Hey guys! Thank you everyone who gave feedback for the last chapter! Each and every one of you. I had no time in the past month to go and reply to you individually, but know that you have my thanks and you are wonderful.
Possible foreshadowing in this chapter. It's quick but relevant, and I think there will only be four more chapters of this arc after this one. Again, I apologise if this arc has been a bit of a pain in the ass. I promise that the end is in sight, and things are a-changing up! Here's the chapter!
Chapter Thirty-Three: The Only Way Out
Ichigo paced himself at a jog along the curve of the mountain. His encounter at the mountain's opening a while earlier still resounded crisp in his memory, although he'd recovered all of his strength. The nagging suspicion that there was something wrong with this place—something deeper-rooted than the obvious surface-level unease—was now more apparent than ever.
What had all this meant? Why was his Hollow acting up in certain places? It had been doing that more often upon the loss of Zangetsu, but here on this island it felt more powerful. Something in the atmosphere was affecting him, tempting the Hollow to emerge. But he wouldn't let that happen, as long as he could help it.
Right now, there were more pressing matters to be concerned with. The mountain aside, he had no idea of the island's geographical layout, let alone of his or the others' current location on it. For all he knew, he could be meters or miles from whoever was nearest. He squinted his eyes as he peered through the thick snowfall. The moonlight reflected off the cliff face, bouncing from the snow and providing enough light to guide him along.
He continued onwards for some time, before movement in the distance caught his eye. Assuming Shrieker or likewise entity, Ichigo prepared for possible confrontation. He peered through the soft mist, eyes narrowed as he tried to decipher the source of movement. His eyes widened once it was pin-pointed, and he found himself smiling in relief.
"Oi! Zoro!" he called, waving an arm to catch the attention of the green-haired swordsman, positioned outside a cave, "Over here! To your left! Other left!"
A moment later, the swordsman located him. "Don't yell, you idiot!" he hollered over.
His counter-productive order was unnoticed by Ichigo as he joined him outside the cave. "You and the others didn't make it back to the ship," he said, "Do you know what happened?"
"Chopper and I found Usopp earlier on and he filled us in," Zoro said, glancing out at the wilderness around them, "But then we were separated from him again. We were separated from Nami and the cook earlier as well, but managed to find Sanji. Nami's still out there, but with any luck she will have found Usopp or some of the others … let's go inside, I think Chopper will want to see you."
He followed Zoro into the cave, where he discovered Chopper and Sanji. After finally settling down beside a hot spot (and being checked over not once, but twice by Chopper for injuries), Ichigo continued his discussion with Zoro. "Luffy and I were separated," he recounted, glancing down. "I have no idea where he is now… sorry."
"Luffy can look after himself," Zoro said, "He'll be fine. They all will be."
Ichigo couldn't help but notice the very slight unease in the swordsman's eyes. It was almost as though he'd said that to reassure himself. No matter what however, Ichigo knew Zoro had faith in his captain's abilities.
He glanced over to the corner, where Sanji lay resting. A spiral of bandages wound up his leg, as well as around his midsection and shoulder. He looked pale, but the rise and fall of his chest showed that he was breathing and otherwise healthy.
"What happened to him?" Ichigo decided to ask.
"Idiot took on an entire colony," Zoro replied.
"Colony?" Ichigo questioned.
"You would have seen some of those monsters while you were out there," Zoro said as an answer.
"Yeah… what's up with them?"
"So Sanji fought an entire colony?"
"That's what I said."
"He was in pretty bad condition earlier, but he's improving," Chopper said, "He'll be up in a few hours."
"And annoying as always," Zoro added, glancing again to the cave's exit. "Anyway, we need to see if we can find any sign of Nami. Sanji says he sent her down the mountain in a cable cart. If we follow the line down, we may be able to find her."
"Alright," Ichigo said with a nod, getting to his feet. He knew it best he accompany the swordsman if only to assist in the much-needed navigational guidance, though of course finding Nami—or any of the others—would be their top priority. "You gonna be alright here, Chopper?"
"Yes," the doctor confirmed, "I think this cave is a safe place. It smells better than out there."
"Okay, if you say so," Ichigo smiled and bade a short farewell, catching Zoro muttering to Chopper to 'look after the idiot' as he exited the cave, back out into the cold air.
