Chapter 14: Promises Kept
Cipher Pol Arc
Lucci grimaced and backed away, putting some distance between himself and his opponent. The resources available to the Celestial Dragons were truly astounding; to think that they could even obtain a Mythical Zoan for one of their cronies to eat.
"Well that was surprising." The Aigis agent spoke, batting away the last few tendrils of flame. "I can see now how you might have defeated our colleague. 201 was new to the unit, and perhaps lacking in some of the essential skills that can only be developed from experience. But it seems I'm going to have to take you three a little more seriously."
Lucci sprang into the air, sending a blade of wind scything toward the Aigis, angled a little to the man's right side. His target dodged left as predicted while the attack struck the floor, cutting a deep gouge into the layered stone. Pumping his legs, Lucci dove into the cloud of dust thrown up by his attack, emerging from its side with fists thrust out in the stance of the Six King Gun.
To Lucci's surprise, the Aigis' blank expression remained unchanged, while his free hand was already swinging up to parry with easy precision. The limb expanded, muscles bulging and thick veins rippling across its rapidly reddening skin. With the flick of a wrist, he batted Lucci's arms away, applying such force that the CP9 agent was sent stumbling in the direction of the blow. Turning and shrinking his arm back to its normal size, the Aigis segued the motion into a spinning swing, slamming his club into Lucci's side. Curved spikes punched easily through Lucci's resistance and he staggered back, clutching his ribs with a hand and wiping a trickle of blood from his lips.
Lina thrust out her arms, conjuring an arrow of shimmering white. Their opponent anticipated the attack, bending his body before the missile was even airborne and allowing it to pass. The swordsman dashed in from behind, his blade streaking in a downward arc toward the Aigis agent's head, only to be sent tumbling back into a nearby wall by a pre-placed kick. Useless.
"Hey Lina, I've seen this kind of thing before, back on the sky island when we were fighting the mammoth guy." The swordsman said as he got back to his feet. "It's like he can read your mind or something, so he knows what you're going to do before you even do it."
Useless and ignorant. Lucci was well aware of the existence of Haki, and while he considered himself to be a peer of the Navy's Vice Admirals in raw combat ability, his attempts to unlock this power had been regrettably unsuccessful thus far.
"Oh yeah? Well that seems pretty unfair." Lina said. Raising her hands, she summoned a shield of air around herself. Their opponent rose to the challenge, snatching up a metal pole and transmuting it into a wicked, barbed lance. He heaved it into the barrier, its tip sheathed in shearing wind. The two effects cancelled each other out on impact, releasing a piercing howl of rushing air, followed by a roaring gale that blew the girl back.
"How'd you guys win then?" She asked, landing back on her feet.
"It's like, when he got a little disturbed or scared, he couldn't read our minds as well." The swordsman replied, shifting to a wide, defensive stance. "It happened when Luke used his Ruby Red Sword on him."
Lucci covered his face with crossed arms as the Aigis slammed his weapon into a block of masonry, sending jagged chunks of stone whizzing toward him like cannonballs. Emotion wasn't going to work on an Aigis, their mental conditioning was absolute.
"Lucci, Gourry, you guys cover me." Lina called, as if in willful contradiction to Lucci's thoughts. She raised her arms, forming a cross with her four talismans, and the jewels embedded within the amulets pulsed with an eerie red light.
"I've got something that I wanna try." She said.
Standing at the ship's stern, Amelia spun around when she heard a splash coming from behind her, followed by the sound of soft footfalls on the roof of the cabin. Zelgadis rushed to her side, flinging a wave of fiery missiles at the Aigis as he landed. Their opponent blocked the attack with an arm, and the oily film around him was set alight, wreathing his form in bright yellow flames.
