Chapter 12: Strange Bedfellows
Cipher Pol Arc
Lina didn't start to relax until they were well on their way, with the late afternoon sun casting an orange haze over the horizon.
Arranging for accommodations had been simple enough. The ship they were sharing was originally intended to house an entire platoon of Marines, plus associated support staff, so there were more than enough rooms to divide between the men and women, and the two distinct crews. The cabins were pretty sparse and bunk beds weren't the best, but they had all made do with less in the past.
The ship was equipped with a fairly spacious galley, with all its food stored inside a mechanical contraption capable of automatically generating cold temperatures. Even with her party's voracious eating habits, the journey was only expected to take a few days, so they probably wouldn't need to restock barring some unforeseen catastrophe.
Lina had protested a little when she'd found out that Jabra was going to be in charge of their cooking. Devil Fruit or not, she didn't like werewolves.
"Hey Gourry, do you think I made the right choice?" Lina asked suddenly. She looked over to where the swordsman sat, leaning against a wall with his feet propped up by some spare cushions.
"Hmm? Whaddya mean Lina?" Gourry asked.
"I mean going all the way with these guys." Lina clarified.
"It's just, things are different this time, you know?" She continued, finding herself a little surprised at how forthcoming she was being.
"Before, if we were getting into something serious, the others could bail out if it was getting too dangerous for them. But now, now that we're in this world, we all have to stick together. So my decisions are going for everyone."
"And when we get there, we're probably going to have to fight even more guys like that one in the morning." She added.
A quiet snore alerted Lina to the fact that Gourry had nodded off. Normally this would have earned him a boot to the head, but instead, she let out a breath that she didn't know she was holding. After all their adventures together, maybe that was just his way of expressing his confidence in her.
Lina pulled herself to her feet. She needed to find Zelgadis. There was somewhere they had to be.
"This is a Log Pose." Kalifa stretched out her arm to display the accessory attached to her wrist. Lina and Zelgadis scooted forward, leaning in to look. It had taken all day to secure this vital lesson, so by the gods she was going to get it.
Lina tapped the device with a finger. It was a clear, glassy orb, with what was obviously a compass needle suspended within, pointing steadily in the direction of the ship's heading. A metal frame and accompanying leather strap kept it fastened to the wearer's arm.
She blinked as the implication came to her, and from Zelgadis' gasp, it seemed he had grasped it too. Rummaging through one of the pockets lining her cape, she produced her own compass, whose needle was still spinning wildly around its pedestal.
"How come your needle can stay straight?" She asked, pointing at the accessory in question. "I couldn't even get my crystal ball to work on this crazy ocean."
"The islands of the Grand Line emit their own magnetic waves, so of course an ordinary compass wouldn't work." Kalifa said with a smirk, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
"The Log Pose is a special compass that records the magnetic interactions between nearby islands. Once it has locked onto the pull, it will point to the next island on the route."
Still smirking, she bent down, brushing her long hair back over her shoulder and bringing her face close to Lina's, allowing her tie to dangle free from her generously proportioned chest. No, Lina wasn't jealous at all, not one bit.
"Trying to sail on the Grand Line without a Log Pose is impossible." She chided. "You all would've gotten lost and shipwrecked before long if we hadn't arrived."
Lina's face pulled into a frown. Maybe she was right, but did she really have to put it like that?
"So what's the name of the island that it's pointing to now?" Zelgadis ventured.
Kalifa's gaze turned sharply to look at him.
"That's sexual harassment." She replied.
Lina watched as Zelgadis stiffened like a plank, and felt a slight shudder passing through her own body. The vibes that this woman was giving off were strongly reminding her of someone from her past, who she had unwillingly journeyed with for over a year before she met Gourry. Someone she definitely didn't want to remember.
She glanced outside to take her mind off such thoughts. Night was falling, and she could hear the fluttering sound of sails being furled, and the sloshing of water against the ship's hull gradually dying down.
The two crews convened on the deck, the disciplined ranks of the Cipher Pol agents assembling at the prow standing in stark contrast to the mostly aimless mob that was Lina's group. Just ahead, a cluster of lights could be seen, sweeping search beams mounted onto a ring of cliffs, diligently scanning the darkened seas.
"This is Navarone Island, home of the G-8 base." Lucci spoke, his voice cutting through the chatter. "Once we take what we want, there will be no need for us to wait."
"Oi Lucci, you aren't just ordering this because you wanna spill some blood are you?" Jabra asked. "How do we even know they'll have an Eternal Pose for Alabasta?"
