Disclaimer: I don't own Phantom Brave or its characters.
After slaying a horde of vicious, flesh-eating zombies that were plaguing the natives of Forestia, there was no doubt in anyone's mind that the Fighting Beasts were back in business. A crowd of adoring townspeople surrounded the Ravens, yelling, cheering and showering them with gifts to show their appreciation.
"No problem," Captain Drab said, graciously accepting the elder's payment of over 100,000 bordeaux, a hundred per zombie. With Sulphur gone, there were plenty of jobs for Chromas and Ravens as people sighed in relief because the world was not going to be destroyed, and turned to other concerns. Drab took advantage of these opportunities, and the Fighting Beasts soon rose back to their position as the greatest Raven clan in Ivoire. Without the White Wolf Army, they could stay there forever. The Fighting Beasts suffered considerable losses during the heat wave on Hinterland Isle, but nothing compared to how the White Wolf Army was almost completely wiped out by Sulphur.
The Raven captain excused himself from the celebration, attracting a few odd looks from his men, but most of them were too busy drinking, boasting and flirting with the few local women who weren't Scrabbits to notice. Drab never considered himself the introspective type, but in the weeks following Sulphur's defeat, he often looked back on that time.
After Marona and her friends put an end to Sulphur's rampage, the Ravens and Chromas that assembled there to aid her stayed to get rid of the stray monsters still roaming the island. They turned it into a contest, as Ravens always did, to see which clan could slay the most. Others accompanied the nurses President Hogg so generously provided as they searched for the missing, treated the wounded and gathered the bodies of the fallen for proper burials on their home islands. Drab walked the length of the island, whose magma flows were already cooling off, and listened to the shouts of "Cobalt Blues!" and "Myosotis!", with the occasional "Viridian Copper!" in the distance. Drab set off to find more monsters, and as he approached the center of the island, the sounds of fighting faded in the background, replaced by an eerie silence that made the fur on his neck stand. Something about it made him nervous, but he ignored it and kept walking, complaining to himself about the lack of monsters. Then he followed a turn in the path and abruptly stopped.
No less than a hundred corpses were strewn across the clearing, their armor marking them clearly as members of the White Wolf Army, the gleaming metal stained and dulled with blood. Drab knelt down and examined the bodies closest to him and saw that their wounds were caused by short swords, the type typically carried by the knights. Then he realized there wasn't a single monster carcass in sight.
Drab felt a surge of anger as he saw the remains of his fellow Ravens scattered around him. The White Wolf Army and his Fighting Beasts were rivals, always had been, struggling to outclass the other, but there was a code of rules all Ravens followed, forbidding any direct war between clans. Drab didn't mind bending them a bit when it suited him, but the White Wolves' leader wouldn't even hear of such a thing. Drab often laughed at his opponents, how they always insisted on playing fair and claimed to fight for justice. And look where it got them, he thought soberly. Where was their leader, anyway? The Raven captain could give credit where it was due - he'd never desert his men, any more than Drab himself would.
He found him a few minutes later, lying in the midst of his dead knights. Killed by his own men, Drab thought with a fresh shudder, crouching down to take a closer look. He reached to brush some of the long, matted blond hair off the man's face, then jumped back in alarm when he realized the man was still alive.
"Raphael!" Drab exclaimed. "What happened here?"
"Sulphur," the knight gasped, blood trickling down his chin. Drab knew that the White Wolf Army had been on the Island of Evil longer than any of them, sent in advance to patrol the island before Marona put her plan into action. "He... possessed us..."
"Don't talk," Drab told him grimly. The boar had an inkling of what must have occurred, but Raphael struggled to tell him anyway.
"Don't... blame my men," he said faintly. "Couldn't... control themselves..." He closed his eyes and let his head drop onto his chest.
" - Drab! Captain Drab! Where are you?"
Drab heard the shouts in the distance, and realized that his Ravens were looking for him. He'd been separated from the main group longer than he thought.
"Over here!" he bellowed. "Bring a nurse!" he added, listening to Raphael's labored breathing. Drab gritted his teeth and waited, hoping they couldn't be too late.
It felt like an eternity before they arrived, although it was really only a few minutes. The nurses seemed calm enough, and his Fighting Beasts were the ones who looked rather sick.
"Is that -" one of the Ravens began, staring at the knight slumped in his leader's arms. The White Wolves had always owed some of their success to the fame of their leader. Drab himself didn't know the man personally, only exchanging a few barely civil words to him during Raven jobs, but he knew the stories about him by heart. The man was a legend - some called him Raphael the Invincible. Drab looked down and shook his head.
