Chapter 26: Warlord
Red Line Arc
A curtain of mist blew across the summit of the Red Line, obscuring the afternoon sun. Slanting folds of illumination slid through gaps in the blanket of white, scattering over the rust-hued peaks, trawling across the steepled spires of sacred Mariejois. A breeze slipped in through an open door, ghosting across the polished marble floor of the Chamber of the Five Elders.
"Has the new fleet admiral been sworn in?" The first of the elders turned to regard their visitor, folding his hands over the tip of his wooden cane.
"Yes, sir." The Marine officer replied, shutting the door behind him and quickly lowering himself to one knee. "Fleet Admiral Sakazuki was sworn in at Marine Headquarters this morning."
"And I suppose nothing can be done about Kuzan's case."
"No, sir. Admiral Kuzan could not be dissuaded, and submitted his resignation to the commander-in-chief as the ceremony was completed. And on that subject, the fleet admiral would like to know what your thoughts are regarding his proposed policies."
"We will take them under consideration." The elder replied. "The Marines are the outward face of the World Government, and with the loss of Kuzan's strength, it may be necessary to increase recruitment.
"Blackbeard has proven to be difficult to stop, with Impel Down still in his possession." Another of the elders spoke, resting the hilt of his sword against his shoulder. "But for now, the restoration of the Seven Warlords will do much to restore the balance between the Great Powers. What progress have we made on this?"
"We have already received an answer from Buggy the Clown, though our second candidate has yet to make a reply." The Marine officer replied. "And while we have been unable to make contact with Warlord Bartholomew Kuma, one other member has submitted intentions to attend."
Coby stood at attention, staring straight ahead as his ship cut across the waves. The ocean breeze blew through his messy pink hair, and he adjusted his bandanna to keep it from getting in his eyes. Helmeppo stood beside him, keeping his posture almost ramrod straight. Commodore Bogard sat at the bow, arms crossed and face shaded by the brim of his hat.
The Summit War and its aftermath had changed many things within the Marines. With the retirement of Vice Admiral Garp to an instructional position, Bogard, his former second, had been assigned to independent command. Coby and Helmeppo still saw the old man during their time off for training, but now served under Bogard's direction while they were out at sea. The ascension of the new fleet admiral had instilled in Coby a fear that his position would be jeopardized by his actions at the conclusion of the war, but thankfully, his concerns never came to pass. In fact, the casualties of the war had left the Marines with a dire shortage in its officer corps, resulting in himself and Helmeppo finding themselves on a fast track for officer candidacy, so long as they could produce the deeds to merit it.
Coby stared out at the horizon, where the dark outline of a distant island was beginning to take shape. Despite the personnel deficiencies, Fleet Admiral Sakazuki had ordered that no leniency be given in combating the rise in piracy triggered by Whitebeard's death. As a result, deployment rates were hitting record highs along the Grand Line and across the four Blues.
And that was why they were out here today. They were on the hunt for pirates.
Coby found his thoughts turning to matters of his friend, Monkey D. Luffy. They had met on opposite sides of the battlefield at Marineford, an encounter that had left Coby hospitalized when Luffy made his return to Marine headquarters and made front page news with his actions there.
Coby had devoured the reams of reports produced by the headquarters staff, all attempting to analyze the meaning of Luffy's actions. All of their conclusions were wrong of course, for Luffy was not a man who did things to attract publicity. Coby didn't know what, but somewhere in there was a message, a message for those that he cared about.
"Commodore!" A sailor's shout snapped Coby out of his thoughts. "Pirate ship spotted in the island's bay beside the town. We've also sighted another Marine vessel anchored on the other side."
"Have they contacted us?" Bogard said, raising his head slightly and adjusting his pipe.
"No, sir. Their insignia has been removed, and they aren't responding to our requests for reply."
Peering through a pair of binoculars, Coby had no time to ponder the mystery when an explosion erupted aboard the deck of the pirate ship, engulfing the masts and spawning a cloud of flames that blossomed skyward. His stomach leapt into his throat, and he could see from the corner of his eye that Helmeppo was doing his best to suppress a similar reaction. The world truly was filled with monsters. But still, if after all he had been through, Luffy was still determined to chase his dreams, then the least Coby could do was to continue pursuing his.
"Set a course for the pirates." Bogard said after a short pause. "Hold fire once we are in range, and prepare to drop anchor. I have a few guesses regarding what is happening here."
"So that'll be eight million for beating up those pirates, as we agreed right?" Lina said, clasping her hands together and smiling. The pirate ship blazed behind her, covered in roaring flames that devoured sails and blackened masts, silhouetting her figure and casting her face into flickering shadow.
After receiving a letter from the World Government inviting her to join the Seven Warlords, and spending the last few weeks unsuccessfully looking for some Marines to turn it over to, Lina had pushed that thought to the back of her mind. If the Marines weren't going to be around, then it was just as well that she found a way to profit from their absence.