"No, he's probably right." Kaku replied. "A base's fleet would be expected to deploy in a timely manner to any island within its jurisdiction. Alabasta is a little out of the way for G-8, but with the recent incident there that lead to Crocodile's dismissal, there's a high chance that they'll have it."
"I've checked the base's docks." Blueno added. "Vice Admiral Jonathan's battleship is not present."
"So? What'd you call us up here for?" Lina sniffed. It was windy outside, even though they'd stopped moving, and she was already longing for the warm radiance of the ship's deckhouse.
"We will invade the base, and return when we have an Eternal Pose, which points perpetually to a single Grand Line island." Blueno explained. "Then we can set out immediately for our destination."
"Yoyoi! And you, our trusted and most honorable allies," Kumadori chimed in, "must remain here and safeguard the ship from enemy attack!"
Lina gave a curt nod, and watched as the three preeminent agents took off toward the base. Blueno stretched out a hand, pulling apart a section of air to form a doorway into his hazy green dimension, closing it behind him once Fukuro, Kumadori and Kalifa had entered.
"They're so cool!" Amelia squealed, eyes shining. "A team of secret agents, fighting villains in the name of justice!"
Lina snorted. She had half-opened her mouth to remind Amelia that they'd been fighting the very same team just that morning, then stopped herself as she hit upon a new train of thought.
"Well, I don't see why we all have to stand out here at the same time." She suggested. "Since you like them so much, why don't you take first watch Amelia? If anything happens, I'll be inside."
Once the others were gone, Amelia quickly seated herself on the thick wooden railing at the fore of the ship, squinting into the darkness to try and pick up what she could. One searchlight flickered out, then another, until the exterior of the base was plunged into darkness.
In her mind, Amelia pictured the agents darting silently from cover to cover, traversing the base while eluding patrols. Maybe they could even trail lone guards right out in the open, using bursts of super-speed to keep out of sight while flashing cool poses in the process. In the unlikely event that they were spotted, a quick chop would knock the soldier out before he could utter a peep, leaving the remaining defenders none the wiser.
The sound of footsteps on the deck behind her pulled her from her thoughts, and she looked toward the source to see Zelgadis coming to relieve her.
"I'll take over the watch." He offered. "The night gets pretty cold out here on the sea."
Amelia shook her head. "No, I wanna stay here a little longer." She said, then added. "But, if you want, why don't you come wait with me?"
Zelgadis nodded his assent, leaning against the railing beside her, and for a while, the two of them watched in companionable silence.
It was broken by a scream.
It wasn't a scream borne of fright, or even a simple cry of pain; this was an eerie sound, as if all of a man's hopes and dreams were erupting out as a single outcry, wrenched from the living world and cast into the afterlife.
"What?!" Amelia managed to blurt out. Beside her, Zelgadis furrowed his brows.
Though she could only listen, it was like witnessing a catastrophe in slow motion. Gunshots rang out and cannons thundered, only to be cut short, replaced by a ghastly chorus of cries. In between them, she could just make out sounds that could've been begging, before they were terminated like all the others. Her imagination filled in the gaps, painting for her a grisly picture of what their allies were doing. She leaned forward, covered her mouth with a hand, and retched.
A moment of silence was followed by a sound like a creaking hinge. An air door opened on the deck and Blueno stepped through, moving aside to make way for his colleagues. Lucci emerged last, his white spotted shirt and dark coat matted with blood, reeking of death. In his hand was clutched an hourglass-like frame, with a single glass orb held in its center, and a tiny needle floating inside.
"Mission accomplished." Lucci said with a shark-like grin.
"You killed them." Amelia drew in her arms and averted her eyes. She suddenly felt very cold. Beside her, Zelgadis growled, fingering the pommel of his sword and the hilts of his pistols.
"They were just doing their job, they never did anything to you." She was starting to tremble. "They screamed and begged and you just killed them."
"They were weak." Lucci turned to rejoin the other agents, who had stopped to wait for him by the cabin door.
"That was their sin. And this is my justice."
Zelgadis waited in silence until the agents had filed in through the door.
"Hey, come on." He said, placing a hand on her shoulder. "Let's get you to your room."
Lina yawned and stretched her limbs as she felt the first warm rays of dawn sweeping over her face. It looked like it would be a pleasant day; the sea was calm, the sky was clear, and in the distance she could just make out the dark silhouette of some monstrous sea serpent, emerging for a breath of the crisp morning air before dipping back beneath the surface.
She briefly wondered if it tasted like dragon.