Zelgadis' look of satisfaction turned to one of shock when the masked man simply hopped down from his perch, unperturbed and unharmed by the fiery conflagration. Indeed, he seemed to be feeding the blaze with his power, blackening the wooden deck with every step, radiating such heat that Amelia could feel it on her arms and face. With his white robes waving along with the flickering flames, and only his dark mask clearly distinguishable within the inferno, the Aigis resembled nothing so much as a fiery demon, here to claim their souls for the afterlife.
Jabra bounded over the cabin, thrusting a fist at their opponent's face, which the Aigis repelled with an open palm, sending the wolf-man stumbling back. Amelia fired off a Freeze Bullet, flinging an icy blast at the masked man from behind. This he shattered with a kick, sending glittering fragments scattering across the deck. Kumadori rounded the corner, attacking with a wave of writhing pinkish threads, but any strand that approached too closely was left blackened and curled by the ferocious heat.
"Watch out you guys, this bastard's using Armament." Jabra said, looking down at his swollen knuckles. "And Iron Body doesn't do a damn thing against fire like that."
Kalifa was the last to arrive, leaping onto the cabin, spraying a stream of bubbles from her outstretched palms. Their opponent swept out a leg to brush off the attack, but instead the foam clung to his body, extinguishing the fires wherever they touched.
"Ooh, you're the first person to stay standing after taking that one." Kalifa said with a smirk. "But it seems your protection wasn't as fortunate."
She was right; the oily film covering their opponent was disappearing, dissolving into the foam. Even when he generated more it was to no avail as the bubbles absorbed it, swallowing the oil greedily. The masked man paused to consider his options.
"Strange how these abilities work sometimes, right?" Kalifa continued. "Looks like soap beats oil."
Amelia noticed an explosion of propellant in the distance, moments before a pair of cannonballs crashed into the water on either side of the ship. Kalifa's smirk vanished as the impacts drenched the deck, washing the foam from the Aigis agent's body. Jabra lunged in desperation, but the Aigis noticed too. Dodging around a series of swipes, he sprinted to the railing, reforming his coating before diving into the sea.
Zelgadis ran to the side above where the agent had vanished. "Damnit, we lost our chance."
"Lost?" Amelia rubbed her chin. Maybe they did lose a good chance there, but they still learned something about their opponent. The trouble now was finding him underwater, when they could neither see nor hear him.
She glanced over at Kumadori, whose pinkish mane was retracting back to its normal length.
"Mr. Kumadori?" She asked. "Could you use your hair to feel for him underwater?"
Kumadori's single open eye widened in comprehension. "Yoyoi! By my honor, it shall be done."
"If you can tell me where he is, I can get him out." Zelgadis turned toward the group.
"Then we'll take care of him once he's in the air." Jabra said. "And make sure those Navy bastards don't interfere with us again."
Luke rose into the air, arriving in the midst of a swirling free-fire zone. The once-pristine sky was fouled by drifting clouds of choking black smoke, remnants of explosions borne from the clashing powers. The spinning-man weaved between the blasts, rotating extensions around his ankles and neck slicing the air, maneuvering nimbly despite his oversized frame. Perched on his back, his female partner called out the positions of the CP9 agents, who dashed after them in pursuit.
The CP9 agents closed, and Luke's mouth gaped as the woman's body flowed like clay being molded, reshaping itself into a dizzying arsenal of strange weapons. Kaku's twin swords were countered by a pair of chain-laced sawblades, whose spinning teeth pulled his weapons aside and tore into his chest. Fukuro and Blueno were forced back by a barrage of rockets that turned in midair to match their movements, leaving twisting vapor trails as they flew on tails of fire.
Luke shot off a fireball, and it was countered by a cannon blast, the two projectiles colliding in a flash of flame and smoke. A chunk of conjured ice sailed up from Milina's position below, and a torrent of fire poured from yet another contraption, devouring the spell utterly.
Their opponent reverted to her human form, her arms stretching out to form a pair of long-barreled guns. She trained them on Luke and Milina, and they wasted no time gawking, throwing their flight spells into zig-zagging jinks and dodges.
