Chapter 78

~About 10 Hours Before the War~

When someone says that they're going to follow instructions to the letter, it means one of two things: either they're going to do exactly what you want them to do, or they're going to do exactly what the instructions tell them to do in such a way as to benefit them and screw the instruction-giver over. Being offered a fraction of something and choosing 4/4, for instance. Being told not to speak to someone and writing to them instead. Or what was going on here, in the supposedly impregnable gaol of Impel Down.

"What…" Warden Magellan growled through the Snail he used to talk to the Marine fleet ringing his prison. "Are you doing here? I specifically stated—"

"That you will not remove him until at least twenty-four hours before his scheduled release to the Marines. And we have arrived within that window. As such, we expect you to immediately begin preparations to sedate Fire Fist for removal. We've even very kindly timed it so that the actual release happens the exact date it was meant to," Commodore 'Nailing' Isuka stated with just a hint of smugness. "We are abiding by the very protocols you set, Warden, down to the last word. I only ask that you do the same yourself."

Make that a lot of smugness.

"You have the nerve to say that to me?" Magellan rumbled, his entire being trembling with fury. "I said he would leave this prison on the day of his execution. And any fool could understand that I did not mean that you could present yourselves ready to take him at the stroke of midnight."

"Your objections are no longer relevant, Warden," Isuka blandly retorted, void of even a hint of care for his opinion. "Bureaucratic details like that are worthless. Vice Admiral Momonga will join myself and Vice Admiral Doberman to escort him back to Marineford for his execution. And do try to remember, Warden, that you're only that. Your prisoners are and have always been the property of Justice, which is to say, the World Government. And if we suspect any insubordination on your part, we can and will take preventative measures. Now obey the rules that you laid down, or we will replace you with someone who will. KA-LICK!"

The Marine's voice was cold, arrogant, and tonally screamed, 'Your opinion is worthless and there's nothing you can do about it because I'm your boss.' Little wonder, therefore, that Magellan's frayed temper and nerves, exacerbated by lack of sleep, gave out and sent him storming out of his office on a borderline warpath through Level 4. Most of the prisoners had enough sense to stay quiet and out of his way. Every one that jeered was swamped with a Hydra as fast as blinking, and no guards moved to help them. The movement and slight catharsis of dealing pain—righteous, justified pain—helped him get his anger under control. By the time he arrived back at his office he was still furious, but he was coherent enough to quietly issue his orders to the rest of his staff.

Orders… to stand down… and comply with the Marines. AGAIN.

For the next half-hour, sleeping gas blanketed Level 6 to ensure that there would be no resistance. The gas was only turned off after Hannyabal and two masked guards retrieved Ace and brought him onto the elevator.

Only one thing kept the resulting meeting with the Marine escorts from turning literally toxic.

"What part of this stunt was supposed to be a good idea?" Smoker fumed, glaring daggers at his fellow Commodore. "It's not enough that you're enforcing orders that stretch legality to the breaking point for no good reason, no, you just have to rub it in the face of one of the most important and dangerous men in the world?"

"And you're one to care about breaking the rules?" Isuka retorted. "I refuse to believe you aren't aware that Straw Hat's infamy and being in the right place at the right time to make a convenient cover story for Crocodile's defeat are the only reasons you weren't court-martialed for disobeying orders and abandoning your post in Loguetown. As for how I spoke to the Warden, it's no different than you: when dealing with a rabid beast with more guts than brains, you need to strangle it until it obeys or breaks."

Smoker almost bit his cigars in half at that, prompting Isuka to raise an eyebrow before continuing. "And fortunately, you both have just enough brains to bow your heads instead of lashing out. It's really an inconvenience when someone decides they could possibly know better than the ones who have been ruling this world for 800 years."

"…Commodore Isuka," Doberman interjected, a sour expression on his face. "You're starting to remind me of Spandam. We have what we came for. Secure the prisoner already so we can depart."

Isuka glanced at him and visibly weighed telling him off as well before settling for a curt nod. "Fine." She looked back at the others. "I'll leave you this reminder of your orders: since matters appear to have developed along a less - than-ideal path, Straw Hat Luffy is to be recaptured alive, and we expect to hear of it if you manage it. Though all things considered…"

She turned on her heel and marched away, her fingers tapping out a harsh beat on her sword's hilt.

"I won't be in the least bit surprised if I'll be seeing him for myself, shortly."

Silence fell until the Marines and their unconscious prisoner faded from sight.

"…Mistress Sadi, I think you may have competition for the biggest bitch in this ocean."

Still silence.

"…a nice attempt, Commodore," the dominatrix responded. And for the first time since he had arrived, the fury in her voice was not aimed at him. "I wish I weren't too angry to appreciate it."

~9 Hours Before the War~

Ace's mouth hung open as he stared at the woman on the other side of the bars of the warship's brig, at his friend on the other side of the law… at the Marine who'd just stated without a hint of doubt or remorse that she was going to kill him.

"Y… You… what…"

"You seem confused, Fire-Fist. I didn't think you were this much of a fool," she said quietly. She sat down on a nearby barrel and drew her sword, carefully tracing her fingers along its edge. "I'm a Marine, you're a pirate. What's so surprising?"

"…what happened to you?"

Isuka scoffed, almost a chuckle. "What happened? What do you think happened? The Voices of Anarchy have made plenty of Marines all over the world reevaluate their place in the organization that they serve. And now?" She shrugged. "Now I'm just one of many who's realized how the world really works, and thus have decided to change how I did things. Now I've found my true calling."

The Marine stood and turned aside, Ace followed her eyes. Despite his situation, he still blinked stupidly at what looked for all the world like a large… bone leaning against the wall? Isuka raised her sword, and she stabbed the air multiple times, too fast for most eyes to see anything more than a blur. The bone was instantly struck with a case of terminal osteoporosis, becoming as porous as a sponge.

The wall around it was unscathed.

"Only cut what you mean to cut… I've got it down now." Isuka turned to regard Ace once more, staring at his forehead. "And if I can do that to a Sea King bone, I shouldn't have any trouble with iron, or however thick your skull, and more importantly, your neck is."

The wisecrack almost made things seem normal. The cold iron bars that separated them… less so. They stared at each other from their sides of the line, and she broke first, her eyes softening a bit.

"For the record, I am sorry it's come to this, but in all fairness, it's somewhat your fault for being a dumbass and getting caught." And with that, any warmth fled her eyes, and she was back to steel. "So now, this is how things have to be."

And with that, she walked away and left him to stew in his cell.

~About 10 Hours Before the War~

"WHAT!?"

Ivankov grimaced, both from the volume and the galling fact that the pirate before him had been right to worry. The Government's abuse of their own rules was no surprise in hindsight. Still, best not to dwell on that.

"I'll apologize as much as you want later; right now, you need to eat," the okama said, gesturing to the table still laden with food as well as the chunks of meat in Luffy's thin gray hands.

Much to his surprise, however, Luffy's response was to scowl down at the food in his hands and return it to the table.

"There's no time for this. Where's my bag?" he asked.

"You're not going in on an empty stomach—"

"I need Sanji's lunchbox."

Quick as a blade—specifically, one in Zoro's hands—Inazuma sidestepped his superior and set the bag down beside Luffy. The rubber man stuck his hand inside and immediately withdrew a giant bento box, four times bigger than any normal case. He broke the seal, and the surrounding crowd had just enough time to catch a scrumptious symphony of smells before Luffy devoured the contents.

To the surprise of everyone watching, he ate relatively slowly, which meant that he took enough time to savor each bite before shoveling in the next one. And as fast as he ate, Ivankov's eyes widened and his mouth opened at the pace that his pale, emaciated flesh was returning to a normal state.

"'Death's Door Lunchbox' indeed," Inazuma murmured, his mouth hanging open as well.

~o~

As Sanji got to his feet, he rolled his fingers at Soundbite. The snail blinked but nodded, and the next moment, Sanji seemed to speak in his own voice despite the lingering injuries.

"Alright, Luffy, you had better listen to what I'm about to say, because what I put in that bag is the single most dangerous thing that I've ever made."

Everyone seemed to sit a little straighter at that. Dangerous? Food? Sanji? Under normal circumstances that just wouldn't compute.

"I call it the Death's Door Lunchbox. By normal standards, it has seven days' worth of food with enough nutrients packed into it that it could keep an entire army on their feet. For your standards, it's potent enough to bring you back from the brink of death. And toxic enough to send you there."

Sanji locked his gaze with his captain's, even going so far as to lift the hair obscuring his left eye so that he could stare at Luffy with both of them. "I cannot emphasize this enough. Luffy, if you open this box and eat the food inside of it in one go, you had better be on the brink of starvation and in need of as much excess energy as you can get. If you're not about to die when you eat this, you will be after eating it. It's for emergency use only. Do you understand?"

Luffy nodded firmly. "I understand, Sanji. Thank you."

Sighing, the chef let his hair fall back into place before stepping back, nodding his thanks to Soundbite.

~o~

Swallowing down the last bite, a fully restored Luffy slammed the box shut, dropped it back into his bag, and then took out his pipe. He opened his mouth to speak… and then shivered all over, almost curling in on himself.

"STRAW HAT!?" half the room demanded.

"I-I'm f-f-fine," Luffy managed as his shaking subsided. He shook his head and flexed his arms before nodding tentatively. "Just… feels like there's fire in my guts… and my veins… and my… Everything…" Luffy's throat bulged for a second before he snapped his mouth open and disgorged a very loud and disturbingly visible belch. With that out of his system, he finally relaxed. "Woo, I almost died, and this time I'm not kidding. Guess I wasn't close enough to dying, whoops…"

CLANG!

Not even Inazuma's jaw remained above the floor, and Ivankov had something of a broken look in his eyes.

"Nothing makes sense anymore…" he wept melodramatically. "Fatally poisoned, loses five years off his lifespan, takes a fraction of a day to complete a two-day operation… and somehow, after all that, he wasn't close enough to dying."

"I mean, I had a good nap afterward?" Luffy offered.

"Nothing makes seeeense…" Ivankov sobbed.

"M-My Queen," Inazuma cut in (ha), having recovered to his typical state of being the fastest. "Not that I do not agree with you, but we are losing valuable time."

Any lingering amusement or incredulity evaporated as Luffy and Ivankov's expressions hardened. The rubber-man level a determined stare at the King of Queens.

"Where is Ace? Right now?"

Ivankov's eyes flicked to Inazuma and, at the firm nod he got, answered with confidence. "They've taken him up the elevator. Including Momonga, two Vice Admirals and a Commodore are waiting to receive him. Magellan and Hannyabal will see him off, and the escort is composed of the better half of a Buster Call," Ivankov grimly summarized. "The odds are not in our favor, Straw Hat Boy. I know I can't stop you, but for the sake of your father I still need to try and get this through your head, so listen good! Getting Ace out of here on its own would have been difficult, but going up against all of them at once, even if we did get Ace-boy's cuffs off, would be—"

"I know."

"—nothing short of complete and utter—wait, what?!" Ivankov boggled at the dangerously calm Luffy.

"I hate it, Iva… I really hate it," Luffy bit out, his jaw clenched hard enough to visibly deform. "But I know that it's too late. I still want to rush and get him, but it's too risky. We'll need to save him at Marineford."

"Er… Straw Hat, can I object to this plan?"

All eyes fell on Galdino, who gulped audibly at the attention. "L-L-Look, I'm aware that five Vice Admirals, a Commodore, the Warden, the Vice Warden, and whatever reinforcements that they have is a tall order to overcome… pretty much impossible really, why did I think it was a good idea to work with you?!" the Wax-Man wheezed in a panic.

Someone reached over and snapped their fingers in front of him, jolting him out of the impending spiral.

"Ah, ahem… I'm just trying to say that even those odds seem a lot more manageable than going up against literally every high-ranking official in the Navy along with the Warlords. Why do you think that's the better choice?"

Luffy grimaced at the logic. But he didn't take long to answer.

"Because that's the option where Ace's Pops—"

"Please don't call him that to his face…" Ivankov groaned, slapping a hand to his face.

"—No promises, and that's where he and his crew and his allies should already be expecting us. Or me, at least. We'll have friends waiting to help us there. We'll have to face an army…" Luffy snorted furiously and pounded his fist in his palm. "But so will they."

"Mmmph… the day I say that Straw Hat has a point about anything, especially about odds and evening them… we really are in hell…" Buggy groused before eyeing Luffy suspiciously. "But that can't be all there is to it, Straw Hat. Waiting until you have a bigger army to fall back on? You've never thought like that; did your flashy tactician really run you through the wringer that much?"

"No."

A shiver went down the spine of most everyone present at the pure hatred Luffy's eyes and voice exuded.

"…there's a bigger reason why it's too late now," the Captain of the Straw Hats said, almost calmly, save for the aura of unyielding rage he was emanating. "It had to be before they took Ace out of his cell. If he's on his way out, then he's on his way here. Which means there's still some things we need to do here, first."

The unyielding rage melted into something a little more manageable as he got off the bed, slowly popping his knuckles. "We're heading for Level 6."

"What? Why?"

"Sabotage and extra help. Especially if Ace's friends are still there." Luffy strode forward, cracking his neck, Newkamas parting around him. "We might not have the army we need to free Ace yet, but we can still get the one we need to break out of Hell."

And with that, Straw Hat Luffy left the chamber, intent on departing from Level 5.5, and back into hell.

At least, he did until he poked his head back around the corner, blinking curiously. "Uuuuh… which way out of here?"

A chorus of groans and facepalms rang out, foremost of them all Galdino, top-knot and all, slumping in miserable defeat.

"…we are all going to die."

-o-

Within his lair in the midst of the raging inferno of Level 4, the one true ruler of Hell sat at his desk, trying his damndest to massage away the migraine rioting beneath his horns. A migraine born of the week of—and the irony was not lost upon him, which only infuriated him more —utter hell he had been subjected to.

First, disrespect after disrespect heaped upon the ancient prison by their so-called ally the World Government, with soldiers and uncontrolled monstrosities being forced into the prison he and his guards were supposed to be trusted to guard on their own.

Then an invasion of that prison by one of the most infamous pirates to live since Roger, a pirate who had pushed Magellan to lengths he hadn't been pushed in years and left a trail of devastation a mile wide through all of Impel Down's floors.

And then, Straw Hat had been captured and locked away to die, but stayed there for all of a few hours before he managed to escape and disappear from right under their noses, which in turn led them to realize that dozens of prisoners they had assumed dead for years had been hiding right under their noses, and were likely planning a mass breakout as they spoke!

And as if all that wasn't enough, the World Government intruded upon Impel Down's jurisdiction, again, and forced them to compromise their own morals, their own laws!

All because it was more convenient for them.

It was just… there were truly no words that encapsulated the morass of emotions Magellan was feeling at that moment. And if even one more thing went wrong, one more thing—!

"Puru puru puru puru!"

Magellan froze, the sound of either his salvation or damnation ringing throughout his office. Not for the first time that year, he stared at the snail on his desk with a gimlet eye, dreading what might be on the other side. Finally, he worked up the nerve to grasp the receiver.

"…unless Straw Hat Luffy has surrendered himself for proper judgment, hang up. Now."

"Er… well, he's not surrendering, but we can confirm he's where he belongs."

Magellan snapped to attention in his seat, his prior haze fully dismissed. "You mean to say that he's returned to his cell!?" The Warden knew the words to be false the instant they left his mouth, he just knew it, but was it so wrong to dream?

Apparently it truly was, as the person on the other end of the line broke out in a cold sweat. "Not quite, I'm afraid. We have Straw Hat Luffy on cameras, sir, but he… he's…"

"Spit it out, soldier! Where is he!?"

