Chapter 13: A Place to Return to

Cipher Pol Arc


...


Lina knew an opportunity when she saw one, and by her order, Fukuro was to go back to the ship to notify Lucci and Blueno. They were not going to pass up the chance to work with the princess of Alabasta on this.

It became obvious that princess Vivi knew the island's proprietor personally when she requested that a conference room be cleared out for them. Apparently, she and her entourage were taking a vacation at the hot springs, having been on the island for the past several days. Lacking a means to contact her kingdom, they were left completely uninformed about current events there.

"No killing." Lina had said, a condition that Fukuro was to relay to Lucci in no uncertain terms. This was a chance to get some inside help rather than leaping into the dark, and she wouldn't have him ruining it with cold-blooded murder. They were to show up at the meeting, spill out what they knew, and help secure the princess's cooperation from there.

Withdrawing to the dressing rooms, Lina changed into her normal clothing, then gathered up her party and lead them to the conference. Taking a moment to fasten her earrings, clip on her talismans and straighten her hair out a bit, she stepped through the doorway, followed by the rest of her group. Well, other than Xellos; nobody had seen any sign of him since early yesterday.

"The name's Lina. Lina Inverse." She introduced.

The room was fairly spacious, dominated by a long, wooden table, though it was currently a little crowded with all the members of CP9 crammed around one end, where Lucci was already seated. Vivi occupied the other side, accompanied by guard captain Igaram. Standing behind her, the guard captain did his best to look the part with a stern-faced expression, but his small red nose and curled hairstyle made him seem more amusing than intimidating.

Lina pulled out a chair for herself halfway down the long end of the table, and her friends did the same, all save for Gourry, who opted instead to lean against the wall behind her. Sitting at Lina's left, Luke yawned and opened his mouth to say something, but a sharp glance from Milina convinced him to hold his tongue.

"Let us begin." Lucci announced.

The princess's two remaining attendants left to stand guard outside, and the CP9 agents began their explanation of the developments leading up to the current situation. Recognition bloomed on Vivi's face as they spoke; apparently their defeat at the hands of pirates was pretty big news.

Having heard all that already, Lina tuned out the explanations, glancing over at the princess and idly studying her expression. The girl was dressed in casual vacation clothing, and she didn't look any older than Lina was. She certainly didn't seem like a stereotypical princess, carrying herself with a distinct air of modesty and simplicity.

Lina watched as Vivi tensed and gnawed at her lip when Blueno broached the subject of Spandam's ultimate goal. Kaku picked up the story from there, continuing with what they knew about their former chief's connections and proclivities. Though Vivi said nothing, from the way her shoulders trembled, it seemed like she was suppressing a scream or struggling not to cry.

Vivi's reaction seemed to trigger something in Amelia, who took a deep breath and looked torn between wanting to comfort the princess and wanting to give her her space. Yeah, Amelia had been there before too.

The room fell silent as Kaku finished his explanation, and everyone stopped to await Vivi's reaction.

"'But what's happening in Alabasta right now?" The princess pleaded. "How many of them are in Alubarna? And what are they-" her words seemed to lock in her throat, "-what are they doing to my father?"

Lina noticed several of the CP9 members exchanging sympathetic glances, while Kumadori shook his head, looking down with a remorseful expression. For his part, Lucci remained stone-faced, and if there was any anger or irritation brewing beneath the surface, his expression didn't show it.

"That is everything we know about the situation." Lucci said. "We don't have any information on precisely what assets the chief may have deployed to your country."

"Then-" Vivi stood up, fists clenched, "then I have to return to Alubarna right away."

"Hey, let's all just calm down for a sec and think this through first." Lina tried to interject.

"I can't let you do that." Lucci leaned forward, eyes darkening. "Your interference might alert the chief to our whereabouts."

Vivi grit her teeth. "You could never understand." She argued back. "I am the princess of Alabasta. What if the royal army is fighting the occupiers right now? Thousands of people could die if I don't get back in time."

"Hey! Guys!" Lina shouted. But it was to no avail, for both sides were by now thoroughly entrenched, having no awareness left but for each other.