The cannons barked, firing off volleys of projectiles that exploded in midair, showering the two of them with jagged metal fragments. Luke's Raywing pulsed as a hail of shrapnel broke through its boundary, and he covered his face, feeling the shards biting into his arms and embedding themselves in his armor.
A jolt of panic strobed through Luke's mind.
"Milina!" He gasped.
Lacking any protection beyond a leather shoulder pad, Milina was breathing heavily, lines of blood rising from over a dozen cuts over her body. A trickle of red flowed from her lips, and though her hand was glowing white, it looked like she was having trouble concentrating over the pain.
"We assassins of the Donquixote family always complete our mission." The other woman crowed.
Luke felt a torrent of red rage welling up within him, but he shook his head to force it down. Getting angry wasn't going to help anyone, Milina least of all. They were over the sea, with nowhere to hide and recuperate, so they just needed to beat these two here.
"Dark Mist." Luke intoned, summoning a cloud of black fog around their two opponents. Something tugged at his old memories; it was a spell that he'd used a lot before meeting Milina, back when he was still working with the guild.
The CP9 members seemed to take the hint, pulling out of the engagement and regrouping nearby.
"Hey Blueno." Luke called, forming a ball of blue-white flame between his hands. "Can those doors of yours take things other than people?"
Blueno paused, glancing at the spell, and responded with a nod.
As everyone moved into position, Amelia found her thoughts drifting to something she had said the night before, about the price of taking a life. She'd never really considered what it meant to her personally, and it struck her as a bit odd that she was thinking about it in a life or death situation. Amelia knew that in the past, she had never shied away from using lethal force, not when dealing with those who were willing to murder and maim for the cause of evil. Nor was she oblivious to some of the things that Miss Lina and the others got up to at times.
Still, she felt like she owed something to her opponent, silent and faceless as he was. CP9 didn't talk much about their sibling organization; their motives, employers and responsibilities. Amelia resolved to ask about it later, so she could have something to carry with her after the fact.
The pungent odor of oil jolted Amelia from her thoughts, and she noticed the sea surface boiling and churning around them. Oily globules rose from the depths, bursting into the air and forming a dense fog that settled around the ship. Amelia raised her hands, summoning a cylindrical barrier around their vessel. Noticing a blur of motion beyond the haze, and a bright light growing closer, she closed her eyes, hoping her spell would hold.
Fire touched fuel, forming a roaring flame front that raced through the fog, setting off a thunderous blast that rippled out across the water. An infernal cloud of bright yellow flame belched skyward, leaving a column of vapor and choking black smoke in its wake. Releasing her barrier, Amelia stumbled and fell back onto the deck, her throat itching and her eyes tearing up from the fumes.
"Hey! Amelia, are you okay? Don't push yourself too hard." Zelgadis kneeled down beside her. At least he didn't seem too affected.
Amelia nodded and cleared her throat. "Don't worry about me Mr. Zelgadis. You have to keep going on the plan."
Kumadori regained his bearings and steadied himself on the deck, extending tendrils of hair out over the ship's railings. As each bundle slipped into the water, it separated into hundreds of individual strands, which quickly spread out in every direction. This was no massed wave, nor anything so simple as a single solid shape, but the fine control of thousands of individual strands over hundreds of meters. Sweat poured down Kumadori's face as he maintained concentration.
"Yoyoi! There, there he is!" He pointed at a patch of water, tracing with his finger where their opponent was moving.
Zelgadis vaulted over the railing, bracing himself with a mooring rope, dipping his free hand into the sea. A column of water exploded upward where Kumadori was pointing, flinging their masked opponent into the air. Jabra and Kalifa were already motion, racing over the water to catch their target.
The Aigis recovered quickly, lashing out with a leg, sending a crescent of searing flame sailing toward his attackers. Forcing her vision into focus, Amelia conjured a half-dozen balls of light within the path of the attack, watching as they drew in the flames and extinguished them.