During all this time spent on the sea, Lina had gotten quite practiced at anti-ship warfare. Ice across the gun-ports, wind blades through the sails, and a barrage vibration blasts to the keel in quick succession was enough to disable most ships before their crews could even react. Wholly unprepared for the magical onslaught that Lina had unleashed, the pirates had gone from raiding and robbing to routing in under a minute. Now bound up hand and foot by magically animated ropes, with a golem looming over them to ensure that nobody escaped, they continued to glare daggers at her from where they had been tied up by the water.
"Eight million." The town's mayor nodded. With trembling hands, the old man held up a basket for Lina to take, filled with assorted coins and a large clump of wrinkled bills.
"Hmm, I was expecting something a little more presentable, but I'll take what I can get." Lina took the basket and gave its contents a once-over. "Oh Lina, you're so generous and forgiving."
The old man looked down and mumbled, barely loud enough for Lina to hear. "We had to go around to collect just to get this much."
He seemed to be on the verge of tears.
"Well then, I guess I'll be leaving you all with an additional lesson on the virtues of saving up." Lina said, starting up a count of the payment.
"Also remember that all of the treasure and bounties belong to me too." She added, giving her cloak a tug to make sure that all of the liberated treasure was still securely attached. The mayor said nothing, though he did make a pitiful sound that was halfway between a croak and a sob.
"Wow Lina, with the way you bargain, it almost seems like it would be easier to just get robbed by the pirates." Gourry mumbled from behind her. One of Lina's eyebrows twitched with irritation, but she swallowed her annoyance and ignored the jab. Finishing up the count, she confirmed the correct amount, and dismissed the mayor with a wave of her hand. Never had she seen an old man scramble away as quickly as he did.
"Say Lina, by bounties do you mean these guys?" Gourry jabbed a thumb at the pirates once the mayor was gone. "What're you planning to do with them?"
"We can leave them here for now while I about it." Lina said, taking a moment to look over her prisoners. "I'd like to turn them in for their rewards but we've already spent weeks looking for some Marines and still ended up with nothing."
She sighed. "And knowing our luck..."
"Wait, we were looking for Marines?" Gourry interrupted her thoughts. "What about the ones we saw yesterday?"
Lina just blinked. There were a lot of things wrong with what he was saying.
"What do you mean yesterday? We didn't see any Marines yesterday." She said, deciding to get all of the details before doing anything else.
"When you were all outside because it was nice and sunny, didn't you see the ship that passed us in the distance at portside?" Gourry said, then scratched his head. "Or was it starboard?"
"And the day before that, when that giant fish attacked, there was another one that passed behind us before it disappeared."
"Gourry." Lina said, drawing out the pronunciation of his name. "So you've been spotting ships and not telling us? How many times did this happen?"
"Well, I figured you all saw them too and just didn't want anything to do with them so…" Gourry started, then stopped himself abruptly. "I mean, there weren't any more before that, really! I swear I'll tell you about them in the future!"
"Wait… are you Lina? As in THE Lina Inverse?" One of the pirates spoke up, interrupting the incipient fisticuffs. The others who had been mumbling something abruptly went silent.
"Shit that is her! It's the Sea Witch! No wonder she was so strong!" Another chimed in, causing the panel of faces to shift into expressions of terror.
"Hey wait just a second here." Lina said.
"I hear that's just her human form that she uses to walk around in disguise."
"Yeah! And the real one has three heads, and live snakes for hair, that she uses to rip out the guts of Sea Kings and eat them alive!"
"That's scary! No wonder she's in the Top Fifty Pirates Who You Don't Want to Meet List."
"What?! Who's spreading these rumors?!" Lina snapped. "And what kind of list is that anyway? What sort of idiot spends time making these things?"
"Please, I'm begging you Miss." One of the pirates pleaded, bending over to touch his forehead to the ground. "My friends and family at home have nothing to do with this. So please do your worst, just leave my hometown alone!"
"Give it a rest!" Lina threw up her hands in frustration. Face flushed with a combination of anger and embarrassment, she grabbed Gourry by the wrist and yanked him along as she stalked off into town.
Luke and Milina were already seated at the town's seaside restaurant when Lina arrived, where, to Lina's continued irritation, her entrance caused the ever-present buzz of mealtime conversation to fade to an awkward silence. By the time she'd pulled up a seat, most of the patrons had cleared out, and the remainder were spending more time staring than eating.
Stupid bounty. Stupid weird rumors. Stupid pirates yelling them out loudly enough for everyone to hear.
Zelgadis and Amelia joined them soon after, returning from their information finding session. Xellos trailed behind them, his serenely smiling expression as cryptic as always.