"How is he?" one of the loitering Ravens asked anxiously. The nurse took him from Drab and quickly looked him over before glancing up. "Don't worry," she assured them. "We already lost one of the Nine Swords today - as long as we're careful, we won't lose another."
The Raven captain watched as they laid his rival on a stretcher and carried him off to the ship, where the Bamboo company nurses were keeping the wounded before taking them to Clutter Haven, whose owner had kindly offered to let them use it as a makeshift infirmary. Drab looked around for the Heliotrope, Raphael's mythical sword, but couldn't find it. He sighed and ran to rejoin his men.
There turned out to be other survivors, which Ravens found later on - some were buried under the bodies of their comrades, and some wandered off or got lost before the massacre took place. Others that appeared lifeless before were only unconscious, fainting after Sulphur's evil influence vanished from Ivoire, and their minds, altogether. But there was still about four hundred dead, well over half of the White Wolves' force. Reporters and experts speculated over whether the group would be able to pull itself together, and most treated the matter as a foregone conclusion. Yes, the Fighting Beasts had finally reached their goal of recognition as the best Raven clan in all Ivoire. But when he considered the price, Drab just couldn't bring himself to rejoice.
He shook himself and returned to the festivities, which were still going strong despite it being long past midnight. Several of his Ravens had passed out and were dumped unceremoniously in a corner. Forestia's elder and most of the other Scrabbits had already turned in for the night, leaving the Ravens to their revelry. Among the few still sober was Bijou, who was deep in earnest conversation with some of the Scrabbits brave enough to stay behind, a glass of apple juice, of all things, in one paw. The wolf would never quite fit in with his fellow Beasts, but they were rapidly growing to accept him the way he was. He had some strange habits, but his skill in battle was nothing to laugh at. Drab reached over the wolf's head for the pitcher to pour himself a drink.
"Are you all right, sir?" Bijou asked, breaking off from the Scrabbits for a second. "You don't seem to be yourself tonight."
The Raven captain stared at him, startled, but quickly composed himself. "Oh, I'm just fine," he declared, taking a big swig from his glass for emphasis and almost spitting it out when he realized it was also apple juice. "I'm thinking about my trip to Clutter Haven tomorrow."
"Clutter Haven!" Bijou repeated. "That's where -"
"Where?" Drab prompted.
"Where Sea Mail bottles are made," Bijou finished calmly. Drab shook his head and left.
When he arrived at Clutter Haven the next morning, he hadn't expected the sound of heavy machinery clattering in the background. The woman who greeted him smiled at the surprise on his furry face.
"Now that everything's finally back to normal again, I decided it's time to get back to work!" she shouted. "Or for Murasaki to, at least! Come into the back room - it's quieter."
Drab followed her into what appeared to be her private office, with windows overlooking the ocean and a big map of every island in Ivoire on the wall. When she snapped the door shut, the racket faded considerably. Then Drab noticed she already had company.
"Count Malt!" he exclaimed somewhat rudely. He was relieved when the royal Scrabbit didn't seem offended.
"I just couldn't pass by here without stopping to visit Scarlet," Malt explained. He looked up fondly at his old friend, and Drab involuntarily glanced at her, too. Like many in his generation, who grew up hearing the heroic exploits of Scarlet the Brave, he still found it hard to believe that the awesome warrior who defeated Sulphur thirty years earlier and the red-haired woman who walked with a noticeable limp were really the same. Scarlet gave him a knowing smile and hurried to put her guest at ease.
"Since you're here, you might as well share a drink," she said, gesturing at two bottles on her desk. "Saschen or Ochre?"
A few minutes later, the Raven captain found himself sipping Ochre from a goblet and seated between Scarlet the Brave and the Count of Aquamarine.
"Thank you for your good work in Forestia," Malt told him. "Until my people came to me, I thought most of the zombies were like Milon and kept to themselves. We were all relieved with how you dealt with them so swiftly."
Drab hoped that the Count's satisfaction meant he'd call on the Fighting Beasts often in the future, but didn't say so. The three drank in silence for a few minutes before Scarlet asked,
"What brings you to Clutter Haven? Does it have to do with one of my islands?"
"Well..." Drab hesitated, unsure how to ask. He didn't want to sound like he cared.
Scarlet snapped her fingers. "I know! It's about Raphael, isn't it."
"How'd you guess?"