Jabra sped forward, taking advantage of the masked man's surprise, seizing his outstretched leg with a hand and wrapping the other around his neck. Kalifa weaved around them, running her hands along the Aigis' body, leaving him covered in soapy residue while he contended with her colleague. A burst of cannonfire boomed from the warships, but Kalifa was ready. Backing away from the brawl, she batted each projectile away with a swift kick, sending them soaring up to explode harmlessly overhead.
Jabra leaned into the grapple, using his hybrid bulk to tilt the masked man back until the two of them were upside down, still spinning through the air. Another midair kick sent them plummeting into the sea, where the weakening effects of water took hold immediately, leaving both men struggling feebly. A pinkish tendril snaked out from the deck, snagging Jabra by the wrist and carrying him to safety, while the masked man sank beneath the surface, his white robes fading into the murky depths.
Blueno stepped into his dimension, pulling the door shut behind him, and the outline of the entrance vanished as if it had never been there at all. Noticing some movement at the corner of his eye, Luke turned back just as his Dark Mist was blown apart by a gust from the spinning-man's propellers.
Luke flung out a spread of Flare Arrows, and their two opponents swerved to avoid them, the woman shooting down those that were still on target. Kaku darted in under the distraction, shifting to his giraffe-man form. His twin swords flashed like silver arcs in the morning light, clashing with the woman's shifting blades, while his elongated limbs kept his body out of harm's reach.
Fukuro sprinted up from below, drawing the spinning-man into a frantic brawl, forcing him to split his attention between the barrage of flying fists and keeping steady for his partner. The creak of a door-hinge from above was their warning to evacuate, and the agents withdrew, running back for as much distance as they could manage. The woman glanced up, just in time to see Blueno pull his air door back, releasing a ball of roaring blue flame that was now bearing down upon them.
Luke covered his eyes against the glare of the blast, his ears ringing as the shockwave blew past. He smirked when he spotted the bodies of his opponents falling from the base of the explosion, two figures trailing streams of smoke while they spiraled toward the sea.
To Luke's surprise, the other man shook himself awake, his propellers spinning up and slowing his descent.
"Shit! This is more than we signed up for." The man cursed as he noticed his unconscious partner. He reached out with a hand, grabbing her limp body and flinging her onto his back. "The young master said Violet's safety was top priority, so let's get her and get outta here!"
"You're not getting away!" Luke roared as the two turned toward the island. Sparks crackled between his fingers while he prepared a spell that would finish them off for good, when a soft hand on his shoulder made him stop. He felt a tingle where it touched.
"Let them go Luke." Milina said.
"B-but… they… you-" Luke tried to argue.
"For Viola." She finished.
Lina stared into her opponent's face as the power of the demon kings flowed through her. It was like staring at a clay statue for all the emotion that it showed.
Well, that was going to change.
"Lord of the dreams that terrify, sword of cold and darkness, free yourself from the heaven's bonds." She chanted. "Become one with my power, one with my body and let us walk the path of destruction together."
The air around her distorted, as if something were pressing against the fabric of reality from outside.
Perhaps made aware of the danger from reading her mind, the Aigis immediately turned, rounding on Lina with his full attention. Lucci leapt into the fray, stabbing and striking, his arms moving with blinding, blurring speed. Yet the Aigis was faster still, parrying every thrust without any wasted movement, while still continuing his implacable advance. His arms expanded, seizing Lucci's neck with one ogre-ish paw. With the other, he smashed his spiked club into Lucci's chest and twisted, leaving the CP9 agent reeling and gasping for breath.
Gourry darted in, his sword clanging against the Aigis' iron resistance. A one-two punch sent him tumbling back, knocked out of commission.
Lina raised her arms as black bolts poured out from a rent in the air, tearing through space with a piercing screech that scarred its sound on the mind. The Aigis loomed over her, growing in height, his thin frown replaced by the devilish grin of his Devil Fruit's true form.
