cannibal shrugged. “Give me a moment and some rebel corpses, I'll be fine. The Oni, and Foglio, not so much.”

He nodded, and looked to where the battlefield had quieted, the Gears and the men of the Fourth Company taking up new positions and letting the battered soldiers of First and Second pull back. His eye picked out who didn’t walk away.

Near a quarter of his men were dead or wounded. And Fifth and Third Companies had been mauled even worse. Meanwhile, the rebels didn’t seem to have a limit to their numbers, only how many were willing to die at once.

He nodded again. “Take what you need. Then prepare to cover our retreat. You can handle that, yes?”

The ghoul cracked his neck. “Long as none of the enemy captains decide to show up, I’ll do that just fine.” He paused. “You sure we should fall back, though? Give up?”

“We’re barely holding as it is, and there’s traps and ambushes still behind us,” Grenzer growled. “If the Doge wants to try and hold this place, let him, but it gives us nothing if we are torn apart little by little.”

The ghoul nodded. “Understood.”

As the ghoul walked towards the bodies, Grenzer dug a snail out of his pocket. “Get me Gabriel.” The minute the connection cleared, he continued speaking. “Start pulling everyone back, both islands. Let the Ducal Guard hold their ground if they can, if not, prepare to provide covering fire for their retreat.”

“Understood,” the bureaucrat on the other end of the snail replied calmly. “The Doge is pushing forward with his personal bodyguards. He should reach your position shortly.”

“What is he- argh, fine, I’ll deal with it. Just get our men and the other crews out of here. I’ll command First, Second, and Fourth. Relay the retreat orders to everyone else.”

“Yes, Field Marshall.”

The connection clicked shut, and Grenzer returned the snail to his pocket before turning back to the soldiers. Almost three hundred men, counting the Gears.

And, judging from the oncoming hoofbeats, soon to be four hundred.

He turned back around as the Doge’s cavalry thundered up the street. They were only half the number they should’ve been- but the Doge himself was at the head. The man reined up beside Grenzer.

Hm. His horse just about put him at head height with him.

“Where’s the rest of your men, Doge?” he asked genially.

“Hunting rebels,” the Doge snarled. “You’ve been outflanked.”

“That implies we had any flanks to begin with,” Grenzer said flatly. “Every single house seems to hide one of them, and they pop up at random. Your Majesty, we need to fall back.”

“And lose everything we’ve gained?”

“When the Kriegers and the enemy leaders show their hand- and they will- we’ll lose it anyway. We gain nothing by staying here.”

“And we lose a great deal of territory and land that we will have to recapture again.”

“Not so, Your Majesty. If we cannot hold it, we’ll burn it.”

“Burn- these are my subjects, Grenzer!”

“Not anymore, Doge. First Company! Second Company! Scourge and purge, fall back by platoons! Gears, Fourth Company, pull back to the bridges and dig in! Link up with larger formations as you go!”

The front lines exploded into activity as his men, well-drilled, moved into formation. Every one of his soldiers carried the means to start fires, and all of them were experienced with the denial of enemy assets from previous campaigns...campaigns that had earned him and his men their sizeable bounties. The Gears, less used to things, took a moment to orient themselves before simply running back down the street in the general direction of the bridge.

That left the ghoul alone. The man’s tails lashed out, coiling around the broken body of a rebel and squeezing until a series of soft cracks echoed in the icy air. When the tail uncoiled, only some clothing dropped to the blood-slicked streets.

Despite all he’d seen, Grenzer found himself unable to look away as the ghoul repeated the process with a dozen corpses, gorging himself. He resolved to never let those tails touch him, or even go near him, ever again.

He turned back to the Doge. “I suggest you begin to fall back, Your Majesty. The Butcher Bird can hold the line well enough on his own.”

The Doge glared at him, but turned his horse around.

 

----

 

The Steel Shields fell back in good order, Herman would admit. He’d expected them to be more of a mob, but they were doing pretty decently as they crossed the bridge.

He crouched beside the structure, catching his breath. Running across half a damned city and back took more out of him than he’d have liked to admit. At least it took even more out of his men, so he was still better than the best their little alliance of pirates, mercenaries, and fur-hatted soldiers had to offer.

He snorted. Gunsmoke, blood, ice, and far worse scents, all of it had filled his nostrils for hours. He could barely smell anything anymore, even if he bothered to shift form. Dangerous. His senses were one of his best-

His eyes widened as his cleared nose caught an acrid scent-

Ringing in his ears.

Copper in his mouth.

Herman coughed, the convulsive motion sending blood splattering on the ground and causing dirt and gravel to dig into his back through his armor. What had…

He coughed again, and felt something scrape at his ribs. He forced his eyes open, to find a very large chunk of metal sticking out of his chest.

Well.

The metal came free easily, shrieking against the edges of the hole it had punched in his breastplate. The tip of the metal chunk was wet with blood. He ignored it, and ignored his injuries, in favor of turning over and forcing himself to his feet.

What the hell had that been?

He looked at where the bridge had been.

Had been.

Okay. That explained why there had been a chunk of shrapnel in his chest.

Most of the Steel Shields had been on that bridge.

...shit.

 

Chapter Text

Alexandrinov couldn’t sleep.

From the windows of his study he could see the sullen red glare of the fires Grenzer’s men had set as they retreated. At least it was too distant to hear the screams.

Thousands were assuredly dead.

Six hundred men and women, a third of them Steel Shields, most of the remainder Ducal Guard or Tercio mercenaries, had already joined them.

God, he hated this.

He walked over to his desk, pulling out the bottom drawer and extracting a bottle of something that was older than half the building. He rooted around, found a tumbler, and filled it to the brim. A third of it vanished in one burning swallow.

“I wouldn’t drink the rest of that. Not healthful.”

Alexandrinov set the tumbler down, not giving the man - monster - lurking in the shadows the satisfaction of knowing he’d been completely unaware of his - its - presence. The creature took a step forwards, eyes blazing.
“You’re here to kill me, I assume.”

The ghoul chuckled. “Hardly. I’d just like some answers. And my captain’s very curious about your old friendship with the asshole currently heading the rebellion.” It cocked its head. “He’s also rather annoyed that he’s treating shrapnel wounds in a quarter of our men thanks to those same rebels, so he sent me.

“I see. And my guards?”

“You yell for them, you won’t have the time to regret it. I’m near to assuming you’ve started this war to kill off us pirates, Doge. Yelling for help will only confirm it.”

Wonderful. The ghoul was paranoid as well as cannibalistic.

“Amico told you, I assume.”

“You should hire assassins who are less mouthy, Doge.”

“Clearly. So you want to know what my relationship with Roberts was?”

“That should be pretty obvious.”

“Fine. How much do you know about the Archipelago’s history? About the mines? About why it’s so cold here?”

“I know you lot mine the shit out of the place to pay your way since it’s too cold for crops. And that you love giving fancy names to a bunch of rocks.”

“Wolframite. Cinnabar. Cadmium. Witch’s Colbalt. Coal. Bronze, Red, White, Blue, and Black Spices. It didn’t always mean the ground under our feet, Yoshimura. There are texts - ancient ones - that only I had access to. And they told me what this archipelago used to be like. It’s supposed to be a Summer Island, did you know that? We grew flowers and plants, the real Five Spices. And then...then we found the first outcroppings of Bronze spice. Centuries ago. And the mines began.”

He laughed, a broken sound. “Things changed so slowly we barely even noticed...and by then, we had joined the World Government. To halt the work of the mines...we would have died, we had no other way to pay the Heavenly Tribute, and Turtle Bay was a pirate haven even then. Our people would have been slaughtered and our kingdom destroyed if not for the Marines and the promise of retribution. And so the mines continued. Smoke clouded our skies. And everything grew cold. And as the crops died it became more and more important for the mines to work, to pay the Tribute and to feed our people, and so we dug deeper and deeper still…”

He fell into his chair, running a hand along his unshaven face. “Roberts and I...we wanted to save this country. To find a way to fix things. But when I told him we needed to stop the mines...he became angry. He didn’t understand - he had the power and the wealth to hire whoever he needed, we had generations of saving to arm an army that could stop anyone who wanted to plunder us, but he was afraid. He was afraid that it wouldn’t be enough. And now he likely thinks having me dead is the only option, while he tries to find a solution that doesn’t exist.” He laughed again. “And we spend our fortunes hiring men anyway, not to protect our people but to kill each other. And all the while, our nation withers away, dying of the cold.”

The ghoul was silent, eyes blazing in the dark. Alexandrinov slugged back the remainder of his drink, and stood. “But you wouldn’t care about any of that, would you? Just like Grenzer, they’re only bodies to you. Meat. Not even for soldiering, but just...just meat.” He shoved the ghoul back. “Blood and treasure, that’s all you care about, pirate, isn’t it?”
The ghoul didn’t respond. Alexandrinov turned away from it. “If you have any faith or fear of God, end this war. God knows Grenzer won’t. The man thinks in terms of death and iron.”

“You could kill him.”

“I am not Roberts. I have no power. Grenzer would murder me.”

“So Roberts did eat a Devil Fruit.” Of course the creature’s mind went to that.

“The Rock-Rock Fruit. Yes. A gift. Back when we were merely trying to keep our miners from dying to the Witch’s Cobalt. And before you ask, no, the Boondocks Brothers are not enough to dismantle Grenzer’s mercenaries. And the pirates. They'd die, and I'd follow as whoever the Brothers left turned on me.” He held on to the edges of his desk. “So the best way - the only way - is to let him do what he likes. Let him burn and slaughter my people. Because this way...this way, the war can end, and those who survive can carry on.”

“Cold way to look at it,” the ghoul said neutrally.

“Cold’s in our bones, now, never to leave,” Alexandrinov said, straightening and turning back to the creature. “Leave. Never speak to me again. And kill all those who oppose me.”

The ghoul bowed, mockery in every motion. “As the Doge commands.”

And then it was gone, only the creak of an opened window to indicate it vanishing.

 

----

 

“One tail, two tail, three tail, four,

Blood in the air, and the smell of gore,

Hell's gate stands open, make ready your soul,

For its bloodstained servant has come for his toll,

 

One tail, two tail, three tail, four,

The devil come calling to settle the score,

Though you grovel or you cower, though you fight or you run,

You'll only die tired, when the Butcher Bird's done.”

 

For what it’s worth, it’s a pretty nice song.

Winter’s coming. Grenzer’s ordered the crews to stand down. And the Ducal Guard, too. Command fell to him pretty quick after General Haig died. Bullet to the head, right as he was crossing the street in front of the Palace. Vinci was the one to nail the sniper. Poor bastard went into the Captain’s labs, and never came out.

A week. A week of potshots and little skirmishes. Once or twice, always away from our officers, an enemy captain pops up, wreaks havoc, and then leaves. They either cross the river at night or sneak along the coasts in fishing boats.

That leaves a lot of us sitting around doing nothing.

Which is why I’m here, in the back end of this shitty bar, listening to someone sing a song about how evil I am.

God, the Captain never should’ve taken this job.

 

“One tail, two tail, three tail, four,
Feel the fear as it runs through your soul's very core,
Repent for your sins, and dream of your grave,
For death comes to all, be they coward or brave.

One tail, two tail, three tail, four,
Look to the sky, where the black feathers soar,
Will your sweet mother miss you? Will she shed you a tear?
Speak your last words to the wind, for the Butcher Bird's here.”

 

Seems this guy - just some schlub with a guitar and a bit of talent - had started mocking our commanders. Easy enough, to be fair. We’ve all got reputations. And it wasn't a problem.

Until he'd gotten an audience.

Now Grenzer wants him 'dealt with’...and to my surprise, Vinci doesn't care.

I don't want to do this. He's an asshole, but he isn't deserving of death. But...a Captain's word is iron, on ship or off it. And this stupid, idiotic, pointless war wouldn't be helped to its end if people started being swayed to the rebel cause. And so I’m going to do it.

In disguise, naturally. Which, for me, means taking off my mask and donning a fur-lined coat like everyone else who lives on these rocks. Everyone else’s faces are already known and most of the crew...Grenzer wants this done right. Which means an officer.

 

“One tail, two tail, three tail, four,
With marrow for bread, your blood I will pour,
Your muscle as steak, your eyes as horderves,
My dinner, your guts, my pasta, your nerves.

One tail, two tail, three tail, four,
Don't hide little worms, don't make this a chore,
Your fear is sweet fragrance, your heart pounds like a drum,
Pray your end will be swift, for the Butcher Bird's come.”

 

I move out of the shadows, approaching the small band that’s set up in the back of the little stage this bar has. None of them are playing at the moment - I think they’re up next. I get the attention of the band’s guitarist, a beefy-looking guy with cropped blonde hair and arms literally covered in tattoos. “You guys up next?” I say, keeping my voice low as the minstrel-guy moves on to another song.

The guitarist nods.

“Mind letting me in...and doing a little favor?”

The guitarist exchanges looks with the other three members of his band, before turning back to me. “Depends on what we get in exchange,” he says, just as quietly.

I toss him a small bag. He opens it, sees the bills inside, and closes it. “Alright. Name your favor.”

“You guys know the tune to ‘The Blackheart Pirates’?”

Nods.

“Get ready to play that when I give the signal.”

I get on the stage as the minstrel starts finishing up, taking bows and polite clapping. I add my own claps to the mix. Slow. Steady. And continuing as the other applause dies away. The minstrel turns around, confusion written on his face as I walk towards him. I grin.

“You do good work,” I say, pitching my voice just right to carry as I clap the man on his bare shoulder. “But I’ll confess…” -I let my eyes go black- “...you might be doing me and mine a bit of a disservice, mate.”

It’s actually a little satisfying to see the guy, who has two inches on me in height even if he’s kinda reedy, go pale instantly. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the musicians I’ve recruited visibly decide ‘fuck it’ and continue getting ready to play.

“See, don’t care too much about what you say about the rest of those pricks we work with. But I think it’s important to have a clear understanding of exactly what my own boys are like, savvy? So, ladies and gents, let’s correct that, shall we? Hit it.”

The band starts to play, a rousing shanty that is known across half the world, albeit not under the same name.

The lyrics, though are my own.

 

“There's a sickness on these oceans and I think it's plain to see,
Just take one look around me boys and I bet that you'll agree,
But it's far too late to save us, and it's got a hold of meeeeeee!
That devilish old affliction called the scourge of piracy!

Oh our captain is a madman, our first mate should be in chains,
And if you choose to join our crew the devil gets your brain,
But we're none of us complaining 'cause if caught we'd all be haaaanged!
'Cause we're the Nightmare Pirates, and we're all of us insane!

You know our ship’s a creaky leaking tub we stole from the marines,
But all the crewmates still agree, she’s the vessel of our dreams,
‘Cause she’s unstable, cramped and battle-scarred, and she’s starting to decaaaaaay!
But the lot of us are just the same, and we won’t trade her away!

Oh our captain is a madman, our first mate should be in chains,
And if you choose to join our crew the devil gets your brain,
But we're none of us complaining 'cause if caught we'd all be haaaanged!
'Cause we're the Nightmare Pirates, and we're all of us insane!

Well our cook he’s got a special, and he calls it “mystery meat”,
It’s as tough as boiled leather and you’d swear it tastes like feet,
Not a man onboard will eat it, but we still won’t starve becaaauuuuse!
We chuck it in the ocean and fish leap right into our jaws!

Oh our captain is a madman, our first mate should be in chains,
And if you choose to join our crew the devil gets your brain,
But we're none of us complaining 'cause if caught we'd all be haaaanged!
'Cause we're the Nightmare Pirates, and we're all of us insane!

So if you see us coming, with our jolly roger high,
Then stow away your gold and gems, and kiss your ass goodbye,
But I’ll tell you now me hearties, there’s a chance you won’t be suuuuuuuunk!
‘Cause we’re a band of fucking lunatics, a rowdy crew of thieving pricks, who should all be nailed to a crucifiiiiiiiix!
But we’ll probably all be drunk!

Oh our captain is a madman, our first mate should be in chains,
And if you choose to join our crew the devil gets your brain,
But we're none of us complaining 'cause if caught we'd all be haaaanged!
'Cause we're the Nightmare Pirates, and we're all of us insane!”

 

The minute the last notes end, I Shave out through the door.

Really, all I’d needed to do was touch the guy. A couple days from now, as the contact poison on my glove works its way through his system, he’ll sleep and never wake.

But hey...if you’ve got to do something you don’t like...might as well make a good show.

Chapter Text

“Come on, move it!” Lauren shouted, grabbing the collar of the nearest one of her allies - fuck, all this bunch were ex-Steel Shields, no wonder they were lagging, all the quick and deadly and brave ones had died with their captain - and practically dragging him along until his feet caught up and he started running again.

Hell, why were they sending her? Skantarios had called in some crazy fight and asked for backup, and if the monosyllabic archer couldn’t handle it she wasn’t going to do much better, much less the thirty or so mooks with her! They should’ve sent Kaneki or that creepy clock lady or...fuck, someone else who could take a bullet to the face and be fine. She was a sniper, not a brawl...er…

“Hooooly shit,” she breathed, looking at the utterly devastated street. What the hell had happened here? Half the buildings were rubble, and the others had gouges crisscrossing them like a gigantic cat had taken an objection to their facade.

She pulled both of her carbines free of their leg holsters and spun them, cocking the levers. “Let’s move, people,” she said. “We’ve got an officer to find.”

Improbable as it seemed, the destruction got worse the further down the street they went. Not just buildings - cloaked bodies, fallen Ranger Pirates, littered the stones. Some were still breathing, and the men with her quickly patched up what they could and started carrying the wounded back towards where the Captain and the other doctors could treat them.

Further still, and she began to see arrows, hundred of them, embedded in the stonework, and other projectiles - knives, hatchets, conveniently sized rocks - that Skantarios had obviously duplicated with his Fruit’s power.

“Fuck, what the hell was he going up against?” she muttered as she kept moving. She kept a running mental count of the bodies they passed.

Rangers had had thirty-six people. Twenty-three so far were dead. Twelve wounded and living. That left Skantarios alone.

Fuuuuuuuck.

As she ran, she slotted the carbines back into their holsters and swung the anti-materiel rifle into her hands instead. If this was just one guy - and the complete lack of enemy corpses sure as hell pointed to that, the Rangers weren’t that weak - she wanted as much firepower as she could put into one gun.

She stopped suddenly, skidding to a halt.

The street ahead...was gone.

The only thing left was a crater. In the center...a body, cloaked in a bloodstained grey cloak.

Her hand very pointedly did not shake as she yanked a snail out of a hip bag, sliding down the edge of the crater as she did so. “Found Skantarios.”

“Is he alive?” the dry, cold voice of that damn Tercio bureaucrat asked.

She looked at the man’s body. His torso had been caved in.

“No.”

“Any sign of the attackers?”

“There’s a huge crater and at least half the buildings for blocks around are rubble or wishing they were, that count? Most of the Rangers are dead as well.”

I see. You and your men should start searching, it could be that-” The sound of gunfire rattled in the background. “Excuse me for a moment.”

The connection went dead. Lauren stared at the snail for a moment, before shoving it back into her hip bag. She turned back to the few guys - less than half a dozen - who weren’t busy hauling the wounded back. “We’re not going looking for a guy who just beat up an entire crew,” she said. “We’re going back to the river line. With none of the Rangers there there’s a hole in our lines, and I’d bet anything that the rebels will try to exploit that. Let’s get moving.”

 

----

Pravilno looked shamefaced as he shuffled under Vinci’s gaze. Or maybe that expression of worry and fear was due to the fact that Vinci’s hands were still busy stitching up a gash across the chest of one of the Ranger Pirates.

“You should’ve come to me sooner,” he said flatly, finishing the stitching. The man was unconscious, but he’d be fine.

Pravilno nodded.

“Right, then. Hold still.” Electricity sparked between Vinci’s fingers. “This is going to hurt a great deal.”

It was quite interesting. He’d managed to figure out just how to realign a nervous system before the heart of his last test subject had given out. That was useful for Pravilno - otherwise he’d be here all day, and he just knew there’d be even more patients before the day was done, even if the rebels weren’t trying to make a push.

“Yiyiyiyiyiyyiyiyiyi,” Pravilno went as lightning cascaded over his body from where Vinci was gripping the crown of his head. Vinci ignored it, as the tent flap opened, and one of the Steel Shields - only they carried those gigantic round shields - entered. The wannabe Viking looked at Pravilno, who was starting to twitch, and blanched. “I can come back later if you…”

“What do you want?” Vinci asked calmly, releasing Pravilno. The yakuza flopped to the dirt, pompadour smoking even more than the rest of his body. Hmm. Hair gel made for a good conductor, best remember that.

“I...uh…”

“Spit it out, I don’t have all day.”

“Got the men together...those of us who are left. Not enough of us to survive the Grand Line. We-”

“Yes, yes, join my crew. Go see Kaneki. He’ll get you started on the basics so you don’t all die.”

“What- How did you-”

Vinci glared at the man. “Because you’re weaklings at the moment, and weaklings tend to try to cozy up to the powerful. Lucky for you , power is attained through training. And Kaneki is very good at training you until you reach his standards.”

The ex-Steel-Shield gulped as Vinci loomed over him. “Gather your crewmates. Dismissed.”

“Aye….Captain.”

The man ran, fear-induced speed nearly as fast as a good Shave.

Pravilno groaned, and opened his eyes. “Whuh…”

Vinci grinned at him. “Get up, I didn’t optimize your nervous system so you could laze about.”

Pravilno jumped to his feet, then stared at his hands. Perfectly steady, of course. He wouldn’t dare do shoddy work again .

 

----

 

Adolphus Gabriel was not a happy man.

He rarely was, if he was being honest with himself. Life was...a messy affair, overall. And in many instances, the addition of a war made it messier. He disliked messes.

No, he was rarely happy. The few moments in which he found happiness were in the resolving of messy situations. Whether that situation was a person and would be somewhat annoying to remove was immaterial to the fact that removing them was a good thing.

Grenzer gave him a great deal of opportunities to remove messes.

Even if he caused quite a few of them...well, it gave Gabriel more things to remove, and that was worth the trouble.

This particular mess, though...difficult.

Werth was currently engaging it on the first floor, amongst the dead of those Tercio soldiers who’d gotten in the way. The short man was tiring, though. And the assailant, someone dressed in a dark cloak and mask, clearly wasn’t.

Gabriel’s eyes tracked the assailant. The cloaked figure moved almost like one of the Nightmares, never still, always on the attack, flickering from place to place. But his movements were predictable- always, when he stopped, it was where he’d been looking before moving.

A trio of weighted needles sprung from his hands as the assailant blurred into motion again. The slim projectiles hit the top of a desk as the attacker swayed around them, and Gabriel frowned. Troublesome.

“Dammit, I can’t find a heartbeat!”

Gabriel glanced back to where a pair of the Tercios skilled in first aid were attending to Grenzer. A trio of wounds - not bullet holes, too small for that - right over the heart, would have been enough anyway, but the attacker had also opened up the Field Marshall’s guts before Gabriel had forced him away and down into the first floor.

This was going to end poorly.

Another flight of needles crossed from Gabriel to the attacker - too late to stop the cloaked person from weaving between the swings of Tromp’s axes and opening the squat man’s throat.

Hm.

Command would fall to Frederick, then.

Gabriel threw another quartet of needles, before diving for cover as a blade of air cut through where he’d been standing. The blade turned the medics to meat and drove Grenzer’s body and the desk it was on into a wall.

He had to-

The attacker was suddenly there , and Gabriel coughed as a single finger slammed into his chest with the force of a sledgehammer, passing between his ribs and crushing his heart. He felt the wall break under his flight, and despite the fact that everything was going cold, he grinned.

His fingers, clumsy and failing, closed around a detonator. Popped the cap, and pushed the button.

Half a ton of explosives received their signals as Gabriel smiled through the pain and his fading vision at the cloaked man who’d decimated them.

Then there was fire, and light….

And silence.

Chapter Text

I stare at the smoldering ruins of what had been Grenzer’s command center.

“...welp, we’re fucked, aren’t we?”

I whip my head around and glare at Gin, who barely even reacts. The zombie-like man just pulls a cigarette from somewhere in his coat and lights up.

“No,” I growl. “Not yet. Someone please tell me there’s security around the Doge, though.”

“Already called it in. Boondocks Brothers and Kazrak aren’t leaving his side.” He looks at the rubble. “Who do you think could pull this off?”

“Roberts is the one with the earth fruit, right? Take out the foundation, whole building could fall apart.”

“And he hit Skantarios and the Rangers earlier...hell, any of them woken up?”

“Nah.”

“Shit. So no witnesses...we’ve still got no proof it was him.” I look up at the sky. “Night’s going to fall soon, and having a fucking earth-mover behind our lines isn’t a good idea. I’m going hunting. The rest of you, go back to the ship.”

“You think you can take him?”

I smile. “Humans need to sleep. He’ll get tired sooner or later, all I have to do is harry him until he’s too exhausted to stand, whoever he is. And if it is Roberts, that fat bastard won’t be doing much running.”

“Fair enough. Stay safe, bird boy,” Gin says quietly. “Come on, guys.”

The small squad of Nightmares troops away, leaving me alone.

Inhale. Count to four. Exhale.

A quick Shave puts me up at the top of an undamaged house. I breathe deep.

The air smells like blood and ash. Not just the destroyed headquarters, but what was left of Zelenyy. Grenzer’s men had done their work well, and much of the island, close-packed wooden housing, had gone up in flames. A terrible cost, and one the winds are still carrying, even over a week later. I sigh, my breath misting in the air.

Grenzer, for all his numerous faults, had been holding everyone together. Who’d hold the crews - fuck, what was left of them - together, now? Doppel...that man was a killer, plain and simple, and he didn’t have a head for strategy. Frederick was the last Tercio commander, but he was a sniper and assassin, not a general. And Vinci...heh, Vinci could terrify everyone into place, but it’d do no good. It wouldn’t hold.

I shake my head, clearing it of idle musings. It doesn’t matter.

Only the hunt does.

 

----

 

There were a lot of sad noises coming from Lauren’s cabin.

C didn’t mind. It happened a lot. Usually when Lauren had a battle. Sometimes not, though. He was smart enough to know it was how people coped. The Captain did SCIENCE, the Bosun (and Herman, and Gin) drank foul-smelling alcohol things and then fought each other, Brother meditated, and Lauren went and ugly-cried in her cabin. It was the way of things.

C didn’t have a coping mechanism. He thought. He liked eavesdropping, though. He didn’t do it during daytime anymore. Brother told him not to, after he’d asked why Ostavila was praying so loudly in Pravilno’s cabin.

So he did it at night when Brother wasn’t around. That usually worked- though there was a lot more praying going on elsewhere. He’d learned to shut it out, it was annoying.

Brother was off hunting whoever’d hurt their allies. So he wouldn’t be back for a while, and when he did get back he’d probably be either grumpy, hungry, or both, and just drink a lot of coffee rather than sleeping.

So C had the ship to himself for a while. And so he sat outside Lauren’s cabin and listened.

The sobbing noises tapered off, and footsteps came. The door to the cabin slammed open, and Lauren stalked out.

And tripped over C’s legs.

She went down hard, landing on top of C and driving the breath out of him for a moment. C grinned. “Hi!”

She pointed a gun in his face. C kept grinning.

“What. The hell. Are you doing,” she growled.

“Listening,” he said. “You sounded sad. I wanted to help, so I waited.” He looked at the gun, going cross-eyed to do so. “Will shooting me make you feel better?”

Lauren froze. Then her face scrunched up kinda funny and she got off of C, the gun going into a hip holster. “Fuck,” she said quietly. “I’m a mess, aren’t I?”

“No, you’re a person,” C said.

Lauren laughed a little at that, before choking it off. “A pretty shitty person,” she muttered.

“Not really. You’re pretty nice.”

Lauren sighed. “Want to keep talking on deck?” she asked. “Kinda stuffy in here.”

C nodded.

They walked out into the cold air. Lauren shivered. She wasn’t wearing her long coat. No wonder she was cold.

C pulled off his coat - well, it was his now, it had used to belong to one of the rebels (who’d tasted really good) but now was his; it was a good coat, thick and warm copper-colored leather, only a little bloodstained near the collar - and gave it to Lauren, who wrapped it around herself.. He was proud of the shot he’d made, the man had hardly bled at all when his ball bearing had hit him between the eyes. But the crew came first, Brother had told him that. And Lauren was a very important part of the crew.

Lauren pulled it close around herself with a wordless sound of thanks.

Things were quiet for a bit. C looked at the sky. There weren’t many stars out tonight. The clouds were too thick.

He wondered if it would snow again. It had on the day with all the presents that got people excited (Brother called it Christmas, but C hadn’t asked why it had that name, and until he knew the why of it he wouldn’t use the name). Snow would make hunting difficult...hard to move quietly in it.

“...I think I’m a bad person,” Lauren said quietly.

C looked at her. “Why?”

“Why do you think? I’ve killed...I don’t even know how many. And it’s not like with Machitus, or with those pirates that attacked us, these are just ordinary people, and I’ve shot them down by the dozens....”

“You feel bad about it?”