He and Zoro walked beside one another in silence for a few minutes, both wary of their surroundings, before reaching that must have been the overhead cable cart track.
"Zoro… can I ask you something?" Ichigo began after a few moments.
"Go ahead," the swordsman responded.
"Well you saw what happened to me back in Atlantica, right?" It was the first time he'd confronted the swordsman on the topic. How he would take it, Ichigo was unsure.
Zoro grunted an affirmative response. Obviously it was something that had been playing on his mind as well, though he hadn't really had the chance to confront the Shinigami about it.
"You remember how the Hollow came out?"
"Yeah," Zoro replied, "What about it?"
"Well…" Ichigo began, "It's this island. Certain parts of it, it feels like the Hollow is going to take over, and suddenly."
Zoro frowned, but nodded slightly. "And how does it feel now?"
"No different from usual at the moment," Ichigo responded, "But I don't know how long it will stay like this. At any moment, it could change, and if I lose control around the others, well… If anyone can stop me, I trust you or Luffy to do it. But seeing as you were the one who saw it happen at Atlantica, maybe there's something more you could do. It's not fair that you've all had to go through this because of me."
"Don't say crap like that," Zoro said, "You've come this far, there's only one more glade after this. Our captain decided he wanted to help you, so that's what we're going to do."
With that final sentence it seemed the discussion was over, and Ichigo chose not to push it any further.
About twenty minutes later, they found the cable cart Sanji had talked about at the bottom of the mountain. A broken window and the glass in the snow below it suggested it had been broken out of, and the absence of Nami further proved this.
"She's gone," Ichigo observed.
Zoro glanced inside the empty compartment and then walked around it, searching for any other evidence. But all had been covered by the wind and snow. "No shit."
Luffy opened his eyes, the throbbing in his shoulder now dull. He shifted himself into a sitting position, his good arm reaching up to his injury. How long had he been sleeping here? Using the nearby tree trunk for support, he hefted himself to his feet and took a moment to regain his bearings.
Once his strength returned, he set out at a steady walking pace along the snow, powdery against his sandaled feet. After only a few moments he came to a stop yet again, groaning, his hand resting on his churning stomach. "Meat…" he rasped.
The mist around him was fairly light and was no hindrance to his vision. He chose to press onwards; no progress would come from just standing there with his stomach rumbling.
After only a few minutes, his ears picked up the sound of a twig snapping somewhere off to his right. He wasn't alone. Cautiously, Luffy stepped into the shadow of a cluster of trees. He clenched his knuckles into a fist, ready to strike should the need for combat arise.
The sound came again. Whatever it was, Luffy could tell it was very close by, but his Haki felt muted and weak. He kept his hand balled into a fist, knowing that it just might be his only weapon for survival. Quietly, he stood firmly against a tree and prepared, before the footsteps came to a sudden halt. This could only mean one thing; his company was also aware of his presence. He would have to act now.
Luffy jumped out from behind the tree and punched out at the other presence. His fist connected with the face of the unknown pursuer, sending them flying through the air and landing in a heap.
Luffy caught his breath for a moment, the use of sudden movements still hindering to him. He then straightened up and quickly ran for the place his target had landed.
Instead of coming across one of the island's weird creatures however, he came across one of his own.
Luffy saw his own relief reflected in the eyes of his friend. "Luffy, you jackass!" Usopp stammered, massaging his head, "I'm so glad you're okay…! Are you okay?"
"I feel better," Luffy affirmed, offering Usopp a hand up, "But I'm hungry…"
Accepting the aid, the sniper was pulled to his feet. "I'm glad you're okay," Usopp repeated, offering a one-armed hug, which Luffy accepted and returned, "Even if you punched me, you crazy bastard."
Luffy laughed, "Sorry about that, Usopp!" Already, being with one of his Nakama was giving him more strength. "Do you know where any of the others are?"
"Not right now, but I was with Zoro and Chopper before getting lost."
"Yeah, Ichigo and I got separated a while ago," Luffy said, looking back the way he'd come, "There was some weird ossan who caused a storm… made us lose each other…"
"Nothing like that happened to us," Usopp said, "Just a bunch of those creepy monsters… if we run into any of them, we run."