"…Level 6. Monkey D. 'Straw Hat' Luffy has reappeared in and is descending the passage to Level 6. He's headed for the Eternal Hell… and he isn't alone."

And just like that, true, honest shock and terror froze Magellan's blood in his veins.

Level 6. Monkey D. Luffy was charging for Level 6. The forbidden final frontier. Unbreached, unspoken, nonexistent. The sole, singularly sacrosanct location in the entire prison, and he was in it. And if he knew of it, if he was in it… it was no exaggeration to say that a spike of panic pierced Magellan at the mere concept of Jeremiah Cross knowing of the floor's existence. That one, singular hope, that one mercy, ripped away.

And then, just as swiftly as it came, the moment passed and Warden Magellan returned to form. "That is… Unfortunate. Trigger all the traps and alert the guardroom. It likely won't stop him, but it will buy us time to respond. What is our current status?"

"By your orders, sir, our entire force remains in place and ready for interception at the exits of each Level. The monitor rooms are all attended, all keyrings are in the proper hands, and our pressure points are as secure as we can make them. And, at last inspection, our last guest is right where we left it. Maybe we'll put it to some use after all."

A derisive snort summarized how Magellan felt about that last sentence, but he still nodded in affirmation of the preparations. "Good. Send word to the Chief Guards and tell them that the time is now. There is a chance that Straw Hat will recruit some of the convicts to his escape attempt, and they will undoubtedly be hefty force multipliers. Furthermore, prepare a contingent to re-establish control in the Eternal Hell, I don't want any lingering surprises."

"I-I—! Understood, Chief Warden! Should we restart the gas vents as well?"

"Negative," Magellan denied. "If Inazuma is among their number, then clogging the vents would be child's play. The expected damage to our prison is already bad enough, no need to tack on an unnecessary expense."

With that, he rose to his feet. "Place the elevators on executive lockdown. They are not to leave the floor that I am on unless I am using them. No exceptions or excuses."

"Yes, sir. We'll see to—agh, what? Wait, wha—WHAT?"

"What is it?" Magellan demanded.

A rough form of that answer came in the form of practically every audio-snail in the entirety of the Prison abruptly snapping awake, wailing panicked calls into their speakers. A singular wail of panic and alarm that echoed all throughout hell, and meant one, worst-case scenario.

"S-Sir… we're getting movement reports from all Levels, e-even Level 3! I don't know if it's instinct or someone tipped them off, but everyone above the Eternal Hell is trying to riot! Massive cell breaches, they're getting into armories— IMPEL DOWN HAS BEEN THROWN INTO CHAOS!"

Magellan's jaw clenched, but he shook his head to calm himself and slowly relaxed. When he answered the unspoken plea, his tone was calm and even.

"Ensure that everyone maintains their positions. We deal with unruly prisoners regularly, despite the scale this is no different. Maintain focus on the ones that are organized in their attempt to break through us. As for the rabble…"

A sickly aura overcame Magellan. As in, an aura so sickening that his desk started to rot from his mere presence.

"I will deal with them myself. Make certain that my orders regarding Straw Hat are carried out. No matter what, I will be ready if it comes to that."

"Y-Yes, Warden Magellan! By your orders, sir!"

"Over and out," Magellan rumbled, picking up his snail even as it hung up and dialing in a new number. As he punched in the last number he threw open the doors to the office, and waited patiently outside as his snail connected to the rest of the snails on the Infernal Hell.

"A-he-hem, test, test. Your attention, if you please," Magellan coughed politely, his painfully calm voice echoing throughout the inferno and grinding the nascent riots to a dead halt.

"Thank you. Now then, I would like to announce to all of our prisoners that Impel Down has entered a state of absolute lockdown. What this means is quite simple: any and all prisoners found outside their cells we have decided have chosen death as their immediate sentence. This protocol will be put into place…"

For the second time in as many days, three liquid Hydras erupted into the scorching air of the inferno, screeching their fury for the entire floor to hear.

"IMMEDIATELY. In bluntest terms…"

Chief Warden Magellan swept his gaze across the depths of hell, and every person who saw him at that time, no matter who they once were on the outside, no matter their past, their power or prestige, all knew a single emotion.

Sheer terror.

"RUN."

Magellan moved to hang up, but then paused as a thought occurred to him.

"But to your cells, if you please. Don't make me have to root anyone out of a hiding spot. You'll find it especially unpleasant."

-o-

Stepping into the Eternal Hell was an entirely different experience from everything else Luffy had gone through thus far.

At first glance, the final floor of Impel Down seemed boring. After all, how else could you describe a mere prison block after wading through a thresher, a menagerie, a desert, an inferno, and a blizzard?

On closer inspection, though, Level 6 was no 'mere' prison. Rather, it was a forest of cells. Hundreds of them that seemed to stretch on for miles. It was impossible to even see from one end of the floor to the other, the darkness engulfing the cages in the distance. And where the wall was visible? It simply revealed yet more cages, only these ones were massive, containing truly giant Giants.

And that, perhaps, was the more pressing danger of the Eternal Hell. There was a… weight, to the air. A tension, an unswerving sense of pressure. The lack of any overt threat to the prisoners on that floor was because the prisoners were the threat.

Luffy knew the feeling he felt as he marched through the darkness, he had felt it often while growing up in a jungle and feeding himself by hunting. The sensation of being watched, most typically by things ready and waiting to eat him at the first chance they could get. And yet, the gazes he felt on him were… different.

Now, there was no awe, no fear, nor even banal anger or amusement. Instead, those staring at him were merely acknowledging his presence with a hint of curiosity. Curious in the sense they were wondering 'should I kill him or not', in the same sense one wondered what they'd be having for dinner later that night.

Luffy posed a barely tangible threat but a few, if any, inmates on that floor, and everyone present knew it. Hell, even Luffy knew it, even if he damn well didn't like it. And the weight of that knowledge hung over him like a lead blanket.

It was this heavy, suffocating atmosphere that he absorbed with his mind devoid of a frenzied rush to get to Ace. All it did was re-emphasize that Cross had been right about them not being ready: These were the cells where Gold Roger had spent his last days in, without regret. Luffy had been in there for barely five minutes and he was already eager to be gone.

"Straw Hat… you do realize that you're unnerving everyone with that scowl, right?"

"Yeah, well, I'm angry," he spat. "Ace is already gone, so I'm on my last chance to save him. And that means taking… ugh, what's the thing, taking…"

"…Er, drastic measures?"

"Let's go with that," Luffy accepted. "I'm following a lot of advice to save Ace, I'm doing a lot of things I wouldn't normally try doing, but there's one thing that isn't worth it… almost."

Bentham and Ivankov exchanged unreadable looks, and came to a mutual agreement to not press the subject.

"Back on topic," Ivankov simpered, addressing the guard he had appropriated. "Where is the cell where Ace-boy was staying?"

"Wha—I—wha—?"

It took a moment to process for the process that he was being asked for directions to a cell whose prisoner had already left. But he quickly remembered that the cell had other prisoners linked to Fire-Fist.

"I-I'm not saying a word!" he said, trying to sound brave. The Okama Queen dropped him on the floor and sharpened his fingers.

"Oh, you will, just not willingly, " he purred menacingly. "EMPORIO… TRUTH HORMONES!"

The needles stabbed into the guard's side, and his whole body quivered with discomfort, if not outright pain.

"Now, just a few seconds for the serum to flood has bloodstream," Ivankov snickered darkly. "And once that's done… which direction is Ace-boy's cell?"

The guard visibly tried to resist, but his mouth moved without his consent: "If you'll keep going forward and then take the third right, the cell's at the end of the row. AGH-damn-it-all!"

"Oh, don't worry your pretty little head about Magellan holding this against you," Ivankov said sweetly even as he picked up the guard again, carrying him along like a sack of potatoes. "I've had a lot of practice with this technique while interrogating Spanda-boy about the Government's secrets."

"Th-The government's—!? Wh-Where is he now!?"

"Hee-haw! You're the one with the truth serum in all the right places, not me. Let's just say… he's enjoying eeeeverything a place like Impel Down should have to offer, and leave it at that, hm?"

"Sonnuva…" the guard gargled, tugging viciously at the hand around his throat.

Luffy took interest. "If he has to tell the truth, then how do we get—?"

"No, Straw Hat-boy, don't finish that question," Ivankov stated blandly, drawing looks of confusion. "We're dealing with someone tasked to put his life on the line to stop us. And you would bite your own tongue off before spilling all of those secrets to us, wouldn't you?"

"And die happy doing it," the guard responded venomously.

"Your choice, but not one I'm planning on pushing you to," Ivankov replied, offhandedly examining the needle-nails on his free hands. "We're both monsters, I know that and you know that, but I'd like to think that I'm the lesser monster here in comparison. So for now, just go to sleep guilt-free, will you, darling?"

"The hell are you—?!"

That was as far as the guard got before Ivankov sunk his fingers into his neck again and dropped him. The guard swayed on his feet, falling to his knees before passing out.

And then an IV stand slammed against Ivankov's humerus.

"Why did you do that? I still needed to ask where my brother is!" Byojack barked.

"It's fine," Luffy said, deathly calm, which cut through Byojack's temper quite nicely. "We'll have someone else who'll be able to tell us that soon enough…" He narrowed his eyes. "If he knows what's good for him."

And now that he knew their destination, Luffy picked up his pace to a jog.

"One… two… three!" he muttered as he moved past the cells, barely glancing at any of the other prisoners—

"STRAW HAT!"

—but that voice drew him up short. He debated with himself for a second before turning his head to glare at the offender.

Shiki the Golden Lion glowered up at him. Up because of his special restraints, crucified on a steel cross secured to the ground. Luffy narrowed his eyes at him, but after a moment shook his head and dashed off, not sparing his defeated adversary so much as a word.

"DON'T YOU DARE IGNORE ME!"

Luffy summarily ignored him, stopping only when he came to a halt in front of the cell where his brother had been.

Two of the people in the cell he knew only from Cross's last-minute notes, independent pirate captains who were loyal to Whitebeard. The woman Whitey Bay looked a lot like Vivi until he got a look at her face. Surprised as she was, her entire demeanor otherwise radiated a sense of habitual smugness and superiority. Not necessarily antagonistic, just a very big ego and personality she didn't think twice about flaunting. The man beside her, Squard, had a spider-shaped mark on his forehead and a mane of purplish-pink hair. His demeanor was resilient and tough, but also carried a definite edge to it. Luffy's eyes lingered on him for a moment, his teeth grinding in the back of his jaw, but he directed his attention to the last captive in the cell.

One of his new friends, who was looking at him with a wry smirk.

"Jinbe," Luffy said with a respectful nod and a slightly regretful expression. "Sorry to meet you again like this."

In response, the whale-shark fishman loosed a massive snort through a toothy smirk. "I'm not, Luffy. After all, seeing you here, in this place, under these circumstances? Is the exact reason why I refused to fight."

Half the company, including Luffy, tilted their heads in confusion. The rest of them just stared.

"…I respect the old man enough that I would have refused to fight against him either way," the fishman rumbled, smirk still on his face. "And it just made my choice easier when I knew I could expect you to do something as crazy as breaking in here to save Ace. And from what he's told me and what I've heard on the SBS, I figured you'd need someone watching your back to make sure you don't get yourself killed. So I figured, why not kill two Sea Kings with one punch?"

Several people blinked.

"Oh, please, like it's that surprising?" Jinbe scoffed, rolling his eyes. "Who else would be stupid enough to try this, and lucky enough to pull it off? Seemed like the best thing that I could do was put myself somewhere that could help you out."

"Jinbe…" Luffy started slowly, trying very hard to wrap his head around that train of thought. "That was really stupid."

That dropped Jinbe's expression into a flat deadpan. "First of all, you're the last person I want to hear that from. And second…" He gave a savage grin. "Warlord or not, I am still a pirate, you know!"

Luffy's response was to grin and then look over his shoulder. "Galdino, get me a key."

"One of the Warlords on our side?" Galdino drawled as wax took form in his palm. "Perhaps we have a good chance after all."

"And you two," Luffy said, looking at the two human prisoners. "I don't really know you. But if you're friends with Ace, that's enough for me. Will you help me save him?"

"Let's see, go into a war to save a friend and kick the shit out of the White Hats, ooooor rot down here for the rest of our lives until they remember we exist and take our heads off too?" Squard drawled, his rugged face giving Luffy a paper-flat stare. "Yeah, gimme a few minutes to think on that, consider all the angles get us out of here and get me a blade you raging dumbass!"

"Just don't stop us from breaking our crews out on our way up and we'll consider the whole thing square, savvy?" Whitey Bay smirked. "Oh, and grab me any cannons or gunpowder in general on the way. Those right bastards scuttled the Eisbahn when they grabbed me and sent me entire collection down to the Locker with the old witch! I need to start stocking up again, and I'm doin' it on their dime!"

Galdino wasted no time in unlocking their cuffs, and once they were free Luffy nodded before turning around and scanning the surrounding cells. "Now… we still need to find Byojack's brother… and where's Crocodile?"

Luffy's scanning of the area continued for a few seconds, despite not seeing the familiar face/ The sand-jerk should have been speaking up any second now.

Any second now.

Any. Second. Now…

"…grrr, where the hell are you, stupid SAND-CROC!?" he bellowed.

"Oh? You're looking for me?"

Luffy spun around, and blinked in surprise what he saw.

There stood one of his most hated enemies, looking as well as ever aside from the black and white striped clothes he wore. The gold hook in place of his left hand was still there, and his typical smug sneer was on his face. It was a surprise to see that he was already out of his cell. But it was a bigger surprise to see the monster beside him. What was left of it, anyway.

The shriveled husk on Crocodile's right side looked foremost like a chameleon, but with the jaws and tail of, ironically enough, a saltwater crocodile. Metal plates covered much of its form and what remained of its tongue looked more like a broken sword than an appendage.

"How many of those things do they have!?" Buggy demanded.

"Let's hope that's the last one," Luffy muttered. "So, you broke out on your own."

"As if someone like me would die down here," Crocodile scoffed, wrenching his hand free of the husk's desiccated tail and shaking off the resulting 'dust'. "For all that your tactician considered me arrogant, I'm far better in that regard than most of the failures in this pit. I actually did have a fallback plan for if Baroque Works failed me." The last two words differed only in a biting downward intonation and a scathing stare at Galdino, currently trying his darndest to cower behind an equally cowed Buggy.

"I'll admit, it was more in anticipation of Garp or another Warlord getting involved, but needs must and the plan didn't really care who triggered it. I was waiting for the perfect opportunity to pick my cuff's locks and out of here. And if I can get involved in that old man's deathwish?" Crocodile smirked with almost uncharacteristic eagerness. "Well, that's just a wonderful side benefit, wouldn't you agree?"

Luffy's response was to roll his eyes and grace the former Warlord with a look of honest scorn.

"You got sent here in the first place because you were a sore loser who decided to give up on your dreams again after I beat you, even when your workers tried to break you out. And if it weren't for a chance to get a cheap shot at Whitebeard, you'd just be sitting on your ass and watching as we walked out of here."

Crocodile's smile faded, and he raised his chin with the same glower he'd given Luffy so many months ago. "Don't presume to know my designs, brat. Everything I've done has been a calculated risk. Even this hell, even this decision. And just so we're perfectly clear on one matter…"

The world abruptly howled with screaming wind and sand, and before anyone could blink or move, the Desert King was looming over the original Straw Hat, his hook pressing against a metal pipe that had spun up to catch the attack, his expression a mask of cold fury.

"Do not," he hissed. "Question my convictions again. Otherwise I don't give a damn if I die or not, I will kill you."

Luffy stared back at him without flinching. Several seconds ticked by before Crocodile withdrew his hook, and Luffy spoke.