“Of course I do! Hell, I’m only here because the Captain decided to take this job, I just...I don’t like killing people who don’t deserve it.”

C shrugged. “Then you aren’t that bad. I have rules, Brother has rules too. You have bigger rules, and you don’t want to break them. They want to hurt you, hurt the crew, and you can’t stop that. So you have to stop them, until they don’t think they can hurt you anymore.”

“That simple, huh.”

“Things don’t have to be complicated.”

“What are your rules, C?”

“Don’t hurt the crew. Don’t hunt for anyone that doesn’t deserve it. Brother determines who deserves it, not the Captain. Fight anyone who tries to hurt the Crew, they can be hunted no matter what. Listen to the Captain and the Bosun and whoever they tell me to listen to. Stay alive. Be a good crewmate. Easy rules.”

Lauren exhaled, sending a cloud of mist out. “You don’t care about anyone else.”

“Why should I? They aren’t crew. They’re important to other people, but they aren’t crew, so they aren’t important to me.”

She gave him a look. “You’re a strange person, kid.”

“I am a ghoul. Of course I am strange. If I was not strange, there would be a lot more to worry about.”

She sighed. “Things aren’t that simple, C. These are people. Human beings. And...hell, they just want a better life. I mean, people like the Black Beards, they’re pretty bad, I can deal with that, but...there’s a big difference between taking down some pirate asshole and killing some kid who’s just trying to fight for what he thinks is right.”

C cocked his head. “How? They’re both trying to kill you. The other pirates are better at it, though. What’s being fought over doesn’t really matter.”

Lauren got another weird expression. “You really think that, kid?”

C shrugged. “Lying is bad, so yes.”

“Feh. Guess you’ve got a point. No real way to get around it.”

“You could just stay on the ship and do nothing,” C pointed out.

“What, no pep talk about how I shouldn’t feel anything?”

“You do. Why would I tell you not to?”

Lauren leaned on the rail. “Can’t stay on the ship. Might feel bad about the kids, but the crew...it’d be a lot worse if they got hurt because I was too chickenshit to go out and fight. I don’t….”

C stopped listening, because he’d seen a glimmer of red approaching Ends Justified very quickly. Brother hit the deck, rolled, and sprang to his feet.

“Hi, Brother!”

Brother grunted, before looking at Lauren. “Captain awake?”

“How the hell should I know? He practically sleeps in his lab now.”

“Can’t find the bastard who tore up Grenzer and his men. Trail’s gone cold. There’s some crazy powerful guy wandering around the city and I can’t find him, I’ve got no idea where he-”

There was a very large explosion off in the distance.

Brother sighed.

“I think that was where Doppel and the Gears were bunking down for the night shift,” Lauren provided. “I’ll go get everyone up and armed. You think you can-”

“Yeah. Come on, C.”

C followed him over the rail and out into the night.

Chapter Text

The Gears hadn’t set up in one building- they’d divided themselves up, leaving a skeleton crew on their ship for most of the day and setting up in...think it was a hotel at first. Either way, they swapped out regularly.

And right now, the multi-story building was a complete wreck, half of the building utterly demolished. Same way as with Grenzer’s...a bit more shrapnel, some remnants of earth scattered around, but much the same otherwise. From the rooftop I can see several of the pirates running around, digging others out of the rubble and doing their best to help the wounded.

I look to C. “You picked up first aid, right?’

He nods.

“Good. Lend a hand. I’m going to go look for the captain.”

“Maybe he’s dead.”

“Well in that case things are going to go to shit, aren’t they?”

“Haven’t they already?”

I give C a look , and turn away, scenting the air. Doppel...well, even with the hundred-odd people below running about, I know his scent well enough to track him.

Top floor of the hotel. In the non-destroyed half, small mercies. Bit of a jump…

My tails coil under me and launch me upwards and forwards, high into the air. A quick use of Moon Walk turns that upward motion into a sideways one, and I hit the battered carpeting and roll, springing back up to my feet quickly.

More blood. Not visible, but the scent is there, as well as something...coal ash, I realize a moment later. Curious.

“Don’t you goddamn die on me!” a voice says, coming from one of the nearby rooms.

Well, that tells me quite a lot already.

I might be getting slightly numb to seeing dead allies. Or dead people, period. I lope forwards, entering the room the voice is coming from.

Clare, her helmet off, is crouched over the bloody body of Doppel, frantically trying to bandage his injuries. I take in the state of the place- probably had been pretty glitzy, but a fresh coating of blood and several chunks of stone really aren’t the best interior decorating methods- as I walk towards them.

That’s definitely a lot of broken bones. And I don’t think a torso is supposed to cave in like that. But despite that, I can see him breathe and hear his heartbeat. Still alive.

I tap Clare on the shoulder. The Gear first mate whirls, almost snarling before seeing it’s just me.

There are no words. There don’t need to be.

I simply pick up Doppel carefully, and run like hell for the Ends and my Captain.

 

----

 

Gin was tired.

Hell, they all were. Nobody liked being woken up in the middle of the night due to some crazy bastard going around ganking all the crew’s best fighters.

To be honest, he was a little surprised it had taken Roberts- and it was Roberts, the fat bastard had been seen by enough people before retreating when Doppel had levelled half the building- this long. Three crews, one after the other, in less than twenty-four hours? Why hadn’t he done it sooner?

Fuck it. Wasn’t his job to figure that out...heh, wasn’t anyone’s job, with pretty much every actual commander dead now.

He yawned, partly out of just being tired...and partly to drown out the noises that were coming from the surgery tent.

A dozen or so healers and surgeons...yeah, not exactly quiet. No matter how much he wanted it to be.

Two things he was grateful for, then: the first that he’d managed to grab some fruit from the kitchens, to distract himself with, and the second that his life had made him jaded enough he wouldn’t even consider losing his appetite over hearing what was going on a short distance away. He wished the same could be said for all the others assembled outside the surgery tent. Even Jack was looking a little green, but none of them wanted to leave.

Gin wasn’t an idiot, he knew when a war was going to be won or lost.

Whether Doppel pulled through or not...that’d determine what his Captain and what the surviving crews did. Whether they pulled up stakes and left the Doge to rot, or whether they kept on.

Personally, Gin kinda hoped it’d be the former. The Nightmares had been unbelievably lucky- any other crew, spread out like they’d been, would’ve been torn apart by now. That luck wasn’t likely to hold much longer, and even though he knew that pound for pound they were probably the toughest, meanest sons of bitches on the island...there were tough bastards all around on the other side, and a lot more of them than there were Nightmares.

The shouts from within the surgery reached a fever pitch, and Gin hunched his shoulders, closing his eyes and pulling the apple he’d grabbed from under his coat. Focusing on that’d make it a lot easier to deal with-

Sweet Kami above this thing tasted horrible.

Gin’s eyes shot open as he gagged, dropping the fruit on the hard-packed earth. “What the hell is wrong with-”

He cut himself off as he saw the fruit.

The fruit that, though it had been perfectly ordinary when he’d picked it up, was now covered in spirals.

He knew how Devil Fruits worked, better than most thanks to what tidbits the Captain had shared. That meant…

The surgery tent was silent now, he realized.

Gin looked up, meeting the eyes of Foglio Clare, wide behind her armor’s visor.

Ah, hell.

“No no no no…” Clare said, barely audible as she backed up. “He can’t be.”

“He is.”

Gin looked to the tent entrance as his Captain strode out, back ramrod straight and eyes glowing like lanterns.

“I have had enough of this,” his captain said, words echoing, reaching into Gin’s mind and branding themselves into his brain. “We have lost too much. Far too much. I am tired of this petty, pointless conflict, tired of healing the maimed and injured. I have failed in my duty, and I will not allow that to happen again. Kaneki, Jack. Take twenty men, and kill the Fishmen. Gin, Lauren, C, take the Oni, thirty men, and the Gears, and deal with the Kreigers. Herman, take the rest, and slaughter the Poison Fangs. I will deal with Roberts.”

Gin bowed, all of his fatigue vanishing in the face of that simple command. Others were...less willing.

“Who the hell do you think you are?” Wallenstein asked, the Tercio commander stepping forwards with a hand on his sabre’s hilt.

Vinci’s expression, didn’t shift in the slightest as he turned his head to watch the man. “You will take your men and guard the Doge and the Palace with all the means at your disposal. I do not care if you want to dispute my commands, because you will follow them regardless. If you do not, I will kill you.” His captain turned away from the man, looking up at the stars for a moment. “It is time to end this,” he said dispassionately. “You have your orders. Go.”

Gin went.

 

----

 

Winter, Paren Obrchennyy decided, was a bitch.

This wasn’t just because winter on the Archipelago meant that anyone outside at night would probably die unless they had a large fire to huddle near. It was also because it made his job, namely guarding the riverbank, much harder. After all, if everyone could just head across the ice, they couldn’t just set up near the one intact bridge, now could they? So now he was shivering in a tiny little guard post, just far enough back from the river that the small fire he had going wasn’t visible, waiting to see if anyone passed by.

At least the Revolutionary Leader had gone to finish the fight. He’d seen the man return, and though he hadn’t said anything as he walked back to his home, Obrchennyy knew the Leader had been victorious.

Soon, the war would be over, the Doge would be dead, and they’d be able to...dispose of the pirates and mercenaries, leaving the Archipelago free again.

He hoped the Leader had left some of the Tercios alive. He owed them a debt of blood- he’d lost a sister to the fires they’d set during their failed assault.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw something move. He whirled, raising his rifle to cover the section of street. Nothing.

He could’ve sworn he’d seen a flash of something...dark against the snow. What had it been?

With shaking fingers, he pulled the bayonet from his belt and locked it into place on the end of his rifle. Whoever it was, he’d have another thing coming if he thought-

Crunch.

Behind him-!

The rifle stopped dead mid-thrust, and Obrchennyy looked up, to see a hand effortlessly holding the barrel still, and a masked face. The mask looked like some bird, blood-covered and with baleful red eyes.

“Boy, that the best you got?” the owner of the mask- oh God no, the Butcher Bird, please God no- said softly. Then he smiled, his grip tightening and deforming the barrel of his rifle. “Your best won’t do. You’re among wolves...and these are our woods now.”

The last thing Obrchennyy felt and saw was a sharp pain in his chest, and the merest flash of red.



Chapter Text

The Kriegers.

A big mercenary company. Most mercs worked as one outfit, moving together, growing or shrinking as casualties and new recruits balanced out. The Kriegers were different- they handed out battalions like candy, splitting them up as they pleased to serve dozens of clients at once. They were disciplined, almost fanatical even, well-equipped, and very well-trained, especially if they were fighting in urban conditions like this.

Kill zones, overlapping fields of fire, grapeshot-loaded cannon, lines of rifle men, earthwork walls, a thousand-strong force that had turned a public park into a fortress that could break any army on the planet.

And, Eka reflected idly as his cleaver-like dao turned a cluster of infantrymen into a screaming mess, it still wasn’t enough to stop them. Not even close.

The Kriegers were brave, sure, and they fought to the last...but the combined force of the Gears and Nightmares had hit them hard and fast, the members of the night watch dead before they could do much more than scream, and before the soldiers could even fall into formation the slaughter had started. Order and discipline were of no help when your opponent could move faster than you could aim your rifle, or could simply ignore the bullets, or was just that much stronger in close quarters.

And so they died. Bravely, stubbornly, screaming their defiance, but they still died.

Eka ran forwards, a quick Shave taking him inside the reach of another Krieger infantryman, and swung-

His blade was halted by another, a sabre. Eka leapt back, taking in his new opponent while the kid he’d almost decapitated decided discretion was the better part of valor and booked it. Tall, wearing the same dark blue uniform and peaked cap the Kriegers favored, carrying a sabre in his hands.

Nine other men, nearly identical, were striding onto the battlefield beside him.

Ah. The Krieger’s company commanders, then. He’d heard about them. Tough guys.

Eka grinned behind his mask, and hit the toggle.

Aches and pains vanished, his body shivering as energy filled him to his fingertips. He raised his dao to the night sky and howled .

His pack answered.

The Oni went to war.

 

----

 

The Bell-Bell Fruit, she’d called it as they ran to fulfill his Captain’s orders.

A hasty explanation on its powers, how it worked- basically, it allowed him to use his powers like the clapper in a bell, causing vibrations to ripple through whatever he touched. He’d been a little surprised she was giving that much up freely, rather than being pissed at him- he knew he’d be, in her place.

Then he’d seen her turn into a mass of threshing clockwork and turn a platoon of Kriegers into mulch the moment the slaughter had started, and he’d realized that she was just turning her anger somewhere else.

Probably afraid of the Captain if she took it out on him, heh.

He swayed around a Krieger’s desperate bayonet charge with Paper Art, his tonfa coming around and crushing the back of the guy’s skull in the process. The soldier flopped to the ground, joining the sixty or so others scattered at Gin’s feet. Gin straightened up, and took stock for a moment. Several more Kriegers were waiting, a loose ring of opponents, but none of them were willing to get into close quarters and they’d quickly learned that attempting to shoot him was a waste of ammo thanks to Paper Art. He flipped his tonfas under his arms, and lit a cigarette, drowning out the smell of blood and bodies. The Kriegers tensed. Gin smiled.

“Well?” he asked, letting the smoke wreath his face. “You going to do something or just stand there like a pack of idiots?”

“Stand aside, men.”

The man who approached now was twice the height of everyone present, Gin included. He wore a slightly better version of the blue coat and trousers of his soldiers, with epaulettes of rank, and was bald as an egg. Metal gauntlets covered his fists.

Gin cocked his head. “Know your face,” he said shortly, flipping the hafts of his tonfas back into his hands with the ease of long practice. “Armstrong ‘Bloodied Fist’ Charles. Second-in-command of the battalion, ain’t that right?”

“You would be correct, pirate. It is fitting you know who will kill you, isn’t it?”

Gin shrugged. “Suppose so. I’m Gin, then.”

The big guy paused. “Ohohohohoho,” he said with a smile. “You’ve got a wit on you, pirate. Men, go help in the defense. This one is mine.” The Kriegers ran. Gin let them.

“Before the fighting starts, one question,” he said.

“Ask.”

“You’re mercenaries. Why not turn to the other side? You outnumber everyone except the actual rebels, and that rabble wouldn’t hold up for long against your men. So why not pack it in now, take some money from the winning side?”

“Would you do the same, in my place?” Charles asked.

Gin shrugged. “Guess not. Let’s do this.”

“Right.” The man dropped into a boxing stance. “Prepare yourself, pirate. My techniques have been passed down my family line for gene-”

Destructive Frequency: Bone.” Gin Shaved forwards, a single tonfa swinging upwards. “Exorcism,” he said, as the tonfa hit the man in the fork of the legs.

His technique wasn’t great- enough backlash vibrated back down the steel handle to make his own arm ache- but it didn’t have to be. Gin dodged to the side as the big guy collapsed, clutching at his abused nether regions. Pelvis probably fractured, as well. Hmph. He’d expected more.

The big guy slammed a fist into the ground. It left a crater. Then he got to his feet, eyes filled with murder.

Why the hell did he have to go and taunt fate like that? He should’ve learned from the fact Krieg had yelled ‘nothing can stop us now’ when they’d gone over Reverse Mountain! The bitch was always listening!

“Iron Storm!”

Gin wove around the blows, trying desperately to keep the relaxed, centered mindset Paper Art demanded as the enraged behemoth pressed onwards. Every dodge was accomplished with millimeters to spare, each killing blow barely evaded, as Gin waited for his opening.

He found it, as the man overextended, just a little, enough that it left an opening. Gin jumped and let his power extend out, pushing it into both ends of his tonfas as they struck at Charles’ head.

“Death Knell,” he said flatly, as they slammed into the man’s head from both sides. The shockwave rattled down Gin’s bones, and he bit back the urge to scream, but the big man fell to his knees, blood leaking from ears, nose, and mouth. Gin got out of the way as the man fell to earth again.

This time, he didn’t get up.

Feh. He almost missed Sanji. Fights these days were over too fast.

 

----

 

Private First Class Toterman Zufuss was regretting being born.

It was simple- he couldn’t regret joining the Kriegers, because nobody didn’t join the Kriegers on the isle of Brandenburg. To make war was his people’s way of life! Everyone joined the Kriegers, once they turned fifteen. Everyone went to war. It was what made Brandenburg strong, what paid the fees to keep them in the World Government. How could he regret joining, when everyone did?

He couldn’t regret coming here- the decision had not been his. Mars Mal, their commander (and beauty and leader and hard-edged ice queen) had made it. It was to be a good testing ground for her new battalion and new command. Everyone had agreed, eager for the battles to come.

He couldn’t even regret being in this fight- because hell, he had no control over if the enemy wanted to make a suicidal run into their territory. It had to be suicidal. No matter what, they would’ve heard the gunshots if they’d actually fought all the rebel formations around their base, and the moment those thousands of men and women mobilized this small force would be caught between hammer and anvil. It had to be a suicide run, they couldn’t have fought all those people silently, right?

But regardless, there was nothing in his life to regret, as he stood shoulder to shoulder and poured lead at the slender, approaching figure, working the bolt of his rifle frantically as she dodged every shot aimed at her...as his friends and comrades fell around him to the hails of bullets coming from that approaching figure, he could regret nothing, for he’d never made a decision to be here and now…

And so he regretted his birth on Brandenburg, the start of the path he was on now, and kept firing, even as he heard the distant roar of the battalion’s ammo stores going off and the screams as the Kriegers fought and bled and died.

Dammit, if they could just hit the bitch-!

A small, dark object flew from the woman’s hands, thudding at Zufuss’s feet, and the Krieger line broke as they scrambled away from the grenade. Zufuss froze, then threw himself on the grenade, knowing that there was no way he could get away, but maybe he could stop it from-

A cloud of smoke surrounded him instead, and after a few moments, Zufuss stood back up, legs trembling slightly as the fact that he was still alive registered. He panted, peering through the purplish fog the grenade had emitted. He couldn’t see anything. Where...where had everyone gone?

Something moved in the fog. Zufuss tried to raise his rifle, only to find that his arms and legs wouldn’t obey him, locked into place as the shape drew closer, gaining more definition by the second.

Zufuss had always hated centipedes. There’d never been a reason for it, they’d just looked horrifying.

The woman who approached was covered in them. No, she was one. No, she was made of them-

Zufuss realized he was making a small keening sound as the thing drew closer and closer.

It reached out a hand- a claw- a writhing limb of insects- towards his face, and Zufuss froze, heart pounding.

It touched him, and then there was pain-

And then nothing.

 

----

 

Lauren kept her gorge from rising as she yanked the hatchet free. The Krieger flopped to the ground.

Her breath hissed past the gas mask.

Inhale. Count to four. Exhale. She was in control here.

The hallucinogens were doing their work. The Kriegers that weren’t frozen in terror were either running, or trying to kill each other, and the cloud was spreading through the camp. Everyone on their side knew to avoid it, and she had some counteragents for anyone who was stupid enough not to listen, but the Kriegers weren’t so lucky.

She just wished the work wasn’t so messy, but she didn’t have a choice. She didn’t have enough bullets to make things clean. C might’ve been able to handle a bunch of kills at once, but last she’d seen of him, he was impaling Kriegers on their own bayonets, and the fighting had separated them.

She moved on, checking the loads of her carbines. Six shots in the left, eight in the right. She had enough bullets for two more twelve-round reloads in each, but those would take time. Pain in the ass…

None of the Kriegers that she could see were in any shape to fight. She’d have to-

The only warning she had was a whisper of movement in the purple smoke. She jumped to the side- it saved her life as bullets lanced through the cloud and where she’d been standing. How the hell had they-

She lunged forward as more distortions formed, grateful that she’d spent so much time training her reflexes since the Gala. If she’d been slower, she wouldn’t have even been able to tell the bullets were headed her way.

The bullets kicked up sprays of dirt, and she juked to the side, hands raising her carbines and firing both back in the direction they’d come from. Five and seven. The levers clicked and clacked as she rotated both the carbines, feeding new bullets in, and she changed tack, crossing her own path. Just as she’d thought, the bullets cut in the direction she’d first been running.

Whoever this person was, they must’ve had very good hearing. She would’ve snarled, if she wasn’t worried they’d hear that as well.

Another quartet of bullets lanced ahead of her, only avoided by a frantic use of Paper Art, and she snapped off two more shots. Four and six left. Then she burst clear of the gas, and saw her opponent.

Her face was obscured by a full-face gas mask, but the cut of her dark blue coat, the double-barreled pistols in her hands, and the twin straight sabers at her hips gave her away. Mars ‘Cutlass Lass’ Mal. Commander of the Kriegers.

Fucking wonderful.

 

----

 

Mal, despite everything, was liking what was going on.

This? This was a battle, not the pussyfooting around Roberts had insisted on. This was war, red and bloody, and she loved every minute of it.

She grinned at her opponent, discarding her pistols- the damn revolvers were out of ammunition anyway- and putting hands on her beloved blades.

Cutlasses. And anyone who called them sabres would feel them rammed into their guts, oh yes.

The girl was angry, she could tell. It was all in the eyes, and the hands. The former were glaring over the girl’s gas mask and the latter were on the grips of her carbines, so she was probably...mildly upset, at least.

Mal laughed. “You’re a toughie, ain’tcha? Never seen someone dodge bullets before, but you walked right through ‘em!” Her grin widened as she bared her sabres, not much, a lady never revealed all at once, but an inch of steel on each side. The other girl’s carbines twitched upwards, not quite lining up with Mal, but moving so that a flick of the wrist would do that.

Interesting. She could feel the tension, like lightning. Her heart was pounding in her chest.

One wrong move, and this girl would have her dead.

She’d never felt so alive.

“Come on,” she growled, baring two more inches of steel. “Let’s see what you’re made o-”

The girl moved , crossing the space between them in an instant, and Mal drew her blades, catching the overhead strike of her opponents hatchet between them inches from her face. A bead of sweat rolled down the side of her face as she felt her knees nearly give way under the force. What the hell? The girl was scrawnier than her, how on earth was she this strong?

“You don’t talk much, do ya?” she taunted. “You should be more personable, you know. Makes people like you.”

The other girl said nothing. Then again, the gun in her other hand pressing against Mal’s belly said volumes. Mal grinned at her.

The girl didn’t pull the trigger. The hatchet pressed down, and Mal’s arms trembled, but the girl still didn’t pull the trigger.

“What’s the matter?” Mal asked, syrup-sweet. “Don’t have the guts to gut-shoot me?” She laughed. “Come on, girl. This is a war. Do it! Pull the fucking trigger, or I’ll kill you and finish off your allies next. Do it! Pull the god-damned-”

Blam.

Mal staggered as a spike of white-hot pain ripped into her gut, falling to one knee. Blood trickled past her grin, dripping to the ground. “ Argh... good. You’ve got balls,” she said.

Pain didn’t matter. Blood loss was unimportant. Only the fight mattered.

“Got guts,” she growled, getting back to her feet, feeling strength shivering down her limbs as her vision turned red . The girl was backing away.

“NOW LET’S TEST IT!” Mal shouted, before lunging forwards. “ENFILLADE!”

The cutlass in her left hand chopped into the girl’s hatchet just below the blade, leaving her holding a wooden stick. The one in her right took her opponent’s left arm off at the shoulder.

The girl screamed, dropping her hatchet to press a hand to the gushing wound, and the blade in Mal’s left hand swooped down to end her-

The girl caught it in her teeth, and something pressed into Mal's ribs.

 

"Gunnery Special: Wind Lance," the girl grunted, before a hammer slammed into Mal's diaphragm, hurtling her into the air to crash into a pile of tents. She got to her feet again, trying to get her bearings, only for another impact to smash her into the dirt again. She groaned, cataloguing her injuries. Broken ribs, what felt like a cracked skull, left arm was tattered with splinters and at least two breaks...ugh.

The red in her vision dulled the pain, though, and so she staggered back to her feet, glaring around.

There was the fucker. Looked like a zombie, sunken eyes and all, but those cannonball-tipped weapons were the only thing she could see that could’ve hit her that hard. The blunt things rotated slowly as the new man watched her.

Mal spat blood on the ground, and grinned at him, a distant part of her noting that the girl had run away. She didn’t matter, though. Only the man in front of her did.

It caused screaming pain, but she managed to lift her left arm to her mouth, letting her teeth take up the job of holding on to that blade. She grinned around her weapon’s hilt as the rotation of her opponent’s tonfas increased, subtle distortions forming around the cannonballs.

Mal charged.

The man ran to meet her.

“ENFILLADE!”

“DEATH KNELL!”

There was a terrible ghastly noise.

There was a terrible ghastly silence.

Chapter Text

"White Fang!” Herman shouted, swinging Amakatta forward. The blade of air cut down a squad of rebel infantry, their blood steaming in the night air. For a moment, there was relative silence, and he took the chance to look around.

Dammit, he shouldn’t have let Jack and Gin have the first pick of the crew. He’d been stuck with the damn Steel Shield recruits, and while their captain had been a hell of a fighter, he hadn’t passed much of that strength on to his crew. The Steel Shields tried , but they didn’t have stealth, or speed, or strength like the rest of the crew did. Kaneki would fix that.

If the poor bastards survived, that was, with how their inability to kill whoever they came across quickly was stirring up the hornet’s nest. Nobody had been seriously hurt yet (well, nobody on their side, the rebels were thoroughly dead) but it was only a matter of time.

Dammit, they needed to find the Poison Fangs, not waste time fighting these delusional shitheads. They were almost where the crew was said to bunker down…

He realized everyone was staring at him. Waiting for orders.

He groaned internally. He was good at breaking things, not leading people. “Keep moving,” he growled, marching onwards. “We’ve got a lot to do.”

The men exchanged glances, and then fell in behind him. A couple looked back at the bodies - not in concern, but calculating whether it was worth the time to loot the corpses of whatever of value was on them. Not likely. The rebels were poor as dirt, a far cry from their leaders. And they didn’t have the time to pillage.

He held up a hand, halting the group, before pointing forwards. The Poison Fang Jolly Roger was an ugly thing, a snake’s head with fangs bared, splashed in green paint on the side of a bombed-out building.

The pirates arrayed in front of it were pretty ugly, too.

They were definitely Poison Fangs - not just because they looked like tougher customers, but because a good two-thirds of them were wearing snakeskin jackets that truly redefined the meaning of 'fashion disaster’.

No taste whatsoever. Had none of them heard of the color black?

Amakatta seemed to purr in his hands as he grinned at the enemy. “Nice night for a little bit of fun, isn’t it?” he said lightly. “Boys? Let’s kill them all.”

The Fangs didn’t even have the chance to pull triggers before the Nightmares were on them, quick, economical uses of Shaves taking them right into melee range. Finger Pistols, Impact Dials, and Tempest Kicks cut them down where they stood. Herman held back from the brawl, waiting.

The brawl shattered down the middle as a tall, very thin man with the double-jointed arms of the Long-Arm Tribe cut down two of his boys with the scimitars in his hands, bursting through the Nightmare crew.

Herman lunged forward, Amakatta cutting downwards and slamming into the Long-Arm’s hasty guard. “Laskaris 'Acid Breath' Vehrlovoss,” he said with a grin as he pressed downward. The crossed scimitars held, but the Long-Arm took a step back.

A distant part of Herman’s mind noted that the battle was separating around them both, forming a makeshift circle.

“Bosque ‘Berserker Hound’ Herman,” the Long-Arm shot back, grinning just as widely. “Shall we?” The Long-Arm shoved upwards and dodged to the side, barely avoiding Amakatta as it swung back downwards. The enemy captain’s arms whipped around, and Herman snarled as a stinging line drew itself across his bicep. Amakatta crashed back into the man’s guard, chopping off one of the scimitars at the hilt and sending the Long-Arm flying into a nearby building.

“Captain!” came the cry from the assembled Poison Fangs. Herman swung his sword. The whining was replaced by gurgling noises and screaming. Much better.

The dust stirred, and Herman dodged to the side as a gigantic scaled head ripped through the air, followed closely by the rest of the serpent’s gigantic body. Amakatta scraped and sparked against greyish scales, and Herman threw himself flat as the tail whipped through the air at head height.

Fast. Very fast.

The massive serpent coiled up, the other fighters - mostly Nightmares now - making room for it. It was grey-scaled, lighter on the belly, and its head was larger than Herman’s entire body. It smiled.

“Not many can force me to use this form,” Vehrlovoss rasped. “Congratulations...now die.

Herman barely had time to put Amakatta between him and the snake before it moved and a scaled head hit him at speeds he couldn’t even see , sending him hurtling back.

A building crumpled around him, and he lay there for a moment among the rubble, breathing heavily.

This...might be a problem.

 

----

 

Power.

That was what the world ran on.

That was what Vehrlovoss loved.

Power. Not gold or beri, not weapons or a rabble of weaklings to surround him, but his own, incomparable might.

The Snake-Snake Fruit: Black Mamba Model. That was power. Power enough that the white-clad warriors who’d swept his weakling minions aside found themselves helpless. Techniques and blades of air failed to penetrate his scales. Fire barely scorched him. Only their impact techniques - probably stolen from Happo or something - had any real effect, and even that was barely more than a bruising blow, easy enough to absorb by simply letting his flexible body move with the impacts.