"People die." Lucci replied tonelessly. "And if you try to get in our way, I will personally ensure that you don't even make it back to your kingdom."

The princess's eyes went wide while her guard captain stepped in front, shielding her with an outstretched arm. The door flung open, and the two remaining attendants rushed in, glaring at Lucci with hands gripped tightly around their swords. Lucci rose from his seat, returning the two men's gazes, and to their credit, neither man flinched beneath his stare.

Lina's eyes darted to and fro. She could feel matters slipping out of her grasp. And if Lucci killed the princess… Oh, why did it have to turn out like this?


...


Vivi forced her eyes to her counterpart among the CP9 and fought down a wave of terror. There was no hesitation in the man's posture, and she could see his eyes scanning her side of the room, mapping out a path that would allow him to cut past Igaram and make his way to her.

CP9. As a member of Alabasta's royal family, Vivi was aware of the eight lesser Pols, who mostly occupied themselves gathering intelligence on pirate and revolutionary activity. And though she had never heard of the ninth Pol until recently, the weight of their deeds could be felt. Notorious pirates mysteriously ceasing activity, revolutionary leaders suddenly disappearing, even royals were not immune once their ties to "undesirable" elements were exposed.

The group's narrow defeat at the hands of the Straw Hat Pirates had made front page news, and unlike the events in Alabasta, the crew's involvement could not be covered up. Vivi had traveled with the Straw Hats for a time, when they had saved her country from the depredations of the Warlord Crocodile, and she had seen firsthand the monstrous strength of their top fighters. Plus, their captain was Straw Hat Luffy, who would go to any length and take any pain for the sake of his crewmates. Vivi glanced down at a spot on her left arm, where the faded remnant of a painted 'X' was still visible on her skin.

But the Straw Hats were gone off on their own adventures, and she couldn't be with them. As the princess and next in line for the throne, she had a responsibility to her kingdom, which was once again threatened by the burden that it had carried since the Void Century.

Vivi was prepared to give her life for even a chance to protect her country. Even if they were nominally the enemies of her enemy, she couldn't just place her faith in the plans of some... assassins. She had to speak up, had to do something.

Lucci's hand twitched, jolting Vivi back to the situation at hand, while Igaram, Chaka and Pell jerked in response. Vivi bit her lip. If CP9 was strong enough to challenge the Straw Hats, then could the four of them hold them off? Already, the lead agent was toying with them, like a cat playing with mice.

"Don't do it, Mr. Lucci." The dark-haired girl, Amelia, spoke up. Lucci evinced no response, as if he hadn't even heard, so Amelia stood up to emphasize her point.

"Why not?" Lucci's head turned slowly toward Amelia. "She has made it clear that she is an obstacle to our goals."

Vivi realized then that she had overlooked this third crew, and she noticed that the CP9 agents had never actually detailed the terms of their alliance.

"Mr. Lucci, you shouldn't talk about people like that." Amelia said. "Every person has hopes and dreams, and some are bigger, and some are smaller, but nobody's is more or less important. And when you kill someone, you're stealing all of these away, taking everything they have and everything they could have had. And yes, sometimes it has to be done, but you talked about sin and justice didn't you?"

"What justice is there in killing a princess who just wants to save her kingdom?"

"I have to agree with Amelia here." The red-haired girl added, fixing Lucci with a glare. "There'll be no killing, fighting or anything like that here today, got it?"

"And what, then, should we do-" Lucci gestured toward Vivi with a hand, "-if she decides to run off on her own and alerts the Chief to our arrival?"

"Please, Miss Vivi." Amelia pleaded, turning to address her. "These people are really dangerous. If you go by yourself, then you're risking your life for no reason."

A gulp of nervous saliva inched its way down Vivi's throat.

"I have nothing else to risk." She said slowly.

Amelia blinked in response.

"But we're all risking our lives for this, aren't we?" She said, breaking into a wide smile.

Vivi felt something warm take root in her chest as Amelia's words touched upon a cherished memory, the feeling mirrored by an identical sensation emanating from the mark on her arm. A strangled gasp tore its way from her throat, and the royal guards glanced at her with worried expressions. She closed her eyes for a moment, then with a deep breath, she opened them once more.