"Power that can smash even the souls of the gods!" Lina cried. "Ragna Blade!"
The black bolts condensed, forming a cohesive blade of shifting darkness. No, not darkness, but nothingness, a sword-shaped hole in the world.
The Aigis agent froze in place, eyes wide and trembling. The power of the Lord of Nightmares was one with its mind, and to draw from one would inevitably carry the other.
Lina winced as a dull ache spread through her body, growing into a searing current of pain. She forced herself forward. She would only have one shot.
Agent 0197 stood in place as the girl rushed toward him, a shard of nothingness clutched between her hands. His birth name was long forgotten, purged by the ruthless mental conditioning that all Aigis agents underwent, removed along with any emotions that would hinder them in their tasks. Pity. Remorse. Fear. Results were mixed of course, but 0197 was an exemplar of the Aigis organization's values. He felt none of these, knew none of these.
But if that was the case, then why couldn't he move? His arms quivered, his breaths were quick and shallow, and his heartbeat was a rapid, pounding staccato in his ears. 0197 felt, but he didn't understand.
There was a fifth presence with them, seeming to originate from the girl's black blade, while simultaneously filling the space around them. It was quiescent and had no discernible intent, but its mere proximity was suffocating in its intensity.
In the eye of his mind, 0197 perceived a second reality, superimposed over his own. He saw a great black sea, limitless in scope, fathomless in its depth. Countless worlds floated upon it, like fragile soap bubbles being carried to and fro by the ever shifting currents. A wave moved across its surface, a mere wrinkle upon its infinite expanse. It washed over a dozen worlds, consigning their contents to oblivion, even as more bubbles rose anew in its wake.
With an exertion of will, 0197 forced his arm to move, haltingly at first, picking up speed and building momentum for a killing blow. He was still faster, and his reach was longer, so he swung low, aiming his spiked club at the girl's vulnerable neck. The girl's eyes widened fractionally as she realized what would happen.
The blonde swordsman rose to his feet, but he was still disarmed, and the distance between them was too great. 0197 would live, and they would die for his mission.
The swordsman dashed forward, kicking the ground a dozen times in the blink of an eye, closing the distance in an instant and snatching up his fallen sword. Their weapons clanged, and the momentum of the blow forced the agent's strike aside. The swordsman vaulted overhead, dropping to the ground, rolling away as the black blade sliced into the agent's chest. 0197 didn't scream, for there was no time to as the blade passed soundlessly through his flesh, deadening his mind with black oblivion.
Lina released her spell and allowed it to dissipate, collapsing onto her knees and breathing heavily. She gazed up, watching the color drain from her opponent's form. Cracks crawled across his body, causing it to collapse into a heap, where it mouldered into a pile of white ash that blew away on the wind.
Lucci pulled himself to his feet, and Lina beckoned for him to come, her hands pulsing with a warm, white light. Gourry arrived as well, breathing a sigh of relief as he sat down next to her.
"Mastering the Shave technique in such a short time." Lucci spoke as Lina sealed up his deepest wounds. "Not bad."
"Ah, don't sweat it." Gourry grinned. "I think I've gotten the hang of it, but I've still got a ways to go to catch up to you guys."
Lucci turned toward the palace interior, and his pigeon fluttered down and perched itself on his shoulder.
"I'll leave the two of you here." He said. "I have some… commitments."
Spandam leaned forward in his chair, cursing as his bandage-covered fingers slipped from the handle of his drawer. He felt a brief pang of regret for sending all of his attendants away to delay the intruder, who must have snuck into the palace somehow. Yes, there was no way anyone could have beaten CP-0.
Spandam glanced at the doorway, confirming that Funkfreed was still doing his job. The elephant-sword was in his full hybrid form, his trunk transformed into a broad blade that was held held firmly against the princess's neck. Her royal guards stood off to one side, fuming with barely suppressed rage.
"You better be ready to protect me from whoever this is." Spandam reminded them. "And I hope for your sakes that you all had nothing to do with it, because once CP-0 gets back, we're going to hold a court of enquiry regarding palace security around here."