"Okay, but I'll also send a few flying with my punch."
"If you need to. Now…" Usopp glanced down the slope of Dussamet, "I was heading down the mountain. I think we could find Sunny or the others down there."
"It's a long way down," Luffy said, squinting down the slope. Due to the mist and darkness, the base of the mountain was concealed from sight. "We should see how fast we can get to the bottom. It might be fun."
"And you know what? We'll get down faster if we have a sled," Usopp grinned.
A smile spread across Luffy's features, "Let's make one."
Over the next few minutes, the two plied a sizeable amount of bark from the tree and smoothed it out. Usopp had happened to have a small amount of rope on hand, which he figured could be used for steering. Once the makeshift sled was constructed, the two clambered aboard.
Luffy, seated at the front, took hold of the rope reigns. "We're just going down the hill, right?"
"Yes," Usopp replied, "Don't crash into anything.
Luffy grinned, and with a gentle push, he and Usopp were rocketing down the mountain.
The wind whipped cold and fresh in his face and through his hair, giving a similar sensation to a coup de burst aboard the Thousand Sunny. Luffy whooped in delight, the rush of air catching in his rubber cheeks, fanning them outwards. Right now he felt full of life, so different from the lethargic weight that had been pressing on him over the past few days. He laughed loud and joyously as they flew over a bump, becoming airborne for a number of seconds.
Usopp seemed to be enjoying himself too, but expressed it in a different way, one that involved clinging onto his captain for dear life and screaming loudly about being too young to die.
Gradually, the slope eased in steepness, coming to a flat. Luffy wanted to head further down the mountain, but Usopp's shaking arms steadied enough to take hold of the reigns and veer them to a stop.
"That's far enough for now," the sniper said, "Let's search along here for a while."
The terrain was slightly different on this part of the mountain. As they'd slid to a stop, they'd traversed the mountain diagonally, and now the mountain slope beside them was extra steep and clear of trees for the most part. The few trees within the area seemed to have been flattened by some kind of force.
"What could have caused that?!" Usopp shuddered.
"No idea," Luffy shrugged.
"I hope we don't meet it…" Usopp said, "Have you been to this part of the island?"
"Neither. If we see anything, we run. Alright?"
"Yosh," Luffy nodded, immediately standing to his feet, "Let's find the others!"
However, the sudden vertigo and dulling adrenaline rush caused his shoulder wound to ache sharply. He winced, hand gripping the wound as he returned to his knees. His insides clenched as the contents of his empty stomach came to surface, splattering across the pure-whiteness of the snow.
"Oi, Luffy!" Usopp panicked, crouching down beside him, "Take it easy!"
Luffy nodded, but heaved once again.
Usopp proceeded to rub soothing circles into his back until the ordeal was over.
Luffy lent against his friend to catch his breath. "This sucks…" he groaned.
"It's so cold out here, but you're burning up…" Usopp noted, feeling Luffy's forehead with the back of his hand.
"It's alright, I'm feeling better again," Luffy said, standing to his feet with slower momentum, "I just need some meat."
Usopp stood with him, and gripping his upper arm reassuringly. "That might be true, but you're not fully recovered yet," he explained, "Do what you can, but rely on me for now, alright?"
Luffy smiled. "I can always rely on you, Usopp."
"You should really still be in bed, idiot."
"C'mon, let's search so we can use the sled again!"
Having gathered every trace of courage in her possession, Nami chose to waste no time. The Shrieker's settlement some way ahead of her—which appeared to be the ruins of what was once a town centre or large fort under closer inspection—seemed somewhat quiet, and she did not want to wait until it became more active.
"Mirage Tempo," she whispered, glazing the Climatact across her body and disappearing from view.
Then, stealthily as her 'Cat Burglar' alias would suggest, she crept toward the lights of the ruined fortress, gradually coming closer. Twenty meters. Ten meters. Five.
Nami glanced down to assure her invisibility was still in place. She then clambered over the rubble of a fallen wall and into the settlement, into what otherwise would have been plain sight of the creatures. No sooner had she stepped into her enemy's territory, she involuntarily recoiled. The stench was almost unbearable, the air thick with rot and decay.
I can't waste time here… she mentally told herself after a few moments, though slipped part of her jacket over her face to lessen the impact of the foul smell.