"Hey Mister, menus! Food goes down easy when it's paid for by a hard day's work." Lina waved a hand to flag down a passing waiter.
"Actually never mind, just forget the menus." She corrected. "We'll take two orders of everything from the top on down."
The waiter bowed hurriedly and practically sprinted away, which Zelgadis took as the signal to start talking business.
"So Lina, from what we've gathered here it seems we're approaching the end of this region of ocean." Zelgadis said, leaning forward and folding his hands together. He nodded in Luke's direction. "And you two still wanted to go to Fishman Island right? To acquire the ancient weapon whose location we found on that sky island."
"That's the deal." Lina sent Luke a glance. "First one to touch it keeps it."
"Well, you'll not like to hear this then." Zelgadis said. "It seems Fishman Island is located on the seafloor. It's ten thousand meters down, beneath the mountain chain that divides this world's oceans in two."
He held up his log pose, whose needle had started depressing downward. "And this would confirm it. How are we planning to get there?"
The table went silent as everyone sat back, thinking over their options for resolving this dilemma.
"We could go down with Raywing?" Amelia offered, breaking the hush.
"No, that isn't gonna to work." Luke said. "Milina and I had it hard enough getting through the cloud-water underneath that sky island."
"Yeah, and I don't know if the bubble will hold up under that much pressure, nor whether we'd be able to keep it up that long." Lina said. "Plus we'd have to ditch the ship, and who knows what'll have happened to it when we get back."
"Ten thousand meters." Gourry counted off on his fingers before giving up. "I don't know how deep that is but I get the feeling that it would be really hard to swim it."
"I would've thought that a jellyfish like you would have no problems at all." Lina replied. She was just opening her mouth to say more when the first platter of food arrived, and thoughts of the future were pushed aside by the briny scent of fresh seafood.
The meal proceeded without incident, and as Lina was downing a glass of water to wash down the last mouthful, her ears caught the sound of the door slamming open behind her. Marching footsteps pounded through, and a man's voice announced in a stern and clipped tone, "Lina Inverse."
"Oh great, what is it this time?" Lina tilted her head back, hands ready to cast should anyone make any suspicious moves. Her eyes went to the entrance, then widened as she recognized the white and blue uniforms worn by the group of men standing in the doorway. From her peripheral vision, she could see that the others were having similar reactions.
The remaining customers evacuated the premises, making themselves scarce from what seemed to be the site of an imminent battle. The Marines themselves wore their apprehension on their faces, all save for the commanding officer, whose hat framed a perpetual scowl that may as well have been carved in stone.
"What is your answer to the World Government's invitation?" He said.
That jolted Lina from her daze. She sat up, reaching into one of her cloak compartments to retrieve the invitation letter, then scanned over its contents again.
"Gimme a second here." Lina replied to the man, before grabbing the others and pulling them into a corner.
"Alright guys, group huddle." Lina whispered. She glanced back at the Marines, making sure they weren't trying to approach or peek into their circle of heads.
"It's been so long since we've seen one of them that I kinda stopped thinking about it, so best to make sure we're all in the same boat here." She said. "Just to start us off, I'm still in favor of this."
"Miss Lina, are you sure? Do you really think it's okay to work for those people?" Amelia asked.
Lina paused, then gave her a nod.
"I think it should be okay." She said, pointing out the relevant passages on her letter. "It says I'll have to help in times of war, but that can't happen too often right? And in the meantime, it'll be a lot easier for us to go around without this bounty on my head."
"I have no objections if it'll make things easier for us, but make sure you have no regrets." Zelgadis said.
"Well, I'm not gonna lie and say I don't have any regrets whatsoever." Lina replied, gesturing with a hand as she cleared out her thoughts. "But it's not like this is irreversible. If things get too bad for whatever reason, I'll just quit, which is probably why there are empty spots in the first place. And that'd leave us right around where we are now, right?"
Lina looked around, finding a panel of not-disapproving faces. Her questing gaze settled last on Gourry.
"I'll go wherever you're going, Lina." Gourry said.
Lina blinked. "Oh. Thanks."
No one else voiced any disagreements so Lina separated herself from the group, spinning around with a dramatic flourish of her cape.
"Alright, I accept. What happens now?" She said. It came out a lot simpler than it had sounded in her head. The building tension deflated, and the entire room seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
"You will need to come with us." The commander said. "We will take you to the Holy Land Mariejois, where you will be officially sworn in to your position."
"Holy land huh?" Lina replied, raising an eyebrow, glancing around at her party for confirmation.
"Fine, let's just get it over with." She said.
What confidence Lina did feel faded a bit when the sound of soft applause carried across the establishment. She followed it to their table, where Xellos remained seated, his ruby-tipped staff braced against his shoulder.
"Bravo, bravo." He said. "Well negotiated, Lina."
"Oh enough already." Lina said.