"I still hate you for what you did to Vivi and her country. Honestly, hate is too weak a word. But I can use your strength as much as you need mine. We'll join forces on one condition."

"Oh?" Crocodile drawled. "Let me guess, don't go after Whitebeard since he's your brother's captain?"

"You would never keep that promise if you made it, not that you'll stand half a chance even if you do try." Crocodile's smirk dropped clean off his face at that matter-of-fact statement. "No, it's something you'll have to do before we leave this floor."

"…and I'm supposed to agree before you tell me?" Crocodile huffed before shaking his head. "Tch, then again, coming from an idiot like you… fine, what do you want me to do?"

Luffy reached into his bag and withdrew a letter. After scanning it for a few seconds, he nodded firmly and returned it to the bag.

"Somewhere on this floor, there's a prisoner who used to work here named Shiliew of the Rain."

Everyone, Crocodile included, looked at Luffy oddly.

"Find him, and kill him. With… uh, one second."

The shock from the listeners faded into sweatdropping as Luffy pulled the letter out from his bag again and reread it.

"'Extra pre-jelly', whatever that means."

WHAM!

Aaaand then almost the entire company face-faulted, and Crocodile and Jinbe were visibly struggling not to, the former bringing his hand to his face.

"It's 'extreme prejudice,' you idiot," the sand-man growled.

"Whatever."

And even he was caught off-guard when he heard the coldness in Straw Hat's voice, his eyes hardened with hatred that even Crocodile was unsure he'd ever seen in them.

"Whatever they are, whatever they mean. You want out of here? Shiliew dies. Now."

Crocodile stared at the young man, visibly confused. It was obvious that this wasn't his own idea, but he was extremely vested in it. The veteran pirate considered the implications of that for only a moment before shrugging.

"Consider it done, then," he said, turning in a specific direction and pacing off.

"Iva, can you watch him? I don't care how far I can throw him, I still don't trust him," Luffy asked.

"Very well," the okama consented, looking rather grim as he followed after the irritated Warlord.

"Wait just a minute! I'm looking for Byrrndi World, where is he!?"

Crocodile didn't even turn back, instead pointing in the direction that they came from.

"We missed him?" Gairam asked in confusion. "How the hell did we do that, we should have heard him from a mile off!"

"Not in the state he's in, you wouldn't."

-o-

The psychopath who had been locked up for the same crimes that the BioMEGAs had committed and had now all been killed for looked up at the unfamiliar breeze. His eyes fell on the rapidly reconstituting form of an ex-Warlord, who had managed such a feat by expertly and meticulously flowing his constituent granules between the bars without even brushing the Sea Stone.

"I knew we shoulda implanted Seastone spikes in you Logias' spines. Only way to be sure," Shiliew of the Rain mused.

There was a brief pause. And the next moment found Shiliew pressed against the wall, a hand around his neck.

"Initially, I was just going to take your head off. But now?"

The ex-Jailer's skin began to shrivel in Crocodile's grasp, and for the first time in a very long time, the faintest traces of fear invaded the sociopathic swordsman's mind.

"Congratulations. You get the special treatment."

-o-

Less than five minutes later, the Desert King and Newkama Queen reconvened with the rest of the prospective escapees where they were combing over the cell blocks in search of the last recruit for their jailbreak. Luffy turned to face them as they approached.

"Is it done?" Luffy asked.

"If he isn't dead in an hour, I will be both very disturbed and very impressed."

Luffy frowned, clearly skeptical. The sand-man rolled his eyes.

"In case you've forgotten, you are not an appropriate metric of what I can do. And for your record, 'extreme prejudice' means making it as cruel as possible." His eyes sharpened. "There are no miraculous water sources nearby for him to get to and he's also missing his limbs, he's not walking away from this ."

Several in earshot shivered. Luffy, for his part, glanced at Ivankov, whose grimace corroborated the claim. He slowly nodded in acceptance.

"Gnnnrgh, come on, come on…" Nightin muttered, dashing from cell to cell and growing more frustrated with every unsatisfying find. Finally, she stopped in her tracks and jabbed an accusing finger at Crocodile. "You! Sandy whippersnapper!"

The ex-Warlord slowly turned his head to give the wizened chemist a flat stare. "Repeat that, shrimp?"

"Where the hell is Captain Byrrndi?!" the senior citizen snapped back, either ignorant of or entirely ignoring the implied threat. "You said he would be in this direction, but we've yet to see hide nor hair of him! Tell us where he is, or so help me—!"

"You'll what, gum at my ankles? Tsk, I'm surrounded by idiots," Crocodile snarked, swinging his hook as a gesture. "He's right behind you."

All the World Pirates whirled around in the direction he'd indicated, realizing that they were at the mouth of one of the Eternal Hell's massive wall-cells. Before anyone could say anything, Byojack bolted ahead of the group—and more importantly, their torches, quickly losing himself in the shadows.

"Byrnndi! Byrnndi, are you there?" he cried out as loud as his feeble voice allowed. "Byrnndi, it's Byojack! I brought the crew, we're here to get you out of here! Please, brother, say some—!"

CRACK!

"—OW!" Byojack yelped, reeling back from the hard and cold object he'd just bounced off of. "What the…?"

As the rest of the group arrived, the old man gave the wall he'd just run into a confused once-over. Confusion that rapidly turned to horror when the torchlight illuminated the cell's occupant: A powerfully built man with broad arms and torso but skinny legs, a large green beard and mustache, and still clad in garments proper for a pirate captain. A chain from his right hip to his left shoulder, gold necklaces, a longcoat… all a perfect picture, a work of art.

That was all Byrrndi World was at the moment, his body frozen in a small glacier's worth of ice.

The World Pirates could manage no better response than to gape up at their refrigerated Captain, trying desperately to wrap their minds around this devastating occurrence, to think of a plan, any plan, to get him out.

Nothing came before the absolute last person they wanted to hear speak distracted them quite handily.

"So as you can see, there are a few problems with evacuating this titanic buffoon in a timely manner…"

Furious, Gairam wheeled around, brandishing his hammer. "What the hell is this, you brat?! Why the hell is our captain an ice cube!? What's going on here?!"

Ignoring the blatant threat, Crocodile reached up to his cigar… which he realized as he was doing so he didn't have. Snorting in irritation, he replied, "Take a breath, old man. It would be a shame if you had a heart attack."

"Why, you—!"

"It was the only logical conclusion…"

Gairam and the rest of the Worlds froze, the better to listen to their functioning captain. They needed it, too, because at first glance what he'd just said made no sense.

"B-Byojack…?" Nightin stammered, praying for a clarification.

"It doesn't get any simpler," Byojack answered grimly. "It's all a matter of a prisoner you can't trust to behave and a Devil Fruit capable of causing mass destruction extremely quickly. One slip-up, one opportunity, and my brother could use it to bring this entire gaol crashing down within the hour."

"Uhhh…?" Luffy slowly looked at the World Pirates' acting captain in confusion. "That… would kill him too. Even I know that."

"You clearly haven't heard of my brother if you think he would have cared for even half a second."

Luffy stared silently at Byojack for a few seconds before slowly speaking. "Your brother… he… wasn't very nice, was he?"

"Picked up on that, did you? The more accurate description would be 'complete monster'. We started out with good intentions, to see the world, to have adventures and just enjoy ourselves, but somewhere along the way, something got twisted in his head, and all he wanted to do was burn the world. And I hated that, I truly did, and on some level I was relieved when he was captured… but… but…"

He trailed off, and Luffy's expression softened. "He's your brother. You don't need to explain."

"...heh," Byojack chuckled humorlessly. "Not the first time I've heard that these past twenty years. But it is the first time I believed someone actually understands. Still. I'd hoped he'd listened. Hoped he'd heard the SBS, heard you… hoped he might have changed. But… I guess that's just not happening."

A pause…

Byojack stood up fully, calmly dusting his pants off. Turning to Luffy, he gave him a grim but determined expression. "Straw Hat… thank you for helping us get here. Truly. Now go."

"Byojack—!"

"I said go, Straw Hat!" he snapped, his smile falling away. "We came here for different purposes, and we've got ours while yours is on the move! We'll stay down here and work on thawing Byrnndi; once he's free, we'll bust out on our own. Trust me, he's got a skull twice as thick as yours, and I imagine you'll be leaving Magellan and the rest of this hellhole in a sorry state to boot. My brother and I will be fine, yours won't, now go!"

Byojack turned back to his brother's frozen form, and all present could see the trembling that he was trying to hide, the vice grip he had on his IV stand, and the moisture in his eyes that couldn't hide the fire beneath.

"I said it when I got here and I'll say it again: No matter what happens, no matter how much this hellish prison throws at me, I won't stop until I save my brother! Or my name isn't Byojack World!"

As his declaration echoed through the Eternal Hell, the tiny old captain's trembling subsided. He had made his choice. He locked eyes with Luffy, and the sides of his mouth turned up.

"Go on ahead, Straw Hat. I'll… I'll be right behind you," he said quietly, a tear trailing down his face.

Luffy barely managed to give a sad smile back before turning away. He led the exodus out of the cell, with only the four executives of the World Pirates remaining there to save their captain or die trying. Grudgingly, he pushed Byojack out of his mind to force his focus on his own goal, and addressed his allies.

"We're heading straight up and out. If anyone wants to break someone else out on the way, do it fast. When we get to Level 1, someone needs to open the Gates of Justice so we can sail out. Let's go."

"AYE!" was the response. From the okamas, at least.

With that, Inazuma snapped his blades out, crouching down in preparation to slice them a path upwards and outwards to freedom—

And then the world shifted.

The clang of steel striking blazing steel, the shriek of blood-rusted gears grinding against one another, and the hiss of steam and pure, unrestrained power.

The world thrummed and shifted and raged, churning out weapon after weapon, and at the core of it all, there was the beat.

A bone-rattling, soul-deep thu-thump, thu-thump, that struck one and all to the core.

An immortal heartbeat of blood and oil and steel. A drumbeat heralding a neverending crusade of devastation.

The eternal anthem… of a War Machine.

Nobody on the floor was knocked out, but neither was anyone nearby unfazed. The pressure was massive, crushing, suffocating, and growing heavier and heavier—!

And a blast of primal fury slammed against the machine and broke its rhythm. Pure will was brought to bear against the engine of devastation, strength, and raw power rearing up with a surging roar…

For all of two seconds before the Machine surged again and blew apart the fury like dust in the wind. And then—!

And then there was silence once more.

The entire conflict took place in the span of a second, but it was no less devastating for its short length: swathes of the Eternal Hell's denizens had been laid low and unconscious, and even among the strongest of the would-be escapees, many had been forced to their knees and to the edge of their breaths.

"What—no, who the devil was that?!" Ivankov hissed, lowering his hand from his face.

"Like you said, a devil…" Crocodile snarled, rapidly sucking away his own cold sweat before anyone could notice. "But why … that, that beast, the other prisoners said he hasn't moved in twenty years, so why—?!"

"I can take a guess…" Buggy bit out through grit teeth as he kneaded away the migraine pounding in his skull, glancing aside at the one other person around who was still standing.

And Luffy was standing. Not unshaken, but certainly unbowed and unbroken.

"Mmm… so… it is you…"

Unbroken enough that as everyone else recovered, only he really heard the words that rumbled out through the silent Hell and wrapped it in tension too thick to cut.

With everyone else still recovering, Luffy turned and walked up to a nearby cell, staring at the source of the voice, and the wave of sheer malice that had engulfed the floor. A man who was on his feet and staring right back down at Luffy through the bars.

The man was, to put it bluntly, as giant as one could get without coming from Elbaf: twice as tall as Luffy, built like a fortress, with long pale yellow hair that clumped at the ends like tentacles. He had a massive scar on his body, a burn mark, that extended up from the collar of his shirt and seared across his jawline.

But perhaps his most striking feature was his eyes. His eyes were, for lack of a better word, dead. No rage, no passion, no fire to them, nothing. Just a dead-eyed gaze that stared at Luffy with only the barest hint of interest. And yet that dead stare felt like it carried the weight of an army behind it.

The rubber-man stared right back, refusing to be intimidated by the Goliath before him.

"…mmm…" the giant's deep voice rumbled out again, creaky from lack of use. "…or… are you… Are and aren't… which is it…"

Luffy could tell he was talking to himself. But right now, he didn't care about that. All he wanted was an answer.

"Who… are you?" Luffy asked slowly.

That got a reaction from the giant, and he blinked as though he'd only just realized that Luffy was standing in front of him. After a moment, however, he turned his head away to stare at nothing, one of his shovel-like hands coming up to scratch at the side of his skull.

"No… not yet… not yet…" he rumbled out. "One day… someday…"

His head turned back, and his last words were, for the first time, spoken directly at Luffy.

"But not yet."

And with that final statement, the giant fully turned around and shuffled back into the gloom of his cell, sitting back down on his bench and returning to the immobile position he'd held for the past twenty years.

With more difficulty than he cared to admit, Luffy shook off the encounter—or at least, put it in the back of his mind until he could tell it to Cross—and moved back to Inazuma, who wasted no time in slicing a hasty hole up and through the ceiling of the floor.

…and while many of the attempting escapees recognized the juggernaut in the cell for who he was and would remember this moment for years to come, only one man among them realized the exact implications of what had just happened. One of the most dangerous pirates of Roger's generation had set eyes on Monkey D. Luffy, and even without the hat, he had recognized some shade of Roger's spirit.

And it was for that reason that that one man lagged behind the rest of the escapees, hesitation freezing his legs but good.

"Clown."

But it was that cursed voice speaking again that froze Buggy's spine to the core. And though he wished he could do anything else, he turned his head to stare back at Douglas Bullet.

"Demon," the 'small-time' pirate bit out in reply.

"…it is him, you know. Not yet… but it is."

"…yeah. I know. Took me longer than I'll ever admit to realize it, but I know. Why do you think I'm sticking so close to him? What about it?"

"…don't do anything stupid, Clown. Once he's ready, he's mine."

Buggy stared at him in silence for a moment before turning away with a snort. "We'll see, Demon. After all, 'stupid' is all about perspective. Me?"

He started marching his way up the spiral of stone, glaring daggers at the back of the man he knew was leading the charge towards freedom… and madness.

"I call it 'protecting a way of life'."

And with that, the two ex-Roger Pirates parted ways, both of them aware of the strong likelihood that they'd meet again, and sooner rather than later.

-o-

The silence following the escapees' departure and the brief battle of wills lingered in World's cell as his crew worked to set him free.

"…Gairam, fortify the cell. If we're going to make it back out of here alive, we'll need as much of a defense as we can get," Byojack said quietly.

"Aye, Captain," the Cube-Man saluted, exiting the cell and moving toward the stairs.

"You do realize you're going to die down here, old man?"

He stopped and spared a glance at the legless man grinning up at him.

"You do realize that whippersnapper's about to outdo the one remaining achievement you have to your name literally a thousandfold, you washed-up has-been?" he returned.

The captured pirate's eyes widened, his pupils shrinking to pinpricks and his entire body trembling.

"…rrrrrrrrrRRRAAAAAAAAAGH!"

"On the one hand, satisfying. On the other, now we're going to be listening to that for hours on end…"

Casually, Gairam bent down and touched the ground around him.

"Cubreak."

At once, the stone lifted up, a circle carved out of the ground around him and a ring of cubes levitating.

"Cubooster."

And then, with a stationary target out of his mind with rage, encountered no issue in slipping the cubes through the bars and entombing Shiki beneath them, stacking them to the ceiling.

"Much better," Gairam said as he continued on his way. That didn't stop the has-been from screaming, but the sound was neatly muffled.