"Alright." Vivi nodded. She sat back down, pulling her seat to the table, and watched as Lucci did the same.

"What's the plan?" She said.


...


"Whew." Lina blew a lock of coppery hair from her face, letting out a breath that she didn't know she'd been holding. She glanced over at Amelia, who was smiling broadly.

"Well, I guess we came in here hoping you would know something." Lina addressed the Alabastan princess, returning to the topic at hand. "So I suppose all we can do is sail over to where the bad guys are and give 'em a beating, right?"

"That might not be possible." Vivi shook her head. "To get to Alubarna by water, you would have to sail up the Sandora River, and then travel east across the desert. It's a difficult journey, and I don't know if you would make it in time."

"And that's probably the move these guys are expecting too." Lina finished for her. "Well, shoot."

"But we do have another way." Vivi nodded. "This island is linked to Alabasta by a tunnel, and the other side opens just outside of Alubarna. It was dug just a little while ago, and hasn't really been opened to the public, so I could go back first, and confirm that it's clear before sending Scissors back to bring you all."

"I can verify that it is." A feminine voice floated into the room before Lina could ask what this 'Scissors' was. "It's how I got here after all."

Lina turned to look over her shoulder and saw that the meeting room door was open, held by a slender young woman who was standing in front of it, dressed in a long, frilly gown with a red rose tucked into her dark hair. By all accounts, she was quite beautiful, and Lina felt a pang of jealousy at her generously proportioned breasts. Damnit, it was like the world was going out of its way to spite her.

"Who are you supposed to be?" Lina asked.

"You can call me Viola." The woman replied. "I'm the translator for the archeological expedition that seems to be the topic of discussion here."

A round of murmurs and gasps rippled across the room, all save for Lucci, whose expression shifted to a predatory smirk, and Vivi, who had closed her eyes in thought.

"So you're telling us that if we eliminate you now, then the chief's goals cannot be accomplished." Lucci spoke, his voice low and conspiratorial. "That certainly makes things easier."

"Oh, don't give me that." Viola frowned at him. "Even if you did kill me, how long do you think it would take before your former director found somebody else? You know as well as I do that the Five Elders are backing this venture."

"Besides, I came out here to try and help you." She added.

"And what makes you think we're just going to believe that?" Lina said. "This all seems pretty suspicious to me."

Releasing the door and allowing it to close behind her, Viola stepped over to Lina's seat, with the thumb and index finger of one hand bent into a circle.

"Here, look through this and confirm for yourself." She said, kneeling down and placing her hand in front of Lina's face, so that Lina's eye was looking through the circle she had formed.

Lina gasped as a flood of images flashed through her mind. She saw a sea of sand, endless stretches of dunes shimmering in the desert's heat haze. She saw Alubarna, the kingdom's capital, built on a plateau of solid rock, its domed palaces gleaming in the harsh sun. And wait, how did she connect that image with the name?

The visions focused inward, fixating on the palace, showing former CP9 director Spandam wrapped head-to-toe in layered bandages like a mummy. Though he was too injured to walk and had to be wheeled around by an attendant, he was awfully good at running his mouth, barking orders to the exhausted servants as if he'd been crowned king himself. A pair of masked agents shadowed him at all times, nameless and wraithlike. Lina caught a glimpse of Viola's attendants, known by their aliases, Buffalo and Baby 5 of the Donquixote…

Lina jerked back as Viola withdrew her hand, and the parade of images came to an end. She coughed once, wiped her eyes with her hands, then blinked a few times to clear her mind of the visions.

"Wow." Lina sat motionless for a moment, trying to process all that she had seen. "Those were… memories right?"

Viola nodded back. "That's my ability, the power to see through everything."

"Even into the mind." She added quietly.


...


Viola wasted no time bringing the princess and the two crews up to speed on events in Alabasta. Fortunately, she hadn't gotten a chance yet to use her ability to translate, since the tomb containing the Poneglyph was still being excavated. Of course, Viola had made it clear that they were still working on a deadline, even if they would've liked more time to think things through.

"CP0's existence is top secret, known only by a few." Viola explained. "So they can't operate without a cover."