"What else could possibly make a rough Raven like yourself act like that? Are you here to visit him?" When Drab reluctantly nodded, she stood, and he followed her down a short hall. Her long skirts trailed on the floor, hiding her injured leg.
"Raphael!" she called. "You've got company." Without waiting for an answer, she turned and went back to her office. Drab flung the door open and strode in, determined to make a good impression.
The White Wolf knight sat on the foot of his bed, struggling to put on his armor, which lay in a heap on the floor. Many of the pieces were visibly damaged.
"Going somewhere?" Drab demanded.
Raphael looked up from his breastplate and saw him standing in the doorway. "Captain Drab," he said after a minute passed and it was clear the other Raven wasn't going to speak first. "To what do I owe this honor?"
Always formal, even like this, Drab thought, taking a closer look at the man. His arm was in a sling, and when he moved his head, Drab noticed a rather hideous gash on one cheek that was previously hidden by his hair.
"I fell," the knight said, when he realized Drab was staring at it. Drab was about to ask how, when he saw the crutches that rested beside the bed. He wished he'd stayed with his Fighting Beasts in Forestia, even if most of them were either sick or testy from being hung over. Raphael needed to be left alone - no warrior wanted to be seen like this. He turned to leave, but Raphael called him back.
"It's all right. You went through the trouble to come here." Even his voice sounded strained. "Why?"
Drab ignored the question and cast about for something else to bring up. "Where's your sword?" There was a chipped katana in the pile of armor, but no sign of the knight's signature blade.
"My sword? I gave it to -" He didn't finish, because just then there was another knock at his door.
"Mister Raphael!" a girlish voice cried. Both men recognized it immediately. "It's Ash and me! Can we come in?"
Without waiting for an answer, Marona ran in. Ash appeared a second later. Drab knew the phantom wasn't really evil, but he knew he'd never quite get used to him.
"I still think we should've waited for permission," Ash grumbled. Marona shook her head at him.
"Ms. Sienna told us not to! And you know I try my best to please my clients."
"Scarlet hired you?" Raphael asked.
"Well, not really a job," Marona admitted. "We're doing her a favor."
"And we were headed here anyway," Ash added. "We have something to give you."
"I baked you something too, but I kind of overcooked it," Marona said. "Ash! Don't look at me like that!"
"It's just as well," the phantom said. "We're here to cheer him up, not make him sick."
"It wasn't that bad! I made it for Cauldron first, and he liked it! And Castile- "
" - fed it to Mocha under the table." Ash finished. "Didn't you notice the way she wouldn't meet your eyes? As for Cauldron, you could put wood shavings in front of him and he'd eat it."
"You'd better be careful," Drab said. "If Cauldron hears you, he'll have your head for talking smack about his Maronakins. I've seen him chew out Fox and some other Ravens before because they didn't want to join the fan club."
At the mention of Ravens, Raphael couldn't bring himself to reply. Ash understood why. When he and Marona met Raphael on the Island of Evil, he was singlehandedly fending off his possessed knights, fighting to keep them away from everyone else on the island. He must have killed scores of them himself. But the phantom knew that Raphael didn't want Drab to know that.
"Don't worry," he assured him instead. "The White Wolf Army won't give up that easily."
"They'd better not," Drab said darkly. Ash stared at him.
"I thought you guys were rivals!" he said. "Wouldn't you be glad to get rid of them?"
"That's what I thought at first," Drab explained. "But Ravens need competition. I can't believe what an idle, sloppy lot my Beasts have become without it! We actually almost lost to the Amazons the other day. The Amazons" Drab banged him fist down on the windowsill and knocked over a potted plant with clusters of purple flowers. "At least with the White Wolves, we could tell ourselves it was an almost even match. But... Amazons! If we lost, I'd never live it down!"
"What's so bad about the Amazons?" Marona asked. "They're always nice to me."
"Well, you're a girl," Ash said.
"Never mind." Ash busied himself picking up the broken vase.
"Either way, we're only doing as good as we are because of our numbers," Drab said. "My men have lost all their spirit!"
"That is bad," Ash said. "I can't imagine the Fighting Beasts without their spirits."
"That's all they have any interest in these days," Drab snapped. "All they care about is booze and women. Which is fine enough - I feel the same way. But they don't care about our clan! There's no more pride! And I'm not even getting into how the Amazons and Zephyr Wings are getting on, each trying to knock the other out of the way to snatch your position." He turned to Raphael. "You've got to get the White Wolf Army going again. You owe it to Ivoire!"