-o-

"—and he walked out after that! How was I supposed to know he was leaving the city? Who would leave the city just because we ran out of cherry pie!? Not to mention how he left the city! We're on top of the Red Line for crying out loud! "

"I DON'T GIVE A DAMN ABOUT HOW OR WHY RIGHT NOW, YOU INCOMPETENT WASTE OF SKIN! ALL I WANT TO KNOW IS WHERE! NOW FIND ME MARSHALL D. TEACH SO THAT I CAN RIP HIS RANCID HEAD FROM HIS SHOULDERS!"

The literally incandescent bellow that erupted through the halls of the 'cottage' (which was the size of an average manor) the Warlords were being kept in was but a drop in the river of alarm and panic ripping through every Marine and Agent rushing about the place. And for very good reason.

Anything going wrong at this point was unacceptable. The Navy and Government needed every bit of good luck that they could get if they wanted to come out of this war in fighting condition. And losing a second Warlord after Jinbe's imprisonment was the precise opposite of good luck. Especially when it was one of the more volatile and distinctly more malevolent members of the lot. As such, practically every available soldier within Mariejois was caught up in a manhunt, searching high and low for the Darkness Pirate that had kickstarted this entire bout of madness to begin with.

The only ones who seemed wholly unbothered were the other Warlords. Two of them genuinely didn't care and were simply ignoring the ongoing madness. One was quite honestly amused by the panic and mayhem and was reveling fully in it.

And the last two? Their calm was only because they were able to suppress the emotion long enough to relocate to a sitting room. Silence fell for a time…

Until one of Perona's Mini-Hollows melded through a wall and returned to her. She cracked an eye open. "…OK, Doflamingo's focusing on listening to the Nobles and nobody else is around. So…"

Her calm completely collapsed into a toxic brew of horror and self-loathing, and she grabbed her head, a thousand-yard stare pointed at a random section of wall.

"Now, I'm going to say what we are both thinking right now: We could have stopped him. We watched him walk out of here, we could have done something. We could have—!"

"No."

And swift as a viper, Hancock's frigid statement punctured Perona's panic, knocking the girl out of her spiral. That she was calmly sitting and nursing a cup of tea certainly didn't hurt in that regard.

"No, Perona, we couldn't have 'done' anything," Hancock continued, staring into her drink. "You saw the same thing I did; half the guards panicking out there are the ones who watched Blackbeard and his band of monsters walk away without batting an eye. It was the commander himself who opened the doors. And as such, we must face facts: Attempting the 'easy solution' of merely cutting the head off the snake simply isn't feasible with that blasted hypnotist on their side, nor is the hard one when—no offense intended—you are currently a liability in a head-on assault. All of which leaves aside the fact that I refuse to draw any more attention to myself than is absolutely required in this place."

Hancock shivered briefly at the momentary lapse in her persistent denial of the fact that she was back in that gleaming white hell. She covered it by shaking her head and sipping from her (already double-checked for poison, of course) tea.

"We may have been able to stall him long enough that he has missed his window of opportunity, I will admit to and hope for that possibility," she conceded, before adopting an expression of cold, steely determination. "But if matters have gone even halfway according to plan, letting him go is the best chance of seeing him dead, on top of the fact that stopping him would turn all of his attention towards us and our kingdoms."

"…so basically, definitely damned if we do, hopefully less damned if we don't, is that what you're saying?" Perona grimly summarized.

"In so many words… yes."

A pause. And then a shared sigh of morose frustration.

"This. Bites," Perona grumbled.

"To quote a certain world-infamous snail," Hancock scowled into another sip. "Word."

-o-

Squard's eyes shot open and, with all the speed of a New World veteran, he surged to his feet and took a step back for the stairs. The solid wall of shivering Newkamas in his way stopped him just long enough for Whitey Bay to ask, "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

"I'm heading back down there," he snapped, glancing around for an opening in the lines. "And I'm going to—!"

"Get your fool neck snapped by the only monster down there that chooses to stay in its cage?" Whitey finished, her expression distinctly unimpressed. "You're not even armed, Squard, what do you think you're going to accomplish?"

"He was on his crew! He slaughtered over half my men!"

"A., like we've been saying fer years, that entire shitshow was yer own damn fault fer attacking Roger like the hotheaded idjit ya are. And B., Roger could no more control Bullet on a good day than you or I can control the tides. Which begs the question, what more'll you do to him other than ruin his fine eternity of damnation, hm!?"

Glaring and stiff, the man had no response.

"Are you two done?" Inazuma interjected, one eyebrow raised.

"No, we're no—!"

"Yes," Whitey Bay interrupted, grabbing Squard by the neck and firmly shoving him away from the pit to damnation. "We're done. With that, at least. Fer me… well, don't suppose anyone's got a Funeral Bouquet?" Her already sober demeanor cooled significantly as her hands snapped into fists. "I've heard you lot mentionin' Impel Down's new security system on this floor. I've put this off long enough; I'm not going to be defeated by my own element again."

"We put a couple together," said one of the newkamas. "Didn't expect to use them before we got out of here. They're in Straw Hat's bag."

"Oh, those things weren't snacks?" Luffy asked, though thankfully for everyone he was pulling out a well-wrapped fruit basket as he did so.

"Geez, don't say it like that, I thought you ate them when we weren't looking!" the newkama protested.

"Eh?" Luffy tilted his head in confusion. "Why would I do that?"

The newkama started to answer, before settling for coughing uncomfortably into his fist.

With a final, rueful glance over his shoulder (and a rub at the back of his neck) Squard said, begrudgingly, "Good hunting, Whitey."

Whitey responded with a gruff snort and a quick salute before she snatched the basket from his hand and bolted into the raging blizzard.

"So, uh, what's a Funeral whatsit?" Luffy asked.

"Something of a Grand Line tradition," Jinbe answered. "I'll explain another time, perhaps on the way to Marineford. I believe we should get going before the newkamas freeze."

"Let's goooooo!" Luffy roared, charging off into the blizzard. Jinbe, Inazuma, and Squard followed, the rest of the army joining at an easy jog.

And in the very back, Galdino turned to Buggy and said, incredulous, "Before the Newkamas freeze? Dressed like that?" He jabbed a thumb at Jinbe's thin kimono and Luffy's usual vest and shorts.

"Take it from my personal experience, idiots and those who follow them are totally immune to cold!" Buggy crowed. "Either way, forget it, we're on our way out!"

Silence fell as they jogged through the snow, aside from the wind blowing in their faces. Finally, Galdino had to say something.

"That was a perfect opportunity to say 'Nothing can stop us now'."

"Straw Hat might not have killed me for that two floors up, but I'm pretty sure literally everyone else here will," Buggy muttered back. "More to the point, they're expecting us. If anything can stop us now, we're running straight towards it."

The army encountered no resistance marching through the blizzard. None of the wolves challenged them; any question as to why was answered by howls rising from the direction Whitey Bay had gone. The snow fell harder and faster the closer they got to the stairs, and by the time they did reach them, it was almost whiteout conditions.

Which neatly explained why Inazuma was in the lead, and why he didn't spot the seastone-tipped jutte aimed his way until it jabbed him right in the windpipe.

"It's Smokey!" Luffy shouted as Inazuma collapsed to the ground, head on a swivel trying to find Smoker in the blizzard. Which he very quickly realized was not going to happen anytime soon. Around him, the sound of gunfire and clashing swords erupted, completely unseen. The rubber man did try to will that feeling of Observation back, but no dice.

"Don't worry, Straw Hat, we've got this!" Squard declared, before throwing a sloppy punch into the blizzard. Unfortunately for him, Smoker coalesced in front of him, unharmed, and the block the Whitebeard pirate threw was way too short to stop the upward swing with his jutte Smoker smashed into his chin.

"Now that's just pathetic. I expected more from a New World captain," the Marine remarked, before Luffy's fist blew his head into fumes.

"Dang it, Smokey, get out of the way!" Luffy snapped, swinging his fist at the cloud the soldier of 'Justice' flew apart into.

"Sorry, Straw Hat, but I have my pride as a Marine to uphold here!" Smoker's voice snarled out as he coalesced. He then ducked under an Armament-heavy palm strike from Jinbe before turning his foot to smoke and hooking it on one of the fishman's ankles. "I may not be able to stop all of you, but I can damn well try!"

And with that, he yanked hard. With footing awkward on the fluffy powder and underlying ice, particularly for someone as bulky as Jinbe, it was enough to send the fishman sprawling face-first into the snow.

Despite that, Luffy calmed and nodded. "Yeah. I get you."

By now, the blizzard had begun to die down, at least enough for Luffy to see five feet in front of his face. He wound up a punch, but hastily aborted when Inazuma jumped in the way to attack. His breathing was rapid and shallow, and he was noticeably slowed from when Luffy had seen him subdue the guards in Level 6. Smoker had all the time in the world to catch the scissor blades on his jutte and then elbow the Revolutionary in the exact same spot on his throat. Wheezing, he staggered back, panting even faster and shallower.

"Because of course people keep going for my throat on the day it's twice as thick—!" the scissor-man rasped.

Luffy took the opportunity to launch a Gatling at Smoker, which dispersed him back into smoke. And he had to stay smoke to completely evade a palm strike from Jinbe that rippled the air. He could not evade the small wave of snow the fishman awkwardly scooped up and hurled at him, forcing him back.

The setback didn't faze the Logia-user for long, however. In fact, it gave him the opportunity to flow his gaseous mass around and behind Jinbe, solidifying with his jutte raised, and—why was Straw Hat a balloon?

"Gum-Gum!" Luffy squeaked, before belting out all the air in his belly at once at Smoker. "Bellows!"

Caught in a semi-gaseous state and already fighting to stay coherent in the blizzard winds, Smoker could do nothing about the blast of wind that scattered him farther and wider than he was used to. Briefly. He did mostly pull himself together shortly afterward, but a majority of his mass was still scattered over a large chunk of the Level, leaving him kneeling with several smoking holes in his body and head.

That situation was bad at the best of times. But what was worse was Squard taking the opportunity to advance on him.

"Hey, Squard! What're you doing?!" Luffy bellowed from the bottom of the stairs, Jinbe already busying himself with laying into the normal guards.

"I'm making sure this guy doesn't sneak up behind us as we climb!" the Whitebeard Pirate declared. He raised a hand, coated with Armament—

And then ducked just in time for the sword he'd just barely noticed in his peripheral vision to swing over his head. What he did not notice was the hammer that smacked into his leg and—

?

—Whitey snapped her fingers in her fellow captain's face, scowling impatiently.

"Hey, you awake yet or what, ye daft blighter?!" she demanded. "Luffy an' the rest of the madhouse are already headin' up, and you're lagging behind! The hell do you think yer doin'?! And I swear, if the answer is Bullet, I ain't responsible for what's about to happen to you."

"I… er, I dunno," the Maelstrom Spider mumbled with a disturbed grimace before shaking the cobwebs out of his head. "N-Never mind that! What about you? How did your detour go?"

Whitey matched his vicious smile tooth for tooth as she raised her hand and snapped it into a fist, a glove of viciously spiked frost snapping into existence around it.

"Still getting the hang of it and I'm liable to have a hard time drinkin' liquids for the next goodly while, but at least now I'll never be conquered by my own home element again. Now!" She slammed her frosted fist into her equally frosted palm. "Let's go and get me some practice the fun way!"

And with that, the pair dashed up the stairs. With Whitey's hands still pressed together in front of her.

"Er, are you—?"

"Frozen together? Aaaye, gonna have to work on that one…"

-o-

Grunting, Smoker reformed the last of his left leg, standing up with an assist from Tashigi. He still felt twenty pounds lighter in all the wrong ways, but at least he could walk again.

"Clever, Straw Hat," he groused before nodding at his subordinate. "And thank you, Lieutenant. I don't know how long I could have kept that up without actually crippling someone."

"Not as long as you might think, sir," Tashigi answered, warily eyeing the stairs. "Whitey Bay seems to have acquired the Cold-Cold Fruit and was only a few minutes out. She would've been too much on top of the other four."

"Remember to put that in your report, always important to keep track of Devil Fruits," Smoker said, before adding, pensively, "This is the endgame, then. I suppose we'll have all the answers we could ever want, soon."

Tashigi grimaced, her hand unconsciously straying to one of her pockets. "Sir, do you think we should risk…?"

"No," Smoker immediately answered. "Not on our own, and not when things could still go bad. We talk to Magellan first. Hopefully, we've endeared ourselves enough to him to at least warrant an answer. For now, we stay here and keep any more inmates from attempting to escape, so that we have an excuse to stay out of Straw Hat's way."

Tashigi nodded in agreement—

"Also, I still need time to recollect the better part of my lower intestine."

—before freezing and adopting a sheepish grin. "Ah. Right. That too, eheheh…"

"Kyuuun…" Popora groaned.

-o-

Throughout Paradise, the calm before the storm was nowhere more uncalm than in Marineford. The soon-to-be-former Fleet Admiral's adjusted patrol routes had allowed them to assemble a formidable army quickly, and one that he was almost confident in.

The recruits from the New World that rumors had nicknamed 'Devil Dogs' pushed it over the line. They plugged the gaps left by units lost because of that never-to-be-sufficiently-damned Jeremiah Cross, but they were a symbol of a war Sengoku didn't want and was increasingly realizing he had no control over.

"Fleet Admiral, all assets are in place and prepared."

Sengoku nodded almost dismissively to the ensign who'd brought that report, his discontent plain. Frowning as the ensign left, he looked over his desk and the many empty bottles on it. Then to a picture of himself, Tsuru, and Garp. And then he thought back to the question his superior had tried to ask.

For the first time in years, his thoughts turned fully to his son. And against his will, he heard his voice echoing words in his head that he had never spoken.

"Is this what you call Justice? Can you take pride in something like this?"

The desire to cry prodded at his body but his eyes remained dry.

"…I chose the right time to retire. If I stayed on after this mess, I wouldn't have a soul left to sell."

-o-

Saldeath paced in front of the massive doors leading to Level 3, currently locked tight and guarded by a company of his best Blugori, decked out in heavy armor and doped up with enough combat stimulants that a drop more would induce fatal overdose. And a medical team on standby to treat the heatstroke they'd be suffering in about an hour.

That was fine. Frankly, given the list of prisoners that had been "demoned away", if even half of them had survived all this time the door was likely to delay them longer than this army. So be it. They had to at least try. And maybe, just maybe, they had a chance to actually thin their numbers a little.

The ground rumbled, the roar of a few hundred throats wafting up from the stairs down. Saldeath stamped his trident on the stone, his Blugori standing a little straighter. Now, what did they… face…

The vanguard of the army crested into the Blazing Hell, and, faced with not only the expected arrival of Straw Hat Luffy and two Revolutionary commanders but also two Warlords of the Sea and Whitebeard ally captains apiece, there was really only one logical response.

"Oh, bother."

-Two Minutes Later-

Buggy shivered at the piles of Blugori scattered about. Eight people had done that. And half of them had been too slow to get into the action. What the flashy hell was he doing, following these guys?!

Oh, right, they were monsters aimed at getting everyone out of this prison. Dammit.

"Alright, let's break this door down!" Straw Hat declared, biting his thumb, only to be stopped by Inazuma's hand on his shoulder.

"I do not recommend brute force, Straw Hat," she (currently) said. "Too much force and we risk bringing the entire prison down on our heads. A risk baked into this hell's design, even, to prevent just this sort of escape attempt. Even with a Devil Fruit, old Morley had to be very careful carving out Level 5.5 lest he collapse the entire gaol onto his head."

"Good thermal shock would work, but I just got these powers and it's taking all I've got to not collapse," Whitey Bay laughed heartily, even as she abruptly swayed on her feet. "Speaking of, can we get a move on already? Please? I'm no Logia, but I swear ta Boreas I'm about ta melt over here…"

"Working on it as we speak," Sir fucking Crocodile said… standing a ways back from the door.