Spandam grasped at his drawer handle again. He still had his Devil Fruit, and so as long as the palace guards could hold off the intruder for long enough, he could eat it, and use whatever power it held to take down the interloper himself. He exclaimed with joy as his drawer slipped open, but the noise died in his throat when his eyes scanned over the empty space within.
"Searching for this?" A voice interrupted his thoughts. Spandam looked up at the windowsill where a young, purple-haired man was sitting, draped in a black priest's mantle and clutching a wooden staff in one hand. With his other, he was tossing the Devil Fruit to himself, running his fingers along the swirling contours of its skin.
"You give that back right now!" Spandam hissed, pointing one trembling hand in Funkfreed's direction. "Or the princess gets it!"
The priest cocked his head, taking in Spandam's threat for heartbeat. His outline blurred and distorted, and Spandam's mouth gaped as he vanished entirely. The director turned at the sound of a surprised trumpet from Funkfreed to see the priest hovering in midair, with the astonished princess carried bridal-style in his arms.
"Ahh, what a shame." The priest shook his head, lowering himself to the ground and letting the princess down. "And I was just getting to like your colleagues in the CP9. But I suppose in every bunch, there's always room for one bad apple."
He smirked. "Isn't that right, Lucci?"
A squeak escaped from Spandam's throat as he spotted Lucci standing in the doorway, the agent's black coat and leopard-print shirt stained with patches of dark blood.
"You know Xellos, some of your crewmates have been looking for you." Lucci said to the priest.
"Oh, well they know me." Xellos replied, shrugging. "I've been here and there."
Spandam quivered as Lucci's gaze turned toward him, while Xellos motioned for the princess to leave. She did as bidden, filing out with her guards while Lucci closed the double doors behind them. Funkfreed stomped forward, raising his bladed trunk menacingly, but a sharp glare from Lucci sent the elephant scrambling back in terror. He reverted to his weapon form, shrinking into a curved sabre that clattered to the ground.
"L-Lucci." Spandam stammered.
"Chief." Lucci nodded, picking up Funkfreed and attaching the sword to his belt. "I believe I made a promise to you Chief, and now I intend to keep it."
"W-wait Lucci." Spandam sputtered. "It was all just a big misunderstanding. I can explain it to the government. I'll give you your job back, no problem. Or money. Servants. Anything you want! I'll let you be director, and you'll never hear from me again. I'll tell you everything I know. I'll-"
"I'm afraid it's too late for that, dear Chief." Lucci said. He leaned over Spandam's immobile form, extending his left index finger, the appendage already covered in arterial blood. His face warped into an expression that Spandam had never seen before, a predatory smile laced with pure, unrestrained joy.
"Wait! Lucci no-"
Lucci stood back up, producing a tissue which he used to wipe the blood from his face. He glanced over at Xellos, who was seated back on the windowsill, smiling serenely at the proceedings.
Lucci's gaze was drawn back to the desk when the transponder snail began to ring. He paused for a moment, then picked up the receiver.
"This is Rob Lucci." He spoke into the mouthpiece.
"Hey, Chief, you'll never guess who's coming to pay you a visit." Jabra's voice said, the snail's expression mimicking his arrogant smirk.
"Oh, it's you Lucci." He corrected himself. "So does that mean the Chief is…"
"Yeah." Lucci finished for him.
There was a shuffling noise on the other end as the Amelia girl took the transponder.
"Hello? Is Miss Lina there?" She asked.
"Lina isn't here right now, but she is doing just fine." Xellos chimed in. At some point, he had gotten off his perch and sidled up to Lucci from behind.
"You can just stay where you are." He added. "Lina and I will conduct our business here, and then we'll come meet you out there."
Author's Notes: And that's the second to last chapter of the Cipher Pol Arc, with what is essentially the epilogue to come. Then it's off to the next arc!