Lina glanced over at Milina's empty bed on the far side of the room, with neatly folded covers occupying one side of the mattress. Not many people got up early enough to be gone before her.
Amelia lay closer, wrapped tightly within her blankets. She had woken up gasping several times during the night, though she seemed to be getting some restful slumber now.
Lina rose and put on her clothes, hooking her cape to her pauldrons and giving her hair a quick brush. There'd be time to investigate later. Now was breakfast time.
Amelia didn't wake until noon, when Zelgadis had knocked on her door to see if she was alright. Now she swallowed as she stood in front of the entrance to the captain's cabin, where the seven agents were gathered for their afternoon tea. They were well into their second day at sea, but the two groups remained noticeably disconnected, seldom mingling except during meal times.
To Amelia's surprise, the chatter inside died down, and the door swung open to reveal Kaku standing in the doorway. With one hand, he gestured for her to join them, while he poured her a cup and pulled up an empty chair with the other.
"Thank you Mr. Kaku." Amelia said and took the offered cup. She sat down, feeling the eyes of all seven agents turning toward her. Some, like Fukuro and Kumadori, wore curious looks, while Blueno and Kalifa remained stoically neutral. Lucci's expression was one that she could not read at all.
"Gonna say something?" Jabra asked, cracking his neck then taking a sip from his mug.
"Well, you guys said you were government agents right?" Amelia asked. "I was just wondering, what does an agent do, exactly?"
"We are agents of Cipher Pol, as we have said." Blueno explained.
"There are eight publicly acknowledged Cipher Pol cells stationed around the four Blues and the Grand Line. They perform espionage and provide assistance to the Marines' intelligence division, though they are concerned more with political matters than criminal and military."
Amelia nodded. While Saillune preferred to cultivate relationships of openness and trust with the other kingdoms on the continent, there were always some unsavory types against whom clandestine activity was necessary.
"We were members of the Ninth, an unofficial unit along with the Zeroth. We performed some of the same duties as the eight official branches, but in addition, we were trained and given license to kill any individual who acts in a manner that is contrary to the World Government's interests."
Amelia felt her blood run cold as a distant childhood memory tugged at the back of her mind.
"Wait, so you're saying that… that you're-"
"Our primary occupation was assassination." Blueno confirmed.
Assassins. Amelia shivered at that word, as images of her mother's death flooded her vision, her blood pumping onto the floor and mixing with that of her murderer. Her elder sister Gracia had departed the following day, taking with her a memento from their mother's closet, and they never did find out who'd sent the killer. Investigations had determined only that the assassin's intended target was Gracia herself; perhaps it was even someone from within her own family.
"Y-yoyoi… are you well?" Kumadori ventured.
Amelia blinked and nodded, breathing deep to calm her nerves. Still, here was a group of assassins, who, by their own admission, had until recently been given free reign to kill in the name of the World Government. Was it right because it was necessary? What made something necessary? What made it right?
Amelia found herself recalling Shiki's words. She was about to reply when the entire ship rattled with the booming thunder of cannonfire.
"What now?!" Jabra snapped in irritation as the tremors caused his grip to waver, spilling hot tea onto his bare chest.
"Pirates. Troublesome, but not unexpected." Blueno said, pushing his seat back and standing up.
"We passed the island of Jaya not long ago." Kalifa added. "Probably a group of pirates thinking they can make an easy haul."
"Not unlike what your group was doing." She added slyly.
Lina and Gourry stood on the deck, gazing at the distant but fast-approaching pirate ship. It was a rather garish thing, with patches of bright, mismatched colors that invoked more distaste than fear when viewed. A fluttering white flag mounted atop its tallest mast was emblazoned with a coiled serpent symbol, fangs bared and tongue flicking.
Lina laughed cruelly, causing Gourry to cringe.
"You know, it's been really long." Lina said. "Finally we get to fight some completely normal pirates, without any floating islands, giant monsters or martial artists on their side."
A burst of smoke sent a cannonball soaring their way, which she detonated in midair with a salvo of flare arrows.
The captain of the other ship seemed to interpret the fiery blast as a hit, and the pirate ship tilted its rudder and closed to board. Soon the pirates were close enough to be heard, and Lina could hear them shouting out their threats; something about handing over her ship's valuables in exchange for their lives.
She snorted. Their lines were so run-of-the-mill.
An air door opened behind her and Blueno stepped through, while the remaining agents dashed out of the various windows and portholes. Assembling on the side of the ship facing the pirates, the seven agents cut a pretty imposing figure in the afternoon light. The pirates hesitated.