"And as blunt as they often are, the World Government doesn't want to initiate open hostilities against the Alabasta Kingdom, so your former chief is their front man for this whole thing." She addressed the CP9 agents. "Whether things go right, or they go wrong, everything can be pinned on him."

"So they want to have their cake and eat it too." Lina said.

"I expect the chief will probably be sentenced for acting without orders, even if he succeeds." Viola shrugged. "If he's expecting some kind of reward, he's going to be disappointed."

The hours flew by while Lina and her friends tossed out suggestions based on what they knew, and the CP9 agents contributed some of their unique expertise. The front desk closed down, and the island's elderly proprietor peeked in to check up on them, before retiring to his quarters for the night. Throughout it all, Vivi spoke very little, only raising her voice to confirm or deny any inquiries that were raised. Likewise, Viola seemed to shy away from Vivi's gaze, rarely meeting her eyes and preferring to address Lina and the CP9 instead.

"Now, we already know how we can get in, but we can't just make a big mess fighting it out in the capital." Lina said, before pausing as a thought struck her. "So we'll need some sort of diversion to get all of these goons away from the city. And then some of us can go in through the tunnel and get what we want."

"How do we do that?" Zelgadis crossed his arms. "Wouldn't that require a few of us to already be in the area?"

"I might have a way." Viola offered. "With my clairvoyance I can see over long distances; it's how I found you all here. If I tell them that intruders are arriving by sea, then they will be likely to believe me."

"Even if that were the case, I would expect the chief to keep at least one of the Aigis members by his side at all times." Kaku chimed in. "Although in that instance we should at least have the element of surprise."

"So then some of us will have to be on the boat to distract the guys down south, or they'll just come right back." Lina scratched her chin with a finger. "Of course, that does mean we'll have to split up. Everyone okay with that?"

That garnered a round of nods.

"Alright, so here's the plan." Lina announced. "Out of all of us, Vivi will go back to Alabasta first; that way it'll be less suspicious. Then Viola will tell the bad guys to head south to the mouth of the Sandora River, near Nanohana, where our ship will meet them and distract them. Then, when Vivi gives us the all-clear with one of those snail talkers that we have on our ship, me and whoever else wants to come can head over through the tunnel. Then we'll beat up the chief, free the king, and without their cover guy, they'll have to give up the whole gig."

"And then, I'll get to have a look at the Poneglyph for myself." Lina finished.

"Relax!" She added, noticing the unhidden stares from the princess's entourage. "I don't want it for the battleship. I just need to see if it has any other information related to the one I've already looked at. Promise."

Viola's eyes met Lina's.

"You can understand the ancient texts?" She asked.

"Well, not me." Lina said, waving a hand aimlessly as she tried to explain herself. "It's someone I know, but who we haven't seen in a while. He'll turn up eventually though."

"Alright, then I think it's time for me to leave." Viola stood up and made her way to the door. "It wouldn't be good for me to be gone too long, or else the others will get suspicious. If all goes well, this'll be the last we see of each other, but perhaps we can meet again on these seas."

"Wait." Vivi's voice cut in. Viola froze.

"You're princess Viola, of Dressrosa right?" Vivi asked. She had a thoughtful look on her face, which was gradually replaced by one of horror as she connected the dots together.

"Eight years ago, the Riku family of Dressrosa was overthrown." Vivi continued. "And then, the kingdom was given to the Warlord Doflamingo, and… Oh. Oh no."

Viola turned, giving Vivi a wistful smile, and a single glistening tear rolled down the side of her cheek.

"That's why I came." She said, her voice fading to a hoarse whisper. "I didn't want to see another princess without a kingdom to return to."


...


With Viola's departure, the CP9 members filed out as well, heading back to shore to prepare the ship. All save for Lucci at least, who had insisted on being part of the insertion group. By Kalifa's estimate, they were still the better part of a day away from the shores of Alabasta, meaning they needed to set sail as soon as possible to make it in time for the plan.

Sitting on the stairs by the bathhouse entrance, Amelia watched as Zelgadis clambered aboard, lending a hand in the preparations. Someday, they'd have to do this themselves, so better to get used to it while they were still among company.