He grinned as his tail whipped through the air, smashing those who weren’t fast enough to react away. His body coiled up as someone lunged at his head with a palm strike waiting, then snapped back down. The unfortunate man wriggled on the way down.

“Cujo. HOWL!”

The black-furred hound that rocketed down the street was to dogs what Vehrlovoss himself was to snakes, its shoulders nearly half the height of the buildings. It bulled into him, fangs and claws trying to grab hold, but skittering off his steel-hard scales.

Vehrlovoss reared back, and struck. His fangs buried themselves into the hound’s shoulder, pumping venom into its veins before the creature howled and managed to throw him off. Drops of the venom spilled from the tips of his fangs, hissing as they ate pockmarks into the cobblestones.

The hound shrank, fur turning back into clothing as the enemy Zoan shifted back to human form. Vehrlovoss’s fang marks stood out, branded into the man’s shoulder, leaking greenish poison.

He smiled at Bosque. “You have ten minutes. At best. After that, my poison will stop your heart.” His tail flicked through the air, decapitating a trio of white-clad attackers.

Bosque’s glare of hatred was excellent. He loved it when the people trying - and failing - to kill him were filled with wrath. It made them stupid.

“White Fang!”

The attack deflected off Vehrlovoss’s head, the winds dissipating harmlessly. He chuckled. “You’ll have to do better than that. I doubt you can cut steel properly, after all.” He’d already discounted the destruction of his poor scimitar. Honestly, he went through those things like popcorn anyway. Cheap steel, and all that. If he ever found a named blade that was actually not another damn katana variant, he’d snap them up in a heartbeat.

Pity that Bosque’s giant hunk of metal was one of those. It was a pretty nasty piece of work, Vehrlovoss reflected as wind blades and physical strikes rained down on him and failed to so much as chip his scales. Still, in the hands of someone who lacked focus, it was merely a sword.

Bosque fell to one knee, his blade embedded into the ground as he panted. Vehrlovoss cocked his head. “Oh, did I forget to mention? Strenuous activity spreads the venom. Like trying and failing to even scratch me. Now, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll go and finish off the rest of these...interesting little morsels. You sit there and melt.”

What? He was a snake right now. It wasn’t cannibalism...technically.

The rest of the white-clad pirates were yelling something. Presumably in horror. Either that or they were - again, ineffectually - preparing to attack him and insisted on shouting those silly names while they did so.

A dozen of them lunged forwards at the same time. Ah. Attacking, then. From all sides, even better.

He swapped into his human form as quick as breathing, leaving all of his attackers quite literally behind him. That’s what they got for not going for his head. He spun on his heel, arm lashing out with his remaining scimitar clenched in his fist. The resulting wind blade caused a rather satisfactory rain of blood and body parts, as well as a lot of screaming.

Unfortunately, the scimitar shattered under the stress. Mercifully, the shrapnel added to the damage inflicted on the Nightmares.

Like he said. Cheap steel, like popcorn.

“Kill...you…”

Vehrlovoss glanced at where he’d left Bosque. Huh. He honestly hadn’t thought the man would be capable of moving at this point, but hey, he was actually on his feet!

And brandishing that absurdly outsized sword, but that wasn’t important. It wasn’t as though he had the strength to swing it.

Vehrlovoss took a sudden step back as the blade embedded itself in the ground, narrowly missing his everything.

Hm. Well, Bosque was a Zoan, if a fairly boring one. He hadn’t yet poisoned any Zoans, except for that one praying mantis one. And that one had been exploded by the Marines shortly afterwards, so it didn’t really count in determining how much Zoan durability affected his venom’s virulence.

“KILL. YOU!”

“Oh, for God’s sake,” Vehrlovoss said as he dodged another haymaker of a sword technique. “Can’t you just die quietly? You’re barely standing as it is, what makes you think you can kill me?”

Bosque’s response was another attack aimed at taking Vehrlovoss’s head from his shoulders. He sighed. “Come now. This is not exactly sporting. I’m unarmed, after all.” The minor detail that he was that way because he’d just maimed or killed several of the annoying berserker’s weakling crewmates was left unstated.

“RAAARGHLBE!”

“Those aren’t even words!” Vehrlovoss dodged again, absent-mindedly backhanded another Nightmare into a wall, and shook his head in despair. “Really, now. Is rage going to actually help? All it’s really doing is spreading the poison more, and once your adrenaline wears off it’s going to really hurt. I should know, people’s screams always reach very high pitches when it does.”

Bosque stopped.

“So you’ve taken my advice and accepted the inevitability of your demise. Good.”

The dog-man smiled.

“Something...like that.”

 

---

 

Venom burned in his veins.

You’re a fool, boy.

His heart pounded, every beat weaker than the last.

A damned fool, with no pride or ambition.

His body ached, his wounds burning.

Your rage is weak, your will unfocused.

His vision was dimming.

You’ll fall if you hesitate. You’ll die if you retreat.

He could barely lift his blade.

What can you do, boy?

He was in too much pain to shift form.

What use are you?!

And, he realized, none of it mattered.

“I will give you...one last chance…” he rasped.

“Oh?” the serpent asked.

Run.”

The serpent paused, watching, then shifted form at the speed of thought, striking with fangs bared.

He would not be able to lift Amakatta to block in time.

It didn’t matter.

...

He had been doomed from the moment he’d decided to fight.

At last. Insight.

That was a simple fact.

He was no swordsman.

He was no wise warrior.

He was no skilled navigator.

It didn’t matter.

There was an enemy in front of him.

That enemy would die.

That was what would happen. That was what he could take pride in.

Nothing else mattered.

“Shepherd Style.”

Reality protested as he moved his body far faster and with more strength than his battered muscles should’ve been able to manage.

“Shear.”

He told reality to get the fuck out of the way.

He cut.

Still alive.

Heh. I chose well.

Reach heaven through violence, pup. It’s your best hope.

Herman’s eyes rolled back into his head, and he collapsed into the pile of gore that had been the Poison Fangs captain.

Chapter Text

The way my tails taste things is...weird. Obviously I can’t eat normal food, but meat shouldn’t taste so sweet.

That’s humans. Like eating cake, I swear to god. Some of the tougher opponents, it’s more like garlic bread...but mostly it’s enough sugar that I have to wonder if pirates tends towards diabetes or something.

Fishmen, on the other hand, taste salty. Much less objectionable.

“You...you bastard! When the officers get here, they’ll-”

“Scaled Spike.”

The tail stabs through the fishman’s head, ending his rant. Behind me, Jack coughs softly. I glance over my shoulder. “What?”

“You doing alright?” he asks, gesturing to where my tails are finishing off the business of disposing of the two dozen fishmen who’d tried to attack us. We’d lost two men in the initial attack, but that was all. Better than I’d expected.

“It’s just, you’ve been sucking down corpses like mad. You can’t still be hungry,” Jack continues.

I shake my head. “I’m not. Building up a reserve.”

“Since the first battle?”

“Yup.”

“How many?”

“Couple hundred, maybe?” The last fishman corpse vanishes. “Haven’t kept track.” I crack my neck as I let my tails fade away. “Let’s keep moving. I want to get this over with.”

Thoom.

“Oh, what fresh hell is this?” I mutter as a gigantic, sideways head appears over the rooftops. That was the only way to describe it. Huge, green, scaly, and long , two eyes stacked on top of each other.

“That...I think that’s an ocean sunfish fishman,” Jack says. “Where the hell have they been hiding that thing?”

“It’s surprisingly easy,” a new voice says. “He is very flexible.”

Jack and I exchange glances, and then look at the crowd of fishmen and the two guys leading it.

One’s bright yellow, his scales shifting to red along his forearms and calves, his face oddly long with a mohawk of spines and webbing at the top. The second’s scales are almost tiger-striped, and he has a frill of webbing around his stocky face, and literally dozens of arm-length spines protruding from his back. ‘One Punch’ Xio and ‘Poison Spear’ Jizho. Great.

“They snuck up on us,” I note idly to Jack.

“Yup,” Jack drawls. “They did.”

“You wanna take the big one?”

“Sure, why not?”

“They’re ignooooooring us, Xioooooo,” the lionfish fishman complains.

His yelloweye rockfish-fishman captain shrugs, folding his arms. “We get to kill them. Patience.”

“Fine. Let’s goooo…”

I crack my knuckles, matching the lionfish grin for grin. “Bring it, stripey.”

“Kill them all, boys!” Jack shouts. A roar from our crew answers him.

My tails burst free in an instant, lancing towards where the lionfish-man is standing, only to hit nothing but air.

“Tooooo sloooooow,” a voice whines in my ear. Shit, right-!

The lionfish ducks under the desperate swing of my tails, and a spearpoint of pain slams into my gut, sending me hurtling into a building. Dust clouds my vision as I fall back to the ground, falling to one knee. I look down. The jagged end of one of the lionfish’s own spines, buried in my belly.

I chuckle as a cold feeling begins to spread from the wound. “Poison spears...of course,” I say, yanking the thing free as I get back on my feet. “Come on then. I don’t have all day.”

 

----

 

“Twinned Spines.”

The twin spears stabbed into the Nightmare’s crossed tails, the red tendrils visibly darkening as the poison went to work, and Jizho smirked.

The Butcher Bird was surprisingly tough, he would admit. Quick enough to react to his attacks, too, which was surprising. Only Xio was faster than him...the fact that this little upstart could even react quickly enough to block was...intriguing.

“Scale...LANCE!”

His counterattacks, though, left much to be desired. Jizho swayed around the sluggish stab, taking the opportunity to embed another pair of his spines into the creature’s tendrils as they passed.

That made nearly a dozen of the lengthy spears embedded in the creature. Four in the torso, one in the right arm, another five in various spots on its tails, and the last two through the legs. Each spear contained enough venom to kill a hundred humans in a heartbeat.

And the Butcher Bird still stood, ten minutes after the first spear had pierced his flesh. His attacks were slower, his movements weaker, but his eyes still blazed behind his mask and he still kept attacking.

It would be almost impressive, if it actually changed anything.

“Kaneki!”

Jizho spun, snapping another spine off his back and impaling the Nightmare who had tried to rush him. The man was hurled back by the force of the blow, his corpse thudding to the ground at the feet of his remaining crewmen.

The guy with the hammer was still off fighting Kyodai, which was also surprising. Kyodia usually crushed all opposition. Literally.

As if the gigantic fishman could hear his thoughts, the hammer-wielder came hurtling down from above, cratering the street. The man groaned, and rolled over onto hands and knees, before Kyodai’s immense foot landed on him and drove him flat again.

Well, that was that. Jizho dodged an overhead tail strike that cracked the street behind him, and leapt past the Butcher Bird, jamming a thirteenth spear to join its fellows in the creature’s chest. The triple-tailed assault from three separate directions was trivial to jump through, and Jizho chuckled as the Butcher Bird whirled, a snarl on bloodstained lips.

His Captain grunted, and Jizho ignored his slowly dying opponent to focus on what the unquestioned lord and master of the Shell King Pirates had to say.

Xio had stood away from the conflict, allowing his subordinates the honor of killing these dogs. Now he regarded the Butcher Bird...and his eyes narrowed, before he gave a single, sharp nod.

Jizho knew that command like he knew how to breathe. Finish it.

Tails lanced through the air towards him. Too slow, far, far too slow. He had spent years training his speed and reflexes, and he could run through a hurricane without being touched by a single raindrop. He dodged between them, the last of his spines clenched in his fist.

The poisoned barb went through the lens of the Butcher Bird’s mask, into the eye beneath, and then out the back of the skull as he bore the creature down, before finally embedding itself in the cobblestones and pinning the Butcher Bird there as well. The tails broke apart and faded away.

Jizho took a step back and admired his handiwork as a despairing cry rose up from the remaining Nightmares and they broke and ran.

The Butcher Bird lay still.

 

----

 

“Get up, Kaneki! Get up!”

There was a place that was not a place, a hill of white clover. The sun burned in a cloudless sky.

“God damn it, get up! Heal your wounds, stand on your feet, and kill these bastards!”

There, a dragon waited. Its hide was black and battle-scarred, its body immense. Smoke rose from its nostrils, wafting past scarlet eyes.

This is not real, a boy said.

“Kaneki...please…”

Is it not? the dragon asked.

No real place would be so quiet, the boy replied.

The dragon laughed.

“Please…”

This place is as real as it needs to be, the dragon said. It is safe.

I am dying, aren’t I? the boy asked.

The dragon shrugged its shoulders. Perhaps, it answered. Does it matter?

It always does, the boy said. How do I get back?

The dragon looked to the sun. You will need wings, he said.

I don’t have those, the boy admitted.

No, the dragon said. But I do. Rest, child. I will do what needs doing.

In a place that was not a place…

The boy closed his eyes.

The dragon spread his wings.

 

----

 

“I am curious,” the fishman captain said. “Did you really think your soldiers were enough to beat all of us?”

Jack gritted his teeth, and ignored the smug bastard, despite the crushing weight on his back and the pain of what he suspected were broken ribs.

His attention was on his crew.

Ten or fifteen had gotten away. The rest were either wounded too badly to run, or dead. And judging by the looks on the faces of some of the fishmen crew, they were anticipating the chance to make all of the former into the latter.

And Kaneki…

He couldn’t be dead. He just couldn’t.

But he was so still, head pinned to the ground…

“Not going to talk? Fine. Kyodai, you can-”

“Kyeh.” Kaneki twitched. Something with a distant kinship to hope swelled in Jack’s heart. Could he be-

“Kya. Kya….Kyakakahahahahhahahaha!”

Kaneki’s arms and legs slammed into the cobblestones, cracking them, and his head began to rise. Slowly, leaving a trail of blood and things that weren’t blood. The remnants of his mask fell to the ground.

His head came free with a soft, wet noise, and Jack nearly retched as bits of bone and brain fell from the gaping wound in his crewmate’s head.

“KYAKAKAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHA!”

The fishmen began to back away as Kaneki turned, giving Jack a perfect view of his face. Kaneki’s features were split in a too-wide, too-sharp grin, his sole remaining eye a jittering red dot in a sea of bloodshot black sclerae. And his head...he could see through it.

“Kyakahahaha…”

A reddish-black liquid erupted from the hole with sudden force, filling the wound, coating Kaneki’s face and torso as the ghoul staggered, suddenly clutching at his head with an agonized howl.

“What the hell-” one of the fishmen began, and Kaneki lunged , vanishing from sight as the fishman was abruptly replaced by a spray of blood. The next moment, Kaneki was back where he’d been, still chuckling, head downcast and torso practically held parallel to the ground, knuckles almost scraping against the stone.

The remnants of last night’s snow were melting in a widening radius around the ghoul, and Jack began to sweat for reasons that were not related to the scene of surreal horror in front of him.

The same reddish-black fluid that was still dripping from Kaneki’s head was creeping down his limbs and body, solidifying into scaled patterns. Something writhed along Kaneki’s spine, and with a wet tearing noise new tendrils burst free, a quartet of red-tinged limbs bristling with outsized armored scales, leaving the shredded remnants of his jacket to fall to the ground.

A third pair sprouted from his upper back, crooked and wide like malformed wings of crystalline flame, and Kaneki made a noise that might’ve been a sigh of relief. A reddish haze began to seep from the tendrils, and wherever it touched, the stone hissed like a scalded cat, visibly eroding under the miasma. He raised his head again, meeting Jack’s horrified eyes with a single orb of burning scarlet and a maw of half-liquid teeth.

“Kyakakakakakakkaha…. kill.

Kaneki vanished, and the weight of the giant fishman vanished from Jack’s back in an instant.

Jack rolled back onto his back, trying to breathe, and in the process getting a front-row seat to what Kaneki was doing.

The ghoul clung to his much larger opponent, limbs tearing wet gashes into the larger fishman as his form flickered and blurred, ripping and tearing into the giant’s belly as the fishman screamed.

“G-g-g-GUTS!” Kaneki stuttered, tearing open and vanishing into the fishman before an explosion of boiling blood and intestines erupted from the giant’s back and he emerged again with a column of- was that-

B-b-ut No SpINe,” Kaneki proclaimed, tails dropping the grisly trophy before whipping back around and ripping the giant’s head from its shoulders with almost nonchalant ease.

For a moment, there was silence, broken only by the sound of various fluid draining from the gigantic corpse. Kaneki stepped on top of the body, and the miasma pouring from his body began to eat through flesh and muscle and bone with astonishing speed. Jack crab-walked away from the red cloud as unobstrusively as he could.

Then Jizho stepped forward, spines in hand, and Kaneki’s head snapped around to glare at the lionfish-man.

“I’ll kill you again, you damn-”

Kaneki vanished, and whatever Jizho had been planning to say became screaming and gurgling.

Fuck this. He was getting out of here.

Jack rolled back over, forcing himself to stand despite the complaints of his aching body, and began moving towards his crewmates, hammer in hand.

The fishmen took one look at him, battered, bleeding, and broken, and then looked in the direction where the screaming was coming from.

They booked it and ran, leaving the dead, the wounded, Jack...and the fishman captain, who was looking in the direction of the steadily more horrifying noises with a...smile?

Well, if he wasn’t trying to kill Jack, that was good enough for him.

Jack bent, seeing to the nearest of his crewmates. The wounded man’s shirt, torn apart into strips, served for a crude bandage for the gash across his chest. He moved on to the next.

“He is not human, is he?”

The voice made him look up, not because of any particularly interesting qualities, but because of the exact opposite. It was bored, bland, utterly disinterested. And it was coming from the mouth of the fishman captain.

“No,” he answered carefully, moving on to the next man. “He isn’t.”

The fishman’s expression shifted to a small smile. “Excellent. You can see to your crew. I care not what you do.”

“...Thank you?”

The fishman captain began to walk away, and Jack stared for a moment before turning to the next wounded man. He had men to save, and there was no time to be spent dealing with a clearly insane fishman.

 

----

 

All his life, Xio had been strong.

Stronger than any human. Stronger than any fishman .

His isolated colony had never seen Fishman Island, never acknowledged Neptune’s authority, so perhaps there were those stronger still, but he had yet to find them.

His strength had given him much trouble as a child. He had shattered objects by accident, broken utensils and tools in his hands. A friendly blow in a play-fight could cripple or kill, and so he’d learned to harness that strength and restrain it.

And yet, in the process, he’d grown even stronger. Even farther beyond everyone else.

He’d grown, and he’d fought Sea Kings with bare hands, turning his marginal instruction in Fishman Karate into his self-taught Pistol Shrimp Boxing. His punches had slaughtered armies from afar, had shattered the greatest champions that had come to face him.

At sixteen, he’d left alone. Struck out into the world, searching for something to challenge him.

Weaklings had flocked to his banner, fishmen that saw his strength as a means of protection, and he’d welcomed them. Not for their skill, but because he had a duty to protect his people from those who would prey on them. The stronger of those weaklings found themselves his lieutenants.

He’d traveled, calling himself a pirate in hopes of drawing the eyes of a truly strong opponent. For two decades, he had ranged across the Blues and the Grand Line, fighting Marines and other pirates alike. It was only now that he had committed himself to the journey, armed with the knowledge he needed and confident that his crew would at the very least not die immediately.

Only a few islands in, and he’d come here, hoping that the fires of war would forge his crew, and maybe, just maybe, make them strong enough to stand with him rather than below him. And if that could not be done, he had hoped that he would find an opponent that could, for the first time, make him break a sweat.

And now…

He may have found one.

He had seen the creature move. Jizho’s movements were quick, but in comparison to the ravening beast that had been unleashed, it was like the lionfish-man was swimming in syrup. This creature...this one was nearly as fast as Xio himself.

Jizho had stopped screaming. Which likely meant he was dead. Xio continued to walk towards where the sound had originated. The trail was easy enough to follow: the remnants of snow were entirely absent, and even the air seemed dried out, enough to make his gill slits ache a little. Water was still present, but in far lesser quantities than it should have been. That...miasma, would likely prove troublesome.

He came to a crossing, and found the creature. It was feeding noisily on Jizho’s body, the shattered remnants of his lieutenant’s spines scattered around it. Its armor-plated tendrils swayed like kelp in a current, while the wing-like appendages mantled its head and shoulders.

As Xio stepped into the crossing, those tendrils and wings shivered, and the creature whirled around, sole remaining eye spinning madly.

It lunged forward at incredible speeds, the air itself protesting at the impossible movement.

Xio smiled.

Xio punched.

Pistol Shrimp Boxing, like the Fishman Karate that had spawned it, relied on the manipulation of water. Unlike the more directly damaging style, it did not affect the water in an opponent’s body.

It manipulated water vapor first. To do so in a fashion able to affect the enemy required immense strength.

Xio had that strength.

The blow tore the air apart, smashing into the creature’s miasma and then propagating through the tainted air into the creature itself.

The scaled thing’s lunge reversed abruptly as it smashed into the building on the other side of the crossing.

Hm.

Disappointing. He’d expected-

Xio dodged to the side as a spray of crystalline shards cut through the air. The shotgun spray nipped at his left arm, drawing blood, and Xio smiled. Blades had broken on his skin before. This creature’s weapons were truly dangerous.

It staggered free of the wreckage, bloodied, but unbowed. Two of its tendrils twitched, regrowing clear injuries before his eyes, and the creature snarled with a scaled maw filled with crocodilian teeth. Its wings flicked forward, and another wave of shards crossed the space between them in an instant, but Xio was no longer there. The slightest bend of his knees had taken him up and over the wave, descending on the creature with fist cocked back to strike.

“Descending Mantis!”

The impact shook the city and shattered stone and wood alike. The crossed tendrils that took the blow evaporated under the force of his fist, his strength ripping the water in their cells apart, and the same happened to the armor and flesh and bone underneath those as his fist carried on through.

The creature’s tendrils nearly ripped his head from his shoulders in a vicious counterstroke even as he crushed its heart under his fingers, only a hasty leap back saving him from walking away with far worse than gashes on face and chest and shoulder. Xio landed on the rim of the crater his blow had formed, ignoring the stinging of his fresh wounds as he watched his opponent. Its left side was nothing more than pulp and reddish-black fluid, and yet, as he watched, it bled back together, the miasma intensifying in density until he couldn’t see anything beyond the reddish haze.

His heart pounded in his ears, and Xio’s smile widened as the haze retreated once more, the creature’s hunched form becoming visible again. It screamed at him, the sound shaking the earth.

This. This was what he wanted. Men had proved no challenge - so it was time to see if he could meet his match in a monster.

A storm of shards ripped through the air. He punched them aside.

Armored, scaled tendrils lanced for his heart. He shattered them with his fists.

The miasma threatened to devour him. He forced it away with the wind off his strikes.

Through it all, for the first time in years, he felt his heart burn with passion. For the first time he could remember, he fought , holding nothing back, every blow meant to turn his opponent to vapor, every strike carrying the potential to kill.

And it wasn’t enough.

The creature fought on. He shattered its bones, and the tendrils carried it. He ripped it apart, and it grew back together. He cracked its armor, and it reforged itself.

Whereas he...he took wounds. Scratches, at first, then deeper gashes. One by one. Slowing him down, little by little, piece by piece.

It was...exhilarating. He threw his everything at this monster, and he still-

-just-

-didn’t-

- have it.

His smile widened to dimensions a pelican eel would consider excessive as he forged in closer. Tendrils lanced past and through him, but he ignored the pain even as the miasma began to eat at his organs.

Even as his vision dimmed, he walked forwards, letting the creature lunge at him, right into grappling range. Its wings gouged ragged lines out of his back as he grabbed it by the throat, red-black teeth snapping centimeters from his face. He drew a fist back, and smiled, even as he felt a tendril punch through his chest and rip his heart to shreds.

“Sunfire Cavitation.”

And there was light.

 

----

 

C considered the devastation with a fresh eye.

He was fairly certain there weren’t many things that could set a significant swath of an island on fire at once. Certainly not in a neat cone pattern.

Brother was almost certainly in the center of it, wasn’t he? It would be just like him.

Well, Mister Gin had ordered him to check things out, and he’d already seen the bosun carrying all the wounded people off, so finding Brother was all he had left to do.

The impact site was the best place to start. The very tip of the cone.

He slid off the side of the building, and started walking, using his powers to levitate some of the guns he’d taken away from the annoying guys in blue in front of him.

It saved his life.

One moment he was walking along.

The next, there was a snarling scaled creature impaling itself on the arrayed bayonets. C took a step back, and stared at the figure as it shrieked a string of nonsense words.

“...Brother?”




Chapter Text

Vinci did not consider himself an angry person.

It was, he reflected, most puzzling. He was more than capable of great anger.

“For the Revo-”

His scalpels opened the man’s throat and he died mid-step. Vinci moved on, trusting to the confusion of his enemy to mask his movements.

Yes, immense, world-shaking anger. He could harness it, could feel it burning in his veins. Rage, pulsing in tune with the second heart he’d built.

He sidestepped a flurry of bullets, grabbing the nearest of his opponents and jamming a grenade into his mouth as he opened it to shout. Pin went out, man went into a knot of rebels, and Vinci moved on before the explosion even hit his eardrums.

And yet...

He wasn’t even mad at Roberts, at whose feet thousands of dead could be laid. It was, Vinci thought, a puzzle indeed. Roberts was a short-sighted, petty maniac, who had set the Archipelago aflame out of misplaced fear...and yet Vinci did not hate him as he should.

He had been enraged, once he had seen Doppel die under his hands, seen a good and just and friendly man pass away from the injuries that self-righteous robber baron had inflicted, despite all Vinci had tried to save him.

His words had carried weight, not the weight of a Conqueror’s Will, but weight nonetheless...in his rage, he had been something more than human.

Now, though?

The anger had passed.

His foot kicked up, the blade of air that formed in its wake eviscerating a squad of rebel swordsmen, and Vinci turned the motion into a backwards handspring that took him over another cluster of soldiers with ease.

His scalpels blurred, and they fell before his feet so much as touched the ground.

The street was silent.

Now…

Heh.

Once the anger had vanished, all that was left was...serenity.

Oh, he knew he was hurting - his eyes were bleeding gold again, his muscles starting to ache from overexertion - but it did not matter. He moved, the rebels died.

And he was going to reach his goal.

There was nothing else of importance.

He walked down the street, noting how the buildings dwindled away, how the snow-covered cobblestones were replaced by bare earth. Ahead, the gaping black maw of a mine entrance loomed.

There was the minor matter of the entrenched rebel positions. Lines of men, cannon barrels protruding behind barricades. A hundred rifle barrels aimed themselves at Vinci. Two hundred swords and axes stood waiting in eager hands.

Serenity. Calm. Peace. Certainty.

Vinci pulled the scythe off his back, and Shaved forwards.

His scythe began to reap a harvest of men, screams and corpses twisting in his wake. Rifles cracked, but the bullets either found themselves deflected by his blade or found their homes in other rebels as he spun and dodged.

“Electroshock Excision,” he said calmly, pushing electricity down his scythe and swinging it up at a cannon that several rebels were trying to turn to point at him. The wave of lightning hit rifle barrels and grounded itself in the cannon, the currents seizing everyone near the weapons in its way. Smoking corpses hit the ground, and powder barrels cooked off as they ignited, sending a chain reaction across the gun positions as flaming shrapnel went everywhere and set off more gunpowder, which generated more shrapnel…

Vinci stood tall as the shockwaves rippled through the air and tossed the rebels to the ground, trusting to his Iron Body to protect him. Heat passed over him, and flames, and he ignored them both.

He walked through the burning remnants of the rebel defenses, absent-mindedly brushing embers off his shoulder before they could set his lab coat aflame.

Now, that should have been enough...hmm.

He let his scythe rest in the crook of one arm as he pulled out and lit a cigarette. The nicotine would not affect him, but the ritual was useful.

“Where are you hiding, little miner…” he mused softly, eyes aching as he looked around. The shadows were deep here, only a single moon out to provide any sort of light, and that low on the horizon and hidden by the city itself. But shadows didn’t matter to his eyes. Even the mine opening, looming over everything, was lit clear as day.

The earth rumbled, and Vinci leapt back, barely evading the spike of rock that suddenly appeared where he’d been standing. He grinned. Finally.

Another rumble, and the spike cracked open.

Roberts stepped out.

Photographs hadn’t really captured the sheer size of the man. Sure, he was a fat bastard, but he stood as tall as Jack , taller even, his shoulders broad with muscle under the black silk of his tuxedo and waistcoat. His face wasn’t as fleshy as it had appeared in the photos, either, though his skin hung loose around it...he’d been training.

“Hitting the gym, huh?” he asked.

Roberts simply glared at him, folding his arms over his broad belly. “How did you find me, pirate?” he asked stonily.

“Oh, I didn’t. I just figured if I killed enough of your little deluded friends, you’d turn up,” Vinci said lightly, spinning his scythe like a marcher’s baton in one hand. “Seems to have worked.” He grinned wider, letting his eyes start to blaze and ignoring the slow, trickling burning as they wept ichor. “You’ve got a lot of dead to answer for, you know.”

Grenzer. Skantarios. Knutte. Doppel. Countless dead on both sides, and an even greater slaughter being wreaked by his own orders and his own hand.