Nami grimaced and silently edged her way further into the fortress-like town, soon walking in amongst an array of Shriekers. They made no acknowledgement of her presence, just as she'd intended.
Nami silently exhaled and allowed herself to relax, if only slightly. Nimbly, she made her way further in, careful not to brush any of the Shriekers as she passed or disturb anything. A map… she thought to herself, Anything…
Surrounded like this, she felt so exposed. She could hear them. All around her, the snarling noises of countless Shriekers passing one another. Close up like this with no need to fight them off, she could see the creatures in their proper entirety. Their feet were large and taloned, their hands equally large and clawed. Their skin seemed a gluggy, grey colour and didn't reflect the moonlight at all. The shorter ones stood at about half a head taller than her, the taller ones easily close to two and a half metres. Some of them were feasting on what appeared to be a large carcass of some sort. Whatever it was seemed to be in a state of decay.
Nami refrained from gagging. That must have been the awful reek she'd encountered upon stepping into the settlement. One of them, at least. As she travelled further into the fortress, she saw many different things, none of which she was looking for, nor wanted any dealing with. What may have once been a human's skin lay splayed across a wall, dark patches of dried blood patterning its surface. Rusted hooks aligned the walls, many featuring decayed body parts. Butcher-like tools littered the ground beneath, and Nami chose to observe no further and concentrate on the task at hand. She fleetingly evaded direct contact with the Shriekers. Some were so close, she could hear their breaths, ragged and drawn out as they passed. Nami held her own as she slowly eased around them. For a moment, she could have sworn she'd locked eye contact with one, but it moved on and she continued, her eyes scanning her surroundings for anything that might aid her.
Nami felt herself trembling but pushed onwards, further still into the settlement, her thoughts of her Nakama and Sanji's sacrifice helping to ease her fears. If she could just find a map…
Loud, heavy breathing caused her to frantically sidestep another particularly close Shrieker. As it passed, part of her could have sworn that it had been staring right at her, that her own eyes had met its dark and gaping ones. A quick glance down at herself however, proved she was still very invisible, and she wrote the encounter off at the creature merely looking through her.
But then it happened again.
And this time, the creature did not walk away. Its eyes, white and pupil-less on this one, stayed on her, even as it had passed her, and it began to circle around.
Shit… Nami glanced around for an exit in the old fortress that would be easy to make for. But she was too far in to get out without detection, though it seemed she had already been found out. She would have to run for it, any plan to find a map scrapped. She would be of best use to her Nakama now if she could get out of this situation unscratched.
Her breath hitched suddenly when she noticed the creature was not alone in granting her its attention. A harsh reality suddenly dawned. Throughout the entire settlement, right from where she'd entered, all the way to the opposite side where she'd intended to exit, the creatures were silently circling, slowly closing in. And then it occurred to her.
Had it not been here and now, she may have laughed at her own stupidity, for the fact of the matter was now obvious as the glowing moonlight against the slate-like sky. She'd used her mirage tempo to erase her visibility, thinking it could keep her safe. But the chilling reality was here plain as the ever-reaching night, and bearing into her soul with its lifeless stare.
These creatures relied on senses other than sight. They had played along all this time to lure her into their settlement before making their move.
Nami wheeled around, losing count of the now obvious sets of glowing eyes, all focused upon her. All paths to escape were blocked; it was far too late to turn back now. The Shriekers advanced upon her thirstily, their rasping vocal noises filling her ears as they came closer. Her actions of rendering herself invisible were no different to walking onto the enemy's territory with no cover and waving a set of flares.
They'd pretended not to notice her as they'd silently surrounded. In her efforts to go unnoticed, she'd walked right into their trap.
Next Time: As Nami attempts to deal with the worst-case-scenario, Luffy and Usopp encounter another danger, one that no one had taken into account. Meanwhile, Franky and Robin rejoin certain other Nakama, and together discover the Sunny, and embark on a means of recovering it…
I feel as though I need to revise a few parts of this chapter—as I will other parts of the story when I go over it—but all the important content is there (: I hope you enjoyed it. The arc starts wrapping up next chapter. This chapter was kind of quiet, but I'm thinking that this arc will end at around chapter 37, and a lot needs to happen before them. So sit tight, shit is about to go down.