"That reminds me," Ash said. "Marona and I came here to return something of yours." The phantom pulled a sword out of his scabbard and laid it on the bed.
"The Heliotrope!" Drab exclaimed. "That's where it went!"
"Mister Raphael gave it to us on the Island of Evil," Marona said.
"As a dying gift," Raphael agreed.
"But since you didn't die, we're giving it back." Marona said. "You still need it."
"And you can't refuse," Ash pointed out. "Since it's ours now, we can do whatever we want with it. That includes giving it to you."
"We're not in a hurry to get rid of it or anything," Marona said quickly. "We just- "
"- don't like having a sword with such a sissy name," Drab suggested. "Heliotrope! Who names a sword after a flower?"
"Mega Crocus?" Raphael asked.
"That's different," Drab said huffily. "It's a skill, not a sword."
"I'm sorry." Raphael said. "You'll have to take that up with the ancient spirits that forged it, not me. Thank you, Ash and Marona." The knight gave them a genuine smile. Before he could express his gratitude more fully, there was yet another knock on the door.
"It's just me," Scarlet said and entered, followed by Count Malt. "The Count just thought of something he wants to ask you Ravens." She moved into the background, but Ash immediately noticed her mischievous grin.
"What is it, Count?" Drab asked obliviously.
"This is a project I began working on a few months before Sulphur returned," Count Malt explained, twisting his mustache. "Now that things in Aquamarine have calmed down somewhat, I can return to it."
"What is it?" Drab demanded. He could sense a big job coming on, and was starting to get excited.
"Several years ago, one of my ships ran aground on the northern shore of Icicle Island, and the entire crew died, minus one. I didn't know what befell them until the one survivor came to my door and told me. Unfortunately, she couldn't remember the exact location. The 'northern shore' was all she could say."
"You want me to find the ship, eh? What's on it that was so important?"
"Treasure," Malt replied. "Checking my records, I've estimated that it's valued at about four million bordeaux."
"Four million bordeaux!" Ash cried.
"I can't imagine!" Marona breathed. She still thought that fifty thousand bordeaux was an astronomical amount.
Drab was no stranger to large figures, but even he was stunned for a few seconds. That was twice the amount of any reward he'd ever gotten. "Just what were they carrying?"
"Mostly gold," the Count said. "But also silver, ivory, jewels, and even a few ancient lithographs."
"I'm right on it!" Drab said, heading for the door.
"Wait!" Malt said, making him freeze. "This job is open to both of you."
"Both of us?" Drab asked.
"Yes - the Fighting Beasts and the White Wolf Army."
"What?" Drab turned and stared at Raphael, who'd quietly listened to Malt's story. The count looked at him inquiringly.
"I accept," the knight said.
"Icicle Island is quite a large expanse to cover," Malt told Drab. "Two groups would be more ideal than one."
"You can't be serious!" Drab told Raphael incredulously. "Look at yourself! You can't even walk yet!"
"That's exactly why I'm going to do this," Raphael said. "Anything is better than lying in bed pitying myself, like I was when you came in. And this is the perfect opportunity to get the remaining Wolves together. I can't let it pass."
"Okay, then!" Drab growled. "Keep talking like that, if it makes you feel better. Hope you've got an equally pretty speech to console yourself with when the Fighting Beasts win."
Whatever," Raphael replied, completely unaffected by Drab's outburst. "Skill and clever planning can beat out primal rage any day."
"A treasure hunt," Marona said wistfully. "That sounds fun."
"Too bad we can't join." Ash agreed. "Anyone know what time it is?"
"Almost noon," Count Malt said, looking at his pocket watch. Ash clapped a hand to his forehead.
"Marona, we're going to be late! Come on!" The phantom and Chroma dashed outside.
"What was that about?" Drab asked.
"Marona promised Canary she'd go see his circus," Scarlet explained, from her position in the back of the room. "She told me about it earlier. They have to pick up Castile first."
"It does my heart good to see those two girls finally enjoying themselves," Count Malt said. "Well, I'll leave you to think about my proposal." He bowed to Scarlet and left also, at a much more sedate pace.
"Then I'm off to Icicle Island," Drab said. He gave Raphael a long, hard look. "Watch yourself, all right?"
"Of course. And to you as well."
After the Raven captain was gone, Scarlet stood. "I'd better check up on Murasaki," she said. Her hand was on the doorknob when the knight called her back.
"You and the count planned this out, didn't you?"
"What did you expect? Carmine and I haven't changed that much, have we?" She carefully snapped the door behind her.