“And you think you are the one to bring me to task?” Roberts asked coldly. “You think you’re in the right?”

“I have a ravenous cannibal on my crew, and yet he cares more about human life than you did,” Vinci said with a shrug. “Strange how life goes.”

“... Bull Spike.”

Vinci dodged to the side as another rock obelisk tried to impale him, laughing. “Amputation!” he shouted back, hurtling a blade of air off his scythe right at Roberts. It hit a wall of suddenly rising rock and shattered, and Vinci continued running.

“Bull Spike!”

“Amputation! Amputation!”

The first air blade smashed into the incoming spike of rock, slowing it just enough for Vinci to dodge to the side. The second went for Roberts again, who blocked it with another wall.

Vinci stuck his scythe into the ground, pulling free scalpels instead and jumping into the air, then jumping off the air, getting above the walls. “Falling Biopsy!”

Scalpels fell like rain, aimed straight at Roberts, but another wall of earth and stone rose above the fat fucker, shielding him.

Shielding him, and cutting off half his sight in the process. Vinci let himself fall, throwing down another pair of Tempest Kicks to make sure Roberts kept the shield up. A Shave accelerated him downwards, past the shield, before Roberts could react. The man half-turned, surprise written on his face.

Vinci grinned, and bulled into the man, slamming him into his own earthen defense and shattering it with the bastard’s own body. Roberts landed on his back with a thud.

Vinci’s fingers found the thread he’d tied to the haft of his scythe, and a pull brought the weapon back into his hands, raised to strike.

“Electroshock Excision.”

The lightning-covered blade slammed into Robert’s ineffectual upraised arm, and-

-and shattered like cheap glass.

Vinci stared at the remains of his weapon, vaguely conscious of stinging lines of pain on his face and arm where shrapnel had cut him. He stared at the solid, cold grey stone of his opponent’s limb.

A Logia. Not an earth-control Paramecia, a Logia.

This...was not good.

Roberts smiled. “Earth Surge.”

 

----

 

Brother was proving...difficult to contain.

“Gaussian Spear,” C said, dodging a stabbing tendril and the scales that jutted from it just barely. An iron pipe, pulled from rubble, lanced into Brother’s form, stabbing into his shoulder and briefly pinning him to the ground. The metal almost immediately began to rust as the reddish cloud that was drifting from Brother’s form began to eat at it, but it bought C a bit of time, enough to get distance between them again.

Distance that Brother would eat up again the moment the pipe rusted away.

Problematic.

A Shave to the side sufficed to dodge the shards that Brother’s wings hurled at him as he struggled to free himself. C gestured with his left arm, reaching out to the rubble nearby and pulling whatever pieces of metal he could find towards him, a small part of his awareness dedicated to keeping the scrap orbiting around him like a belt of asteroids. It had injured Brother enough times that he was keeping his distance, refusing to charge him directly again.

Still. The shards, the tendrils, and even the miasma were not what was making C worry.

It was the words.

“K-K-k-kiLL! LiTTlE tOY SOlDIEr, Kill, rIp tHe fLESH anD eaT! eAt! wiLl CRaCK-K-K-K BOneS, lIttLe ExPeRImenT, SUcK The MARrOW dRy! c-c-C-C-canNoT SToP, WiLl finD anD K-k-K-kiLl AND eAt you!”

It was his scent , too, a thick thing of copper and iron that spilled from him and the miasma in equal measure. Unrestrained and fiery, completely unhinged.

The pipe snapped, and Brother leapt back to two legs, limbs twitching. C held his breath. What was he-

The stream of words stopped. Brother stared at him with a single, steady eye.

“B-b-b-br-”

Brother’s neck cracked as he whipped it to the side, then crunched as he slowly rotated it back to look at C.

“BrOtheR. KnoW yoUr sCenT. ComE, liTTLe jaBBErWOCk. WilL maKe yOu MInE FoREVER ANd Ever. COME AnD dIe anD fUEl my FirE.”

C looked at his Brother, or rather what his Brother had become, and sighed.

“The Captain would be so disappointed in you, Brother. Hall’s Hail.

Brother fell to all fours, launching himself forward with a snarl. C swept his left hand forwards, and a rain of metal met him halfway, pipework and discarded weapons and pieces of gates and fences. They ripped into Brother’s form, even as the miasma ate at them.

Sweat rolled down C’s face behind his mask as Brother hit the ground again, looking like a pincushion.

It wouldn't last. Already some of the smaller pieces of metal were breaking.

“R-r-RuN, liTtlE JabBerwoCk. WiLl FiNd anD hUnt YOu, yeS!”

Brother wasn't going to stop. Containing...that miasma wasn't going to let that happen. How to stop it? If he could keep Brother down long enough... maybe his mind would heal from whatever had happened to it. But nothing he could do would last.

Hmph. He turned and Shaved down the street, following his nose and hoping that-

The sound of tearing metal and the odd, arrhythmic skittering noise of Brother supplementing his limbs with his tendrils told him that, yes, Brother was definitely following him.

The searing heat that clipped his right arm as he dodged around a corner told him that, yes, Brother was still more than capable of attacking while at a run.

Also: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!

It was only through sheer force of will that C kept running, Shaving as fast as his legs could manage. A wave of his left hand ripped up sewage piping and plumbing in his wake, providing a temporary defense against his Brother’s unrelenting pursuit. The sound of impalement and the subsequent roar of fury gave him enough confidence to stagger into a side alley and collapse, nearly ending up flat on his face as his legs wobbled dangerously.

His shoulder and upper arm burned , a pain unlike anything he’d ever felt before, and the pain was spreading. Poison? He craned his neck, staring at the bloodred shards embedded in his arm. They smoked slowly, the same miasma Brother was exuding.

Well. This was going to hurt. More.

C grit his teeth, grabbed the largest of the shards - which he immediately regretted as it started to try to eat into the skin of his hand - and pulled it free. It came out slowly, tearing at his muscle on the way out. The next two were just as bad, sending stars across his vision, and once the last clattered to the ground it was all he could do to remember to breathe. And he could still feel whatever those shards were full of crawling along his veins, even if it was starting to fade as his own body began to counteract it.

Now, where was-

“FoUNd yOu.”

C rolled to the side as a tendril scythed through the air, scrabbling to get his feet back under him as Brother leapt-

And vanished again in a loud explosion. C landed on his back, ears ringing.

Ow.

“Well, that’s a mean wee beastie, ain’t it?” a voice said, as hands got under C’s arms and began to lift him back on his feet. “Up and away with ye, ye fancy-dressed bastard. Got a dragon to slay, don’t we?”

“N-” C paused, shaking his head and trying to clear it of the fog. “'s Brother. Keep...got to lead him t’ ocean.”

A hooded face intruded into his field of vision. “That so, laddy?” the man asked. “Hell, your Brother turned into that? All you black-eyes able to do that?” He looked up. “Keep firing, lads! Explosive tips, keep him hurting!”

“Yes, Commander!” a distant shout responded, before there was a thrum of bowstrings, another explosion, and an enraged howl.

“Rangers,” C said, cursing the slowness of his thoughts as he finally got his feet under him. “Why you?”

“You lads hauled us outta the fire, figured we'd do the same, ya ken?” The hooded man cocked his head. “You got a plan, black-eye?”

“The mist...eats everything. Hot, too. I have a plan. Need to get him to follow me.”

The Ranger laughed. “Don’t put too much on yourself, do ye, black-eye? You good to go?”

C cracked his neck, forcing the fuzziness away. “Yes,” he said shortly, stepping back out onto the street.

Brother was on his back, writhing as scales grew to replace a gaping hole that had been blasted into him. Two tendrils were slowly eating into the cobblestones.

C took a deep breath, shutting out the commands the Ranger barked to his fellows, shutting out the residual pain, shutting out the thick smell of blood and copper that was coming from Brother, all to focus on the sea, to find its scent.

He raised a hand, focusing on the rubble that dotted the street.. “Gaussian Spear.”

The arm-length chunk of pipe hit Brother right as he was getting to his feet, punching a neat hole through one shard-wing. Brother stared at him. An arrow thocked into his side, and a tendril pulled it out and hurled it away, letting it explode in the distance. “STilL aLivE, littlE JaBBERwock?”

“Still alive, brother,” C said with a calm he wasn’t feeling. “Come and get me.”

Brother snarled in joy, and hurled a storm of tendrils forwards. C leapt upwards, kicking off the air again and again, gritting his teeth as his legs burned at the effort. It got him above the obscenely deadly cloud, and let him land on a rooftop. The moment his feet hit tile he Shaved to the next rooftop - and the sound of the roof collapsing behind him as Brother slammed into it told him that had just saved his life again.

He wasn’t stupid. He didn’t Shave in a straight line. He used the rooftops as best he could, changing directions, launching himself over the streets. The snarling, disjointed commentary from Brother was the only indication he had of pursuit.

But, all too quickly, he ran out of places to run. The ocean stood in front of him, only a small wooden dock present.

“NoWHere to RUn, liTtle jAbberWOcK,” Brother said, thudding to the ground behind him.

C looked at the ocean. He turned back, and looked at his brother, a thing of scales and tendrils and seeping, searing red mist. He grinned, exposing teeth to match those of his mask. “Of course not, brother,” he said, raising his left hand. “Van der Waals Wash.”

There was a lot of metal on the seabed. Abandoned equipment, old shellfish traps, hooks, cannons, dock fastenings, nails...the list went on.

All of it came hurtling out of the water at C’s simple command, all of it encircling and trapping Brother, tearing itself into his skin. The miasma hissed as it began to boil away the thin layer of sea water, already corroding the metal, but the few seconds were all C needed.

He yanked his hand back, and Brother went hurtling into the bay. A plume of steam erupted from the impact site, an opaque cloud obscuring everything.

C ignored the sound of the dozen or so Ranger Pirates arriving as he pulled metal from the rubble, forcing it into the shapes he needed as he waited.

A trail of bubbles cut through the water like a shark with a rocket strapped to its tail, and Brother pulled himself onto the dock, gasping for breath. His scales were dulled, every part of him dripping wet, and no more miasma coming from his body.

Good.

Brother got to his feet, chuckling.

C clenched his fist. “Tokamak Imprisonment.”

Metal shrieked as it slammed into Brother from all sides, strips of steel and iron weaving into and around themselves and tightening, more and more of it piling on by the second, all of it compressing Brother into an inescapable cylinder of solid metal, the height of a man and nearly as wide.

C let go of the pile, panting. That much metal, compressing it all and manipulating it...whew.

He watched the prison, but there was no heat, no seeping red cloud...he’d done it.

“It done, lad?” the Ranger asked.

C nodded.

“What’re you planning to do with him?”

C gave the man a look. “Bring him to the Captain. See if he can fix this. You coming?”

“Sure thing, lad. What’s your name?”

“C. Yours?”

“Murray, lad. Let’s get going then, aye?”

“Yes.”

 

----

 

It was a good thing he'd spent so much time forcing his body to augment itself, Vinci thought absently as he struggled back to his feet. If he hadn't, he'd probably have been dead by now.

Robert's attack had practically entombed him, earth rising on all sides and burying him...but it had spat him out here.

It was dark, sure, but that didn’t matter. He could see just fine.

A cavern. Only one entrance and exit, gently sloping upwards. A latticework of wooden supports held the entire thing together.

He was in the mine, then.

His entire body hurt. Right down to the bones. He was vaguely certain that he’d be one giant bruise come morning, and his vision was growing spotty as his eyes strained and bled. But dammit, he hadn’t come so far as to fall to an overinflated miner baron here and now.

He didn’t feel serene anymore. A pity. He could use it right now.

Roberts might arrive at any moment. What were his options? He couldn’t - yet - use Haki, which was the main way to counter a Logia. Electric attacks were worse than useless.

The earth shifted, just slightly, and Vinci leapt back as a spike of rock ripped upwards.

And, of course, he was literally surrounded by the Logia’s element. Wonderful. His lips skinned back from his teeth as Roberts stepped out from his obelisk again.

“Still alive?” the fat man asked. “You are more persistent than I give you credit for.”

He was looking...above Vinci?

What?

Vinci looked around, his snarl turning into a grin. There were no torches here, no light sources. Not even lanterns...these mines must have been abandoned.

Roberts was blind here, unless his powers gave him some means of sensing through rock. Vinci wasn’t.

“I can feel you scurrying about, pirate,” Roberts said.

Well, shit, his powers did let him do that. Damned Devil Fruits.

Okay. How to destroy rock? Physical damage could regenerate, but unlike a liquid or gas Logia he’d still remain solid…

“Bull Spike.”

Vinci leapt aside, the obelisk nearly catching the edge of his coat.

Right. Rock Logia, he could turn his body into stone...but unlike other Logias, he’d still be a solid target…

Vinci almost laughed.

Time to break things.

He slipped a black pill into his mouth, swallowing immediately.

Thu-thump. Thu-thump. Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump…

The world went bright at the edges as pressure built behind his eyes and in his limbs, fire burning in his belly. Electricity began to sparkle around his limbs as the organs he’d created for himself went into overdrive. His bones creaked as his body tensed.

Monster Mode, Vinci growled.

Roberts turned slightly, orienting himself to face Vinci’s voice again, hands curling into fists.

Slow. Far, far too slow.

Vinci rocketed forwards, rock splintering under his feet as he launched himself at the man, crossing the distance between them almost instantly. Impact Trauma!

His right fist slammed into Roberts’ face, the taller man reeling back. Vinci landed, bent his knees, and powered upwards, left hand lancing out in a picture-perfect uppercut. His opponent's head snapped back with the sound of cracking stone.

More.

Vinci turned in midair, leg swinging out in a roundhouse and slamming into Roberts’ side, to the tune of more cracks.

Hook. Axe kick. Knee. Jab, cross, uppercut, spinning side kick, elbow to the temple, spinning heel kick-

“Counteroffer.”

The blunt slab of stone the burst from Roberts’ chest slammed into him, hurtling him away. He hit the ground hard.

Roberts took a step forward, the stone slab retracting and the cracks in his body healing themselves. “You...are extremely annoying ,” the rock Logia ground out.

Vinci leapt back onto his feet. “Could say the same of you,” he taunted. A weakness. He needed something, anything , if he could just make it stick on the bastard...he needed to see a way through this...he needed to know how to kill this -

“Basalt Bankruptcy. Die.”

The pressure behind his eyes flooded his entire head at once, and his vision went dark with a wet popping noise. At the same time, a crushing weight slammed into his chest, pinning him against a wall.

Fuck, his eyes, what the hell had happened to his eyes?

Vinci’s bones creaked as the slab of stone crushed him against the wall. He ignored the mounting pain. “Stone Trauma.”

His blow was sloppy, done at an awkward angle. It still fractured the stone column that held him up, letting him fall to his knees and suck in a few breaths of oxygen. He still couldn’t see - what had he done to himself? Why had his vision failed him?

“Why won’t you stay down?!” Roberts shouted, before a blow - a fist, right to the jaw - rocked Vinci’s head back, sending stars across his darkened vision. “You come here, you kill my people, you try to destroy everything I’ve built, and you just!” Another blow, this one low to the rib cage, reinforced bone fracturing. “Won’t!” A third, a straight cross to the chest, and Vinci fell. “DIE!”

Silence, for a moment. He heard the scrape of boots on stone, and heavy breathing. “Why, pirate? For money? For the Doge’s favor? He’s a fool. Nobody can stand against the World Government and survive. I saw that, I made my choices, and when he wanted to put us on the path to destruction I reached out and took my orders like a good little soldier, to save these people...and you think you can come here and destroy all of that?”

A massive hand latched itself around Vinci’s neck, lifting him up. He didn’t struggle. He wasn’t going to give this fucker the satisfaction of seeing him squirm, even as his lungs began to burn.

“It was so damn simple, pirate. I’d wave the flag, hire whoever I needed, destroy the Doge and his men...and in the end, a pardon, and recognition. The pirates would have to go, of course, but that, and access to the mines...giving that up would buy our people safety for generations. It was all starting to work...and then you had to come along and ruin it, pirate. And here you are. Broken and bleeding.”

Vinci felt the hand slam him into another rock wall.

“Was it worth it? To burn our islands, to slaughter good men and women? All for gold and a promise from a soon-to-be-dead fool? Was it?”

Thu-thump.

The hand let him go, and Vinci fell to the ground.

“It never is, pirate. Money’s never worth the price in blood…”

Thu-thump.

“You’re going to die. The Doge is probably already dead. Your comrades will follow soon enough, whether due to my own mercenaries or the might of the World Government. So why do you smile?”

Thu-thump-thu-thump-thu-thump-thump-thump-thump-thump.

Vision returned, a sharp explosion of color that made Vinci suck in a breath.

No...more than color. Now...he could see it all. Overlapping fault lines, constant and crystalline, all throughout the mine and the walls and the floors and the ceiling and the air itself…

Vinci’s smile became a grin. “ Why do I smile?” he rasped, getting to his feet, ignoring the urge of his knees to wobble as he stared at Roberts. The man was a perfect, self-repairing construct, impossible to damage with mere physical force. It didn’t matter. There were other faults. “Because I know something you don’t.”

“And what would that be, pirate?”

The lightning didn’t come easy, but Vinci forced it out, sending it crawling along one arm, all he could manage...but enough.

“Dahahaha...I know you dug too deep.”

He slammed his fist into the ground in front of him, where countless thousands of fault lines converged. The earth cracked in front of him, fissures opening up around where Roberts stood...and heat and light spilled into the room from those cracks.

Roberts paled.

The earth fell out from beneath the man with a roar, the cavern floor collapsing...and revealing a sea of searing-hot magma, far beneath.

The big man didn’t even make a noise as he fell.

Vinci stared at the sea for a moment, letting the heat warm him. Hot winds plucked the tricorn from his head. He was too exhausted to care.

Wordlessly, he turned back, walking towards the sole exit as the mine began to groan around him.

Roberts had said enough. Enough that Vinci knew what was coming.

He was exhausted, battered, on the edge of his strength.

It didn’t matter.

Whatever the World Government had that had made Roberts so certain of victory...it, too, would not stop him. He had too much to do to fall on this pack of war-torn islands.

 

Chapter Text

Consciousness filtered in like sunlight through a storm cloud.

Herman groaned, realized there was something stabbed into his chest, ripped it out, and only then opened his eyes.

The concerned visage of Oyeplet Akis filled his vision.

Herman closed his eyes again. Oyeplet was a good doctor, but not something anyone wanted to wake up to.

“Hey, come on, you overgrown bastard, don’t you dare fall asleep on me.”

Herman opened his eyes again. Dammit. Still there. He sat up with a groan. His veins hurt. Probably whatever aftereffects there were from that snake bastard’s venom. He looked around.

Said snake bastard’s corpse was just a bit down the street. The streaks of blood…

“Did you drag me here?” he growled at Akis.

The doctor shrugged. “I wasn’t going to treat you in the middle of a pile of guts and blood. Not sanitary, you know.”

“Urgh. Casualties?”

Akis’s grim expression told him a great deal. Herman sighed. “They didn’t deserve that.”

“Nobody does. You’re lucky the survivors managed to get me over here.”

“Hrmph.” He made to stand, but he wobbled suddenly, nearly falling back down. Akis offered him a hand up, and after a moment, Herman accepted.

“Where’s my sword?” he rasped, feeling the weight - or rather, the lack of it - on his back.

“You can’t seriously be thinking of going back into combat,” Akis began. “You were nearly just dissolved , for the love of God, just rest-”

Herman ignored him as he saw Amakatta. The blade was embedded in the ground right next to the severed halves of the snake bastard’s head.

He tottered again as he walked towards it, but he grit his teeth and forged on until he reached his weapon.

The moment his hand closed around the wire-wrapped hilt, he felt better. Not great , but better. He wrenched the miao-dao out of the ground, examining it briefly. Not a scratch.

He looked at where he’d cut.

The snake bastard was in two halves.

So were the buildings behind his corpse, which were slowly starting to slide apart. He did not smile. But he nodded.

“Thank you,” he said to the corpse. “For the lessons you allowed me to learn.”

In his familiar grip, Amakatta seemed to hum slightly. He hefted the blade, sliding it back into its harness, before turning back to Akis. “How’re the others doing? Did the captain win?”

Akis coughed, and then wordlessly pointed off into the distance.

Herman stared in the direction the doctor had indicated.

He stared some more.

He closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, then opened them again.

“Akis?”

“Yes?”

“Why does the neighboring island have a volcano on it?”

“I have no idea, but it’s about where the mines were, so I’m pretty sure the captain’s to blame.”

Herman nodded. That was an entirely reasonable suspicion where Vinci was concerned.

“Think he’ll make it to the rendezvous?”

“It’s the captain,” Akis said. “If he got his legs broken, he’d walk on his hands.”

Again, entirely reasonable.

Herman started walking. “Rest of the men?”

“A bit down the road. Squeamish little idiots. Oh, they’ll cut throats and fight like devils, but the second you start jamming syringes of antivenom into someone, oh suddenly they develop a gag reflex. Honestly…”

Herman laughed. The captain was clearly rubbing off on his students.

 

----

 

The Nightmares, Clare decided, were a walking paradox.

No other crew could look so completely battered and yet also look like they were ready to kill whoever they came across.

She hung back from the gathering of officers, content to look them over. She, too, was tired. Transforming that much of herself was tiring...though the sheer number of Kriegers she’d put into the ground made it worth it in her eyes. Still, she felt better than most of the Nightmares looked.

Gin had a few visible bruises and looked half-dead, and he was the easiest off next to the completely unruffled Oni. Lauren, the gunslinger girl, was missing an arm. Had to give the girl credit - she was still moving despite that, but unless Clare missed her guess that was mostly due to shock and some very effective painkillers.

Their swordsman was literally covered in blood and had some nasty-looking puncture wounds, and was obviously barely standing. The big guy with the hammer was moving like he’d cracked some ribs in the fighting. The creepy fuck in the suit had tattered clothing and an exhausted look in his black eyes. Vinci himself was burned and obviously battered, too, and was missing his hat.

Their monster of a first mate...well, there was a cylinder of metal floating in the air behind the masked guy in his tattered suit...that, and the fact that occasional growling noises came from said cylinder, told her all she really wanted to know.

As for the rank and file...there were only half as many Nightmares around as she’d seen at the start. She doubted the missing ones were all dead, but given that a lot of the ones still walking with them were sporting minor wounds, it was probably a decent chunk of the absent pirates that weren’t getting up again. Nightmares were tough customers, and there wasn’t much difference between a wound bad enough to keep them down and one that was just outright lethal.

Vinci looked over his officers for a moment. His eyes swept over Clare, and the Gear Pirate drew herself up straighter almost instinctively.

Vinci’s eyes fell on Lauren, noting the missing arm. “Fall back,” he said flatly. “Let the medics see to you. After this, I’ll get you a new limb.”

“I can still-”

“Go.”

Without another word of protest, the girl turned and walked away, a couple of the white-coated pirates falling out of the group to shadow her footsteps without a word.

Clare nearly shivered. That kind of silent coordination was disturbing.

Vinci’s gaze moved to the cylinder. “What. Happened.”

“Fishmen bastards stabbed him in the brain and poisoned him. Apparently it just made him mad,” Jack reported. “In both ways. Didn’t see the fight between him and the fishman captain, but something punched part of the island flat.”

“That was not Brother,” long, dark, and fancy said. “I think.” He gave the growling cylinder a look. “Brother is apparently now completely batshit insane. And he grew a crocodile face. I dislike it.”

Vinci visibly took a moment to parse that statement, before sighing and pinching the bridge of his nose. He gestured at the cylinder. “How secure is that?”

“Very. I had to drown him first, because he was trying to eat everything with some...evil blood mist thing...but it went away when I threw him into the ocean, and hasn’t come back. I’m surprised he woke up, though. I didn’t leave any air holes.”

“Was he coherent?”

“He said some very strange things, and his voice was weird. So no.”

“Hmph. Bring him with. I’ll see if I can fix him...later… oh for god’s sake, we were only gone a few hours.

Clare stared at the gates of the Ducal Palace. Or, rather, where they’d been. Only some creaking hinges and splinters of wood remained where they’d stood.

Vinci’s eye visibly twitched. “Right,” he said. “Herman, stay here with the others, you’re in the worst condition. Oni, keep an eye on them in case whoever’s responsible tries to slip past us. Clare, you should probably do the same with your crew. Apparently , we didn’t murder enough people. And the fact that I have just said that sentence fills me with frustration at the universe.”

Clare turned, nodding to her men. “Stay with the others,” she said. “We’ll deal with this.”

As one, the pirates walked into the belly of the beast.

 

----

 

The Palace was a slaughterhouse. One that his eyes, no longer in pain, caught every detail of unerringly.

Here, a pile of Tercio mercenaries, yellows and blacks soaked in blood. There, the shredded remnants of a Ducal Guard platoon, all of whom had had their chests caved in in addition to numerous other signs of blunt force trauma. Further on, men and women in the fine clothes of functionaries and clerks, heads severed from bodies. The dead stained the fine courtyards and the palace itself in a grisly carpet of unequaled slaughter.

The smell of death did not unsettle Vinci.

Only the prospect of facing whoever was responsible for this did.

Herman and Lauren, he’d sent away. They were spent, unable to contribute to the fight. The others...not in good shape. Jack’s movements spoke of internal injury, C was focused on containing Kaneki, and as for himself, he was only standing due to sheer stubbornness. Gin and Clare were the only ones really fit to fight, and both of them were clearly tired.

Part of him wanted to turn back. To leave whoever had wreaked this slaughter be.

But he’d paid too much of a price already, lost too many people. He needed to see this ended.

Was that selfish? Maybe.

But his best fighter was currently in an oversized tin can thanks to this, and Vinci was tired of having to bend.

He stepped over the broken bodies of Frederick and Wallenstein, ignoring the shattered weapons in the hands of the Tercio commanders and the equally destroyed doors of the Palace proper.

More bodies. More blood.

Inconsequential.

Their wounds revealed a lot, though.

Great carving cuts, crushing blows, impacts with the precision of bullet holes...it was as though a boxer had learned the Six Powers.

Which, given Kaneki’s hints and testimony, probably meant CP9. They were the only groups to both use a modicum of stealth - even if it was of the ‘leave no witnesses’ sort - and the Six Powers. The Marines would have been...obvious.

All the types of wounds were identical, which pointed to a single operative. Kumadori was hysterically obvious and Fukuro was...not weak , but definitely not in the caliber of ‘kill entire army’. Which left, unless Kaneki’s timing was off, only one possible opponent.

The hallways were nearly choked with corpses, and Kaneki’s prison grumbled and shifted as the berserk ghoul reacted to the reeking smell of carnage.

Vinci kept himself from reacting as the sounds of battle, still distant, began to reach them. He could trace the location instantly. The Doge’s throne room.

Well. At least their employer was probably still alive.

The sounds of battle stopped.

Okay, maybe not.

All too soon, they were at the doors to the throne room.

Vinci looked over his officers and ally. “This person is going to be skilled, powerful, and overall an immense pain in the hindquarters. We’re going to kill him anyway. Ready?”

They all nodded.

Vinci put boot to door.

 

----

 

Jabra was used to people reacting to his presence. They even had categories of reaction. The first, of course, was fear and dread, from people who had some idea of what he was. The second was bravado, usually from people who didn’t know, or the ones who were stupid enough to think they could take him on. The third was hate, which was typically followed by futile attacks and/or shrieking insanity.

The Doge and his little entourage had been a mixture of the first and the second...they’d been pretty annoying to fight, too, the little blue bastard throwing things at him, the one in red turning into some kind of bone golem, and the little scribe generating some giant goat horns and trying to headbutt him to death.

Iron Body Fist Law shattered it all, of course, but they still had been more of a challenge than the two mercs outside and all the soldiers.

But, only three real reactions, from people who ended up having to fight him.

The Nightmare captain’s took him by surprise.

“Great, I hate being right,” the man said. “Hi, Jabra of CP9.” He grinned, and Jabra turned, dropping the now-headless body of the Doge to the floor.

Wonderful. More people to fight. He’d have thought the pirate mercenaries would’ve taken care of the idiots.

Normally, he’d start with a lie, get them off-guard, but it was rather pointless. The throne room was thoroughly trashed and he was clearly the one responsible...well, mostly, there were a few blocks of stone and the like that the little blue bastard had tossed around. But still, standing on top of the central dias and holding the Doge’s corpse was pretty obvious.

So instead of lying, he jumped down to the ground, cracking his neck. “Well, you guys look like you’ve had a rough time of it. Roberts give you some trouble?”

The Nightmare captain pulled out a pair of bonesaws, grin never failing. “Not enough,” he said. Okay, second reaction...pretty unusual from someone who knew his name. “Let’s finish this.”

It wasn’t the captain that moved first, but the big guy with the hammer. Jabra’s eye caught the movements of a beginner’s Shave, and long-honed instincts made it easy to place just where the man was headed, and punch to the side. “Iron Body Fist Law: Wolf Bullet.”

The man’s hammer shattered as it struck his fist, and Jabra flickered through a Shave, a leg slamming into the man’s solar plexus before he could react. Big and bearded slammed into a wall, and didn’t get up.