"Hey." Amelia turned to see Vivi stepping out from the entrance's sliding door. Dressed in a sleeveless tank top, the Alabastan princess shivered slightly in the chilly night air, then seated herself next to Amelia on the bathhouse steps.

"I just wanted to say thank you, for back there." Vivi began, gazing down at the ground. "I got a little carried away, and I don't know what I would've done if you hadn't said something to them."

"Yeah, they are pretty scary right?" Amelia smiled. A loud crash drew her gaze back to the ship, where an argument had broken out over some darkness-induced mishap.

"Well, if you don't mind my asking, how did you all start traveling with them?" Vivi asked.

Amelia paused to think. With all that had happened in just the past two days, the events leading up to their alliance actually really seemed like a long time ago.

"It's a long story." She said at last. "But I guess you can say we kind of needed each other."

Vivi made a thoughtful noise, seeming to take that in, and it became Amelia's turn to make an inquiry.

"Will you be okay letting us- I mean letting Miss Lina look at the ancient writing?"

Vivi closed her eyes and took a deep breath.

"I am a little worried." She admitted, turning her gaze skyward.

"A while ago, a pirate tried to take over Alabasta, kind of like these men are doing now." Vivi explained. "He wanted Pluton, which is said to have the power to destroy whole islands. And that's why the World Government forbids anyone from reading the Poneglyphs, to keep these weapons out of the wrong hands. It looks like they changed their mind."

Amelia blinked. Knowing that, it didn't seem right to her to press the issue.

"But if it means that much to you, I think I can trust you." Vivi smiled. "Especially after you trusted me."

Amelia opened her mouth to speak but was interrupted by Zelgadis' distant calls, urging her to hurry aboard. Luke and Milina emerged, making their way to the ship as well, and Amelia got up to follow them.

"Be safe okay?" She waved back at Vivi.

"You too." Vivi replied.


...


Standing at the entrance to the Ukkari-Alabasta tunnel, Lina could only gape at the sight before her. It wasn't even the tunnel itself, which seemed to stretch out endlessly into the earth, so deep that even a pulsed light spell wasn't sufficient to illuminate its depths. No, it was what was inside it.

A gargantuan crab sat within the channel, as tall as a two-story inn and twice as wide, armed with a pair of stubby pincers, the right larger than the left. A carriage attached to its back enabled passengers to sit comfortably, with a lamp on either end to help the crustacean see where it was going. Lina grimaced as her gaze fell on the creature's oddly articulate face, which seemed to be permanently stretched into a creepy leering expression.

Lina turned when she heard the princess's entourage approaching. She noticed Lucci following behind them, having changed into a dark suit jacket, barely visible in the dark if it were not for the pigeon on his shoulder. Lina scanned the agent's expression, finding it uninformative as always. In the distance, the ship's mast began to move, picking up speed as its sails caught the wind and carried it past Ukkari's shores.

"So this is 'Scissors'?" Lina asked the princess. "Is it really safe to ride?"

"Hmm?" Vivi blinked as she passed. "Of course. Watch."

Locating a ladder attached to the crustacean's rear, Vivi clambered into the carriage, followed by her royal guards. To its credit, the crab remained motionless until the last passenger had entered, and Vivi pulled the carriage door closed behind them.

"Good luck!" Lina flashed them a thumbs up, and Vivi returned the gesture. Acknowledging that there were no more passengers for this trip, the crab scuttled off into the depths, the glare of its attached lighting vanishing into the distance.

"Hey, what'd I miss?" Gourry called from behind, his footsteps growing closer. Lina turned with an exasperated sigh, raising a hand to explain, then elected to wave the swordsman off without saying anything.

"Why is he coming?" Lucci asked suddenly, his voice betraying a slight hint of irritation.

"Because." Lina wheeled around and gave the agent a glare. "He's my protector. What other reason do you need?"

"Hn, what good is a protector that can't fight." Lucci replied, turning and heading back toward the rooms. "But suit yourself."


...