With the pirates turned over to Marine custody and their bounties paid out in full, the two ships departed immediately for Marineford. It wasn't until the island had vanished behind then when Lina realized that one of the treasure sacks she had liberated from the pirates was missing. Like a bloodhound on a scent, she zeroed in on the culprit, who had been hanging out on the Marines' ship and cautiously approaching some of them.
"You did what?!" Lina said, slamming a hand down against a table for emphasis. Several nearby Marines jumped and edged away from her visible show of emotion.
"Well, I just left one of the treasure bags, so they can have money to fix their town." Amelia said. It was somewhat gratifying to see her grow more and more visibly nervous, but that wasn't going to get the treasure back.
"Amelia, that was my treasure." Lina growled out. "That bag was probably worth as much as their whole payment to me. What's the point of making them pay for my help if you're just going to give it back? Do you know how hard I worked for that loot?"
"And by hard work, Lina's talking about how she blew all the pirates up pretty much instantly. It was kind of sad, really." Gourry added. He folded his arms, doing his best impression of a sagacious nod. "You did a very bad thing Amelia, stealing what Lina just rightfully stole."
"Oh, hush up." Lina shot back. "This goes toward paying for all the food you eat around here, you know."
"Yeah, but you still eat more than me."
"You're not much like what the rumors say, Miss Lina." Another voice cut in. Lina turned to see one of the petty officers approaching, a young man whose pink hair and raised glasses cut a distinctive look despite his generic Marine uniform. Looking past him, Lina could see the guy's blonde partner keeping back, doing his best to seem busy to conceal the fact that he was watching.
"I'm Coby, and that's Helmeppo." Coby gestured toward his friend, who shivered visibly before redoubling on his efforts to look distracted.
"Could I offer you drink?" He said, holding out a cup and tea kettle.
"Oh, sure." Lina said, and the four of them arranged themselves around the table.
"So Miss Lina, is it true you destroyed two of the Gates of Justice?" Coby asked.
"Well, that bit's true." Lina said between sips. "But all of the other rumors going around about me are still completely made up."
"And that you fought with Admiral- I mean, former Admiral Kuzan at Alabasta?"
"Is that the ice guy? Yeah, that happened too." Lina replied. "I'm pretty amazing right? You guys are lucky to have me on your team. In fact if you want, I'll even give you an autograph."
Then it clicked. "Wait, former admiral?"
"Kuzan disagreed with the promotion of Admiral Sakazuki - who you will probably meet - to the position of Fleet Admiral." Coby said with a slight quiver in his voice. "The two of them fought a battle, and when Kuzan lost, he resigned because he disagreed with Sakazuki's vision for the Marines."
"Um, if it's okay to ask, what's your vision of the Marines?" Amelia said.
The question seemed to strike a chord within Coby, who paused and looked down, clenching his fist as if something were building up within him and waiting to erupt out.
"I want to capture pirates who threaten people's lives." He said at last. "And become a real Marine, one who does the most good for the most people. "
He let out a breath, looking like he'd relieved some pressure. "That is my justice."
Amelia smiled and Gourry furrowed his brow, which was what passed for deep thought with him. Lina said nothing and leaned back into her seat, crossing one leg over another. Tuning out the others' small talk, she found her thoughts drifting to the oddness of her present situation, thanks to Coby's words.
Taking on a position as a government warlord was definitely out of the ordinary, but in hindsight, Lina realized that she'd definitely encountered this before. With her connections to Amelia and her many accomplishments to rest on, Lina knew that if she'd wanted, she could have gotten a high-paying position as a magical adviser for Saillune. Invest her pay in a business the way her parents had done, yada yada, and she probably would have ended up with a bigger profit than the usual boom and bust. And in a way, she had always known that, but it had just never really featured on her priorities. Certainly she had done a few teaching stints in exchange for access to guild libraries, but once all was done and everything was paid for, it was back to life on the road for her.
Maybe it was freedom that she'd actually valued. And in accepting this warlord position and the legal protection that came with it, that freedom was what she was trying to get back.
Lina took another sip from her cup, shooting off a sideways glance as she noticed Helmeppo sauntering over.
"Hey Coby, look at you. You've gone and spilled out your goals again." Helmeppo said. "And to a bunch of pirates too."
He lifted his visor and jabbed a thumb toward himself. "And in case you all wanted to know, my goal is to get promoted high enough to boss this guy around. And with this fast track thing that we're on, it won't be long now."
"Feel free to drop the cool guy act." Lina said, rolling her eyes. "We all knew you were watching the whole time."
Gourry and Amelia endorsed her statement with knowing nods.
"Looks like you've been found out, Helmeppo." Coby offered his partner a seat and a cup. "Why don't you come and sit with us?"
"Damn it all!" Helmeppo took the offered seat, then threw up his hands and yelled to no one in particular. "I can't stand these guys!"