Two more attacked at once - the Gear commander, and another Nightmare wielding tonfas. Jabra used Paper Art to dodge the lunging stab the Gear made with some outsized clock hand, punching her in the back of the head as he did so. She dropped, and Jabra Shaved away to dodge the tonfa blows that would’ve probably cracked his skull, Iron Body or no. A quick Tempest Kick forced tonfa-man to dodge, and Jabra shaved forwards to meet the Nightmare captain.

Plugging the intelligence leaks the little shit represented was a secondary objective of this mission, after all. One that’d been appended after it had been apparent that their net had caught far more than just the usual crew of up-and-coming rookies that it had been intended to catch.

“Ten Finger Pistol!”

His attack crashed into the flats of the crossed saws, bending the metal and sending the captain skidding back. Jabra frowned. Kid had reflexes, he’d give him that. He jumped, evading the tonfa-guy’s attempt to strike at him while his back was turned, and jumped off the air with Moon Walk. “Tempest Kick: Lupus Fall.”

Four wolf-shaped air bullets slammed into tonfa-man’s back and the captain’s face, crushing both into the tile with the force of the impact. Jabra landed lightly, checking his corners. The captain was still moving, trying to get back up, but tonfa-man was unconscious. Only one guy in a skull mask was still standing. What the hell was that egg thing floating behind him.

“You,” the masked guy said, “are very dangerous, aren’t you?”

Jabra cracked his knuckles. “Damn straight, kid.”

“Okay. I’ll let someone else play with you. Captain always wants me to avoid dangerous strangers.”

The metal egg hurtled towards Jabra at bullet-like speed. Really? This was his best shot? “Iron Body Fist Law: Heavy Wolf Paw!”

The metal bullet crumpled under his blow.

And then a mass of black smacked him in the chest and through the dias. He was on his feet in an instant, shifting into half-wolf form just as quickly, as he -

-froze.

His senses in hybrid form were amazing. Smell, especially.

And everything was screaming ‘danger’ to a degree he’d never felt before. Not even against Lucci.

“hEllO LittLe Doggy, cOME TO PLaY?” a cracked and broken voice said. There was a shifting of rubble, before a blackened shape, all writhing tendrils and wings, mounted the remnants of the throne. It stared at him with a single swirling eye. “caPtAin wAnts me TO Play wIth yOu. wAnTs Me To hunT YOU. I WiLl, I WILl, yeS, bECAusE I aM a GoOD BOY and i foLlow WHaT tHe CaPtAiN SayS, YES yES YeS.”

The rational part of Jabra, the trained, experienced, powerful World Government agent, found the thing’s speech ridiculous.

The rest of him, the animal part, and the parts that believed in legends and rumor, were gibbering quietly in the back of his head, keeping him from moving as the thing walked forward unsteadily. It smelled fundamentally wrong , something that never should have been.

He knew this beast. He knew the legends, he knew the rhyme. It spilled past his lips without much more than a thought.
“Blackened eyes and bloody tongues,

Wait for dark and the prey that comes

Huddle close and guard your light.

Or you will not survive the night…”

Pain lanced through his side as a tendril shot forward, clipping his torso, and the creature smiled. “GoIng to siT tHerE, LITtle DoG? GOOD...meaT ShOulD Be qUIeT…” The tendril pulled back just as quickly as it had lashed out, trailing blood. His blood.

Jabra focused on the pain, driving the fear away and forcing himself to move. “Iron Body Fist Law. Wolf Fang Stance.”

He wasn’t as fast as he could have been - the wound he’d taken slowed him, an injury he wouldn’t have had if his own fear hadn’t shut him down. But he was fast enough.

“FANG OVER FANG!”

His hands blurred through the kata as he Shaved into the creature, and he caught a moment’s look of surprise on what little of its face was visible before the attack slammed home and catapulted it through the roof. Jabra fell to one knee, pressing a hand to his side. It came away red.

He spent a few precious seconds shedding his jacket and using it as a makeshift bandage, before leaping upwards and Moon Walking through the hole in the ceiling, out into the night sky.

He scanned for the demon. He had no real hopes of having killed the creature, but crippling it? He could see that.

There. Its tendrils were clearing a space in the Palace courtyard, snapping up bodies with ease. The temperature began to spike as the blackened scales on its body started to redden...as if they were refilling with blood...shit.

He had to get it away from here, and he had to do it now.

“Moon Walk. MOONLIT TEN FINGER PISTOL!”

His linked Finger Pistols slammed the unprepared creature into the ground, fracturing the scaled armor, and Jabra leapt back as the tendrils tried to spear him. “Tempest Kick!” The air blade severed the quartet of tendrils before they could retract, and the creature rolled to its feet with a hiss of pain, wings flaring. The half-formed, crocodile-like maw snarled at him.

“I likEd You BETteR wHen you WERe AFrAID.”

Jabra didn’t bother responding, only moving into another attack, flipping onto his hands and ignoring the protestations of his injuries. “Iron Body Fist Law: DEVIL WOLF!”

The kick cracked the armor over the creature’s torso and sent it hurtling over the walls, and Jabra followed with Moon Walk, slamming a nameless kick into it and tossing it into another building before landing on a crenellation.

Below him, rubble shifted. The creature, tendrils visibly reforming themselves, pulled itself out of the debris of what had once been a fairly nice house. The red in its scales was already fading. Good.

Its wings flicked, and Jabra Shaved, dodging the shards that tore through the air before landing on the street below. Hell, where had the Nightmares found this thing? He only knew about the captain, and he could barely remember that little shit’s name...Vance?

Not important. The important thing was...how on earth was this kind of monstrosity found on a rookie crew?

He wished he’d had backup, but no , Fukuro and Kumadori just had to get themselves beaten up when the Revolutionaries went after Kuma…

He gritted his teeth as his abdomen stabbed at him again. He was losing blood faster than he’d thought...he had to finish this soon.

The creature stepped out into the street, shaking visibly. “yoU cAn't conTiNUe MuCH LONGer, caN yOu DOgGY?”

Jabra grinned a red grin at the thing. “Neither can you,” he said, nodding at the creature’s blackened and cracked scales.

“hA. TrUe eNOUgH. cOME ON. onE Last AttaCk.”

Jabra crouched, hands falling into a familiar stance. “COME AND GET IT, YOU FUCKING ABOMINATION! IRON BODY FIST LAW: BLACK FANG HOWLING FANG!”

“MIZUICHI.”

 

Two howling beasts slammed into one another, one flesh and bone, the other something else entirely.

Two found themselves hurled in opposite directions from the force of their opponent’s blows.

Two left a swath of destruction in their flight, neither able to think or move, both grievously wounded.

As dawn finally broke, both passed into unconsciousness.

 

----

There was a second person in the place that was not a place, sitting atop the hill of white clover. He was a man, with a sage’s beard and the marks of kingship.

You are dead, the boy told him.

The man shrugged. You should know better, he replied. A man only dies when he is forgotten. And you are immortal, so you shall remember me forever.

The old man puffed at his pipe. You have let the dragon go, he said.

I had no choice, the boy replied. He had wings, and I did not.

You do not remember, then? the man asked. You cut your wings, to hunt among men. To find an army. You chained them, and they became the dragon in your heart. And now it is free.

Well, then, what do I do? The dragon will burn everything, the boy said, greatly agitated. Could I slay it? Take its wings again?

You cannot slay a dragon, boy, nor are wings needed. You should know this.

You died before you could teach me what I needed, the boy said, cross with the old man.

The old man laughed. Perhaps I did, he said. But this is your place, is it not? Reach the sun.

How can I, without wings? the boy asked.

The old man reached to the sun, and plucked it from the sky with ease. He laughed at the expression on the boy’s face. Even a memory knows your mind better than you, he said with glee, handing the sun to the boy, who took it, though it charred his fingers to ash and bone.

You should meditate more. Clean out some dust, the old man instructed.

The boy, ever the student, bowed, and was gone.

 

---

 

I groan as sunlight stabs past my eyelids.

Urgh...what time is it? What-

SpearsthroughthebrainRendingtearingHuntingIAMFREE-

Oh, FUCK!

I sit up rapidly, eyes popping open. And find a sword at my throat. I follow the line of the cleaver-like blade…

“Eka,” I say.

“Boss,” the leader of the Oni replies calmly. “How’re you feeling?”

“Like shit. Last thing I remember is getting a spear to the brainpan...and some weird dream, something about...wings I think?” I look at the sword. “Did I do something stupid? Anyone get hurt?”

“Lots of people, but nobody on the crew, at least not permanently.” He huffs, and removes the blade. “And you seem sane enough.”

He tosses me a bundle. “Put these on. We’ve been watching you for a couple hours, taking shifts. Rest of the crew is taking apart the Palace.”

I realize I’m naked, and just as quickly decide to ignore the implications of that in favor of pulling on the clothes - which turn out to be just some pants and some cheap sandals - as quickly as possible. “You couldn’t just put me on the ship?” I grumble.

“You turned into a murder-dragon after getting shanked, Boss, and nobody was sure if you’d do it again once you woke back up.”

I blink. “How about you fill me in on everything that’s happened. Now.”

“Sure, Boss.”






Chapter Text

My captain looks at the receding shape of the Spice Archipelago, now sporting a crown of ash as the volcano he'd set off continues to burn.

He gives the island chain the finger, before turning back to me.

“You ready?”

I shrug. “Do I have a choice?”

“No.”

Vinci sounds pissed. Which is understandable. Bad enough Jabra ensured that our blood and toil and misery was pointless, but the little fu-manchu-sporting bastard didn’t even have the decency to stay around and end up on our captain’s operating table. He’d left enough blood to know he hadn’t simply been vaporized by...whatever I did while berserking, but the trail petered out so quickly even C’s nose couldn’t pick it up again.

So we had a World Government agent who knew exactly what we were capable of and who would probably make sure everything went to shit for us relatively quickly.

Maybe we could eat him.

I frown, clamping down on the intrusive thought as I follow Vinci down onto the deck. Off our starboard bow, the Gear Pirates’ ship floats, keeping to the same course as ours. Clare had been pretty pissed off when she’d woken up with a raging headache...and very carefully putting someone between me and her at all moments. Joy.

The crew, at least, doesn’t seem to have the same problem. Not even C, who’d apparently been injured by my berserk self. He’d hugged me, when we’d met up in the ruins of the Palace, blubbering about seeing his Brother again. A sociopathic maneater really shouldn’t be capable of that level of diabetes-inducing pure goodness.

On deck, the new recruits are training under the watchful eye of the Oni. Eka looks at me, and gives me a nod and a smile.

I can’t help but feel I don’t deserve it. My-

-generosity-

-failure to keep myself under control put everyone in danger. Even if the power had slaughtered the enemy...I had to learn to control it, otherwise it’d be a double-edged sword.

I return the gesture anyway, before glaring at one of the ex-Rangers who has paused in his exercises. The large, heavily bearded man pales before hurriedly resuming his work.

I follow Vinci into the bowels of the ship, squeezing past crates and piles of treasure.

Turns out, while I’d been out of it, Vinci had given the order to both take our pay from the Palace...which had quickly extended to looting everything not nailed down and most of the things that were. If there were Palace staff left after Jabra had done his thing, none of them had bothered to stop us.

I pause for a moment, examining the contents of an opened chest. It looks more like random knick-knacks than anything else...okay, well-made knick-knacks, but still. Small, interesting objects, each with their own history and use...

“Like what you see?” Vinci asks, suddenly at my shoulder.

I shrug, crouching down to look closer. “I like little things,” I say. “They’re...restful.”

“Take what you want. You fought with us, you’re still entitled to a share of the prize...well, one and a half, you’re first mate.”

I chuckle. “You know I don’t take much. And rich clothes and jewels aren’t my style.”

“So what? If you like the little things, the chest’s yours. I think we just threw whatever we couldn’t categorize as coin, food, clothing, or jewels into it anyway. Well, that and a lot of other crates.”

I nod. “Thank you, Captain.”

“Don’t thank me yet. I’m going to be cutting you open in a minute. Now come on. Jack was gracious enough not to block the door to the lab entirely.”

I close the lid of the chest - the chest itself is pretty big, I’m going to have trouble fitting it into my cabin - and follow my Captain once more.

I’ll claim my newly acquired oddities - little treasures - after he finishes his work.

It should probably bother me more that the Captain - not Vinci, not here, Vinci is not present, only the Captain is, who asks me to strip to the waist coldly, who places cold regeneration inhibitor on my back as I lay on my belly - cutting me open isn’t something that even registers as odd.

Painful? Sure. But pain is something I’ve long since been numbed to.

There’s the click of a Tone Dial, and then a faint, almost-tickling sensation as Vinci prods at something in my upper back. “Looks like those ‘wings’ C told me about came from these clusters. There were two previously, but now they’re much larger, fully developed. Two more that haven’t, though, which implies you’ve got more to accomplish. Some...newer sacs, too. Look to be along your spine, much larger than the clustered ones, and obloid rather than spheroid. Hm. Likely the source of your armored scales, if C’s report is accurate.”

“He actually gave you a detailed report?” I ask, not moving.

“Of course not. I asked, and he turned in some rambling on a Tone Dial and a crayon drawing. Albeit an incredibly lifelike one. That kid could be an artist if he had an interest beyond creative forms of murder.” There’s a sharp prick. “Alright, getting some blood and biopsy samples. Want to check your C-cell count. I have some theories…” He pauses. “Now, Kaneki, any idea you have yourself of your...other form, could be helpful. Especially why it acted the way it did. It seemed...intelligent. And very unlike you. Apparently it called C ‘Jabberwock’, of all things...so anything you could tell me could give me an idea of what happened to you, medically speaking at least.”

The words are soothing. The tone they’re delivered in is commanding. I swallow nervously.

“Sure, captain. It’s...difficult to know where to begin.”

“The beginning.”

“Right.” I close my eyes, throwing my mind back. “You know how C acts, sometimes? How he doesn’t really seem to see anyone not on the crew as people?”

“Yes.”

“That was me. But worse. I didn’t have a crew. I was...feral, for lack of a better word. Only following my instincts. Even when my master came, defeated me, and set me to follow his trail...I saw people as meat . Little else. He taught me how to control the hunger. Suppress it as much as possible, to lock it down. And he taught me how to be a person again. I’ve...held back, a great deal, repressed a lot. And I think...I think once I was hurt badly enough that I was reduced to running on instinct...that that part of me came to the fore again. The old, cunning, feral part. I don’t know for certain. But I think that’s what happened.”

There’s a tapping noise of metal on the wood of the surgical table.

“You did suffer a traumatic brain injury...could be a possibility. Your default state of mind taking over as your brain was reduced to core functions. Hm. Either that, or it’s related to the C-cells...they are capable of acting similarly to nervous tissue, after all...maybe that particular configuration of yours is simply accessed only when you’re in that state of mind. Or in distress like you were.”

“I don’t know, captain. But if that’s true...I’m going to have to learn to use it. And control it. I just…”

“We’ll put you on a boat once you’re ready, and tow you along. That way, if you do lose control while trying to figure it out, we can just have C hold you down in the ocean until you calm down. And you won’t eat a hole in the deck.”

“Eat a what?”

“Apparently you produce highly corrosive mist while deranged like you were. Until dunked in water, that is.”

Huh. That’s...problematic.

“Well, that makes practice difficult.”

“Quite.” There’s a brief burning sensation all along my back, followed quickly by sweet relief as my body heals itself. “Alright, I’ve got the samples I need for now. Can you make the wings yourself?”

I slide off the examination table. Alright. Upper back, I can feel them there... push.

There’s a thick tearing noise, and suddenly I can feel my new appendages. They’re...odd. I’m not sure how I expected wings to feel, but it wasn’t quite this...fragmented? Hm. I extend one in front of me, running my hand over the crystalline shards. If I fire these...well, it would make sense, I suppose, for them to be loosely connected in the first place.

There’s a sharp jolt of pain from the back of one wing, and I whirl. “Hey!”

Vinci grins at me, holding a crystal in one hand. “Hush, you. You’ve got a few thousand more. I’m keeping this one for analysis.”

“Doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt,” I grumble, letting the wings dissolve away.

“Don’t care. Go find Lauren wherever she’s holed up after you drag your chest of miscellaneous loot up to your cabin. I need to talk over options with her.”

“Aye, captain.”

I move out into the hold, pulling the basic grey tee back on as I do so. I barely manage to squeeze the chest through some of the more cramped sections of the hold, but eventually I pull the thing into my cabin. I crack it open, then close it again as a thought occurs to me.

I have to contort myself a little to get under the bed and pull out the black box that that…’simple mask seller’...had given me. I’ve held off on opening it...but hell, I need a mask, and my previous one was destroyed.

Fuck it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The latches on the box’s side click open, and I lift up the lid.

A half-mask looks up at me. This one is a dark green glossy color, one meant to cover the mouth and nose. I can’t quite tell what it’s made of - I think crocodile? Teeth march across the front of it, a snaggly orthodontic nightmare of fangs right where my mouth would normally be.

Heh. Red, then green, newborn C as white... I suppose gold awaits somewhere else...and when we cross into the New World, will I wear an ebon mask?

I lift the thing up, and link the clasps at the back together behind my neck, letting the mask hang loosely around my neck. It feels proper to have it there, to have the weight there.

Alright. Time to go find Lauren.

Her scent is easy enough to trace, even with the dozens of new crew and the consequent muddling of everything. It’s...sharp, tinged with gunpowder and ozone in a way nobody else’s is. She’s holed up in her cabin. I knock.

“What?” Lauren replies sharply, voice muffled by the door.

“Captain wants you in the lab,” I say neutrally.

There’s a subdued curse, and then the door creaks open. Lauren looks worse than I’d expected...okay, she’d lost an arm, but still, she looks like a depressed raccoon with those dark circles under her eyes. She looks me over.

“New mask?” she asks, voice dead.

I nod.

“Right. I’ll go. You can leave. Now.”

O-kay. I beat a hasty retreat back to my own cabin.

Which has even less space in it, as there is now an extremely large canine in it. I glare at Kant. “What’re you doing in here, ya overgrown mutt?”

Kant meows, before licking my hand, his tail thumping against the wall. I sigh. “Alright. I guess you can stay here while I sort through things.”

Another meow.

“Weird damn dog,” I mutter, before sitting on the bed and cracking the chest open.

 

----

 

“So,” Vinci said, trying to inject some kindness into his voice. “Way I see it, there’s a few options. One, I get Clare to make me a bunch of parts and we try our hand at a clockwork limb of some kind. It’ll take at least a few days to make the right parts, and there’s no guarantee it’ll be as good as the original. Two, I clone you a new limb and we hope for the best when I transplant it on. That one will take at least two weeks, but there’s less chance of you suffering permanent nerve damage. Three, I inject you with this-” -he held up a syringe filled with red liquid (C-cells in suspension, old cultures from Kaneki)- “-and we see if it grows your arm back entirely.”

“If?” Lauren echoed warily.

“It’s entirely untested on living humans. And may or may not be based on the compounds I... accidentallied C with.”

“So? That’s proof enough it works. I’ll take it.”

“It might have deeper effects. The C-cells are more stable than Kaneki’s, but they could still have similar-”

“Captain. Please.”

She was interrupting. This was new.

Lauren raised her eyes to meet his. “I...I hesitated. In the fighting. A lot. And I paid for it. Paid the price for being too weak in will.” The fingers of her sole remaining hand dug into the edge of the examination table. “I couldn’t help you. At all. I was stuck with the rest of the wounded while you all fought one of the toughest assassins the World Government has , and if somehow the fighting spilled over to us I would’ve been useless. Because I wasn’t quick enough or tough enough or strong enough to keep myself from getting wounded by that bitch , because I needed someone else to come in and save me...and I won’t be able to live with myself if something like that happens again. So I don’t fucking care if it makes me like Kaneki or C, because I need to get stronger. Fast. So I’ll take your weird concoction, no matter the risks.”

Vinci smiled.

Well said, mistress of the armory. This won’t hurt a bit.

 

----

 

Jack watched out of the corner of his eye as Kaneki fiddled with a pipe. He’d probably taken the thing from the hold somewhere...granted, the tobacco pipe didn’t fit with the rest of the loot. It was well-carved, sure, almost ornate, the patterns looking like a taloned hand grasping the bowl of the pipe...but the Ducal Palace had mostly been about gold and ornamentation, and the pipe looked too practical for that.

There was the brief flare of a match in the darkness, the light spilling briefly over the ghoul’s face and chest, showing off both the new mask and a necklace threaded with jade comma-shaped beads.

Jack crossed his arms over his chest, watching more openly as Kaneki picked up his guitar and moved to the quarterdeck.

He seemed fine. At ease, almost, as the smell of tobacco filled the air. This impression was reinforced as the ghoul sat himself down and looked over the deck, mostly deserted at this time of night. Hell, Jack himself would be asleep if he hadn’t been concerned about his first mate’s mental state.

After a moment, Kaneki began to play.

 

“I've been counting all my steps

All my no's just turned to yes

Silently I must confess

My troubled history

That's washed away all my sins

Starting over once again

This is where it all begins

It's right in front of me.

Down is not where I belong

This aching heart won't turn to stone

There's a fire inside these bones

It was meant to be

I see the world still full of light

How could I ever be so blind

I still haven't lost my fight

It haunts me in my sleep…”

 

Jack smiled. He knew this song. After a moment, he found himself joining in, singing softly.

 

“I feel like waking up

I've had this dream before

I'll take these footsteps

Go higher, go higher

I've walked an empty mile

Wore down this lonely soul

I'll take these footsteps

Go higher, go higher

(Woho woho woho)

Higher, go higher

(Woho wohoooo woho)

Higher, higher…”

 

“I know only time will tell

If all the cards will treat me well

'Cause this hand that I been dealt

Keeps me wondering

So now here I turn the page

I've learned to silence all my rage

Tell me who can really say

What will tomorrow bring…”

 

“I feel like waking up

I've had this dream before

I'll take these footsteps

Go higher, go higher

I've walked an empty mile

Wore down this lonely soul

I'll take these footsteps

Go higher, go higher

(Woho woho wooho)

Higher, go higher

(Woho woho woho)

Higher, higher”

 

“I'll find you

So far away

I'll find you

After all

I'll find you

So far away

I'll find you

After all...”

 

It seemed like things would be alright, after all.

 

“I feel like waking up

(So far away) I've had this dream before

(I'll find you) I'll take these footsteps

(After all) Go higher, go higher

(I'll find you) I've walked an empty mile (I'll find you)

(So far away) Wore down this lonely soul (So far away)

(I'll find you) I'll take these footsteps

(After all) Go higher, go higher

I feel like waking up

(So far away) I've had this dream before

(I'll find you) I'll take these footsteps

(After all) Go higher, go higher

(I'll find you) I've walked an empty mile (I'll find you)

(So far away) Wore down this lonely soul (So far away)

(I'll find you) I'll take these footsteps

(After all) Go higher, go higher

I feel like waking up

I've had this dream before

I'll take these footsteps

Go higher, higher.”

 

Jack ducked as an spinning hatchet nearly rendered him bald. The weapon thunked into the mast.

“SHUT THE HELL UP!” Lauren shouted from the direction of the officer’s cabins. “PEOPLE ARE TRYING TO SLEEP!”

Jack looked at Kaneki.

Both of them started laughing.

Chapter Text

The deck was slick with red liquid.

This, Pravilno reflected, was not an unusual state of affairs. Especially when Kaneki or C was involved.

“Hiyah!”

Lauren’s hatchet hit the brittle surface of one of Kaneki's wings, wedging itself there with a crack. The ghoul turned, the other wing cutting through the air, but Lauren let go of her weapon, throwing herself back out of the wing’s reach and leaving the weapon embedded in her opponent. The crooked crimson appendage shook itself, dislodging the hatchet in a clatter of crystalline shards, and Kaneki pulled his wings around himself, using them as a broad shield as he waited for Lauren to go on the offensive. She obliged with a flourish, revolver spinning into one hand and the sharp cracks of gunfire booming out as she fanned the hammer. The paint-filled dummy rounds splattered against the crystalline shards, and Kaneki snarled in annoyance before throwing himself forwards. Lauren yelped, jumping into the air- and then kicking off it as she slipped her heavy rifle off her back, firing down. The impact drove Kaneki flat for an instant, even if it was another paint round, but it wasn’t enough, and the ghoul leapt upwards again, jumping up and off the mainmast to hit Lauren in midair with a full-body tackle. Both the fighters hit the deck, Lauren springing to her feet with another weapon in hand, Kaneki simply straightening from the crouch he’d taken on impact.

“He’s holding back,” Ostavila said from beside him, watching the ongoing battle and waiting with the chain of her kusari-gama in hand.

Pravilno nodded. Kaneki was, no doubt about it. Part of it was simply keeping Lauren from ending up filleted - he’d seen those wings used against C, and knew they were razor sharp and could fire shards like a hail of bullets - and another part was that Kaneki was still unused to the new ‘weapons’, unable to move them as fluidly or as instinctively as his tails.

Hence the training. Kaneki got to ease into his wings, and Lauren...well, Lauren had volunteered, so she was probably looking to get stronger. The girl had been picking the officers and best fighters as sparring opponents ever since the captain had given her her arm back, throwing herself into training her reflexes, speed, and maneuverability with unmatched fury.

Fury that, for all the leaps and bounds she was making (he was pretty sure that at this point she was the fastest and most agile on the entire crew, save for maybe the captain and Kaneki) wasn’t enough to stop Kaneki, even hindered as he was. The ghoul dodged her next shots, Shaving forwards into another tackle. Lauren dodged that with Paper Art, but one of the wings smacked her aside as Kaneki passed by, and the ghoul rebounded off the air to slam her into the deck as she stumbled. One of his wings slammed into the deck next to the gunner’s head. “Dead,” Kaneki intoned. “Again. Come on, you’ve got the paint rounds, fight someone who is more able to-”

Lauren kicked him in the balls.

“Okay, never mind,” Kaneki said in a slightly strained voice as he withdrew his wing. “Also, please stop doing that.”

“Nope!” Lauren replied, springing to her feet and retrieving her heavy rifle from where it had fallen.

“Fine. Next!”

Ostavila rolled her shoulders, planting a kiss of Pravilno’s cheek before stepping onto the deck. Pravilno leaned against the rail, putting a hand to his new wide-brimmed hat as a gust of wind almost snatched it away. He missed his pompadour, but short version: flammable hair gel and Krieger incendiary bullets didn’t mix. Ah, well, the hat was pretty nice anyway.

Ostavila’s kusari-gama hummed as she swung the weight, letting it blur into a circle of shining steel as she waited for Kaneki to move first.

Kaneki’s wings crooked back, the sharply-crooked top of each wing twitching and setting the bundles of crystal shards that served as feathers rattling like macabre wind chimes. Then one suddenly twitched forwards, and a red blur intersected the steel one with a clang. The weight went rocketing off into the sky, and Ostavila stared at the remnant of the chain before glaring at Kaneki. “You’re paying for that.”

Whatever Kaneki was planning to say in reply was cut off as a feathered white shape slammed into the deck.

Pravilno cocked his head. “Hey, Osta. You killed the News Coo.”

“Shut the fuck up, Prav.”

Kaneki poked the bird with the tip of his boot. “Eh, he’s just concussed. How much do you think he’ll charge for injury?” He crouched down, and pulled free a newspaper before adding a small roll of bills to the bird’s bag. “Oi!” he shouted over his shoulder. “Someone go stick this bird up on the forecastle until he recovers!”

One of the crew grabbed the oversized gull, while Kaneki leafed through the newspaper. “Huh. Hey, someone get the captains together. They’re gonna want to see this.”

“Trouble?” Pravilno asked.

Kaneki grinned. “Better. Bounties.”

 

----

 

“So, let’s see...” I say, laying out the new bounties. The shadows cast by our impromptu circle are long, the sun burning high in the sky. Everyone - save for Vinci, who seems immune to the heat, and Clare, in her armor - is wearing as little as can be gotten away with, myself included. “Pretty big pile this time around. Already sorted out the reissued ones and raised bounties, Jack of the Beast Pirates just cracked nine hundred million, by the way. Kid hit a hundred and ninety-two after some truly inventive murdering...Killer’s up to fifty-eight. A couple of breakout rookies...Monkey D. ‘Straw Hat’ Luffy, hundred million, and Roronoa ‘Pirate Hunter’ Zoro, sixty million, both of them on the same crew.” I nod to Vinci and Jack, not willing to say more with Clare and the rest of the crew in hearing range. “Let’s hope we don’t cross paths, these guys took down a Warlord,” I add, making a show of reading the back of the posters in question. “Clare, you’re listed as the new captain of the Gear Pirates, and you’re up to sixty-six million.” The armored woman nods.

“Come on, Kaneki. Show us the important stuff,” Herman growls.

“You do realize that these are a mark of how much the World Government hates us, and will attract bounty hunters and Marines who are trying to take our heads?” I ask.

“So?” Vinci says. “I can always use more test subjects for the things I don’t feel comfortable testing on the crew.”