"Uh…"

"Wait for it."

Luffy rolled his eyes but trusted that he had a plan. That was one thing he could rely on with Crocodile. And if he couldn't, he still had some of Robin's explosives. He glanced around, perhaps to get an idea of what the sand-man had planned, and saw something that gave him pause.

"…Magellan."

Aside from Crocodile, everyone froze up at the muttered name. They followed his line of sight to the Hell surrounding them and saw the violet stains painting the walls.

"He was here, yes."

The more paranoid of the group jumped at the deep, unfamiliar voice that echoed out. The more sensible looked around in confusion, trying to find the source.

VRRRRR— KRASH!

Nobody found it until the source walked clean through one of the nearby walls, revealing itself to be a musclebound man with a buzzcut. He calmly stalked toward the army as if he hadn't just walked through a solid foot of brick, his gaze as cold as the blades that were his forearms.

"Mr. 1," Bentham and Galdino muttered and whimpered respectively, one in mild surprise and the other with knee-knocking trepidation.

"He's using the elevator, so he could be anywhere," Daz Bonez continued. "I would advise we stay on the move if we can, otherwise he might appear from out of nowhere and kill us all."

"Don't say that so calmly!" Buggy and Galdino roared indignantly, with the newly liberated prisoners joining in. A mass of shouting that, ultimately, was entirely dismissed by the more experienced ex-convicts. Namely…

"I've missed your candor, Daz, truly I have," the former Mr. 0 said, his voice actually sincere and devoid of his usual condescending sarcasm.

"As you say, sir," the former Mr. 1 said, inclining his head before stepping over to the door and sharpening his arms. "This won't take long."

Hearing that, Buggy noticed Luffy eyeing his bag, and decided that he was better off putting some distance between himself and Straw Hat. Now, how to do that…

His eyes fell on the unconscious Saldeath, and he grinned. "This is payback for Level 3, you little rat bastard," he whispered, before standing and shouting, "Hey! Anyone want to help me string this guy up? And not the usual way, we don't want Straw Hat on our asses!"

-o-

Saldeath felt consciousness return to him, which was honestly a surprise. Doing so hurt like the dickens, which wasn't a surprise, and he felt lightheaded and there was something on his face, both of which were sort of a surprise. Opening his eyes, the little devil-man found himself upside down, wrapped in chains over the drained blood vat, and several prisoners in fishnets and one with a big red nose holding up a mirror in front of him.

Oh, they'd scribbled on his face. How original. Saldeath glanced 'up' at the empty vat with a cocked brow. "I understand hanging me in chains, that's fair…" He looked back 'down', his flat expression perfectly displaying the… decorations that had been made to his face. "But were the scribbles really necessary?"

"Be happy Straw Hat's got a thing about killing, twerp!" the red-nosed prisoner—right, Buggy the Clown, the one they were going to put on suicide watch or (more likely) tear to pieces and feed to his Blugori—shouted. "You don't wanna know what he does to people he wants dead!"

If it was at all possible, Saldeath's expression reached an entirely new dimension of flat-ness. "In light of your atrocious penmanship, I honestly think I might prefer it. The word on my forehead? You spell that with an E, you dunce."

One of Buggy's eyebrows twitched, much to Saldeath's satisfaction. "Nothing really fazes you, does it?"

"The one thing I dread is growing taller and attracting Sadi's attention."

From the look on his face, Buggy the Clown didn't want to touch that topic with a barge pole, and Saldeath couldn't blame him. Grunting, he got himself spun around a bit, spotting both piles of his unconscious Blugori and Daz Bonez—one of the more docile yet dangerous newcomers—who had rejoined Crocodile and was nearly finished sawing the door open. Numerous other prisoners on the floor had joined them, and he recognized enough faces to gather that the Witch and the Spider had rescued their crews.

The invaders were going to advance to Level 3, and between the amount of force they had at their disposal and their apparent recruitment rate, they were going to get to Magellan at the end. It was inevitable.

A twinge of unfamiliar emotion shot through him. He didn't like it. And perhaps that was what compelled him to speak up.

"Straw Hat."

Gratifyingly, the rubber pirate looked up at him, head tilted curiously.

"I… know I'm in no position to demand anything, and that leaves me no choice but to beg… so beg I shall," Saldeath 'bowed' his head, as much as he was currently able. "Straw Hat, Magellan is the only thing standing between the world and the evils still locked in this prison. You understand that, yes?" From his expression, Straw Hat did, if extremely reluctantly. It would have to do. "Then please… whatever you do, if by some unholy misfortune you surpass him… just don't kill him. For the sake of the world, Warden Magellan cannot die."

Straw Hat looked away, and after an uncomfortable pause, said, "No promises."

Hang it all, that was the best he was going to get, wasn't it?

"Just go," Saldeath sighed, defeated, right before the assassin sheared through the last of the hinges to the door impeding their way. And then the army was on the move again up the stairs.

-o-

There was no warning, no sign, no way to predict it.

And yet, the impact was momentous nonetheless.

A single message, spoken from one mouth to one ear…

And then all at once, so many, many miles away, ships began to move. Dozens of them, near to a hundred, with hundreds of souls on board.

In the dead of night, the fleet awakened and snapped straight into action. No hesitation, no question. Only determination.

The news shook the world soon after, rousing it from its fitful slumber.

The Whitebeard Pirates were on the move.

-o-

The Newkama army, freshly bolstered by the scarce few prisoners from Level 4 who hadn't been envenomed, burst out of the stairs onto Level 3.

This time, between the light and the desert terrain, the poison was more easily seen as well as more abundant. Whatever prisoners dwelled on this floor that hadn't yet lost the will and strength to fight were now gone one way or the other.

That was the least of their concerns, however. Luffy's miracle operation had bought the guards the time that they needed to repair Level 3's new mechanisms, a fact made obvious by the way the air began to gleam and distort around the shifting stone.

And then the lead elements of the newkama party fell to a barrage of bazooka shots to the face. A score or so of Newkamas crumpled to the ground in smoking ruin, their fellows behind them now cautious about proceeding. And the shots fired? Impel Down's bazooka squadron hidden in the shifting cells.

"Move, you idiots," Crocodile growled, flowing ahead through more bazooka shots before pressing his hand to the sandy ground. "Sables!"

A sandstorm screamed to life around the entrance to the stairs, detonating the next salvo of bazooka shots. The Newkama army and the prisoners behind them took the opportunity to dress out in relative peace.

"Clever bastard," Crocodile reluctantly stated. "Alright, boys and girls and whatever the hell else, we've got two options here: we can either take our time grinding through every one of those strong points, or we can leave the weaklings behind and press forward with everyone who won't be bothered by bazookas."

"Luffy already went on ahead," Jinbe pointed out.

"Which doesn't materially change the situation," Crocodile smoothly retorted. "I have no objections to him rushing ahead and clobbering the Vice Warden, but we still need to make a decision."

"Aye, that we do," Whitey Bay stated, holding her hand out. "And I say we go with Plan C: abuse the ever-loving shit out of our wide-scale Devil Fruit powers! Deep Freeze!"

-o-

Hannyabal frowned through his binoculars atop a raised tower that gave him a vantage over the whole Level. He could see the escapees charging out of the sandstorm Crocodile had thrown up, and despite frantic movement, his troops weren't firing. He'd bet his chances to become Warden that the ice that was somehow coating everything had something to do with that.

"Company Zulu, report!" he barked into the snail he'd brought with him.

"Vice-Warden, Whitey Bay froze our gunpowder! Our weapons won't fire!"

Hannyabal grit his teeth in frustration. "Company Zulu, fall back to the last line, restock your powder. Company Yankee, expect hostiles in two minutes!"

"Yes, sir!"

Going back to his binoculars, Hannyabal watched as Zulu fell back in good order, though the stronger prisoners still caught many of them from behind. They were stymied, however, by more cell blocks slamming into place and Yankee unloading a full alpha strike.

Stymied very briefly. Crocodile advanced, uncaring of the fire, and with a touch of his right hand dissolved several cell blocks into harmless sand. A barrage of… winks… sent his troops either flying or ducking for cover, and just like that Yankee crumbled.

"Gum-Gum Sickle!"

The Vice-Warden hastily swung his binoculars around to where he'd heard the voice, right in time for a stretched arm to slam right through them and knock him ass over teakettle through the people-dust and into one of the cell blocks, cracking the brick. Groaning, he hauled himself up to find Straw Hat up in his face with fist drawn back. Desperate, the Vice Warden slammed the shaft of Kessui into Straw Hat's side as hard as he could. Being rubber, Luffy stretched with it, but the Vice Warden had put enough force into the attack that the rubbery recoil still threw the punch out of alignment.

Something he was very grateful for, watching Straw Hat yank his fist out of the stone wall.

Hannyabal rolled, springing upright in position to actually react to Straw Hat's next charge. Kessui flashed out in a whirlwind of slashes and thrusts. Nothing actually hit Straw Hat, but it aborted the charge and put him on the defensive.

For all of two seconds. Straw Hat's sandal consummated a date with his gut, and while that spot was cushioned it was not nearly enough. Hacking up spit, Hannyabal doubled over; he didn't clutch his gut but with both hands gripping Kessui to keep him upright it didn't especially matter.

"Gum-Gum Bullet!"

Straw Hat's fist slammed square into his nose and sent him tumbling again, this time not stopping until his back hit one of the larger dunes. Blood dripped from the smashed orifice, and his breath still came in labored wheezes, but still, Hannyabal stood up.

"I… fight… on…"

The next charge was met not with Kessui but with a spray of sand the naginata threw up. Straw Hat recoiled, throwing his hand over his eyes, and Hannyabal rushed in. His first thrust tore a line in the pirate's side. His second a thin cut on his left shoulder.

No third ever happened, because by then Straw Hat had his eyes open again and he popped a punch right in the Vice Warden's kisser. It was quick, without a lot of power, so Hannyabal just staggered back with all his teeth.

"Gum-Gum Bazooka!"

Once again Hannyabal found himself tumbling across the sands again, and this time it took a considerable effort to haul himself to his feet.

"I fight on!" he declared, readying himself for Straw Hat's attack.

Then he saw Straw Hat stretched out on a convenient bit of shattered cell block.

"Oh, bugger me sideways."

"—ROCKET!"

Too fast. Way too fast. Hannyabal had only a moment of resignation before Straw Hat plowed into him head-first. Something broke under the impact, and he blacked out for a second, coming to with Kessui out of reach, Straw Hat above him, and the distant cries of the escapees audible. But none of that mattered. He could not let these pirates escape the confines of Impel Down! He needed to buy as much time as he could, no matter how broken it left him!

"I… FIGHT… O—!"

WHAM!

~o~

Luffy frowned as Hannyabal crumpled to the people-dust of the Starvation Hell. "I could've handled that, you know."

"You were taking too long," Squard absentmindedly replied, most of his focus on the new naginata he'd appropriated from an arsenal room. "Impel Down may be a hellhole but they sure don't skimp on the weaponry. Doubly sweet that it's one of this prick's backups!"

The rubber-man exhaled and looked back. The strongest of their number had already arrived, and the rest were on their way. It was honestly a bit of a surprise that all of them had managed to catch up this fast, though more than a few of them looked disheveled.

"Matching wits with Crocodile in the pseudo-desert? Not smart," Bentham remarked.

"Lacking a competent second-in-command? Less smart," Ivankov agreed.

"Getting past the labyrinth was a cinch," the sand-man rumbled. "But I could have done without having to deal with… do you realize how much I'm struggling not to fly into a tirade about how wasteful you're being with your powers?" he snapped at Whitey Bay. The woman narrowed her eyes at him even as the party proceeded towards the stairs, and she readjusted the new bazookas she'd 'acquired' and strapped to her back.

"I'm not a Paradise rookie—no offense, Straw Hat—so I know what a complacent Ability-user looks like. Excuse me if I'm not getting the hang of these powers right away, but I got them as a last ace in the hole, not the main focus of my fighting style—again, no offense, Straw Hat."

"It's fine," Luffy answered, not paying much attention.

"Also, in case you missed it, I'm a Paramecia. That means I don't have delusions of grandeur that lead me to commit unholy genocide in the name of soothing my ego."

"It's not delusion if you're capable of achieving it."

"And of course that's what you protest."

"Enough. We can pick on Croco-boy later—"

"And just like that, the days of every person here become numbered."

"But for now, we need to get moving. And as such, Croco-boy. Where's the exit."

If looks could kill, the glare 'Croco-boy' leveled at the Emporio would have made the latter cease to be biology and instead become physics. As looks could not kill, after a moment Crocodile closed one of his eyes and let a trail of sand flow skywards from his head. A few seconds later, he re-integrated his eye and jabbed his remaining thumb to the left. "That way. The guards are scrambling, so we have a clear shot to the top. Now let's move, before anything else can go wrong."

"Are you trying to make things bite us in the ass?!" Squard barked.

"Yes, so that it happens now rather than later."

"…fair point."

While nobody said it, lest the state of affairs come to an abrupt and likely lethal end, everyone who marched off behind Crocodile was surprised at the mostly smooth sailing thus far. Halfway through the prison and solid though the defenses had been, the addition of a few more powerhouses had rendered the grunts happily superfluous. The remaining forces on Level 3 still tried to attack them on their way to the doors, but they were too discombobulated without their overseer.

And the door to the stairs itself? Barely locked, probably assuming that it wouldn't slow them down enough if it was. Aside from the lingering veins of venom on the ground, there wasn't anything to impede them.

And then, midway up the staircase, the army ran headlong into a different group of interlopers, hopping down the steps two at a time. Interlopers that were most certainly not 'friends'.

Time seemed to slow as the groups passed one another. Surprise and amusement glittered in the eyes of the leader of one, while unbridled hatred blazed to life in the eyes of the other. Their eyes conveyed to each other all that they needed to know.

And then the moment passed and they continued on their way, Luffy deftly seizing Whitey and Squard in his arms to keep them from turning back. Nobody else moved to stop the intruders, either too stunned by the sheer idiocy of trying to descend Impel Down in the midst of a mass breakout, or accurately gauging just how monumentally dangerous a threat said intruders posed to, well, literally anyone and everyone in their way.

Once the intruders were well away, Jinbe and Ivankov took over for Luffy, being more suited to restrain New World-grade strength.

"Who was that?" the fishman demanded, firmly stuffing the cussing and writhing Maelstrom Spider under his arm.

"The entire reason Ace's life is in danger," Luffy snapped back, his face a mask of fury.

"…you're a stronger man than I am, Straw-boy," Ivankov noted as he held Whitey's flailing frost-encased fingers well away from his own body.

"Not really, I'm just hoping that if I did things right, he's going to die screaming."

"That bloated arse should be dying at OUR hands! LET US GO!"

Luffy looked back at Whitey, still scowling. And it only intensified when he saw the unflinching resolve in her eyes.

"Any other day I'd let you run off and get yourselves killed, and I'd probably be right there with you, but Ace comes first," he said, his tone brooking no argument. "He's not going to die because two of his friends weren't there to help save him."

The surrounding temperature dropped, and Whitey Bay sighed angrily. "Fine… fine, fine! " she snapped, jerking her arms to try and get them out of Inazuma's grip. "I won't do anything stupid, now lemme go!"

Squard, for his part, still looked mutinous, but Luffy was out of patience and, glancing at Jinbe, slashed a hand over his throat. With a sigh, the fishman slammed his palm against the back of Squard's head, knocking him out at once.

Once he'd released Whitey so that she could run properly again, Ivankov gave Luffy a nervous look. "That's… harsh, even for you, Straw-boy."