"Hold on just a second." Lina quickly cut in. "I saw these guys first. They're all mine."
A couple of fireballs later and the pirate ship was left burning and sinking behind them, while the crew scrambled for the handful of floating planks that Lina had so graciously left intact.
"Ah, treasure. Just what I needed to help me get over all this stress." Lina smiled as she landed back on deck, a sack of loot slung over one shoulder. Pouring out its contents, she began to sort them into the various compartments sewn onto her cape. The coins she slipped into one pouch, art objects into a small bag, and the few gemstones she'd poached were separated and placed into a side pocket. If they ever arrived somewhere where her crystal ball worked again, she could use some earth and water magic on them to sculpt them into more pleasing shapes, which would increase their trade value accordingly.
She frowned as she held up a wad of paper bills. Her mind was still having trouble ascribing value to these things. Maybe if she could find somewhere to spend some.
"Hey, why don't you wear this Zel? You always seem to be the one on top of this kind of stuff." Lina presented a Log Pose, snatched from one of the pirates before she'd dealt the finishing blow to their ship.
Zelgadis nodded and clipped the device to his wrist, following the examples they had seen. Folding up her cloak, Lina rose and inspected the hovering needle, noting that it diverged somewhat from their ship's heading.
"So, where's this one pointing to?" She asked the agents.
"The island west of Jaya on this route should be Ukkari Island." Blueno replied. "I am unaware of any notable features."
"Actually, Ukkari Island recently acquired a new set of hot springs, chapapa." Fukuro cut in. "Just built, and I heard they're really really good."
"Ooh, can we make a stop there?" Lina said, eliciting a round of strange looks.
"Come on, what's the big deal? I mean it's not like we're going to get to our destination today right?" She pressed on despite, turning to Kalifa for confirmation. "So where's the harm in spending an evening at the springs, relaxing before battle?"
"It's true." Kalifa conceded, keeping her expression carefully neutral. "At our current speed, we should arrive at Alabasta tomorrow either way."
Lina took a moment to look the female agent over.
"Hey, don't pretend otherwise." She said. "I bet you wanna go too huh?"
The G-8 base on Navarone Island had always been labeled as "peace-crazy" by its detractors. Heavily armed and surrounded by a ring of cliffs, the island was avoided by pirates, and thus the base itself saw very little combat. This in turn gave it value as a repair and recuperation stop, for damaged ships and Marine soldiers injured in the line of duty. Here they could rest easy, secure in the knowledge that no trouble would come calling.
Nonetheless, there were those at Marine Headquarters who saw G-8 as useless, and some had tried several times in the past to have it closed down. Kuzan personally felt that such drastic actions were counterproductive, and had quietly filed his opposition to them every time. It was one of the few things on which he saw eye-to-eye with Sakazuki.
Kuzan wore a grim expression, and said nothing as he walked the blood-slicked halls of the base. He'd ordered his ships back to G-8 for maintenance after another day of fruitless searching, only to find over a hundred Marine soldiers murdered in cold blood. Telltale signs spoke of the perpetrators' identities; bullet-like penetration wounds with no bullet to be found. Severed body parts, accompanied by massive gouges torn into the nearby walls and floors. Embedded slugs, deformed as if they had been rebounded by some impenetrable object. The main gate was still intact, with no signs of forced entry by a ship.
"Admiral sir!" A Marine shouted from behind him. "We've done an inventory as you requested! Nothing was amiss except…"
Kuzan turned. "Except?"
"Except the base's Eternal Pose for the country of Alabasta."
The crew pulled up the ship's and dropped anchor at the hot-springs island's southern shore, right next to the bathhouse's entrance. Beyond the walls, Lina could see clouds of steam drifting up from the baths, and hear the sound of water bubbling and gushing from fountains. A smattering of voices were audible as well, but strangely, the island didn't have any docks on which they could moor their ship, nor did they see any other ships anchored around its perimeter.
Lina quickly put that thought from her head and giggled. The place looked even better than she had imagined. Lucci and Blueno weren't coming anyway, so they would be on hand if anything went wrong with the ship.
Debarking with the rest of her party, Lina strode through the entrance, approaching the receptionist with a wad of money in hand. She stared quizzically for a moment at the tall, dark-skinned man, her eyes falling upon a pair of small, feathered wings sprouting from his back. She shrugged.
"So, how much will it be for eleven?" Lina asked, leaning on the front counter. She didn't feel too bad paying for everyone if it was going to be with her paper notes.