“Riiiiiight. Okay, since nobody here has a healthy sense of self-preservation-”

“Says the guy who throws himself headfirst into combat without a gun,” Lauren mutters.

“-let’s get this show on the road.” I lay down the first poster, an updated image of Vinci with a lava flow visible in a background. There’s a crazed grin on my captain’s face, his eyes glowing gold and…

“Hey, captain, can you do that eye trick for a second?” I ask.

Vinci shrugs, before his eyes glow, and a pattern of three swirls , a darker gold than the rest, arranges itself over his iris.

Triskelion, symbol of motion.

“Huh, thought it was a trick of the light,” I say. “You can stop now. But yeah, ‘Alley Doc’ Vinci, one hundred forty-four million. Nice work,” I say, handing him the poster. “Now, onto the most badass and handsome of us all…”

I duck as a dagger nearly scalps me. “Hey, what the hell?”

Ostavila looks prim and proper as can be as she files under her nails with the dagger. “As if it’d actually hurt you,” she says.

“It’s the principle of it,” I grouse, tossing out my own poster, where the photo is half obscured by the blur of my tails, my mouth open in a snarl and eyes blazing red under the lenses of my old mask. “But here’s mine. ‘Butcher Bird’ Kaneki, one hundred and six million. Probably got Jabra to blame for that one.”

“Honestly, I thought it would be the mass slaughter of entire pirate crews,” C adds absent-mindedly.

“Riiiight. Alright, next up is Herman, with a new and improved bounty of... fifty-five million? Jesus, they really don’t like you,” I mutter, handing the dogman his poster, which shows him glaring at the camera, sword hefted on his shoulder.

“Yeah, guess that snake guy was a big deal,” Herman mutters. “Still doesn’t make much sense, though, you’d think it’d be less than that.”

“Hey, I’m not the guy handing them out, maybe they figure you look scary. Anyway, next, we’ve got Jack here with a thirty-eight million bounty. Didn’t change the picture though, still the same ugly mug as always.”

“Ha ha, fuck you,” Jack says. He shakes his head. “It’s funny. That’s a higher bounty than my old captain ever had. And yet it looks tiny.”

“Price of a famous crew,” I say, taking a moment to light my pipe. Never really smoked much, but between the need in the Archipelago to drown out the more horrific smells and the simple fact that it feels relaxing (and can’t exactly hurt me with my regeneration), I’ve taken up the habit. “Alright, next on the list is Gin. Thirty-three million, and a new name: ‘Revenant’.” This poster shows Gin, making a ‘come hither’ gesture with one hand. Blue-uniformed Krieger corpses and burning tents are visible in the background.

Gin simply nods, lighting a cigarette to add to the smoke.

“And last, but certainly not least, our dear gunner Bertram Lauren, nicknamed ‘Vodun’ and valued at a respectable eighteen million,” I say, laying the last poster down. Lauren’s face is mostly obscured by a gas mask and the virulent purple of her hallucinogenic mix, but that’s enough to be intimidating.

“Huh,” Lauren says. “That’s surprisingly creepy-looking.”

“We’re called the Nightmare Pirates, I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to be so scary our wanted posters cause heart attacks,” I deadpan.

“Eh, fair.”

C frowns.

“You alright, little bro?”

He shrugs. “Why don’t I have a bounty?”

“Probably same reason Lauren’s here is so small. You didn’t hunt down anyone that important during the final battle, so nobody really knows what you can do. Not like you left a lot of survivors.”

He nods. “Yeah, makes sense. Still sucks.”

“I mean, it means nobody is going to be trying to cut your head off, so…”

“I’m pretty sure it’d grow back.”

“Pretty sure is not certain, kid.”

“Hmph.”

“Hey, did anyone actually read this paper, or did you just go straight to the bounty listings?” Vinci says, leafing through the rest of the World Economic Journal. “Because take a look.” He puts down the front page.

PIRATES RAVAGE ISLAND CHAIN IN VICIOUS CONFLICT , the headline screams, right over a suitably ominous photo of a wrecked street in the Archipelago, the volcano prominent in the background. I start scanning the article quickly.

“...civil war, betrayed their employer, devastated the Archipelago, murder and wanton pillaging, yadda yadda yadda, we’re getting fingered for starting the mess in the first place and ‘escalating’ it, and for killing the Doge and betraying all the other crews. Oh, and Clare, apparently you killed your captain because I seduced you into it,” Vinci says.

Clare slowly turns her head to look at Vinci, then whirls to glare at me. “You. Me. Spar. Now, ” she growls.

“Help me,” I whine.

“Oh, hush, you big baby,” Vinci says.

 

----

 

Vinci glared at the crumpled black lump floating in its nutrient tank as though he could will it back to life, before sighing. Another failure to replicate his success in a safer manner.

He scratched at his chest with one hand, where the King’s Heart rested, while the other pulled the lever that consigned the failed experiment to the incinerator, leaving only an empty glass tube.

There were any number of reasons this particular iteration had failed. He was trying to reduce the aftereffects of an incredibly complex and dangerous implantation process, and do so without crippling the very mutagenic qualities of the organ that made it so valuable in the first place. Some reduction in capability could be allowed, if the tradeoff was a process that didn’t take someone to the brink of death during the Heart’s integration. He might have survived his implantation, but he knew that his heart had stopped at least three times on the operating table, and only his will and fate had given him the strength to survive.

Did others have that will? Perhaps, but he doubted fate would align properly...and he was not going to risk his own crew like that. Using enemies as test subjects for his most dangerous projects? He had literal binders full of ideas. But his own men, for something that dangerous? Not a chance, not unless his back was up against the wall. Even the Oni compounds, though powerful, didn’t carry the same kind of danger as a failure in implantation would.

And yet all his attempts thus far...simply resulted in the organ failing, unable to sustain itself as the original had.

No matter. Time, trial and error, and research would reveal what he needed, soon enough. Sooner, if he could find living subjects who were foolish enough to fight his crew.

...And who survived the fighting, which was difficult. Between the Oni, the ghouls, and the rest of his crew’s commendable thoroughness, even finding intact bodies was probably going to be difficult.

Vinci stood, and looked over the lab, before quietly walking over to where Lauren was working. Well, sleeping. Jars of powdered and liquid chemicals and mechanical pieces littered the countertop, and a bunsen burner was still lit, inches away from her face. Vinci turned it off.

Poor woman was pushing herself far too hard these days. And Vinci was not the right kind of doctor to deal with her issues. Still, at least he could make sure she didn’t set herself on fire because she was working too hard to know when to sleep. Or cause an explosion - some of those reagents looked volatile.

Yeah, leaving her here was probably a bad idea.

He prodded her shoulder. Snoring was her only response.

Well, nothing for it.

Carefully, he picked her up. She felt lighter than he’d expected, curled up against his chest. Then again, he was taller these days, and much, much stronger.

He maneuvered through the hold and back up the stairs, out onto the deck. The night was warm and humid, the hints of thunderstorms in the air, but the sky was clear. Well, weather didn’t make sense on the Line at the best of times. He sniffed the air. Pipe smoke.

“Kaneki,” he said quietly.

The ghoul detached himself from the shadows, embers flaring in his pipe, without a word.

Vinci nodded, before carefully opening the door to the cabins, and then getting Lauren into her own cabin and bed. He closed the door behind him, and to his utter lack of surprise, found Kaneki standing behind him.

“You’re enjoying doing that far too much,” he said.

Kaneki smiled thinly. “True.” He tapped the bowl of his pipe in his hand. “What’s eatin’ both of you, captain? Lauren, I can guess, she’s been through hell, but you…”

Vinci sighed. “Come on. Walk with me.”

Kaneki followed him back out onto the deck without question. Vinci leaned on the rail, watching the starlit sea, before he lit a cigarette. It wasn’t as though toxins would affect him, after all. Kaneki watched for a moment, before putting his pipe back in his mouth.

“Who do you think the strongest of the Emperors is?” Vinci asked.

Kaneki cocked his head, considering for a moment, before nodding. “Personally? Kaido.”

“And with their crew?”

“Not sure. Whitebeard, maybe? They have enough men…Why’re you asking, captain?”

Vinci chuckled. “Because I know different. It’s Shanks.”

“How so?” Kaneki asked. Vinci knew that tone. It wasn’t disagreement, it was just Kaneki poking around for an opinion. Well, he’d give one to him.

"Charlotte Linlin can rip the soul from your body and possesses so much strength that she slaughtered giants at the age of five . Kaido is an unkillable monster who views suicide attempts as a recreational hobby. Whitebeard is literally the strongest man alive, and can destroy islands by punching in their general direction. All of them command armies of incredibly strong people, lead fleets of ships, and have the allegiance of countless pirate crews...and yet, despite that, despite the Devil Fruit powers in their possession, despite their wealth and their armies... one crew stands among them as equals. One single, solitary, small crew and ship, of mere mortal men, not a Devil Fruit among them. The Red-Haired Pirates. The rookies of their crew are ninety-million-beri bounties, and their reputation is such that they can be wandering the Blue Seas and their claimed territories in the New World will still be left untouched. That is power. Not the kind found in weapons or in armies or fortresses or even in the Devil Fruits."

Vinci grinned as his eyes began to flare. "Mortal men can achieve such heights. With nothing more than determination. Who is to say we cannot do the same, even achieve greater? It sounds impossible, but the Grand Line is filled with impossibilities...just imagine it. A single crew of that caliber can match itself against the Emperors and the Marines...so I ask: what can an army of such men accomplish?"

Kaneki was silent for a moment. Then he chuckled. “Guess that’s why you’re up at night. Trying to make more augmentations?”

“Exactly. Making ones that our crew members will survive is the hard part. Lacking regeneration of your type…”

Kaneki exhaled, smoke drifting from his nostrils. “I’ve already said I don’t want more of me,” he said slowly. “But that already happened. And strength is needed, more than ever, if we want to survive. So I’ll make a condition for you, captain.”

“Name it.”

“Figure out a way to stop the hunger...or a food source that doesn’t require me and mine to eat people...and I’ll let you do whatever you like.”

Vinci nodded. “Deal.”




Chapter Text

We are in the midst of hell.

I ignore both the gibbering voice in the back of my head and the increasingly heavy blows of hail against my tails and body as I shelter Herman from the downpour. The man has had to shift to half-beast form to retain control of the wheel, and his swearing is audible even over the howling of the storm.

So is Vinci’s.

“CUNTING WHOREMONGERING SISTERFUCKING BOY-ASS-LOVING-”

Really hadn’t expected that kind of profanity out of my captain of all people, but clearly he’s learned from the rest of the crew. And it’s not like it isn’t warranted. This storm is insane even by Grand Line standards. We’ve long since lost sight of the Grandfather - thankfully, we have their transponder snail number, so we can get back into contact afterwards - and since then we’ve had to mostly deal with hurricane-force winds, hail, and of course enough rain and wave to drown a raft full of midgets.

I may be starting to get slightly loopy from lack of sleep. I may not need that much but none is clearly not helping. But the past few days have had me on deck constantly, whether to keep someone from ending up overboard - one tail flicks out, snagging a man by the ankle and yanking him back onto the deck - or to protect the others from the hail.

“-ER-SQUEEZING- C! WAVE! TWELVE ‘O CLOCK!”

There’s a crack that temporarily draws out the roar of the rain and sea as the wave in front of us, a behemoth large enough to swallow the entire ship, parts in the middle, a shroud of mist suddenly enveloping us.

And it all...stops. The hail, the rain, the wind and waves. There’s just the mist, scattering rainbow light across the deck.

The crew slowly start to pick themselves off the deck, as I retract my tails, trying to figure out what is going on.

And then the wrecks start looming out of the fog.

“AAAA!”

“ANCHOR! DROP THE ANCHOR!”

Ends Justified grinds to a halt, the ship tilting for a moment as the anchor snags on something, before the entire ship settles with a groan.

“What is this bovine excrement?” Vinci shouts. “Kaneki?!”

“Why the hell are you yelling at me?!” I shout back.

“You’re a hundred years old and know more than anyone, you didn’t see this coming?”

I look around, seeing the wrecks - ghost ships, of all kinds, shrouded in mist - floating by. “Captain...I have no idea what this is.”

Vinci slumps slightly, putting a hand on the rail, before he straightens, and gives me a nod. “Scout ahead. See if you can find a way out of here. Everyone! This is pure Grand Line bullshit, but stay calm and we’ll probably be fine. Only one or two of you are probably going to die. Maybe.”

“Is he joking?” one of the crew members - an ex-Steel Shield, judging from the axe and roundshield he carries - asks.

Jack wordlessly points to the large sign we have long since nailed to the wall of the mainmast tower.

 

ARTICLES OF THE SHIP ENDS JUSTIFIED AND THE NIGHTMARE PIRATES

 

    1. OF ALL PRIZES TAKEN, SCIENTIFIC PAPERS AND EQUIPMENT GO TO THE CAPTAIN, GUNPOWDER WEAPONS AND AMMUNITION TO THE ARMORER, VICTUALS AND PROVISIONS TO THE BOSUN, NAUTICAL CHARTS AND FAMED BLADES TO THE NAVIGATOR, ET CETERA. COINAGE, JEWELRY, AND OTHER SUCH VALUABLES TAKEN SHALL BE DISTRIBUTED TO THE CREW BY THE BOSUN. THE CAPTAIN RECEIVES THREE SHARES, THE FIRST MATE TWO, THE OFFICERS ONE AND ONE HALF.
    2. THE CAPTAIN RESERVES THE RIGHT TO EXPERIMENT ON YOU IF HE SO PLEASES.
    3. KEEP YOUR ARMS AND GEAR WELL-MAINTAINED AND COMBAT READY, OR THE NAVIGATOR AND THE ARMORER WILL QUITE POSSIBLY MURDER/EMASCULATE YOU.
    4. NEGLECT YOUR TRAINING, AND THE FIRST MATE WILL HANDLE YOUR CASE. DO NOT MAKE HIM. WE DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT WILL HAPPEN.
    5. DO NOT DISOBEY ORDERS. THE CAPTAIN WILL CONSIDER YOU A TEST SUBJECT IF YOU DO.
    6. BETRAYAL OF THE SHIP OR CREW TO THE MARINES CARRIES PENALTY OF DEATH BY FIRST MATE, OR BY C, WHOEVER IS CLOSEST AND HUNGRIEST.
    7. IF ANY MAN OR WOMAN ATTEMPTS TO FORCE THEMSELVES UPON A CIVILIAN, THE BOSUN WILL RENDER THEM INCAPABLE OF DOING SO EVER AGAIN.
    8. C, DO NOT EAT THE CIVILIANS WITHOUT PERMISSION.
    9. THE HOUNDS ARE NOT FOR ENTERTAINMENT. IF YOU PROVOKE THEM, ANY INJURIES ARE YOUR RESPONSIBILITY.
    10. ALL THOSE WISHING TO BECOME SWORDSMEN WILL PRESENT THEMSELVES TO THE NAVIGATOR AFTER EVENING MEAL. HE WILL ATTEMPT TO BEAT THE FOOLISHNESS OUT OF YOU. IF YOU CONTINUE TO WISH TO BE A SWORDSMAN AFTERWARDS, CONGRATULATIONS IN ADVANCE.
    11. IF YOU FIND YOURSELF HUNGERING FOR HUMAN FLESH FOR EXTENDED PERIODS OF TIME, SPEAK TO THE CAPTAIN AND THE FIRST MATE, IN THAT ORDER.
    12. IT IS QUITE LIKELY YOU FORFEITED YOUR SOUL UPON JOINING THIS CREW. DEAL WITH IT.

 

  • NO, THE CAPTAIN IS NOT JOKING.

 

 

“Okay,” the crewman says in a rather more subdued form of voice.

I laugh, before pushing my wings out and leaping into the air, a quick flap accelerating me forwards. I claw for altitude, flying in widening circles around the ship. The mist is thin enough to see through, even though it blurs the lines of the countless wrecks...but it blots out the sun - hell, I don’t think there is a sun here, just an omnipresent light filtering through the mist.

This place is wrong.

I grimace, trying to wrench my thoughts back on track, before flying straight ahead at speed. If there’s a way free of these wrecks, of this mist, it’s my job to find it. Equally, if I can find an island or something, that’d also be useful. Maybe there is one, and that’s the source of the mist…

There. Smoke, rising up from the mist, and the outlines of land. I fold my wings, diving low, and then-

Cracks sound out, a hail of bullets lancing up, ripping into me before I can react-

Ground-!

 

-----

 

Miller lowered his Kalash, staring at the edge of the water where the huddled shape had fallen. “Damn demons,” he said flatly, scanning the mist-filled shoreline.

What the hell was this? He’d put it as one of Krasynn or Artyom’s sort of things, a hallucination or memory, but they’d been on the way from Yamantau, miles from any sort of ocean...and yet here the ocean was, along with the mists. The railway even ended right at the edge.

“Krasynn, any idea what is going on?” he asked.

The young giant, standing alongside the Aurora’s engine due to the simple basis he couldn’t actually fit his ten-foot frame into the carriage, shook his head, sending the red dreadlocks that gave him his name swaying. “Not a clue,” he rumbled, before putting a hand to the ‘sword’ - really a cut-down rotor blade - at his waist. “Colonel. That’s not a demon you shot. That’s a person.”

A couple years ago, Miller would have found this statement insane. But seeing an entire procession of insanity, from Krasnyy’s unnatural powers to Artyom’s strange empathy with beasts of all sorts to the annihilation of an entire Red Line army by the Dark Ones...well, it bred a healthy respect for that sort of insanity. Normal life had ended with the War. So he simply said “Oh.”

“No worries, I think you just pissed him off,” the giant said cheerily.

“I’M GOING TO FLOSS WITH YOUR SPINE YOU TRIGGER-HAPPY FUCK!” came the shout from the shoreline.

Miller sighed, before pointing his weapon at the...well, not a demon, but something with eyes blazing the same red as Krasnyy’s hair, and scarlet tendrils reaching out from its back. The other Spartans raised their weapons, watching the person - and despite everything inhuman about it, speech demonstrated it was at least intelligent - warily. The man paced, hands clenching and unclenching, before Artyom stepped forward, hands raised.

“Sorry about that,” the second-youngest of the Rangers and unofficial ‘Moses’ of the crew (and damn Idiot for putting that concept in everyone’s head, it was asinine) said reassuringly. “We thought you were a creature, hunting us. Are you alright?”

“Been hurt worse,” the person said grudgingly. “Still don’t appreciate it.”

Krasnyy leaned on the side of Aurora’ s engine, watching the tentacled newcomer carefully as Artyom’s natural charisma went to work.

“Alright. I’m Artyom. What’s your name?”

“Kaneki.”

“You got any idea what this place is, Kaneki? We were in Russia, and now we’re here.”

Kaneki froze. “Russia,” he said flatly. “How the fuck…”

Krasnyy inhaled, and then vaulted over the Aurora’s engine, landing with unnatural grace before walking over to Kaneki.

“Krasnyy, what are you doing?” Miller asked.

“Colonel…” Stepan said. “Look at them. Closely.”

Miller looked.

Kaneki was shorter, the same height as Miller. His features were gaunter, the skin stretched tighter by stress and malnutrition, reddish veins stretching under his eyes like twisting worms. His hair was brown, cropped short, rather than Krasnyy’s dreadlocked mane. His clothes were little more than khaki trousers and a grey tank top, utilitarian and simple in comparison to the barbaric Watchman pelts Krasnyy wore. And yet…

“Identical, the same face in two men,” he breathed. “What fresh hell is this?”

“That,” Krasnyy said, “Is an excellent question, Colonel. This place…”

“...it is not natural,” Kaneki finished.

“My senses are uncertain of what to make of it,” the giant continued. “But...a crossroads, of sorts? A mutual fraying in reality, or something of the kind. It would not be the first thing I have encountered of that kind.”

“Spare me the mystical claptrap, Krasnyy,” Miller said warily. “You. Kaneki. I assume there’s a reason you look so much like our manic psychic giant friend.”

And the fact that that sentence was something he’d uttered perfectly encapsulated exactly how insane his life was now. If he’d known, he likely never would have concocted his plan to deal with the Dark Ones when Krasnyy had showed up with a wounded Ranger on his shoulder and a traumatized young man following in his shadow. Never have found D6, fought for it, never have found out the truth about the Metro or been forced to run away when the paranoid shits at Moscow Command had branded them traitors enthralled by a mutant. Never have discovered that Yamantau was filled with horrific cannibals (and now was filled with their crisped corpses, because by the Holy Mother, Krasnyy and Artyom exercising the full breadth of their power was something to be terrified of) and that there was nothing keeping the memory of the Soviet Union, of Russia , intact as a government.

But it didn’t matter. The past was past, and even Krasnyy or the Dark Ones couldn’t change that.

“There is,” Kaneki said cautiously. “I think. Meaning of life?”

“Forty-two,” Krasnyy answered promptly.

“Taylor Hebert?”

“Queen of Escalation.”

“Fat-bottomed girls?”

“Make the rocking world go round.”

“Kill me now, there’s two of them,” Tokarev muttered.

“Da, and the new one looks like a walking nightmare,” Duke said with a laugh.

Krasnyy grinned. “Well, it’s answered Colonel. He’s me. Or at the very least, a variant. Multiverse theory and all that.”

“You’re telling me Idiot actually had the right idea when he started philosophizing about how you were possible?” Miller growled. “Wonderful, just wonderful. Now, Kaneki, please tell me you know a way out of this place.”

“What do you think I was looking for when you shot me?” Kaneki asked. “Hell, we just got here. You know what, stay here, we’ll come to you. Captain and crew probably need to be filled in on...whatever this is, and this is the first spot of land I’ve seen.”

“Yes, yes, bring your crew,” Miller said, waving his hand.

“Might do us some good to meet a group that isn’t trying to shoot us on sight,” Anna commented.

 

----

 

Elsewhere in the fog, perched atop the protruding mainmast of one of the innumerable wrecks, a skeleton and an angel regarded one another. The first, despite his inhuman appearance, wore casual clothing, a red hoodie and cargo shorts. The second wore baggy trousers as a concession to modesty, but the upper half of its stone body was unclothed, leaving the straight line of burning holes threading its torso visible, the flame within them a sullen crimson. Each of them had a companion - the skeleton, a slim woman in a dark grey outfit, the yellow-orange lenses of her buglike mask shining in the fog, the angel, an equally young man, red-haired and with dark circles around his empty eyes, a massive gourd strapped to his back. A cloud of insects shrouded the woman, a haze of sand the man.

The two equally inhuman individuals regarded one another, before turning to their respective companions.

“Serif, so he’s basically alternate you?” the woman queried. “What kind of place is this?”

“I would like to know this as well, Master Forty-Two Encompassing Rage,” the young man added quietly.

“Something very strange,” the angel mused, before turning towards the distant source of light and noise. “Fifty dollars says we aren’t the only ones out here,” he continued.

The skeleton scoffed. “Sucker’s bet,” he said.

“Then shall we investigate?”

“Damn straight.”

 

----

 

The Nightmares were exhausted, battered, and generally out of fucks to give about the weirdness of the universe.

So, naturally, upon coming to the first spit of land, land which held some kind of gigantic huffing rail engine and a small group of soldiers in extremely advanced armor wielding strange weapons, they did the first thing that came to mind.

Which, being Grand Line Pirates, was simple and something that connected to the simplest and most primitive parts of the human brain.

That is, break out the booze and throw a massive party to celebrate surviving, drawing the strangers into it by the combination of liberal amounts of said booze, general friendliness, and in Lauren’s case, a spirited discussion about gunpowder mixes.

Vinci didn’t have time to party, though he had brewed himself a large mug of coffee. His special blend - it could wake the dead and doubled as an effective solvent for metals.

Possibilities were whirling in Vinci’s brain as he watched the ongoing celebration.

He was quite certain he’d seen a walking skeleton and a flaming statue (as in, on fire, not flamboyant) join the giant and the Kaneki he recognized, before all four had wandered off.

And that set him thinking.

It was obvious this place was some sort of crossroads, to judge from the simple fact of, well, alternate Kanekis. And he’d bet his bottom beri that all of them had experienced the same situation his own had.

But why only Kaneki and whatever companions had been brought with him? Where were their own alternates? The Nightmares counted nearly a hundred men and women, and none of them had doubles. Why only him?

“Captain! There’s ships approaching!”

“PIRATES! STRIKE YOUR COLORS!” came a shout from the distance.

“PIRATES?” came worried screaming from another direction.

Two more ships lunged out of the mists.

The first, a fat tub of a cruise vessel, something that would make a fine prize on the seas, crowded with civilians at the rails.

The second...a lean, mean Marine frigate, the mirror image of the Ends , and standing at the bowsprit…

Vinci’s brain temporarily short-circuited as he beheld a woman, tall, strong, and buxom, her hair black as his own, the same scars on her face, the same stitched-together coat…

Without diverting his eyes from the oncoming ships, he reached out and snagged the collar of the nearest Nightmare. “Bring me alcohol. Vast quantities. I wish to get very drunk right now,” he said tonelessly.

“PIRATE VESSEL!” his gender-flipped twin shouted, much louder. “STRIKE YOUR COLORS AND SURRENDER, OR WE WILL OPEN FIRE!”

“WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” came the despairing moan from the cruise ship.

Vinci cupped his hands around his mouth. “What makes you say we’re pirates?” he shouted back.

His doppelganger wordlessly pointed at Ends Justified’s mainsail, proudly displaying their Jolly Roger.

“Okay, fair enough, but I think you’re a bit out of your jurisdiction! This mist ain’t natural, and I’m betting you’re from another world compared to ours!”

“You’re still pirates!” his doppelganger shouted back, a bit quieter this time. “And you’re stealing my look!”

“C’mon, we aren’t hurting anyone, and you lot are welcome to join the party. Besides, if a version of me became a Marine, that means you guys are a lot less of a bag of assorted idiots than our Marines, and your pirates a lot worse! We’re just sailing the seas for fame and fortune, not out to hurt anyone who doesn’t try to kill us first!”

He could see his doppelganger’s eyes narrow, before she nodded.

Vinci turned to the cruise ship. “Goes for you guys too!” he shouted. “Come and anchor with us! Leastaways we can have some company, maybe start figuring out how to get out of these mists?”

After several moments of deliberation, the ship tacked towards them.

Vinci sighed in relief.

“Ah, excellent. Always good to see unnecessary bloodshed avoided,” a voice said behind him, resonating through the entire ship.

Vinci turned slowly, facing himself. Well, if he was eight feet tall, clad in golden monk robes, and wearing what looked to be a halo of all things.

“Okay, so there’s me, the pirate, female Marine me, and I’ll bet you anything some civilian type is on board that ship,” he said slowly. “So what the hell are you, and did you bring an entire crew of equally themed versions of my own people with you?”

“I believe I am you, albeit one who strove for inner peace and spiritual well-being instead of power,” his haloed counterpart said. “And of course I did. I had little choice in the matter, due to our raft being sucked into the mists.”

“You rode a raft into the Grand Line?”

“We ride a raft wheresoever we please.”

“Fair. Now, I’m going to try to see if I can kill my own liver, so if you have any spiritualist claptrap, save it for when I’m sober enough to retort,” Vinci said flatly.

“As it pleases you.”

Chapter Text

“Okay guys, spill,” I say, looking around at the various forms of...myself, I guess. Does this count as talking to myself?

Not one of them is actually human - hell, I’m the one who looks closest to my original appearance, and isn’t that just a lovely bundle of issues and potential dysmorphia waiting to happen!

Krasnyy snorts. “Spill what?” he asks, an unmistakable Russian accent coloring his words.

“What the hell’s going on? There’s four of us now, and in different universes? Did God go on a bender while I wasn’t looking or something?”

“Or we’re all copies of the original,” Serif suggests, hands in the pockets of his faded red hoodie. “Could explain it.”

“Okay, fine, but now we’re all stuck in one place, and unless anyone here is master of the fabric of time and space…”

Krasnyy raises a hand.

“...in a way that isn’t based around access to a hell-dimension filled with the laughter of thirsting gods.”

Krasnyy lowers his hand.

“Okay, great. Ideas?”

“I’m literally made of explosions and piloting an armored shell of solidified ash,” 42 says, deadpan. “If someone bothered to break the shell I’m fifty percent certain I’d end up on whatever equivalent of the angelic plane exists, and get free. Of course, the explosion would kill everyone else, but hey, one of us would get out.”

“Yeah, full-on reality warping isn’t really my style,” Serif says. “I can conjure up some hefty stuff, like my blasters, but something that hurls everyone back to their proper reality...well, that’s out of my league.”

“Primarch, like you said, and while I’m pretty sure the Warp isn’t going to be a factor and it wasn’t back in Russia, here, where the walls of reality are thin...you kind of have a point.”

“And as for me, my talents mostly extend to cannibalism, regeneration, and creative murder attempts,” I say. “Magicians we ain’t. So. Allies?”

“Crew of former Spetznaz and assorted other Metro badasses, all of them are handy in a fight but not for breaking out of this,” Krasnyy says.

“Gaara, obviously, but I managed to fix up his seal a great deal. Plenty of sand...but wrong kind of power.”

“Ditto for Taylor, though if anyone has the expertise maybe we could hijack her shard…” Serif muses.