"Don't ask me why. Even without Cross telling me who he is, something about him's always just pissed me off."

Buggy glanced over his shoulder and shivered, having a very good idea where the instinctual animosity came from.

-o-

In a corner of Marineford, a group of Marines sat in somber silence. Any possibility of averting the war had passed, their own laws and the inadvertent countermeasures by the Government preventing them from simply removing the source of the conflict. All that remained for them was to execute their master plan and, as Cross had so grimly summarized, sift through the ashes to see what remained after.

And so it was that these scant few Marines—two Captains and two Vice Admirals, select subordinates sitting on crates and barrels around them—met in person before the war. Whatever happened over the next few days, it would be the last time that they could meet like this for many years. On the table in front of them sat small cups filled with sake, to mark the occasion and to take the edge off the churning anticipation in their guts.

"I knew it would come to this, in the end," Vice Admiral Tsuru said quietly. "I had hoped that I was wrong, that somebody somewhere would come to their senses, or that Straw Hat would once more do the impossible… but nobody has, and he couldn't." She sighed, leaning back in her seat. "So now, we're left with this."

"Seriously, how fucked is this world when our best chance to stop a new wave of chaos from engulfing the seas is to work against our own flag, the flag of what should be 'Justice', to save an infamous pirate from execution?" Seaman Recruit Fullbody demanded.

"A lawbreaking pirate is spreading the truth while the lawful Government is spreading lies. That's enough fuckery for me," answered the woman sitting nearby behind Tsuru, one Vice Admiral Gion.

Murmurs of assent around the room, before Jonathan took the floor. "Well, a final review. The Damned?"

"In their places: Goat, Ox, and Rabbit are focusing on their respective bases, while Monkey, Tiger, and Rooster are waiting on Sabaody until attention is sufficiently diverted for them to approach without raising suspicion. Puppy is waiting in Mariejois, and latest intelligence on the Whitebeards has them surfacing on this side of the Red Line an hour ago. So… that's all that covered," Drake recited.

"Cancer and Pisces are still within Impel Down, and they'll be working to stem any further madness or chaos that could slip through the cracks. Capricorn doesn't envy them in the least…" Hina grumbled sourly as she finished one cigarette and immediately switched it for a fresh one.

"Jormungandr is standing by and ready to demonstrate the fruits of their labors," Seagirl Apprentice Yoko said, grimacing at T-Bone's side. "And the question of which 'Justice' we will abide by has been decided."

"You're a strong girl to take on that responsibility," Gion said. "But you are not alone; we'll all be there in the dark to help you."

Yoko sighed and nodded, T-Bone and Knalf patting her shoulders.

"And our agents are in place," Jango confirmed, folding his arms. "Deliberate and otherwise. Komei in particular, I have ready to take a long walk off a short pier if he starts getting any ideas."

"Capricorn would like to reiterate that we will not be using such tactics with any regularity," Hina said with a frown.

"Yes, Captain," Jango responded.

Silence had the floor, and there wasn't much else to say. They had spent every spare moment they'd had going over the plan, the skeleton set in stone and the rest hopefully flexible enough for whatever circumstances the war threw at them.

"Then if there's nothing else, I believe it's time to begin," Tsuru said, rising to her feet.

The remainder stood also, Yoko climbing up on the table to put herself at the proper height.

"For the sake of those who we dedicated our lives to protecting, even Justice is forfeit. Death shall take us before we forget this again."

The four leaders and six subordinates of the Zodiac of the Divine raised their glasses as one, the vessels and their contents shimmering in the green haze around them.

"To the man who reminded us of what it is to be a decent Marine."

"Kanpai," the Marines intoned together and drained their cups.

-o-

The temperature finally evened out as the prospective escapees charged onto the second floor, one level away from freedom. But with the BioMEGA and its infected minions slaughtered, the Wild Beast Hell belonged again to the beasts.

Considering this, it was quite odd that for the second time silence greeted Luffy's emergence into the canals and corridors.

"Crap, not again," he groaned. "Last time sucked, how could they make it worse without that thing!?"

"Let me answer that with another question: why is all of the water purple?" Buggy pointed out, already sauntering over to the nearest cell. "Oh, boys? Buggy's back to break you out!"

"Captain Buggy—! Ah… sorry, but I think we'd rather take our chances here," one prisoner said. "Sadi is waiting over by the stairs, and every beast that's lasted through the monster and the riots is with her… led by the Minotaurus."

"No sooner said than dealt with!" Buggy said gleefully.

"This is starting to get silly," a newkama spoke up. "If they keep putting all of their best forces in one place, we'll just keep smashing into them. This can't be the best strategy to stop us."

"It doesn't mean a thing unless we can get past Magellan," Inazuma retorted. "And, perhaps more pertinently, it still puts all their best forces in the best place to stop us, while also delaying us significantly every time. So with that in mind, they've actually done depressingly well."

From the sour faces all around, nobody liked that observation.

A few minutes of canal-hopping, cell-navigating, and key-dropping later, the stairs came into view. The Basilisk and Sphinx lay ready beside them, while Sadi and the Minotaurus stood a ways in front.

"I'll take her on," said Ivankov, having already shifted to female. "And I think my candies can handle what's left of those beasts."

"Mmmm, or you could just shut up and listen. Neither of us wants to lose more muscle on our side than we have to," Sadi retorted. She tossed her hair and cracked her whip across the ground, a line forming in the stone. "Straw Hat. My darling Minotaurus owes you for earlier, so you'll be fighting him. No tricks, no backup, just the strongest fighter left on this floor against you. If Minotaurus wins, the rest of my beasties and I jump in for a free for all against your friends. Mmmm, but if you win fair and square, the rest of us will stand down. You will all be permitted passage to Level 1, without resistance."

She smirked.

"Except, of course, that Warden Magellan is already waiting for you at the top. Mmmm, so, what'll it be?"

To nobody's surprise, Luffy stepped over the line and approached alone.

"Very good," Sadi purred. "Now, just so we're clear, if anyone or anything else crosses that line without you winning, you forfeit the duel. But for fair treatment, no beast or guard on my side will interfere. Mmmm, or they get the boo box."

A shudder ran through Galdino, as well as every other prisoner who had spent time on the Beast Hell the last year. "I swear, I will kill that unholy snail for giving her that idea…"

The promise of vengeance went unheeded as Luffy and Minotaurus began to circle around each other, each sizing their opponent up. The only sounds were Minotaurus' club scraping on the ground and the distant screams of prisoners. The Jailer Beast made the first move, lunging toward the pirate with its club raised with speed shocking for anyone. On the towering Minotaurus it was positively electric.

Luffy still rolled out of the way of its club. Pumping his legs, he blurred from sight. With a cry of "GUM-GUM JET BAZOOKA!", he slammed his fists into the Minotaur's midsection. Beasts scattered with panicked cries as their strongest demolished a few cell blocks along the way.

The pirate did not let up. A Jet Stamp crumpled its snout. A Jet Bell left it reeling and clutching its skull. A Jet Rifle folded it around Luffy's fist like an accordion. And then finally a Jet Axe embedded it a few feet in the stone floor.

It did not move.

Luffy stepped back, panting, to the open-mouthed gaping of almost all of his audience. Minotaurus losing had been at least a possibility for everyone present, but for it to happen so fast… Some wondered why Straw Hat was still there and not bounding his way for the top of the prison.

That question was answered quite decisively by Minotaurus planting a hand and using it to lever itself to its hooves. With a bovine bellow that shook the floor, the Jailer Beast lunged for Luffy, not slowed in the slightest by a pounding that would've pulped an entire city block. Luffy, on the other hand, was plainly slower than when he'd opened the fight.

"Tch. Damn Awakened Zoans," Squard bit out.

"Then this resilience is normal?" Ivankov queried.

Whitey Bay snorted, frost blooming ahead of her nose. "This? You ain't seen nothing yet. If that dominatrix there hadn't threatened to sic Magellan on us I'd be telling you all to help us gang up on the thing."

Back in the fight, Luffy finally retaliated after several frantic dodges, kicking Minotaurus square in the legs to try and knock him off-balance. Tried, and failed, the beast stamping on his outstretched leg before he could reel it back. Despite a frantic dodge the spikes on the club that tried to squash him still tore a strip out of his arm. Kicking off, Luffy wrapped himself around that same leg, again and again, until he was wound extra-tight.

"Gum-Gum… Bowgun!"

And then, he released it all at once.

It didn't do much against Minotaurus' bulk. But it did enough. The Jailer Beast's leg kicked out and, top-heavy as it was, it took a spill right onto its back, and off of Luffy's leg. He wasted no time, throwing his arms out and grabbing Minotaurus by the cheeks as it leaned up, arms slightly twisted.

And then he heaved.

"Gum-Gum…"

Minotaurus was too heavy for the spinning this move normally involved. But the enormous Jailer Beast was nonetheless lifted off the ground and into the air. Grunting with exertion, Luffy heaved down.

"Gavel!"

Slamming Minotaurus head-first into the ground, and also ducking under a thrown club that on impact obliterated another cell block.

Once again, the mighty bovine was embedded several feet into the floor, shaking the entire level with the impact. This time Luffy turned toward Sadi and her remaining beasts, clearly ready to move on from this. But finely-honed instincts prompted him to turn around, where Minotaurus had gotten its hands under itself again. With a muffled bellow, it hauled itself out of the floor.

Whitey Bay scowled. "Actually, when I think about it more? We've been tricked. I don't think I've seen anyone able to outlast an Awakened Zoan in a battle of attrition."

"You're saying it's impossible? Because as I recall, that doesn't mean much for this specific rookie," Ivankov dryly responded, though she nonetheless mentally prepared herself for a fight.

Frustration sprouted on Luffy's features, and he carefully placed himself between Minotaurus and its club, clearly inviting it to try and get through him to get to its weapon.

There was, of course, only one response possible. Minotaurus leaned over onto its hands, hooves pawing at the floor behind him and billowing snorts spilling from its bleeding snout. With Luffy obligingly just standing there, it kicked off like a sprinter, bellowing as it bull-rushed Luffy horns first.

Too late, Sadi saw that the pirate was biting his thumb.

"Mino, look ou—!"

"Gum-Gum Giant Pistol!"

A brief lesson in physics: all objects in motion have momentum, which in layman's terms measures how hard it is for the object to stop. Momentum is a function of mass and speed, and Minotaurus was both very large and moving very fast indeed. And hooves, for all their utility for actual speed, were absolute pants at generating the traction needed to stop something as large as Minotaurus.

The point being, despite the warning Minotaurus had exactly zero chance to stop before Luffy's enormous fist very abruptly reversed its momentum. Several more cell blocks were demolished before the punch stopped, leaving Minotaurus lying insensate in a pile of rubble. Luffy briefly shrank but was soon back to normal.

By this point, nobody was surprised when Minotaurus hauled itself upright for round four. This time, though, it was wary in its approach, putting the fight on a sort of pause.

"So this is what it's like to fight me," Luffy remarked, frustration coloring every syllable. "Man, I'm annoying."

"FEEL OUR PAIN, BASTARD!" Galdino and Buggy both bellowed. And, even more stunningly, Crocodile actually nodded along.

Finally, either annoyed by the noise or simply tired of playing it safe, Minotaurus charged in again, trying to get at its club.

Proving that the damage was doing something, a Gatling knocked it down.

Again, it got up.

Luffy pumped his legs and laid a Jet Bullet into its torso.

It got up again.

Luffy grabbed its own club and socked it in the face with it, sending the beast down again.

And when it still began to get up, something in Luffy… snapped.

"ENOUGH!" he bellowed, a tangible pressure sweeping over the battlefield and sending Jailer Beasts, guards, and the weaker Newkamas alike to their knees. "YOU CAN'T WIN! SO JUST STAY DOWN ALREADY AND STOP WASTING MY TIME!"

And, wonder of wonders, it did, kneeling down in an obvious sign of submission.

Not just the Minotaurus, even. Slowly, one of the onlooking Manticores also knelt its stubby legs and lowered its head to the ground. Soon after, one of the Puzzle Scorpions flopped on its side legs twitching spasmodically, foam bubbling from its jaws.

And then this phenomenon repeated itself, over and over. First one at a time, then in threes and fives, and then dozens at a time, a wave of motion.

Until finally, the beasts of Level 2 of Impel Down unilaterally surrendered, either bowing their heads in acknowledgment or collapsing in complete submission before the might of Monkey D. Luffy.

Slack jaws and bug eyes were the general response. A handful, like Crocodile, managed to keep their mouths closed, but they still stared, in surprise and awe alike… though for some, there was no small amount of hostile incredulity thrown in as well.

"…I think I'm finally starting to get the hang of it," Luffy muttered before lifting his head and glaring at the pink-clad woman. "I win. Are you going to keep your promise?"

Sadi scowled back, flexing her whip in her arms as she visibly, thoroughly thought over her chances of actually surviving the army of thoroughly motivated individuals who wanted to rip her limb from limb. Her conclusion was to sag over and let out a defeated sigh.

"I would be a fool not to," she ground out, stepping away from the staircase. "Go on, then, the Warden is waiting. Mmmm~, but try attacking us on your way out and we'll strike back, so please, feel free to try your luck~"

Ironically, that comment did wonders for saving the skin of Sadi and her remaining guards, as the prisoners all did their level best to put as much distance between themselves and her when they ran up the stairs to freedom. For her part, Sadi had to restrain herself at the sight of so many prisoners leaving the depths of her prison, escaping her reach. And she had to outright dig her teeth into her own whip when several dozen of the prisoners that had been intimidated into behaving ran out of their cells to join up with the other escapees.

It was infuriating to see so many prisoners making a bid for their freedom. But at least the burn was soothed with the knowledge that even as the mass of prisoners ran, all they were running toward was the opportunity to attain their freedom.

In the end, Impel Down's motto would hold out. A rarely spoken phrase, to be sure, but one that had ever and always held true throughout the centuries.

Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.

-o-

Bentham dashed up alongside Luffy, giving his dearest of friends a worried look. "Is everything alright, Straw Hat? Uh, besides the obvious I mean…" The okama winced at the flub before continuing. "It's just, you've been quiet for a while now. What's going through your head?"

Luffy's already present frown deepened into an outright scowl. "I'm… worried. I don't know what to do next."

"Um… beat Magellan, get us all out of here, save Ace?"

"But how do I beat him? Even if I'm strong enough, which I really don't think I am, he's like that damn Bull. Like me. He won't know when to stay down either."

"So? Just keep putting him down again and again!"

"But unlike the Bull, he can die! And I… I don't want to do that!"

"The jailer is the key."

"GAH!" Luffy nearly jumped out of his skin at the rabbit-headed newkama invading his personal space with an unblinking stare.

"Kill him, and you'll be free," the rabbit-head continued to drone.

"Usakkov, for the last time, you didn't build Impel Down!" another newkama barked.

"Then why do I feel so guilty?!"

"Because you've been hitting the good stuff again."

"…whoops."

"…Ignore them," Bentham said, shaking his head. "Why are you even worrying about this, Straw Hat? You've always been about the bottom line: you need to save your brother and he's in your way. Even if it does come down to killing him to win—and by your track record, I doubt it will—why are you thinking about it so hard?"

Luffy sighed in frustration and tugged his ears down.

"Because if I'm not looking at the bigger picture, someone else has to worry about it for me."

Bentham and everyone else in earshot blinked.

"I don't want to care about it, I just want to focus on Ace and forget about what happens besides that. But I get enough that if Magellan goes down and stays down, a lot of bad guys who should be here are going to get out. I'm already breaking out one person that I never wanted to see again." Luffy shot a vicious glare over his shoulder to no reaction from the scarred reptile. "I'm not eager to let any other monsters out of their cages."