Lina yawned and stretched her arms as the first rays of sunlight crawled across her face. The women's room she'd reserved was silent, now that it was just her. She pulled her sheets back up over her chin. They had stayed up pretty late last night. Just another five or ten minutes.

A soft knock on her door caused her to open her sleepy eyes.

"What?" She mumbled groggily.

"Miss Lina right? You have a message." The bathhouse owner replied from the other side. "It's from the princess."

Lina sat up. "Yeah? What about?"

"She says they're ready. Ready for what though? She wouldn't tell me."

Lina rose quickly and put on her clothes, attaching her cape and snapping her shoulder plates into place. No turning back now. It was do or die.


...


Amelia stood at the ship's bow, gazing ahead into the distance. They'd experienced a few bouts of rough weather during the night, but now the climate was stable, which Kalifa informed her was an indication that they were nearing their destination. And indeed, when she squinted her eyes just right, Amelia could make out a thin strip of land on the distant horizon.

"Hey, good work back there." Jabra arrived, leaning against another post nearby. "Sometimes that Lucci guy, he can get a little, you know."

"Yeah." Amelia nodded, moving closer to a comfortable conversational distance.

"I guess the life of an assassin really was the right one for him." Jabra added. "I bet that guy has no regrets at all."

"So do you have anything that you regret then, Mr. Jabra?" Amelia asked.

Jabra made a thoughtful noise. "Yeah, I guess I do."

For a while the two stood in the morning breeze while the landmass in the distance grew closer. A flock of birds soared overhead as the shore came into focus, the bright sand standing in stark contrast to the deep blue sea.

"Say, about your friend there." Jabra tilted his head toward the back of the ship, where Zelgadis sat, poring over a map. "What is he? Is that an ability or something?"

Amelia turned to look at Zelgadis. "Oh." She replied. "That happened because of an experiment that somebody did to him. One of the reasons we're traveling is to try and find a cure, and turn Mr. Zelgadis back to normal."

"A cure eh?" Jabra brought his fingers to his chin. "I might know about something like that."


...


Baby 5 looked on from her perch atop Buffalo's back, high above the island and out of sight, scanning the seas with a pair of binoculars.

"I've got something!" She shouted to her partner over the rushing wind and the constant drone of his propellers. "Navy ship, approaching from the south like Violet said. That's the target right?"

"Sounds like it!" Buffalo replied. "I'm takin' us a little lower. You call up that other guy and tell him to dive in."


...


Something was approaching, cutting across the surface of the sea, moving so quickly that it seemed to be just a blur of white sea spray. It closed the distance in an instant, then exploded from the water, landing softly on the deck of the ship.

Amelia had to crane her head up to get a good look at their opponent. A man, or a person at least, standing over twice as tall as she did, with long, lanky legs taking up well over half his height. A flowing white robe and bearded red mask concealed most of his remaining features, but the implications were clear enough. Another agent of Zero, an Aigis.

"Hey! We've got company!" Jabra shouted to alert the others, having already transformed into his hybrid wolf form. He lunged, thrusting out a hand to pierce their foe with his claws, even as he drew back a fist for a follow-up attack.

The Aigis dropped to the ground to avoid the first blow, sweeping out his leg to knock Jabra off his feet. His gloved hand shot out from beneath his garment, spurting a stream of some thick oily substance, drenching Jabra as he got back his bearings. Then, hopping back a little, the Aigis kicked the air and set it alight, flinging a blade of burning wind directly at his opponent.

Fire touched oil, and Jabra screamed as he was ignited, the flames burning so fiercely that their tips reached the sails. Thinking quickly, Amelia invoked an Aqua Create, summoning a stream of water that erupted around her beleaguered ally. That only seemed to exacerbate the problem, as the burning oil hissed and sputtered, sending flaming droplets splattering across the deck.

"Isn't he a Devil Fruit user?" Zelgadis said as he arrived. "I thought they couldn't handle water?"

But Amelia could see it; a thin sheen of glistening oil that covered every inch of the Aigis agent's skin and clothing. Droplets of water that fell on his body simply slid off, repelled by this protective coating, never once making contact with the flesh underneath. That was how he could swim, how he could overcome his natural weakness.