“And I’ve got a crew of assorted pirates, all of whom are dealing with at least three of their own doppelgangers right now,” I finish. “And with all of them in one place, at least one of them has to have some idea of what to do and the power they’ll need, right?”

“Sounds about right. Guy with the scars and the gold eyes, yeah?” Serif asks.

“That’s Vinci. He’s my captain.”

“He’s...interesting,” Krasnyy says.

“If by interesting you mean utterly unconcerned with morals and most forms of ethics in medical experimentation, then yes.”

“Try him first.”

I nod. “Krasnyy, try to get your hands on that creepy version of him.”

“Which-”

“The one in the robes.”

“Fair. You going to talk to the original?”

“Nah. Going to find my Oni. I have a feeling that having my people at my back is going to be helpful.”

“A feeling,” 42 says, voice flat. “That’s it?”

“Good enough to work with,” I say calmly. “And even if it’s wrong...they’re mine , and I want them close.”

 

----

 

C was watching the Laurens carefully.

There were three. There should have been four, but he had long since realized that the crew that was following the glowing version of his captain was very difficult to find if they did not want to be found, and that they liked to watch.

One was his, and she looked almost bored, but her scent...she was on edge, and if the Marine made a move, C was fairly certain she’d start to put bullets in heads out of reflex. One hand was resting on the gas canisters at her hip, ready to start tossing hallucinogens.

The second was odd. A little paler, a little less lined and scarred, wearing Marine whites and carrying only a single rifle rather than the dozen-odd weapons Lauren had on her person. She was...afraid. Which was silly. She was dealing with herself, after all.

The last wore a suit that was black as C’s irises, and she was ice. Not literally, but she smelled as cold and as harsh. Her expression was carefully blank.

“Pirate,” the Lauren in white said, fingers twitching.

“Marine,” his Lauren said calmly. Her hands were steady as she lit a cigarette.

“Those things will kill you,” the Marine said.

“So? My captain will whip up some horrifying scientific miracle if I get cancer,” Lauren replied. Her eyes scanned the Marine. “Seaman First Class, huh? Why’d you join them?”

“Why’d you turn your back on the people who saved us?” the Marine said, voice biting.

Lauren laughed. “Saved? The pirates were the ones who did that, not the Marines. Hell, the Marines didn’t do much more than die.”

“I...what? That’s insane, the Marines brought a battleship…”

“Maybe where you’re from they had the resources to do that. Ours? Only a passing frigate, and Machitus and his cult turned that to ash in seconds. They died, and our rescue came at the hands of my captain and crew. So don’t you dare accuse me of turning my back on those who were too weak to do anything.”

“That’s…”

“Cold? Sure. I’ve had to learn how to be. In our world, if you can’t be strong enough to fight...well, you’ll die.”

“Or, you could just make yourself indispensable to the strong ones,” the icy Lauren interjected.

“Yeah? And what exactly is your way of doing that?” his Lauren asked.

Her counterpart smiled. “Simple. A little corporate takeover of Walker Arms...and making my designs the top tier of weaponry in the world, well, every Marine, pirate, and privateer on the seas knows that to remain a power, they need to buy from me and mine. I’m pretty sure both of you are better in a fight than I am, but can you claim to have ended and begun empires...or Emperors?”

“You-”

“Even they need to use a ship...and when the Marines can fire from beyond the horizon, in enough quantity that even the finest Observation Haki users can’t dodge or block them all...well, there’s not much to be done, is there?”

Lauren chuckled. “You know what? I like you, other me. Wonder if you’d mind sharing those designs?”

“They’re fun, aren’t they?” a voice said in C’s ear.

C slowly turned his head.

The fourth Lauren wore rags and scars equally, tattered cloth and tattered skin, all topped with a too-wide grin. Her eyes danced, and her scent was cloying, power born of madness flickering across her skin.

C nodded in response to their question. “All the same person, and yet they don’t like each other,” he said with a smile. “It’s funny.”

“Would you be the same, if you didn’t have the same life?”

“I have one life. The captain and brother made me, after all, and since brother only came to be with my captain, not any of yours, I am not like you.”

“Nobody is like me, jabberwock.”

That name again. What was it with crazy people calling him that?

He briefly considered eating her, but he was pretty sure she counted as a civilian.

Maybe the Marine. The other Laurens didn’t like her, and the Captain hadn’t said anything about eating Marines.

“Are you listening, jabberwock?”

“My name is C.”

“Names don’t matter. What you are does.”

“And what are you, then?”

“I used to be a normal person, I think. And then...a book, a soul, madness and domination, and golden light to shatter it. I was born then, without a name.”

“Hm. I was made from the arm of a man who ate a Devil Fruit and who was worse than the Devil before that.”

She laughed. “You should worry. The man is still alive, isn’t he?”

“Maybe. But the Captain will kill him or worse if we cross paths again.”

“Perhaps, little jabberwock. Perhaps.” She smiled, revealing sharklike teeth. “Try to stay alive, little one. You are too amusing to die.”

 

----

 

“You pissed that I’m a pirate?” Gin asked his counterpart.

“Nah,” the Marine said, throwing back a beer. “Like your captain said. Your world’s a fucked-up place. Not really surprising good guys and bad guys get mixed up, and we have the same kind of past, don’t we?”

“Starving in alleys, getting beat up by shopkeepers, ended up on a pirate crew and had to kill at least three people because they were sick bastards, yeah. How’d you get out?”

“Eh, got chained in the brig after the second, Marines boarded the ship and found me. You?”

“Killed my way up to the captain’s chair, then Krieg showed up and killed most of them. Finished off the last of them, he seemed to find that funny. Then Krieg tried to go to the Grand Line, ran into Dracule Mihawk, and when we limped back picked a fight with Straw Hat Luffy.”

“Wait, Straw Hat Luffy? Garp’s grandkid?”

Gin froze. “Oh hell no, that brat is...really? Ours wants to be Pirate King.”

The Marine started laughing hysterically, nearly falling off his log.

“See, this shit is why I went into the bounty business,” the third Gin, wearing what looked like a resized version of Krieg’s old coat, said flatly. “No Pirate Kings, no Marine task forces after my blood...and I get to pick my own hours and take orders from nobody.”

“Yeah, but what about people stronger than you?” Gin asked. “You need a captain for that...and one who’s invested in his crew getting strong, too.”

“See, now you’re assuming I don’t have friends to back me up.”

“We’re the same person. Not exactly a winning personality.”

The bounty hunter smiled. “Don’t need that when the prize is rich enough.”

“Suppose that’s fair,” Gin allowed. “Not exactly great, but if it’s worked for you…” He stood. “I’m gonna go grab some more beer. You want any?”

“Yeah, this is great stuff,” the Marine said. “Where’d you find it?”

“Looted the Spice Archipelago after the World Government decided it’d be easier to murder the guy in charge rather than let him leave and take his resources with him,” Gin said. “Long story, and not a fun one. But good beer.”

The bounty hunter laughed. “Damn straight.”

Gin wove through the crowd - the beach wasn’t exactly big, being more a spit of land with some rails laid down for that giant contraption of Kaneki’s doubles had ridden in on, and three-hundred-odd people crowding on it was pretty difficult to navigate through - and made his way to the table that Jack had set up. And, unlike just about everyone else, Jack was alone, without any doubles working with him.

“Hey,” Gin said flatly, walking up to the table.

Jack just nodded, and plunked down four more mugs of beer. “There going to be trouble with yours?” he asked.

“No, we’ve got an understanding.”

“Good. Herman’s look like they want to kill each other, and Lauren isn’t doing much better. Thank God C doesn’t have any, one of him is enough trouble to keep from eating people,” Jack grumbled.

“Got to ask, what happened to yours?”

Jack glared at him. Gin glared back, and the bigger man sighed.

“Fine. Don’t have any. Think about it - everyone here...well, they’ve had chances to have different fates. I was born and raised into the pirate life, and I was damn good at it. Becoming a Marine or having a normal civilian life...isn’t for me.” He snorted. “Either that, or they’re all dead. Wouldn’t be that surprising.”

Gin blinked. “O...kay. Try to stay alive, will ya?”

“Pretty sure if I did get close to death, the Captain would just be pissed off enough to bring me back, and I don’t want to make him that mad, so sure.” Jack paused. “Oh, and once this is over, I’m going to need some help from you on inventory...and more once we reach the next port.”

“Really? Aren’t there others? I’m not exactly a bookkeeper.”

“Captain’s busy, Lauren’s working on her guns, Kaneki’s beating the new recruits into shape, Herman is either navigating or beating up everyone who even considers being a swordsman, C would get bored and wander off, and as for the general crew...don’t trust them, or the ones I do trust can’t read or do math or both. That leaves you.”

“Fine.”

 

----

 

Grigori Lisa felt like she was teetering over an abyss.

Pirates were...well, evil at times was too kind a word to describe them. They murdered, they raped, they stole, they ravaged towns and islands at a whim under the command of the powerful.

The Marines had been formed to stop just that, to hunt down the criminals of the world and subject them to justice.

And yet, here she was, watching a pirate - a pirate who was herself, albeit a guy, and that made things even more confusing - put away enough alcohol to give Necessary Means ’ entire crew liver failure. And her damn doppelganger didn’t even have the decency to get drunk off of it!

Unlike herself, who was teetering over another metaphorical abyss in the shape of the booze taking effect. She had to admit, the pirates brewed something with enough bite that even she could feel it.

Now, if the Marines had let her experiment on herself rather than sticking her with just volunteer test subjects…

Come to think of it, that was probably how her doppelganger was holding his own so well. He was wearing a shirt with a low V collar, and she could just make out the edge of what looked like surgical scars...hell, had he implanted a second liver or something?

She carefully set her half-full pitcher down in the sand of the beach, watching her doppelganger intently. Well, one of them. She wasn’t sure where the way-too-smug-looking guy had gone and there was another, a skinnier, unscarred version of herself, who’d sat himself a little away from both of them and said nothing. Probably got off that cruise ship, and wasn’t that just an odd concept to deal with...

Right. Time to get questions answered.

“So,” she said, fighting through the buzz. “How, exactly, do I end up a pirate? And a guy?”

“Probably the whims of fate on the second one,” her doppelganger says slowly, enunciating every word with excessive care. Guess he was drunker than he looked, because she did the same thing. “First one….dahahaha...could ask how you ended up a Marine. Haven’t had faith in that institution since the 451 Degree Campaign.”

“The what?”

Her doppelganger’s eyes turned on her, and Lisa stared back. Her own eyes had become the color they had after a transplant from their stocks - the doctors had told her odd colorations in the iris were common, a side-effect of the methods they used to create organs and limbs for transplants - and she had to wonder what the story was for her doppelganger, to have the same eyes.

“Do you know about Ohara? Nico Robin?” her doppelganger asked softly.

“You mean the archaeologist island? I mean, they published a history of the Lost Times a while ago, but...and no, I’ve never heard of anyone with that name. Do you mean Nico Cardinal?”

Her doppelganger froze.

“No, Robin,” their civilian counterpart said quietly. “She’s supposed to be a wanted criminal, but in both our worlds, I really doubt that’s true.”

“In mine, the Marines unleashed a Buster Call on Ohara for studying the Void Century,” her doppelganger said quietly. “Robin was the only one to escape, and because she could read the Poneglyphs, she was a danger to the World Government’s rule, for reasons I still don’t know. And so, to hunt her down - oh, and she was eight at the time - the Marines organized the 451 Degree Campaign, which essentially set most of the West Blue on fire. My - our - parents objected, among many others in their formation. Vice Admiral Sakazuki obliterated their fleet. And became Admiral Akainu.”

“Sakazuki. ‘Mad Hound’ Sakazuki. Emperor of the Sea and disgraced Vice Admiral Sakazuki, ” Lisa said, voice shaking. “He’s an Admiral where you’re from?”

“Yup. And according to my sources, when Sengoku retires he’ll be the Five Elder Star’s favorite to succeed him. I shudder to think of the slaughter that will result, but it’s not like I can kill him. Yet.”

Her counterpart’s cold tone of voice, and the sheer fact that apparently his world was so twisted that Sakazuki was an Admiral, nearly made Lisa pick up the bottle again. Only the arrival of an actual walking, talking skeleton - a sight that, even on the Grand Line, was unusual - made her stop.

“Hey, yo, any of you seen your creepy robed version?” the skeleton asked. “He’s a pain in the ass to find for a guy who has his own personal halo.”

“What are you talking about? I’ve been here the entire time.

Lisa very carefully did not startle. Her civilian counterpart did. Her pirate counterpart, on the other hand, fell backwards off the driftwood he’d been using as a chair, before coming up with what looked like the bastard lovechild of a wide-gauge syringe, a bonesaw, and a chef’s knife in each hand. “Don’t do that,” he snarled.

“It is not my fault you were not using your senses properly,” her glowing counterpart said calmly.

“That’s because if I open up my eyes to look at you properly I start bleeding you arrogant shit!”

“Well, if you experiment on yourself, it’s only proper that it not work right,” Lisa said, grinning.

“Well, proper experimentation is most enlightening, not that you would know that, since your own efforts have been wasted on those without the ambition to use their gifts properly.”

“Now, see he-”

“Could all of you shut the fuck up!” her civilian counterpart suddenly shouted.

Everyone stared as the thin, worried-looking man stood.

“We were in the god-damned South Blue. On vacation. And now I’m looking at all these versions of me and all of them are terrifying and none of this makes any damn sense, so if you’re all as smart as I am you should be fucking smart enough to pull your heads out of your asses and start figuring out how to get us out, not sit around drinking like a pack of idiots!” he snarled, breathing heavily. “So stop your arguing, go with the damn walking skeleton, and figure out how the hell we can all go home. Now.

Lisa opened her mouth to respond.

That was when the Sea King attacked.

Chapter Text

Vinci flipped the mental switch on his eyes the moment the monstrous golden serpent broke the surface, purely out of reflex.

The world slowed to a crawl, hundreds of shatterpoints instantly appearing, his eyes bleeding as they automatically picked out the presences of whatever his glowing doppelganger’s crew really was.

He forced his eyes to stop again, grinning as time sped back up and an immense barrage of attacks slammed into the Sea King in mid-roar.

Nearly a hundred wind blades, several hundred bullets, a couple tons of airborne sand and insects, several dozen arrows and other projectiles, a gigantic beam of energy, and one very surprised live chicken hit the Sea King at the same exact moment.

The Sea King didn’t so much die as was instantly converted into a spray of red mist that splattered over everyone present.

Vinci cleared the blood from his eyes just in time to see Kaneki freeze, and then dive into the ocean, Shaving in mid-air before he hit the water with an enormous splash. What was he…?

The ocean erupted as Kaneki returned, carrying the immense trunk of the Sea King in his tendrils and hurling it onto the beach, before pouncing on it and tearing into it with tendrils, hands, and teeth.

Vinci froze for a moment as he processed exactly what was going on, before sprinting down the beach, doctor’s bag in hand. “Kaneki!”

The ghoul whirled, a chunk of Sea King muscle in hand, his tendrils still busily skeletonizing everything they could reach. “Captain…”

Vinci grinned. “I know, Kaneki. You can eat this. And it’s Sea King, stable living tissue, which means I can culture it. Which means…”

Kaneki threw back his head and laughed, something shining in the corners of his eyes. “Which means I don’t have to hunt anymore. I can…” The words audibly caught in his throat, and he stopped, as black fluid - tears, Vinci realized - dripped from his eyes. “I don’t have to be a cannibal anymore,” he whispered.

Vinci nodded, opening a small jar and collecting the blood that was still pouring from the Sea King’s corpse, adding a few drops of anticoagulant to the substance. “Damn straight. I’ll have to run a few tests, just to make sure, but the fact your body isn’t rejecting it outright tells me everything I need to know. And hey, now you can stop corrupting C with your nefarious ways.”

“Go to hell, Captain,” Kaneki said happily.

“Oh, I intend to bring that to earth at some point, no travel required. Mostly on the Marines.”

“Might want to watch what you’re saying, Captain, a good third of the people here are Marines…”

“Yes, but they’re from a world where the Marines aren’t nutjobs, so they don’t count. And the fact that parallel timelines like that exist is both intriguing and slightly terrifying. Also, help me find your giant self later, I want a blood sample from him before we leave.”

“And how are we going to leave, Captain?” Kaneki said quietly, tendrils finally dissipating.

“Short version? Grab the me with the halo by the ankles and shake him until his secrets fall out.”

“And if that doesn’t work?”

“Eh, I’ll improvise.”

“Last time you improvised, you burned down an island.”

“Hey, it only ended up partially covered in lava, not burned down,” Vinci retorted.

“Sure, captain. Sure. I’m sure convection isn’t a problem,” Kaneki snarked.

“It’ll be fine, Kaneki. Stop being so dramatic in your worrying.”

“It’s not pessimism when the universe lives down to your expectations, captain.”

Vinci pocketed his jar of blood with a sigh. “Go find your Oni and your brother, Kaneki. I’m going to go shake myself.”

“Is that what it’s called these days?”

Vinci threw a scalpel at him, and the ghoul Shaved out of sight.

Fuck it. Time to break reality.

Again.

 

----

 

Herman narrowed his eyes at his counterpart’s suddenly queasy expression as he returned Amakatta to its sheath. “Not bothered by a bit of blood and guts, are ya?” he asked, pointing a thumb over his shoulder at where Kaneki - by now joined by C - was busy reducing Sea King corpse into Sea King bone.

“It’s not that,” his civilian self - a massively built man with biceps the size of small barrels - rumbled. “It’s your blade. You know the damn thing’s cursed, right?”

Herman shrugged. “Kind of figured, what with the voices in the back of my skull whenever I let loose. How’d you know?”

“I’m a blacksmith, it’s my job to know these things. And you’re...remarkably alright with it?”

“Eh, it’s a blade. Curse or not, all that matters is it cuts down my enemies.”

Another one of Herman’s duplicates, this one a man with a greying beard and a strip of cloth wrapped around his eyes, tilted his head at him, and spoke for the first time.

“Pathetic.”

“First thing out of your mouth, and it’s an insult,” Herman said flatly. “Honestly, should’ve expected that. You guys seem to be arrogant assholes.”

“Arrogance implies we are not as far above you as we are. And what do I have for counterparts? A blacksmith, a low-ranking Marine, and a fool who lacks the self-discipline to tame his own blade. Am I not correct?”

The Marine in question glared, hands going to the ornate hilt of the katana at his hip. Herman sympathized, but very carefully did not move. His counterpart, though deserving of whatever happened to him, simply screamed danger to every one of his instincts.

He might not be a fan of spiritual claptrap or most of the other idiotic ideas about fighting blind, but he knew well enough that Haki could make up for a lot of deficiencies, thanks to Kaneki. And the fact that the man’s voice alone sent shivers down his spine...not the time to start a fight.

Didn’t mean he couldn’t needle the little shit back, though.

“Might be we’re weaker than you, but I’ve noticed you and your fancy version of my captain don’t exactly have a lot of friends around. You might be stronger...but, funnily enough, I bet you were too weak to protect your crew. Am I not correct?” he asked in a mocking tone.

His blind counterpart bared teeth. “Do not presume to talk about things of which you have no knowledge, whelp.

Herman laughed. “Hit a nerve, did I? Aren’t you supposed to be enlightened? Above anger?”

The blind man paused, and then smiled. “In a better world...perhaps, whelp, perhaps. But this is the real world, and the urge to cut down your opponent is just and fair. Keep a civil tongue in your head, and you will not experience it.”

“It’s surprising,” the Marine said quietly, unsheathing his blade. “I would not have expected any version of myself to be such an asshole, and yet here we are.” He glared at the blind man, as the conversations around Herman’s knot of duplicates stilled and people began to move aside. “For your insults...I want compensation.”

“Granted. One Hundred and Eight Pound Staff.”

The cane in the blind man’s hands blurred.

Herman saw it in an instant. The Marine was unprepared, his sword not up to guard properly. The cane would crush the man’s throat, unless-

The cane slammed into Amakatta with an impact that rattled Herman’s bones, but he did not waver. “Now, what do you think you’re starting?” he growled.

“Stay out of this, fool.”

“Yeah, nah. He’s a Marine, and kind of an idiot -”

“Hey!”

“- but he is basically me, and I’m not exactly comfortable with seeing him dead.”

“He is weak. His death or life do not matter.”

The cane pressed downward, and Herman stepped back and to the side, taking up more of the burden. He smiled. “So? Everyone’s weak, at some point. Doesn’t matter. Still gonna kick both your asses if you start fighting.”

“Do you think you have the power to stop me?”

Herman shook his head. “No. But that’s what friends are for.”

That was when a gigantic albino hit the blind man in the back of the head with an iron club. The idiot dropped.

Herman nodded his thanks to Tancred Pamca as the most physically imposing member of Kaneki’s Oni was joined by the rest of his fellows.

The blind idiot made to get up - huh, he must’ve been pretty tough - and froze as a spearpoint, various swords, and Percy’s Size Twelve steel-toed boots parked themselves on various portions of his anatomy.

“Heeeeeyyyy, buddy,” Eka drawled from his position seated atop the blind man’s back. “Seems you don’t quite get how things are supposed to go.” The dao in his hand dug slightly into the blind man’s neck. “See, we’re all stuck here for the moment. Starting a fight and throwing around some collateral damage? Big no-no. Heck, our boss would handle you, but he’s a mite busy at the moment.”

“My captain will…”

“Do fuck and all, if he knows what’s good for him. Now, are you going to be cooperative, or do I have to present some apologies alongside your head to mister golden and glowing?”

“...Fine. Let me up.”

Eka leapt up, and the Oni retracted their weapons, letting the blind man get to his feet.

“I could’ve handled him,” the Marine muttered.

Herman barked laughter, elbowing his white-hat counterpart in the ribs. “Sure, short stuff.”

“I’m not fucking short. You’re a giant. And how the hell did you get so tall anyway?”

“You try swinging around a sword your own height and not put on some height of your own, other me. That, or you could just eat a Zoan Devil Fruit.”

“Devil Fruits and cursed swords…” the blacksmith rumbled. “You’ve had an interesting life, haven’t you?”

“Pirate. Comes with the territory.”

Amakatta hummed as he returned it to its sheath.

 

----

 

“So?” I ask the trio of Krasnyy, Vinci, and God-Emperor 2: Electric Boogaloo: Now In Frankenstein Format.

Ugh, I seriously need sleep…

Or sanity.

Or that, intrusive thoughts in my head.

The trio exchange glances.

“So, after looking at the underlying reality of this place…” Krasnyy begins.

“You floated in place for ten seconds and then exploded a chicken,” Vinci deadpans.

“Where... did we get that chicken?” Lisa asks.

The chicken is not important,” Krasnyy snarls. “What is is that we have an idea of how to get out of here.”

“And that is?”

“We’re going to punch it.”

Deep breaths, Kaneki. “Punch. It,” I growl.

“Eh, metaphorically, anyway. The backlash from us breaking the pocket dimension should hurl everyone back to their respective worlds.”

“Should.”

“I’m a Primarch, not a multiversal mechanics expert.”

“So what I’m hearing is, you guys have no idea what’ll happen but you’re going to hope it’s good and won’t kill us all,” I say flatly, quietly noting that yes, extreme annoyance can turn your vision red with suppressed rage.

“GROARRRR!”

“Excuse me for a moment,” I say neutrally, before forcing my wings out and half-Shaving half-flying through the air to axe kick the Sea King in the snout. “SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU PHALLICALLY-SHAPED EXCUSE FOR AN AQUATIC MENACE!”

The Sea King slams into the beach, the impact scattering people and making the ships at anchor bob, before I fall from the sky and impact its skull again, sending another shockwave through the earth. My wings vanish, and my tendrils take their place before piercing the creature’s skull. Its struggles stop. “Where. The fuck. Are these things coming from?!” I shout. “What the hell do they even eat? Each other?”

My tendrils are working as I shout, pulling in sweet liquid life, a taste far better than human, like a rich tender steak - this is what I’ve needed for so long.

A way out.

A source of power.

“C!” I call. “Get your ass over here and try this!”

Some of the civilians look terrified. Eh, fuck ‘em.

Wait, they aren’t looking at me...

“GROARRR!”

Oh, for fuck’s sake.

 

----

 

“STARBOARD GUNS, FIRE!” Lauren shouted at the top of her lungs as another pair of Sea Kings surfaced. Ends Justified ’s weapons roared, standard-issue cannonballs slamming into the massive serpents and the water around them, as people screamed (mostly civilians) and ran onto their respective vessels (everyone, though for widely differing reasons).

A coruscating beam of light ripped through the air, neatly decapitating two of the Sea Kings already present, and Lauren looked over her shoulder, to where the skeleton was standing on a floating platform of sand, surrounded by equally skeletal dragon heads.

Damn, if she could figure out how those worked…

Not the time, girl.

She levelled her rifle at another knot of these fucking Sea Kings, firing as quickly as she could work the bolt. The heavy projectiles weren’t good enough to pierce the scales unless at extremely close range, but - three of the six Sea Kings fell without a sound -her aim was very good. And eyes didn’t have the kind of armor to stop her sabots.

The Marine ship was firing too, their gunnery a great deal better than hers and their attacks more disciplined in general - she’d never seen air blades fired in volleys like that, but the Sea Kings weren’t getting any closer than a hundred meters and the sea was turning crimson with alarming rapidity - but the civilians didn’t have any guns, and the creatures were barely being held at bay by -

Lauren ducked as Kaneki slammed into the deck, turning a line of planks into splinters before being stopped by the mast. The ghoul got to his feet, eyes blazing above that extremely disconcerting toothy mask. One arm dangled, before abruptly resetting itself with a crack. “Fucking serpents,” the ghoul slurred, wavering slightly on his feet, almost falling.

Lauren caught him - monster or not, they were still crew, dammit- and put a shoulder under his arm, keeping him upright. “Hey, no sleeping on the job, you get me?” she joked, other hand putting more heavy rifle rounds downrange. Accuracy and fire-rate suffered, but again, crew.

“Not a damn chance,” Kaneki muttered.

“Got a plan?”

“Captains do,” the ghoul grunted, straightening slightly, no longer unsteady. “Don’t know how they’re gonna do it, with these things swarming. Is this place a breeding ground or something?”

“With our luck? Yes.”

“Fucking hell, we opened up a buffet for them.” The ghoul’s wings burst back into existence, and he cracked his neck. “Hold the line, I guess.”

“Damn straight,” Lauren replied.

Kaneki launched himself back into the fray, and Lauren watched long enough to see him slam into another Sea King, hurling it back into the ocean. At the same time, an immense air blade came from where Herman was on the beach, turning three of them into chum.

She grinned. The most terrifying things in the seas, and against this crew…

Wait, was that a fucking raft?

She ran to the rail, barely noticing as the guns fired again, and confirmed that yes, that was a raft - with every single one of her crew’s creepiest doppelgangers aboard.

Part of her - a part that had been growing louder and louder ever since the Archipelago - briefly considered targeting the next barrage on there, just so she didn’t have to put up with the arrogant and/or crazy pricks anymore.

She hadn’t been too busy taking ideas from her other self that she hadn’t noticed how deranged her counterpart on that crew had been, nor had she missed how some of the others had acted. Herman’s had been the worst, but Vinci’s was almost as bad.

She discarded it, though. Small in number or not, they had Sea Kings to handle instead. Ammunition wasn’t to be wasted.

...and that was an extremely disconcerting shimmer occurring in front of the raft, what the hell-

Something clicked in her mind, and she cupped her hands around her mouth. “GET CLEAR!”

“CEASE.”

Everything in front of the raft - water, mist, derelict ships, and Sea Kings - just... vanished , as something swatted them aside like the hand of God. Lauren swore she glimpsed sea bed before a light began to burn in the center of the Mists, and winds began to blow, forcing her to hold onto the rail and close her eyes against the light-

The bottom dropped out from her stomach, shortly followed by the deck dropping out from under her feet, screams ringing in her ears as the Nightmares panicked-

Then the deck came back and smacked her in the face.

Lauren opened her eyes with a groan, before pushing herself into a sitting position and snapping her nose back into place with a grimace. She ignored the throbbing pain as she slowly got to her feet, staring around her wildly.

Empty sea, for miles around. No mist, no derelicts, no doppelgangers…

“HAH! We made it! Nothing’s gonna stop us now!” she shouted.

There was a splintering noise, and the mainmast, damaged from Kaneki impacting it earlier, slowly tipped sideways before breaking off entirely and sinking into the depths.

“God damn it, Lauren,” the captain said quietly.






Chapter Text

“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.

Power.

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.

"Embalming fluid?"

"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…

Boom-oom-oom-oom!

"Reloading!"

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.

Thoom-thoom-thoom.

And it was getting faster the closer the enemy got. The gunports were closing, the harpoon launchers on the bow swinging into place...

Thoom-thoom-thoom-thoom-thoom-

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.

 

Chapter Text

Vinci didn’t ask for much.

A well-equipped lab, capable subordinates, the occasional idiot to volunteer themselves as test subjects by attacking his crew, ultimate knowledge over the inner workings of the universe, and shipboard food that tasted decent (a hundred crew and none of them a decent cook, something that needed to be rectified when they reached the next port).