Luffy snapped his head back around, his expression as grim as it had ever been.

"I'm already ready to burn the world to free Ace… but that doesn't mean I have to do it."

-o-

There was a shift, felt around the world, as Jeremiah Cross' declared deadline ticked ever-closer.

Whether they were waking up or preparing to sleep, young or old, all could tell: the atmosphere of the world had changed.

And why wouldn't it have? The World Government had spared no expense in spreading the word to all corners of the globe: War.

War between the Marines and Whitebeard.

War between two pillars that upheld the world.

Some were eager, rife with anticipation to witness the oncoming clash between titans and to live in whatever age came next.

Others were terrified, people half the world away fearing that the ripples of the battle itself, much less the consequences, would rip the world asunder. Fears that were not without merit to anyone with even a passing knowledge of geopolitics.

Some children sang and laughed, spouting songs about how Whitebeard was coming, unknowing of the devastation that was about to be wrought. Senior citizens looked upon the caps they'd kept after retirement with fondness, in a final lingering display of solidarity.

All across the oceans, the world tensed, preparing for the first waves of the storm that would soon come to rock the seas to their very cores.

-o-

A short way into Level 1, the group met their final opponent in a most unexpected setting. Far from the stairs that led back to the front door, but along the only path that they could take to go forward, with walls of venom blocking all other passages.

And the setting in question? A large dinner table with several plates of food laid out, including an abundance of meat on the far side. That is, the side facing Luffy. It was a small banquet and a table set for two, with Magellan in the opposite seat. He raised his head to regard them and nodded respectfully.

"Ah, Captain Luffy. I've been expecting you," he said in an almost friendly tone. "Come, I had some food prepared. Sit and eat for a bit. Enjoy your last meal. Before your execution, I believe we need to talk."

"…yeah, Warden Magellan. We do."

It was before a sea of twitching eyes that Luffy took his place at the table and began to eat as Magellan did the same.

"…Queen Ivankov? Did you spike the punch?"

"No," the okama answered curtly. For all the surreality of the situation, it was no less tense. For several seconds, the only sounds were the sounds of the two eating.

"…So," Magellan said, daintily wiping his mouth. "You knew about Level Six from the beginning."

"Cross knows a lot of things," Luffy responded neutrally, taking a bite out of a mass of ham.

Magellan processed that and closed his eyes. "He said nothing about it on the SBS. I had assumed that whatever source he had was not that comprehensive, but he kept it hidden for another reason." He opened his eyes and took another drink. "I would dare to assume that his reasons are the same as ours, but you went out of your way to free one of the very people that you were responsible for sending there in the first place, the one responsible for causing your crew so much harm. Tell me…" he stared down at Luffy. "Has your decision been worth it so far?"

"Can't tell you yet…" Luffy said, staring right back. "I wasn't able to save who I came here for while he was here, so now I need to follow him."

A sharp spike of irritation shot across Magellan's face before he schooled his expression back to neutrality. "Portgas D. Ace… a single prisoner that has caused me almost as many problems in twenty-four hours as you yourself… and now, it appears he has a hand in your presence as well. If you would be so kind… indulge me as to why you think that that single man is so worth the uncountable damages you have caused to me and mine."

Luffy didn't even hesitate as he tore a fresh strip of meat off a bone. "He's my brother." And that was that.

Magellan's brow twitched sharply, and after a second he settled for a weary sigh as he picked up his glass and took a deep draw. "Yes, that would be how my luck would turn nowadays, wouldn't it…"

The two sat in tense silence for a few seconds more before Luffy broke the peace.

"I hate it, Magellan," he said. "I hate that I had to come to this place, and what I've had to do. What it'll lead to. But I'm going to save Ace, and I needed the sand-bastard's help to get this far, and to get through where I'm going."

Both ignored Crocodile's chuckles behind them, and Magellan leveled a glaring eye on Luffy. "Do you truly have any regard for your actions at all? How many criminals you're risking letting back out into the world, all just for the sake of one pirate?"

Luffy was silent for several seconds. Then his eyes closed, his face reddening as he attempted to recall something.

"…Barabbas," he said at last.

The Warden tilted his head. "What was that, Straw Hat?" Magellan asked.

Luffy's eyes remained closed as he concentrated. "It was a few days ago when we found out about Ace…"

~o~

"KINDA SEEMS LIKE THE PASSION, don't it?"

"You know my stance on that, Soundbite," Cross bit out.

"Passion?" chorused several people. Cross sighed loudly, putting the snail on the table and walking out of the room. Soundbite grimaced as he suddenly found himself in the role of storyteller, with everyone's attention on him.

"OK… so, some people back in Cross's world DON'T BELIEVE most of this, but OTHERS DEDICATE THEIR LIVES AROUND IT… meh. I'LL JUST GIVE the context-less version."

The snail shifted his jaws around for a few seconds. Then, settling on a voice, he spoke.

"A long, long time ago, when medicine was young and swords were the strongest weapons you could find, there was a man named Jesus. He traveled the world, gathering followers and helping others as he went. He became famous for how much good he was doing for others, but at the same time, he was preaching about the right way to live your life. The ones in command of the country supposedly followed the same rules that he was teaching, but were more on the side of paying lip service and living the cushy life of rulers. Jesus went on doing his thing for a few years, then the government arrested him around the time of an annual holiday where the head judge released one prisoner. The case against Jesus was built on lies, and the main judge of the land couldn't find anything that he'd done wrong, so he wanted to release Jesus. But the government stirred up everyone who would listen, and the crowd forced the judge to do what they wanted…"

~o~

"Ignoring their own laws, the government made him free Barabbas, a revolutionary and a murderer, and they tortured Jesus to death for the crime of doing more good than they could and pointing out everything they were doing wrong and lying about."

Most of the prisoners were gaping in poleaxed astonishment when Luffy finished his story, probably mostly at the fact that Luffy could remember that much.

Magellan, however, was frowning in confusion. "I fail to see your logic. You can't possibly compare one of the most infamous pirates in the world to a martyred saint."

"Ace isn't a saint," Luffy confirmed. "Neither am I, and neither is the rest of my crew. But we've never been the ones who attacked first, and Whitebeard…"

"Is one of the strongest and yet most benign pirates in history," Jinbe cut in, folding his arms as he regarded the Warden without a moment's doubt. "Jeremiah Cross lectured on this exact situation months ago: the old man's flag ensures peace and safety for dozens of islands along the Grand Line, and if the Government takes him out of the picture, the wrong kind of pirates are going to try their damnedest to step in and destroy that peace. And the Navy doesn't have the resources to stop them, especially now." The fishman frowned, giving Luffy an odd look. "That said, I have to agree that Ace doesn't fit in that story."

"He's a criminal, and he's done enough that his execution is just in the eyes of the law," Magellan decreed. Wiping his mouth one last time, he stood, a purple sheen slowly coming over his body as he pushed the table away. "And that is why I stand here against you, Straw Hat. The evils that enter this prison only leave with Death or on their way to meet him."

Luffy, meanwhile, didn't move, his head bowed in silence until he spoke. "Warden Magellan… do you know why they're trying to kill my brother?"

Unseen to anyone, Buggy's eyes widened as he connected the dots.

Magellan, for his part, paused at the question. "With a bounty of more than half a billion beris on his head and ties to Whitebeard, the answer is obvious."

Slowly, Luffy worked his way to his feet and raised his head, glaring at the Warden.

"But that's not why. None of that matters to them. There's only one reason that they're doing all of this, and it's the stupidest thing I've ever heard. But that doesn't matter to me. They want to kill him, and I'm going to save him. And you're not going to stop me this time."

He swung his bag forward, burying his hands within it. He withdrew them, setting two thick bundles of cloth on the ground and stepping into them, then withdrew two more masses around his fists.

"Let's see your venom break through these," the rubber man growled.

"You think cloth will protect you from my poison?" Magellan scoffed as a Hydra sprouted and shot at the pirate. Luffy swung an arm forward as hard as he could—and the dragon head splattered. Luffy pulled back his arm, the cloth covering melted away, revealing something shiny underneath.

"No." Luffy grunted, slamming his armored fists together with a resounding CLANG! "But gold will."

~o~

Nami's expression was solemn as her iron cloud deposited four thick bundles before Luffy.

"I didn't want to have to do this. But I'd trade all the treasure we have if it meant keeping you or anyone else on this crew from watching someone you love die before your eyes. So take these."

She pulled back the cloth on one of them, and some of the crew started at the familiar sheen beneath.

"I'm no Usopp, but I know my way around gold, and I reinforced these as much as I could. They'll help you pack more of a punch, and they'll stand up to Magellan. Almost no poison is strong enough to break through gold. But don't use them if it gets too hot, or they'll melt."

She covered them again and pushed them forward, her expression firm. "Do whatever you have to, Luffy. They're all yours."

Luffy nodded with the utmost gravity. "Thank you, Nami."

~o~

Magellan's eyes narrowed and his scowl grew. Gold gauntlets, of all the tricks he could have pulled out, and he had to concede it was an effective one. The only venom in his arsenal corrosive enough to break through gold was the Venom Demon, his last resort. Oh well. That just meant he had to keep Straw Hat at a distance, and that was very doable.

Taking a deep breath, Magellan breathed out a plume of poison gas. This one, though, wasn't the sickly green of chlorine. In fact, whatever Magellan had just breathed out, it was colorless. Luffy immediately clamped a hand over his mouth and stepped back, as did the rest of their small army.

"Crap," Luffy said, nasal. "Anyone have a gas mask or something?"

"I don't think it would help, Straw Hat," Crocodile answered, a hint of trepidation in his voice. "I've never heard of a colorless poison gas. It's very likely gas masks would be completely ineffective."

"Oh. Well, I'm open to ideas!"

"Well, let's see how it handles the cold!" Whitey Bay declared, lashing her hand out and shooting a freezing breeze at Magellan. The gas in the air promptly condensed into a liquid that fell into a puddle on the floor and turned Magellan's venom coating to ice.

"Nice!" Luffy crowed, charging in winding up a punch. "Gum-Gum—!"

"Gold boots will only help so much, Straw Hat," Magellan intoned with palpable menace. "Let's play a new game. I believe it's called 'The floor is lava'."

And with that, Magellan released twin hydras in each direction along the narrow corridor, flooding it with knee-deep venom. With a yelp, Galdino raised a wax lip that blocked it from flowing too far down. Luffy had to go up.

"Oh no ye don't!" Whitey declared, raising her arm again. "I—aghk!"

The pirate descended into hacking coughs and streaming tears as Magellan calmly stowed away a small blowgun, empty of ammunition but for his own poisonous spittle. He then nimbly slid away from a punch Luffy aimed at him. A Hydra reared up, and though Luffy leaped away it engulfed his perch and began to melt it.

Magellan promptly melted Luffy's new perch as well, but this time when the pirate leaped off he landed atop the small lip Galdino had put up, and pumped his legs. Then he leaped off in a blur of Shave.

"Gum-Gum Gold Jet Rifle!"

This was faster than even Magellan could react, even on his slick venom floor. So he did the next best thing: he pumped out a thick, gelatinous venom over his skin. Luffy's fist impacted, and though it shoved Magellan back the gold only barely got through the layer to tap Magellan. But one word stopped the warden from taking advantage of the point-blank distance:

"Reject."

A colossal burst of force erupted from the gauntlet, shattering it and wedging pieces of the gold in both of them, though Magellan got the heavier end. Luffy's new wounds bled freely as he leaped back, shaking off as much shrapnel as he could, and landed near his watchers.

"Galdino!" Luffy shouted, holding up his bare fist.

The man started, then hastily whipped a stream of wax around Luffy's hand, Dial and all. His gauntlet was back in place.

Magellan could not shake off this attack; both fighters were panting now, each scanning the other in search of what they'd do next. The Warden's first instinct was to deploy his Venom Demon at this stage, sentence them one and all to a final death, but he allowed that impulse to pass. That was the logical route, the sensible route, and time and again, that route had proven to be a mistake against this pirate.

"Hydra."

So, instead, he opted for a more unconventional strategy, allowing a trio of liquid dragons to blast out of his back, and infusing a new aspect into them. As Straw Hat and his companions watched them writhe and thrash in the air, he prepared his technique, constricted it.

"Burst Breath."

At the word, all three heads surged for Magellan's target in a massive, explosive column of gas, the pressure wave sending Straw Hat flying back and buying Magellan the room he needed to disengage and move to his ideal position.

"Get back here!" Luffy raged, sprinting after him as quick as his gold boots would let him. A decrease in speed, but worth it when the floor was toxic.

"GAH!"

Then he felt a sharp pain in his shoulder. Reaching up to grab the offended area, his hand hit something. Wrapping his fingers around it, he quickly realized it was an arrow.

"Sniper, in the rafters. And armed with a crossbow," Jinbe growled, glaring daggers up the shadowed roof of the hallway.

"Bolts dipped in poison, no doubt," Crocodile added. "Clever trick. That far away, they're actually able to back him up without worrying about getting in his way." He raised his hand, a vortex coalescing in his palm. "Doesn't put them out of my way, though."

The sandstorm was just ready to be launched when Crocodile abruptly dropped his arm, letting out a confused grunt. "They just… retreated?"

"Because she accomplished all I needed her to do."

The escapees' attention snapped back up to Magellan. The Warden had retreated further into the level and had ascended the sole staircase that led up to the surface. There, at the peak of the prison, the ruler of Hell glared down at the would-be escapees, looming between them all and any possible chances of freedom, his Hydras swaying and hissing menacingly.

"I required Domino to give me a moment to position myself optimally, and she has done so. And now, Straw Hat Luffy, one way or another, I intend to end this," the Warden intoned, the already ever-present haze of his coat of venom thickening into an outright miasma. "There is no way you can defeat me. I would use my strongest against you, Straw Hat, but I cannot shake the suspicion that you would still survive it. Allow me to raise the bar, just for you."

A tall order indeed, and one that Magellan had reflected on for much of the past day while he awaited this confrontation. After almost forty years exploring the limits of the Venom-Venom Fruit, he was confident that nothing his powers could produce was deadlier than his Venom Demon.

Any poison, no matter how potent, no matter how deadly, could have an antidote. But he knew a method to circumvent that failing.

A method he'd employed on Luffy not too long ago.

The Devil of Impel Down clapped his hands together and lowered his head in reverence. "To all that have come before me and given me sustenance, I now give thanks. And now, I beseech you once more…" He snapped his head up, hellfire flaring in his eyes. "One final time, lend me your strength! Poison Goetia!"

The words themselves seemed to carry power. A change swept across Magellan's body. Where once he had simply been covered in his typical layer of indigo neurotoxic venom, the Warden's protection abruptly shifted in hue, a spectrum of shades splashing and roiling across his body like oil atop water. Here, a splash of sickly yellow, there, a trace of gut-churning red. Noxious greens, toxic blues, and every other nauseating shade of color in between. The Warden's body had become the canvas to a veritable rainbow of pollution.

And those colors were not content to simply writhe and swirl across his body, oh no. Rather, they coalesced into different forms. An emerald centipede slithering over his shoulder, an azure octopus squelching its way across his gut, a crimson snake slithering down his arm. A veritable menagerie of vicious, viscous, venomous venom-animals, squirming their way across the murky ooze that covered Magellan's body.

Ivankov boggled in realization at the Warden. "He's… those must be the different poison meals he's eaten, distilled into their purest forms! But why—?!"

Magellan was quick to answer that question by clapping his hands once more, a lethal aura of serenity overcoming his body.

"Thank you for the meal."

And with that statement, Magellan parted his hands with aching slowness, his right hand trailing down to hover over the center of his abdomen—

GLORP!