The remaining CP9 agents arrived, taking up their battle stances, and a cannonball slammed into the sea surface, throwing up a fountain of white salty spray. A trio of warships could be seen in the distance, approaching from the mouth of the river, while their opponent took advantage of the distraction to vanish back into the murky depths. The flames guttered out at last, having consumed their remaining fuel, and Jabra collapsed onto the deck, burned and breathing heavily. Palms glowing with soft white radiance, Amelia rushed to her ally and called upon her magic to heal him.

A barrage of explosive shells slammed into the deck from above, shattering the front mast and rocking the vessel on its keel. Amelia was thrown onto her side, and she turned to look at the source.

What she had assumed to be a bird at first was revealed to be a large man, dressed in a thick fur coat with his arms spread out like wings. Spinning projections around his ankles and neck seemed to keep him aloft, while a slender woman stood on his back, dressed in a skimpy maid's outfit. One of her hands was transformed into the barrel of a cannon, a tendril of smoke curling up from its muzzle.

A blast of icy darts forced the airborne pair to swerve away before the woman could fire again. Invoking a Levitation, Milina signaled to Luke with a hand, and the pair took off to bring the battle into the skies.

"Let's go." Kaku waved to Fukuro and Blueno, and the bull-man produced an air-door, closing it once the other two had stepped through. Kumadori and Kalifa rushed to the fore, eyes scanning frantically for any sign of the underwater fighter.

"Ah! Where is he? Where is that oily bastard?!" Jabra exploded to his feet as his injuries were healed, bounding forward to join his two colleagues. "I'm gonna rip out his throat once I get my claws into him!"


...


The cool dampness of the undersea tunnel was replaced by a sweltering desert heat as Lina and her party stepped out from the carriage on their crab. Turning, she gazed up at the plateau that rose before her, and quickly located the white marble steps leading up to the nearest city entrance.

To her mild surprise, the hooded guards at the gates made no attempt to impede their progress, allowing the group to pass with nothing more than a nod. Lina gave silent thanks to Vivi in her mind.

Alubarna's streets were alive with activity, packed with crowds of haggling customers and merchants calling out their wares from behind covered stalls. The air was filled with the aromas of freshly baked goods, and the scents of roasted meats that could almost be tasted on the tongue. It sure didn't seem like a place where there was a crisis going on.

Lina narrowed her eyes as she spotted groups of dark-suited agents moving through the crowds, and she waved her party to her, leading them through alleys and back corridors whenever possible to avoid notice. It would take a little longer, but the city was easy enough to navigate, for the memories Lina had been shown told her that all of the main avenues converged on the central plaza that stretched before the palace. Skirting around the city square, the group approached the great marble palace from the rear, and Lina invoked a Levitation to raise herself and Gourry to the second level, where the royal family and their servants lived. Lucci followed behind, stepping through the air as easily as if it were solid ground.

The palace's second level was in dire need of repair, the open areas littered with blocks of stone, boards of wood and bundles of metal beams, all with no one present to move them. A partially carved statue of a stylized falcon sat forgotten in a corner, while sacks of dirt for the manse's gardens were left half-spilled on the uneven marble tiles. Lina noted the reason out of the corner of her eye; all of the workers had been called away to work on excavating the tomb, visible from her vantage point, laboring under the harsh sun while suited agents watched callously.

"Ah, I was wondering when you would show up." A smooth and exceptionally articulate voice chimed in from the interior. Several heartbeats later, a masked man in a white suit and coat sauntered through the door. His movements were delicate, almost like a bird, and the impression was enhanced when he cocked his head to regard the three of them for a moment.

"The young master of Dressrosa should really choose his allies more carefully." He spoke again, the movements of his mouth revealing that what appeared to be a mask was merely white make-up, drawn over a face so utterly inexpressive as to appear to be literally made of porcelain.

Lina cursed inwardly at her bad luck. She said nothing, merely moving to square her stance, while Gourry drew his sword and shifted protectively in front of her. Lucci edged toward the side, adjusting his tie, and his pigeon took off from his shoulder, flapping away to a safe distance.

For his part, the Aigis agent merely tilted his bowler hat with a gloved hand, then continued to amble lazily about the palace grounds.