Where did that get him? Attacked by walking impossible skeletons.

“HOW DO YOU FUNCTION?!” he shouted, saws cleaving another pair of the damn things from scapula to pelvis and sending the shattered bones falling to the deck.

“It’s Devil Fruit Bullshit, Captain,” Kaneki said flatly as his wings separated another set of skulls from their spinal columns. “Stop questioning it and focus on returning them to death.”

“Hmph.” Vinci spun on his heel, leg lashing out and sending an armored skeleton crashing into a crowd of its fellows, pitching them all off the deck and into the depths below. With that bit of breathing room, he let his sight open up fully, scanning for weak points. A Devil Fruit implied a user, and if a user was taken out, the effect faded with them.

The starry cracks of weaknesses crossed his vision, and Vinci grinned as he saw them converge in the distance, back on board the enemy vessel. "OFFICERS! WITH ME! WE'RE BOARDING THE ENEMY!"

"AYE, CAPTAIN!" came the answer from his best fighters, as the pace of ongoing violence increased, if such a thing were possible. Impact Dials, Finger Pistols, and countless weapons tore apart the skeletal fighters, and that was just the 'normal' crew. The officers were in another category entirely.

Gin's tonfa were reducing the ambulatory bones to powder, surrounded by the blur of his Devil Fruit ability, Jack's hammer was hurling them overboard by the dozens, Lauren's gunfire was shattering their skulls, C was ripping them apart with their own weapons, and Herman was laughing as he cleaved them in two with every swing. The Oni were a multi-headed blur of violence and weaponry, pushing towards him as they heeded his order.

Well, he had at least one of the things on his list.

Vinci leapt up and kicked off the air, making his way to the looming bulk of the Necromonger battleship. The moment he cleared the rail, he swung his leg forward, firing off a Tempest Kick. At this distance it didn't do much more than knock over some of the skeletons standing around, but that was more than enough to buy him some room to land. His saws blurred as he began to cut down the walking corpses, and the fresh sound of battle behind him told him that his crew had followed his example.

“DAHAHAHAHA! IS THIS YOUR BEST? IS THIS WHAT THE NECROMONGERS CAN DO? WHERE ARE YOUR MONSTERS? BRING THEM, AND FACE ME!”

There was a very large thud to his left, and Vinci paused, looking up and up. Well. That was clearly the captain - a giant of a man, covered in layer after layer of coats and scarves, only a shining pair of round spectacles indicating that the man was glaring at him. Vinci bowed, absent-mindedly hurling a couple of scalpels to cut free the heads of a few of the more adventurous skeletons before they could do the same to him. “Well, that will do quite nicely,” he said with a widening grin.

“Grigori Vinci,” the giant said, waving a hand - the skeletons retreated from the two of them - and tilting his head. “A fellow scientist...well, you and your crew should prove quite useful. And I have wanted to see if my powers can preserve a living brain. Your skill will prove useful, once properly molded. And your soldiers...especially the Butcher Bird, they will make excellent specimens.”

Vinci’s grin vanished from his face. A soft smile replaced it.

“Really, now,” he said quietly. “You know, I met someone like you recently. Same sort of god complex. A bit more showy about it, a lot more powerful...but the same kind.”

Ba- bum .

“Let me show you what I wanted to do to him,” Vinci growled, as he called the lightning, popping a black pill into his mouth. “MONSTER MODE!”

 

----

 

I can’t help but whistle as I see a very large man hurtle through the air and turn part of the enemy ship’s superstructure into kindling on impact, an electricity-wreathed Vinci plowing through the skeletal hordes after him. “Damn, was he always able to do that?” I comment to the surrounding skeletons.

They don't answer, beyond trying to kill me. Ah, well, wings. "Butcher's Feathers."

The spray of crystals isn't as effective as it would be on fleshy opponents, but the skeletons are packed so close I can't help but down quite a few of them, the others being knocked aside by the force of the projectiles. That still leaves...well, several hundred more. Hmph. If our crew were as weak as usual pirates, the skeletons would be dangerous, but as it is...not so much.

A pity. Meat on the bone would be better, but these things probably lack even marrow.

I mentally sigh in annoyance at the Dragon's voice in my head. Not everything is about food. And Vinci's going to work on a Sea King fricassee anyway, so even if these fellows lack something to rejuvenate us…

Feh. Sea Kings. Weak little serpents.

I raise an eyebrow as my wings rip a squadron of spear-wielding skeletons to shreds. You're one to talk.

Hush. Focus on mastering air.

Your insistence on metaphors is extremely grating.

I am a metaphor, so blame your overactive imagination. Also, on your left.

Wha-

An immense force slams into the side of my head, and I feel my feet leave the ground for a moment, before a wooden structure breaks my fall.

Ow.

I stagger to my feet, wings lancing out half on instinct to pick up some pieces of blood and bone. Did I explode someone on impact or something?

Hm. Bitter and filled with chemicals, just as you counselled the Jabberwock. And you should watch your opponent.

Right. I crack my neck, focusing on the figure approaching me through the rapidly thinning crowd of skeletons.

He’s a big fucker, as tall as Jack and actually built on a normal scale at that. But there’s something... wrong , and I don’t mean the oddly fixed grin on his face or the scars on his nearly-spherical bald head. His skin doesn’t move properly, nor do the muscles underneath it- and I have a view of most of them, since the only clothing he has on is a pair of blue shorts - and he walks stiffly and slowly.

Eating this one would probably be a bad idea.

You think?

I yank a largish splinter out of my shoulder, blood soaking the side of my grey tank top. Shouldn’t I be tougher than this? I’ve taken bullets before…

Air lacks the defenses of the other possibilities, being, well, air. Its province is evasion and ranged attack, not absorbing damage.

Figures . I nod to the big guy. “You got a name, Mr. Smiley?”

All I get in response is a middle finger and an odd scraping shout.

Well, then. “Butcher’s Feathers.”

My opponent brings up his arms to cover his face as the crystals hurtle towards him - and bounce off or are otherwise deflected off his skin in a shower of sparks.

Oh, crap. Shave-

I barely dodge the punch that turns the deck in front of me into splinters, reflexively firing off another spray of shards that does jack and all to the - whatever the hell he is. Armament user? Mutant? Botched taxidermy experiment?

I flow around another blow with Paper Art, wings slicing at him again ineffectually, before leaping up and away, kicking off the air and perching on the side of a mast. My opponent just stares at me, cracking his knuckles.

Air is speedy, light, and able to cut at a distance, but it lacks power. Perhaps…

Yeah, yeah. Metaphors.

I smile.

Let’s try fire.

 

----

 

Herman, dare he say it, was bored.

Heh.

Maybe seeing his counterparts- one weak, one arrogant, and one wise - had jarred a screw loose in his brain. Because this battle just... didn't do it for him.

He'd never been one to seek out challenges or anything so stupid- he had enough troubles already- but…

He sighed as his blade tore another swath through the skeletons. Beside him, the ship’s hounds - which he could swear were bigger and meaner since they’d first come on board, what was the captain mixing into their food? - fought just as effectively - probably more so, this was like a treasure trove to them.

Well, he may be a dog-man, but he could do with something more invigorating than just bones.

“Dammit, couldn’t you at least put up a challenge? This is boring , is what it is. You come to all this trouble to hunt us, and you can’t put up a decent fight? Pretty disgraceful.”

Vinci must be rubbing off on him. He wasn’t typically this mouthy.

"Come on! Give me a challenge!"

Yes, definitely Vinci. It had nothing to do with the thrill he’d felt fighting for his life on the Archipelago, the satisfaction of cutting down an objectively superior opponent, nothing to do with how... bland these faceless, shambling hordes seemed in comparison.

Nothing at all.

Dammit, what was wrong with him? He wasn’t supposed to be the same kind of blood-lusted idiot that Wyald had been, that Kaneki was showing signs of being. Sure, he’d had his moments, his anger giving him strength, or times when he’d been running on rage like in Crucix...but he was supposed to be better than that...right?

“What do you think?” he asked the silent skeletons, who merely watched with empty eyes, little sparks of green light suspended in each gaping socket. The dogs at his side snarled and growled.

That...was weird.

It got weirder, as the skeletons slowly backed away, leaving a wide open space around Herman. He narrowed his eyes, hefting Amakatta again and watching as the tension grew and grew.

Thoom.

Oh, hell.

Thoom.

He’d just had to open his mouth, hadn’t he?

Thoom.

What advanced through the ranks of the skeletons stood nearly twice their height. It was clad in armored plate that looked more like it belonged on a battleship, nary a weakness to be seen. The blade in its hands was built on the same scale, a double-edged monstrosity nearly as long as the thing wielding it. Green lights blazed in the slit of its visor.

Herman couldn’t help but smile, even if he hated why he was doing it.

“You got a name, big guy?”

As if in answer, the long-dead knight raised its blade...a blade that Herman realized, with a start, that he recognized from his readings.

“Furaian. The Edged Shield. One of the fifty Skillful Grade Blades. And in a dead man’s hands…”

Amakatta purred in his hands.

“Well, I think it’s time to see what you can do, big guy. White Fang!”

The air blade lanced through the air, and the undead knight moved to meet it, shattering the attack with a swing that sent howling winds to knock over the skeletons observing the fight.

This time, Herman didn’t bother denying that he was grinning.

Or that this was what he wanted.

He charged, Amakatta howling in his hands and his mind, his hounds howling alongside.

 

----

 

Gin liked this crew.

For one, they didn’t expect him to do all the heavy lifting.

“Yahahaha! I fucking love this job!”

“Hold the line! Lock shields!”

“GIN!”

Gin jumped into the air as a line of Nightmares raised their guns and opened fire, batting down more of the skeletons as the heavy rifle rounds smashed through bone. He landed behind the line, and took a moment to catch his breath and keep an eye on the battle.

The Necromonger vessel was a huge thing, and there were a dozen separate miniature wars going on as the officers clashed with stronger opponents and small packets of the crew fought the skeletons. To one side, Herman clashing against some sort of gigantic knight, snarling and raging. To another, the ex-Rangers moving through the crowds with liquid speed, slashing and firing off arrows. At another front, the ex-Steel-Shields, a wall of death that sheltered other Nightmares who occupied themselves tossing grenades over the shield wall to consume the skeletons in explosions. On yet another, C laughing as he hurled a massive assemblage of flesh, metal, and weaponry at skeletons and made a fair impression of bowling.

And then there were his guys. A dozen of those who he’d, dare he say it, made friendships with over the long weeks of war and sailing. Crack shots, and good fighters all of them. Not up to the physical par of say, the Oni - they weren’t nearly as crazy as Kaneki’s pack of quasi-ghoulish berserkers - but they made up for it in teamwork and damn good guns.

A hole opened up in the rifle line, and Gin leapt forward again, tonfas swinging. “Exorcism!”

The attack ripped through the skeletons like a rock through wet paper, sending bones and dust flying into the air as the vibrations shattered them.

Heh. Appropriate name for the attack, at least. Putting down the unquiet dead.

Gin dodged the clumsy sword strokes of a new pair of skeletons, tonfa swinging up as one and sending their heads hurtling into the sky.

And then he heard it. A bass thrum, right on the edge of hearing, something that rattled the bones and was getting stronger by the second.

“Fortissimo.”

“Get clear!” he shouted, before his world became noise and pain.

Consciousness trickled back with a ringing in his ears and a curious red tint to his vision...oh, wait, that was blood.

He spat more of the red liquid onto the deck as he pushed himself up from his prone position onto hands and knees, looking around desperately. Where had that…?

He froze, as he caught a glimpse of where his friends had been fighting. Only splintered planks and gore remained.

Some animal instinct told him to run, and he leapt forwards, as a blast of noise ripped where he’d lain apart.

There.

Gin wiped the blood out of his eyes as he got a good look at what the skeletal crowds - crowds that, he realized, were little more than dust drifting on the wind now - had been hiding.

A pipe organ. An immensely broad and squat one, tucked into a structure built around one of the lesser masts. In the center, an equally squat and broad figure, four abnormally thin eight-fingered arms set to play on the keys. It looked at Gin, and its face - a mess of scar tissue and mismatched skin tones - formed into a smile.

Gin staggered into a more upright position, and began to spin his tonfa.

 

----

 

Lauren paused for a moment, letting a couple of the other Nightmares keep fighting while she fixed her gas mask to her face - the air reeked of gunpowder.

That little fact saved her life, as she caught someone - someone not in Nightmare white - raising a weapon to attack her in the reflection of the gas mask’s lenses, and Shaved to the side on instinct, barely dodging the air blade that sliced through where she’d been standing and cut down the Nightmares in front of her in a spray of blood.

There was a little pang as she realized she didn't know their names.

She Shaved again, drawing a pair of revolvers as she closed the distance to attack.

The moment she raised one gun into position, something wrenched it out of her hand. She spun mid-stride, bringing the other to bear - and froze as she stared down the barrel of her own weapon.

The person holding it...probably would’ve been pretty, if it weren’t for the large stitches that ringed her stunningly beautiful face, securing it to a much more weathered and tanned rest of her head and body. Her clothes were the same kind of style - objectively, something to distract and stun most men (and some women) but made disturbing anyway. In the clothing’s case, well, bloodstains and obviously untreated injuries did not improve a crop top and shorts, even if they were made of glossy black leather. A whip was held in the hand not holding Lauren’s gun.

“You’ve got something of mine,” Lauren said, her own gun not budging an inch from where it was pointed at the creepy woman’s throat. “And what’s with the dominatrix getup?”

“You’re one to talk, dear. What are you, some kind of street magician?”

Okay, she thought she was a fairly nonviolent person, but she was going to make this one suffer. Lauren smiled very widely. “What do you think?”

“I think your screams will be sublime to listen to for d-”

Blam.

The woman dropped, her throat a red ruin.

Lauren sighed, and scooped up her gun.

“Should’ve fucking shot me instead of making threats,” she muttered, walking away.

Crack.

A burning line carved itself across her back, and she stumbled, falling to one knee.

“And you,” the bitch growled in a raspy voice, “should’ve checked I was dead.”

Oh, this was going to be a pain in the ass.





Chapter Text

"Scale Lance!"

My twined-together tails deflect off the smiling fucker's fist in another ineffectual spray of sparks, and said fist slams into my chest, nearly knocking me off my feet and popping a couple ribs into my lung in the process. My tails push me back into the fray, and I duck underneath Smiley’s haymaker and slam the trench spike in my hand into his ribs, hoping steel will work - but no dice, the damn thing bends.

I leap back with a snarl, and drop the useless weapon to the deck with a clatter. "Multiple Scaled Spikes!"

The sextet of tails slam into Smiley's chest, knocking him back but doing no actual damage.

So much for the pure offensive power of fire, I think, barely Shaving away from another punch in time. My legs are starting to burn - even with my regeneration dealing with the worst - and he...he doesn't even look tired.

I cough, forcing blood out of my lungs to drip through the fabric of the mask. I barely even notice my ribs snapping back into place as I watch Smiley silently, looking for an opening, any opening. His skin might be impervious, but there's no guarantee the same is true of his eyes or other orifices…

The problem, then, is hitting him, but he seems well aware of his weaknesses, arms raised in a classic defensive posture.

Still, that's my only option right now.

"Scale Cross! Twin Scaled Spikes!"

My first strike, crossing diagonal slashes, slam into Smiley's arms and, just like the rest, only produce sparks for their efforts.

But they also force his guard open for the briefest of moments, and two other tails lance straight for his eyes-

And he catches them, one in each hand. 

Oh, crap-

I'm yanked off my feet as Smiley pulls hard, and feel my tails stretch painfully as he swings me like a toy.

I hit a mast spine-first, and my legs go numb with a crack before I fall to the deck. Blood patters and pools on the dark wood, dripping from my chest and head.

This is intolerable , the Dragon snarls. Give me control, and I shall burn through his protection with ease.

And let you murder my friends? Not happening.

A thunderbolt of pain rips through my head, like a migraine headache trying to drill through my eyeball. I clutch at my right eye, trying not to scream.

Foolish child. I cannot allow you to bring us both to death.

And if I bring you out for every difficult fight, how am I supposed to get stronger? I mentally rasp, keeping half an eye on Smiley, who hasn't moved to attack yet. I can beat him.

You're a foolish child…

The pain dulls and vanishes.

...but I will let you try. And you should get up quickly, before he-

My tails launch me into the air, slashing as I dodge Smiley's fist. I reorient myself in midair, feeling snapping back into place in my legs, and kick off, scanning the chaos below for him...

A slight breeze is all the warning I get before a two-handed blow slams into my back from above, sending me hurtling down to the deck. I crash into a group of skeletons, brief flares of pain hitting me as their bones shatter on my body. 

Then Smiley lands on me, and I crash through the deck as his blow snaps my own bones like kindling. And then there's another, and another, and another, slamming into my torso over and over…

And then, they stop, as the familiar roar of an Impact Dial discharging fills my ears.

"You know, Boss, if you letting him beat you up so we could blindside him was the plan, you really shoulda told us," Eka says, voice fuzzy to my concussed ears. 

I give the bearded Oni a wobbly grin as he helps me to my feet, halfway holding me up. "Thanks for the save."

"Any time, Boss. Got any idea how to beat this guy?"

I drag the back of my hand across my eyes, clearing blood from them, before looking around. This deck is clearly a gun deck, or was before Smiley decided to do some remodeling with my face. Cannon are scattered across the massive room, ripped from their rails, barrels of gunpowder and racks of cannonballs hurtled about willy-nilly. In the rough center, the remaining five Oni try to hold their ground against Smiley. They're not succeeding, and as I watch, Smiley dodges a blow from Pamca's kanabo before lashing out in a blow that sends the huge albino reeling back.

Wait. Dodges. Why would he...unless...

I grin beneath my mask.

"I do now."

 

----

 

Jack grimaced, resisting the urge to yank a knife out of his left arm. It'd just make the bleeding worse.

He really wasn't sure what the officer's role of the freak he was dealing with was, but whatever it was supposed to do, it seemed to require extra arms in place of legs and a few dozen more eyes than came standard, as well as a horrendous amount of agility and a very disconcerting ability to move silently across rigging and masts.

That, coupled with a seemingly endless supply of knives, had been enough to cut down half a dozen of his crew before Jack had intervened.

And enough to hit him before he could see the attack coming and use Iron Body.

But if he just waited for a clear shot…

"Hihihihihihihi…."

At least the extremely creepy laughter was helping him get a fix on the fucker...

He spun his hammer slowly, listening intently as the laughter drifted toward his left. His bad side, thanks to the knife wound. Jack snorted, hammer continuing its slow revolutions as his fingers tensed on the trigger Lauren had welded into the hammer's haft. The new mechanisms changed the weight and balance slightly, but not nearly enough to matter.

A knife came hurtling from the mess of rigging from his left, and Jack slapped it aside with the haft, letting the weight of the hammerhead move him to face where it'd come from almost on instinct. The laughter continued, beginning to echo, carried on the sounds of battle all around him.

Come on…

Another pair of knives, hurtling down from on high, and even as he knocked them aside he saw the scuttling shape of the freak lunge from the shadow of a mast, covering the distance at a speed that nearly rivalled a Shave- 

His hammer came down on the thing’s body mid-step, smashing it flat.

Well, that was eas-

Pain lanced through his gut, and Jack fell to one knee, pressing one hand to his stomach and feeling blood. How-?!

Some half-conscious instinct made him lunge, and he felt a blade carve a trench along the side of his face, barely missing his throat and instead taking off a chunk of ear. He whirled, hammer lashing out, and hit nothing but air as his opponent jumped back.

The freak. But...how?!

“What the hell are you?” he coughed.

“Hihihihihihi….”

 

----

 

Blam-blam-blam-

Crack.

Lauren dodged to the side, dropping the truncated remnants of one of her carbines, severed by an air blade from the bitch's whip.

He should've finished her when she had the chance. What she got for being unprepared, then. Kaneki wouldn't have been finished off by a bullet turning his throat into chopped liver, therefore it was risky to assume any other pirate would've been any less durable. 

If only she could reach her gas canisters, she could fade away into the chemical fog and attack at her leisure, but the bitch kept her on her toes with a constant barrage of air blades coming from that damn whip. How she kept the thing cutting, Lauren wasn't sure, but it resulted in a unpredictable flurry of attacks where all she could do was dodge and retaliate, with bullets that only seemed to annoy the bitch.

Oh, they hit and penetrated, all right, but even the frangible rounds didn't seem to actually hinder her opponent all that much.

She needed nastier bullets, then, but that was a problem for if she survived this fight.

She let her body take over, moving automatically in a well-remembered routine as she fired and reloaded, all while dodging the oncoming slashes.

Her carbine wasn't doing the job, which meant her best options were to use her heavy rifle, grenades, or her wind cannon. But she couldn't reach any of them, for the exact same reason she couldn't reach her gas.

She needed a moment to breathe, an opening, anything, but apparently the bitch's arm never tired. So how to make one?

Universe, if you're listening… she thought as she barely managed to dodge in between a pair of the slashes that left ragged gashes in the deck under her feet.

Crack.

Lauren swore as she mistimed a jump and an air blade nicked her leg, sending her sprawling to the deck. She rolled to the side instantly, and that bought her another second, but yet another air blade cut off her retreat, and for half a shameful moment she froze, breathing heavily and staring frozen at the bitch, who took her time raising the whip for another strike…

Blam-blam-blam-blam-blam!

Only to stagger back as bullet wounds blossomed over her increasingly ragged clothing like macabre roses. The bitch whirled, whip snapping out to launch another air blade at Pravilno, who had somehow snuck up on their fight, before she was abruptly smashed aside by a streak of silver - one that snapped back into Ostavila’s hands, slowing enough for Lauren to realize it was her weighted chain.

“Nobody fucks with our armorer,” Pravilno said with a grin, ignoring the cut on his cheek.

“Damn straight,” Ostavila replied, chain starting to spin again as Lauren pushed herself to her feet, watching the bitch where she lay. She was still twitching - the non-existent gods damn it, what did it take to put the bitch down permanently?

Eh, fire tended to cleanse.

Lauren’s hand brushed across her belt until she found the right canister, and she popped the pin, tossing it to where the brutalized body of her opponent lay. Greyish smoke obscured the site.  

The second thing she pulled from her belt was a lighter.

“Hell’s Fire,” she said simply, tossing the flaming object into the gas, and tensing herself.

The shockwave nearly bowled her over, novice Iron Body or not, but when the flames passed...nothing but ash remained.

 

----

 

Lawrence Keith - far better known under his nom de prime of 'Doctor Death' (such unimaginative fools in the Marines) figured everything was under control. He sat up, brushing aside with ease the rubble of what had been a storage room for some of the countless Hands he had raised, and regarded his opponent, rubbing his chin.

"Hrrm."

Grigori Vinci stood, breathing heavily, a haze of electricity and steam condensing around him. His skin was flushed and red, and veins visibly stood out on nearly every inch of exposed skin.

He was uncertain as to how the golden, glowing eyes were produced, but official word of Grigori's exploits had included enough detail to intrigue him - and to induce Keith to reach out to his few contacts in the Marines and Government who had, in a previous life, turned to him to accomplish miracles. Those had provided more information, enough for Keith to start filling in blanks.

Grigori specialized in transhumans, augmenting ordinary people and making them into monsters. His two black-eyed creations - one of whom had disposed of the Gunnery Sergeant, Carpenter, and Engineer with ease, tearing his conjoined creation apart, while the other had engaged his First Mate and likely would have been victorious by now if not for Keith's work on his skin. Those were likely his triumphs, and Keith would make certain he retrieved some secrets to their function. But Vinci had clearly been working on his entire crew, making them more than mere humans.

Hmph. That would interfere with any data gathered on the surviving specimens, but when weighed against the physiological secrets he could uncover, that was not an issue.

But he was growing distracted. The issue at hand was far more pressing. 

What Grigori was utilizing seemed to be some bastardized combination of biofeedback techniques coupled with the effects of more esoteric implants, closely mimicking either the Electro techniques of the Mink Tribes, or, more likely, a variant on the more mundane species of electrical eels.

Both techniques - electrical generation and boosted physical capabilities - required a great deal of fuel, and could in all probability not be sustained for any serious length of time. They rendered Grigori vastly superior to himself in terms of physical capabilities, but only temporarily.

The proper strategy, then, was to weather the onslaught and hoard his strength for the counterattack when Grigori weakened.

Keith processed all this in the half-second it took for Grigori to close the distance between them once more, fist lashing out at him as he shouted some asinine and grandiose attack name.

Keith twisted, his carefully-altered physiology - a complex system of organic hydraulics, enhanced ganglia and muscle, and cartilaginous bones  - allowing him to dodge the blow almost bonelessly, and lashed out in a deceptively gentle swing of his hand that smacked the much smaller man into Theseus's decking.

Grigori landed hands-first, turning his motion into a roll with enviable agility, and came up with more blades in hand before laying into the Hands that had surrounded him at Keith's silent command. All too quickly Keith felt the destruction of dozens of the Hands reanimated by his Vita-Vita Fruit, as Grigori's weapons - some intriguing combination of wide-gauge needle, knife blade, and medical saw - carved through the skeletal army. Within moments, the deck around Grigori was littered with disconnected and shattered bones, the pirate doctor breathing heavily.

Keith chuckled.

" And what, " Grigori growled, " is so damn funny? "

"Simply this," Keith said, inclining his head to look in the inferior doctor's eyes. "Come Forth, Lazarus."

Keith pushed life into the inert bones on the deck, all of them, across the entire length and breadth of the Theseus. Hundreds of old bones came back together, slotting themselves back into place despite lacking tendon and ligament to hold them together as they had in life. The specimens-to-be fell back, forming themselves into tight little clusters as the bones whipped past them. The truly intriguing cases - the black-eye and his pack, the werewolf and his hounds, the brute, and the revenant - all ignored the phenomenon in favor of focusing on their chosen opponents, but even they paused, as if sensing that this was a moment that needed every eye on it and demanded a silent audience.

Keith exhaled, and the perfectly arranged ranks of Hands snapped to attention, brandishing their weapons with perfect precision. Their numbers were slightly diminished by those who had been reduced to mere pieces of bone rather than simply bashed apart, but that wasn't much of a dent.

Beneath the layers of coats and scarves that protected his flesh from the light, Keith smiled.

The Hands attacked as one, shattering the silence with the clamor of war once again, and the slaughter began anew.

Grigori fell to one knee, panting, the aura of lightning vanishing. "Damn it," he rasped. "Is that the kind of power you hold?" His eyes bled gold, a steady pattering of ichor. Had he damaged them accidentally, or would they heal from the stresses put upon them? "Power over life and death?"

Keith inclined his head, granting a small measure of respect to his lesser. "As it should be," he said. "A captain already possesses such power over their crew...but in mine, everyone serves even past their death, and that makes me greater than any other captain, does it not?"

"It makes you a monster, to think that your right," Grigori growled. "To think you were once a physician…"

Keith laughed. "Come, now, 'Alley Doc'. We have both long since abandoned those idiotic and limiting oaths. You made your soldiers and turned your own body into a temple of the full capability of science...and I, I devoted myself to a greater path. If I am a monster...you must therefore be as well, no?"

"I...am nothing, nothing , like you."

Keith sighed, giving the nearest Hands a signal to seize the exhausted man. The skeletal soldiers forced him down to his knees, holding his arms out, and Grigori did not resist. Keith turned, striding to the rail of the raised deck, looking out over the combat. The Nightmares, caught unprepared for the arrival of 'fresh' forces, were gradually being forced back, some of them being shackled and knocked unconscious, others being reduced to useless, bleeding heaps, to be converted into Hands when the battle was through.

"You know, we could work together, you and I," Keith said, almost conversationally, crossing his arms behind his back. "You have no small amount of surgical skill, and your work implies a great deal of understanding of the basic underpinnings of life. You could join my quest, to truly understand life and death so that we could make the souls of men anew. And it is so rare to have decent conversation aboard this ship, much less that coming from someone capable of understanding even the least parts of my quest."

Out of the corner of his eye, Keith saw something flicker across Grigori's face. Time to sweeten the deal.

"I will even spare your most prized experiments, so long as they too bend the knee. They are, dare I say, capable work…"

"Kaneki…"

"Is that the name you decided on? It bears some similarity to dialects from the land of Wano... what does it mean?"

"It….dahaha. Dahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!"

Keith waited patiently for the fit of hysterical laughter to pass. Future specimens often succumbed to it when faced with his brilliance, and he supposed he could forgive a fellow scientist a lapse or two.

"It...it means one thing. That you are an idiot. "

Ah, well. A lapse, he could tolerate. Not insults. He pulled his sickle from his coat, turning as he slammed the blade into the deck with the force of his blow.

Keith stared as he saw that the only thing pinned on the blade of his sickle was Grigori's makeshift lab coat, the sleeves still clutched by the Hands. Where had he-

"Vertebral Trauma."

Above him-!

An iron-hard palm slammed into Keith's back, sending him staggering as his nervous system misfired, his body no longer obeying his commands properly.

"Neurotomic Cascade."