—where he sank his fingers into his own polychromatic poison. A few seconds later, he slowly withdrew a massive, wriggling, spine-covered fish of bloody-red. Gripping the faux-fish in his palm, he raised the creature up to his mouth.

"Lionfish Bouillabaisse."

His pointed fangs ripped into it. Without a trace of manners, Warden Magellan devoured the false-fish, ripping it apart 'fin' from 'fin', and scarfing down every last scrap and fleck of the literally poisonous fish.

It was only once he was finished, and his hand started reaching for another hue, that the beri finally dropped for the would-be escapees, striking a pure, soul-crushing sense of terror into the hearts of them all, rookie and veteran alike.

"I do believe that we have officially struck the good Warden's last nerve," Jinbe nervously noted, a sheen of sweat on his fishy face.

"…he's mixing his poisons. All of them. At once," Crocodile breathed in legitimate horror.

"All of them and likely in both liquid and gas forms, Straw Hat Boy, you have to—!"

"GEAR SECOND!"

Luffy beat Ivankov to the punch, turning red and blurring out of sight. He became visible again a moment later, a look of horror and anger on his face as a pillar of ballistic venom blasted into the ground where he would have been a second later. High above, the same three massive Hydras that had been looming over Magellan the whole time hissed and snarled as their putrid essence dribbled and drooled from their slavering maws, preparing yet more volleys to impede the Rubber-Man's charge.

Luffy snarled back, rolling onto the balls of his feet to charge headlong into the barrage. Unfortunately, that was right when it occurred to him that if he dodged the poison blasts, plenty of other targets behind him would be wide open. Indecision stayed Luffy's feet for a moment.

"Don't hold back on our account, Luffy!"

He looked over his shoulder at the source of the bellow. Jinbe, his palms clad in thick white boxing pads, stood in a defensive stance at the front of the escapee army. And he wasn't alone. Hovering around him were several flying masses of wax that were intercepting any stray droplets of poison.

"You are not alone in this fight, Luffy! Trust in us, we who have the power to stand on our own!" Jinbe declared.

"We're too close to getting out of here, I'm not letting you screw this up for me, you raging dumbass! Kill him before he kills us, Straw Hat, or else I swear I'm going to kill you!" Buggy also swore… as a disembodied head hovering at the back of the army.

That less-than-encouraging bit of support aside, Luffy now had the assurance he needed. He gave them all a nod before turning right back around and barreling headlong into the barrage of poison that awaited him.

"Centipede Skewers."

And all the while, Magellan continued his noxious deed, purifying and re-devouring his own poison. An endeavor that, while unique in its occurrence, had not been conceived on the spot. Rather, being the perfectionist that he was, Magellan often thought long and hard about means and stratagems through which he could improve his abilities as Warden of Impel Down. And one of the foremost and most obvious methods he could conceive? The recombination of his poisons into deadlier substances.

Oblivious to the Warden's introspection, Luffy continued pummeling through the volleys, numerous, widespread, and variable enough that even with Gear Second he struggled to blast his way through. He had to keep low to avoid the toxic air and dodge left and right every other second to avoid the projectiles he couldn't punch or kick out of the way. Being surrounded by bullets wasn't normally this much of a problem for him! Honestly, first he had to fight an opponent almost exactly like himself, and now he had to deal with normal people problems?! This prison really was hell!

PSHAM! "GRGH!"

And suddenly, the sheer hellishness of the gauntlet was reinforced as Luffy was a second too slow in a dodge, and his left leg was ensnared in a ballistic pillar of venom. Luckily, his armor managed to protect him from the poison… but at a cost: the sheer force of the blast had torn at his armor and stripped it clean off, leaving his leg bare. And just like that, the danger of this endeavor was redoubled: If any of those attacks struck him, he'd have far more serious problems than being poisoned to worry about. And charging back to get another wax replacement would take time he didn't have and create a risk he couldn't take.

But then again, Luffy hadn't hesitated before charging headfirst into hell before, and he sure wasn't about to start now! A determination he displayed as he continued his charge, drawing ever closer to his target.

"Fugu Sashimi."

Another venom devoured, another catalyst for devastation. But as simple as such a concept sounded, it was far easier conceived than accomplished. Each of Magellan's poisons was more than a deadly liquid, it was a curse given physical form, hazardous to be in the mere presence of. Mixing even two of the poisons promised disaster, and the dangers only escalated exponentially from there. The foremost issue was that in order to recombine the poisons, a vessel was inevitably required for the unholy fusion to take place in. And yet, the combined poisons were too corrosive, too destructive for any such vessel to take place in. Any vessel, save one.

PSHAM!

Luffy bit back a curse as another pillar of venom tore at his other leg. Part of him was wishing that Nami were with him. If anything could scare this guy, it would be her seeing what he was doing to her golden gifts. As it was, it solved one problem. With only one leg armored, he had been off-balance, but with both feet bare now, he was able to properly exercise Gear Second. He glared forward at the Warden, still charging forward even as he noticed that Magellan looked like he was sweating even through the poison.

"Frog Étouffée."

To use his own stomach as a crucible for the mother of all poisons was a daring feat, but also a double-edged one. Even with his powers, Magellan could only just withstand the blowback of his meals on a good day. To experience them all at once wasn't just risky. This technique presented a very real, very present danger to Magellan. In fact, one bad combination and it could outright kill him.

And yet.

PSHAM!

Another punch lashed out to silence one of the Hydras, but this time the venom construct acted more like a hunting dog than a snake, biting hard against his last gold armament and refusing to let go. Luffy swung his arm around with all of his strength, but the venomous fangs wouldn't let go. Another Hydra dove in, and he attempted to slam the first one into it, but the grip redoubled as his gauntlet sunk into the venom, ripping it away. The Hydras reconstituted quickly, leering hungrily at the wax replacement that was Luffy's only remaining armor.

"Jellyfish Pie."

And still, Warden Magellan continued his feast. In spite of the risks, the dangers, the threat to his own life, Magellan continued to eat, poison after poison falling into the pit of his stomach, and roiling into an even deadlier and deadlier beast.

He continued down this dangerous path for the same reason that most anyone ever did anything life-threatening: because of his pride. His pride as a Warden, to ensure that not a one of the criminals arrayed before him ever saw the light of day again. His pride as a leader, to see to it that the pains, the woes, the determination of his underlings was not in vain.

"Spider Steak. Octopus Noodles."

And above all else, his pride as a man. To give nothing short of anything and everything he had to offer in face of this insane, this idiotic, this impossible, and, somehow, incredible pirate before him.

Magellan sent his remaining two Hydras spiraling into a double helix in a bid to destroy the last bit of armor his opponent had. The instant he made the move, Magellan braced himself—

"REJECT!"

—for the explosion of venom that came from Luffy's last trick. The force was enough to splatter the dragons beyond any chance of instant regeneration. But as a trade-off, Luffy was left armorless, and now—

"And lastly… Snake Wine."

Now Magellan was ready.

The moment Luffy came into view—annoyingly with enough shards of wax and gold left from the burst to cover the front of his fist—Magellan felt the final pieces of his vile alchemy blend into perfection. He felt his stomach lurch and heave, and with the final breath he could spare, Magellan spoke two words.

"Typhon Genesis."

For Luffy, time seemed to freeze, for in that instant he saw the face of the Devil himself. Luffy saw Magellan's face, up close and personal, as the Venom-Man's expression twisted with pain. But more immediately, he also saw the jaws of that face visibly unhinge, and drop down, opening his tooth-filled maw to reveal a gaping abyss.

And when Luffy stared down that gaping abyss, two violet eyes of pure evil and HATE stared back.

Time crawled by on a moment-by-moment basis for Luffy, each instant flashing by in a heartbeat.

An instant where he ground his feet into the stone, to bring himself to a halt.

An instant where Magellan's gut heaved to spew the liquid hell within his stomach.

An instant for Luffy's free, unprotected hand to shoot behind his back, and withdraw the final tool he had on hand that could turn the tide once and for all.

An instant to aim the rubber band he had wrapped around his hand.

"Usopp Elastic Wonder of Doom!"

THWAP! "GWARGH!?"

And snipe it right into Magellan's left eye.

Things moved very fast after that, because in the same second that Magellan's jaw instinctively slammed shut and he slammed his hands over his face, Luffy moved. He performed two actions simultaneously, dashing forward to put himself less than two feet away from Magellan's gut while throwing his still-armored fist as far back and away from the Warden as he could manage. And then from one second to the next, his fist snapped back and rejoined him, so that it could punch clean through Magellan's lingering armor and blast a crater into the venom-man's stomach.

"HRGHRGH!"

Magellan's hands hastily relocated from covering his face to his mouth, what little of his expression that was visible warping into a mask of pain and terror as his cheeks bulged from the premature and very much involuntary discharge of what should have been—and technically still was—his coup de grâce.

His task accomplished, Luffy backed up and put some space between himself and his opponent in case of any further disaster.

BOMF! "GNNNNNRGH!"

This proved to be a very prudent move, as Magellan's entire body abruptly and violently distended, a cloud of rank fumes filtering out from between his fingers. For a few seconds, the Warden swayed drunkenly on his feet, his eyes blank and rolled up in his skull. Then, he snapped back to consciousness with a shudder and a very distinct shade on his bulging cheeks. And then—

"HOOOORGH!"

The infamous Warden of Impel Down, Master of the Six Hells and all within, fell to his knees, and proceeded to, to put it bluntly, puke like a freshman.

SSSSSSS!

What had been deadpan stares at the rubber band collapsed into mortal terror at the spray of venom that was proof of exactly how lucky they were that the attack had backfired. The resulting cloud alone threatened to reach the rafters and even as far back as they were, the group still warily took a few steps back.

Only a few, though, because none of them could take the situation as seriously as it deserved thanks to one simple detail.

"Er…" Galdino piped up. "Pardon my ignorance, but should the hellish concoction that was about to turn us all into soup be, well… rainbow-colored?"

"Logically, no," Ivankov mused before shrugging. "But Straw Hat Boy is involved, so I do believe that sanity is very much dead at the moment."

"Dead? I don't think sanity even exists right now," Crocodile snarked, shaking his head.

When the smog cast off and kicked up from the upchuck subsided, the image it revealed was of Magellan bent over and panting over a gaping hole in the ground that looked to lead straight down to Level 2. Not a melted hole, but a clean hole that had bored clean through the stone. And if the sizzling sound wafting up from the hole was anything to go by, the hellpuke wasn't satisfied with 'just' one floor, either.

Despite all this, despite the ordeal of composing such an unholy concoction, the misfire thereof, outright fighting Luffy one-on-one and taking no small number of hits? One thing was abundantly clear: Magellan wasn't exhausted. He was barely tired. A little winded, perhaps, but truly damaged? Not in the least.

But as he slowly hauled himself back up to his feet, and stood tall once more, it could not be said that he was truly unaffected. Magellan's face burned red from something other than anger. To be defeated in a battle of attrition or even overpowered by a mere rookie would have been one thing, marginally acceptable even. But to have an ultimate attack such as that, the apex of all poisons, get canceled out by the usage of a glorified rubber band and a sucker punch to the gut?

There was no honor in that. Only humiliation, and a final straw.

"…so be it."

Luffy and his fellow escapees tensed in terror as another purple Hydra grew from Magellan's back and loomed on high. But despite the hungry leer with which it regarded Luffy, it did not move to strike, merely swaying in the air.

"Straw Hat," Magellan rumbled, drawing Luffy's attention back down to him. "You spoke of Barrabas, so let me return the gesture. Have you ever heard of Icarus?"

Luffy frowned in thought. "I… think Robin told me that one. The wing guy, right? With the wax?"

Magellan nodded solemnly. "Heedless of the warnings he received, he flew too close to the sun. Its heat melted the wax that held his artificial wings together, and with no more force to support himself, he fell to his death. With the benefit of hindsight, I've drawn something of a parallel to our own conflict."

As Magellan spoke, the hydra ceased swaying and lunged… but not towards Luffy, nor towards his fellow escapees. Instead, it flew straight down the hole, its long purple neck remaining attached to Magellan. The Venom-Man continued to speak, his stance slowly relaxing.

"My responsibility, as it has ever been, is to ensure that criminals never leave this prison except on their way to their execution, and your rampage thus far has left a massive mess for me to clean up to avoid any other criminals coming this close to escape. And now, as I stand before you, humiliated, I see that, if I so desired, I could defeat you. Kill you all, send you back to your cells… I have that ability, Straw Hat Luffy." The Warden's visage darkened considerably as he cracked his knuckles, the air around him shimmering with gaseous death. "And you know it."

Luffy's expression remained impassive as he nodded his head in acknowledgment.

Abruptly, Magellan relaxed. "And yet, while success would be mine, at what cost would it come? Would I be able to continue in my duties? To quell the madness you have left in your wake, and safeguard the rest of my domain? Potentially, yes… but there remains a chance. A chance that I could fail. And in the process, leave the world exposed to a danger greater than what even you represent. And a chance such as that? I cannot abide.

"And so, here we now stand. I realize now that while this is a blow to my pride, my attention is better spent elsewhere. After all, you've stated that you're determined to save Fire Fist Ace, and that no amount of danger will dissuade you. So why, pray tell, should I stop you? If you're so intent on foregoing your miraculous chance of escaping the Government that you would walk straight to the headsman's block, then why should I waste one second more getting in your way?"

Luffy relaxed as well, a nod over his shoulder signaling his companions to approach. And as the army of stripe-wearing criminals hesitantly advanced, the Rubber-Man's eyes lingered on Crocodile for a moment, and then he turned back to look up at Magellan. With respect… and regret.

"…Magellan. I get that I'm the bad guy here. And even if this is what I have to do… I'm sorry for it," he said softly.

"A sincere apology? I'm surprised," the Warden responded, his words belied by his unflinching expression. Still, he did pause to bow in respect. "Congratulations, Straw Hat Luffy. You and yours have now utterly conquered two of the islands considered sacred by the World Government." He turned away and shot a deadly stare over his shoulder at his rival. "But rest assured, no amount of luck or endurance will allow you to succeed where you're going; Marineford will be your grave, and that is a fact. Best not to keep your executioners waiting. They were adamant that you arrive there alive. Now, if you'll excuse me…"

And just like that, Magellan's entire demeanor became enshrouded in a miasma of sheer murder as he crouched to leap into his own Hydra.

"I have a new set of problems to worry about."

"Fair warning, their leader's a D. too," Luffy said gravely.

That struck a chord with the Warden. He stumbled and snapped his head around to boggle at the Rubber-Man. At the complete lack of deceit in Straw Hat's dour expression, his face went slack, and he glanced up in tired despair.

"… Damn today to Tartarus …"

And with that final resigned groan, Magellan shot up-and-down the Venom Road and disappeared into the depths of his domain.

Just like that, the battle of Impel Down came to a close.

There was no more great ceremony as the escapees opened the once-impenetrable gates of Impel Down.

No struggle as they commandeered a conspicuously unmanned battleship.

And no impediment from the Gates of Justice that solemnly swung open, as their vessel sailed out into the tub current.

Three hundred eighty-five criminals, pirates, and other assorted deviants sailed out and headed straight for war. And not one of them was left behind.

Not one remained to see the end of an era.

IMPEL DOWNFALL

-o-END-o-

Cross-Brain AN: Once more, before we proceed to the next arc, we'll take a reprieve to look in on the rest of the crew.

Patient AN: …but before that, we're going to take a break from the main plot and have some fun with a Halloween special. Not a horror story like what Hornet wrote the past couple of years—delightfully dreadful as they were—but something more lighthearted. We could all use that this year, of all years.

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…and besides…wouldn't you like to see something strange?