The man mumbled something back that she couldn't really hear.
"What's that?" She pressed.
"Miss Lina, I think he's trying to talk with his mouth closed." Amelia pointed out.
Lina looked up at the receptionist, who was staring down and gesticulating at her, but with his lower lip stuck inside his mouth, his attempts to speak came out as a series of unintelligible grunts.
"Say something with your mouth open you idiot!" Lina screeched.
"Ah! How careless!" The man blurted in surprise.
Lina folded up her robes and removed her earrings, then wrapped herself in a towel and tied her hair back with her headband. She slid open the wooden door that lead to the spring, and stepped into the evening air.
Lina gasped in delight. The full moon above cast its light down through the drifting clouds of vapor, bestowing upon them a sort of ethereal, dream-like quality. The pool itself was dyed a lovely sky blue by whatever minerals flowed through its waters, and wide enough that several small islands of smooth rock could be seen jutting out from its surface. A gushing fountain in the back provided the finishing touches to the bath's calming atmosphere.
The springs were newly established, and the other female guests had retired to their rooms, so they had the women's bath all to themselves. Lina dipped a toe into the balmy waters, then lowered herself down, leaving her towel on a nearby stone. Amelia was already deep in relaxation, immersed in water up to her nose, eyes closed and face flushed red from the warmth. Milina sat off to the side, leaning against the pool's edge.
Kalifa emerged last from the women's changing rooms, giving Lina a wink and a smile as she walked toward the pool, swaying her hips seductively as she did. Lina shut her eyes and turned away as Kalifa dipped into the pool, though when she peeked again she saw that the lone female agent had kept her towel on and did not allow the water to reach her chest. Oh right, Devil Fruit.
Pushing such matters from her thoughts, Lina lowered herself into the hot spring-water, reclining back and feeling the mineral water working its way into her skin. After all the trouble they'd been through recently, just lying in the heated pool seemed to make their burdens melt away.
Lina was jolted out of her peaceful respose as a furious argument erupted from the men's section. Jabra and Fukuro's voices were the loudest, clearly audible over the splashing and the gushing of the fountain, joined by a few others that she didn't recognize. Kneeling to raise her head above the surface, Lina cleared her ears of water, allowing her to make out a few snatches of the conversation.
"What's that zipper on your mouth good for if you can't keep it shut!"
"Can't do anything about it now, chapapa!"
"Shut up! And don't you try to 'chapapa' me! I take my eyes off you for a second and you go off and tell everyone all about our plans!"
The heads of the four women turned slowly to share a worried glance.
Lina was the first to act, snatching up her towel and throwing it around herself. Oh, why did it have to turn out like this? Throwing etiquette to the wind, she invoked a Levitation, soaring over the divider and into the men's section.
Though Blueno and Lucci had remained on the ship, the men's bath was still rather crowded, with seven men present between their two crews. Three others stood off to one side, clothed in loose desert apparel. The sullen expressions they wore indicated that they definitely had a stake in this, and from their scars, it looked like they weren't just some ordinary people either.
Nonetheless, whatever concerns they had had been sidelined for the moment by the frantic argument between Jabra and Fukuro. Lina watched as the former clambered onto his colleague's stout chest and tugged at his zipper mouth to emphasize his point. Kaku tried to weigh in, and when words failed to get through, he stood up and forcibly separated the squabbling pair.
Catching himself, Jabra turned instead toward the three strangers, murderous intent burning within his eyes. A carpet of dark fur flowed down his back, and his face stretched outward, bones cracking as they reshaped themselves into a long, lupine snout. A thick, bushy tail sprouted from his back, twitching with jittery energy.
"See to it that the ship's ready to sail when I get back." He growled, claws gleaming in the moonlight. "I'll be quick."
Lina opened her mouth to yell for him to stop when a feminine voice cut her off. All eyes turned toward the dressing room, where a young woman stood in the doorway, dressed in a pair of light jeans and a dark tank top, with wavy blue hair tied into a loose ponytail.
Cries of "Princess" and "Princess Vivi" spilled from the mouths of the three men.
"Please stop." The princess pleaded again. "We'll do what you want. Just please, tell me what's happening in my country."
Author's Notes: Ukkari Hot Springs Island is, of course, from Gedatsu's Accidental Blue-Sea Life. Along with CP9's Independent Report, I guess that's two cover stories that this arc uses.
Gah, I'm so uncreative. I really need to stop ending chapters like this. And that's the last of my pre-written chapters, so please be patient, as the next one will take a bit longer.