"After our dear translator vanished for the evening, then returned insisting that we all station ourselves in the south to prepare for some intruders, one could not help but be suspicious, no?" He continued. "And when the departed princess returns that very morning, well it's a good thing I stayed aware. And now, the fact that you're here proves that there are no coincidences."

"What'd you do with her?!" Lina demanded.

"Me?" The Aigis agent pointed to himself. "I didn't do anything at all. I simply left her with the chief. Of course, if some pirates happened to break in, and the members of the royal family happened to get hurt in the turmoil, well that would be very unfortunate wouldn't it?"

"Enough talk." Lucci cut in, shifting to his towering hybrid form. He dashed forward, firing off a fusillade of piercing air bullets, leading into an overhead swipe of his black curved claws.

The Aigis agent bent his body to avoid the initial barrage, then stepped forward into the blow, easily absorbing the impact from Lucci's upper arm at close range. Lucci shifted his weight, delivering a roundhouse kick from the left, and his opponent somersaulted back, landing on a pile of wooden planks at the edge of the wall.

"Rune Flare!" Lina called, conjuring a incandescent barrage of flaming spears, fired right at their opponent as his feet touched down. If she couldn't match these guys in speed, she would just have to anticipate their movements, calculate where they would be in the next instant and aim her spells there.

She saw the agent reach down, his hand closing around one of the boards he was standing on, and then the spell hit. Waves of pulsating heat spilled out from the blast, reducing the remaining planks to embers and causing the stone beneath to melt and bubble. Lina winced slightly; Vivi would just have to forgive this much.

Lina blinked as the flames faded, revealing the Aigis agent still standing, with a single wooden plank held in front of his body - the same one that he had reached down to grab. But that didn't make sense; there was no way a spell as powerful as the Rune Flare could be blocked by some rubbish that had just been picked up off the ground.

"Wh-what?"

Lina couldn't believe her eyes. The board was being tainted, invaded by black and red lines, which crawled across its length, splitting and multiplying like the veins of a leaf. The board's very form was warping as wicked spikes sprouted from its surface, and an array of curved, meat-carving hooks extended from its head. The section in the agent's grasp began to shrink, taking on the shape of a weapon's handle, fitting itself comfortably into its wielder's hand.

And the agent's hand had shifted too, the formerly innocuous appendage replaced by a thick, brutish fist, with knotted red skin that looked more fitting on an ogre or a troll.

"Ah, my apologies for the appearance." The agent said as he noticed Lina staring. "It's just that I only acquired this ability recently you see. They say that Mythical Zoan fruits are even rarer than Logias, and I have yet to get used to mine."


...


Author's Notes: We're finally here, and it's time to talk about motifs, as promised.

Now as you may know, CP9's members follow an animal motif, and their individual themes are as follows.

Lucci - Leopard
Kaku - Giraffe
Jabra - Wolf
Blueno - Bull
Kumadori - Lion (frequently mistaken for Octopus)
Fukuro - Owl
Kalifa - Sheep
Nero - Weasel
Spandam - Panda

And as I stated earlier, CP0's members also follow a theme in this story, specifically a Yokai (Japanese folklore monsters) theme.

The long-armed member is based on a Tenaga-jin, which is a human-like creature with extremely long arms, which it uses to grab fish out of the ocean. This is mirrored by that particular agent's strategy of knocking opponents into the water to finish off there.

The long-legged member is based on the Ashinaga-jin, which is the other half of the Ashinaga-Tenaga pair. This thing has very long legs, which it uses to wade into the ocean while the Tenaga sits on his shoulders. This is represented here by his ability to swim, and if he had been deployed alongside the long-armed member, the two of them would fight using a sort of above-and-below tandem style that would be very annoying to deal with. He uses the Paramecia-type Oil Oil Fruit (Oiru Oiru no Mi).

The third member is based on the Oni, and his ability to convert ordinary objects to weapons comes from the expression "an Oni with an iron club", meaning something that is already formidable being made even more so through the use of a tool or a weapon. His Devil Fruit is the Human Human Fruit: Model Oni.