Before I knew it, over a year had passed, and here we are. A year filled with work, uni, studying overseas, more work, and using what little spare time I had to immerse myself in other fandoms. But! I'm still going to finish this story.
This fic… is a big mess in that I haven't reread it in longer than since I've updated it. The reason I'm able to update this chapter is because I left myself a lot of notes on what to do over the next 3~4 chapters to end this arc, and finally commence the final one so that this fic can be finished. It's a little more difficult now than it was back in the day, because I haven't read Bleach in over a year either, and am not really into it anymore, though I still love the characters of course.
I'd also like to apologise to Nami for leaving her on the edge of a cliff for so long. Let's get you outta there…
Chapter Thirty-Four: Lesson Three—Do Not Forget
They'd been travelling for almost another hour by the time they settled on using the sled again; there appeared to be nothing of use on the flat. Usopp figured it a safe space, yet with no satisfactory shelter, the cold posed danger on its own. Heading down the mountain was their goal anyway, even if it was little by little; it seemed a very high mountain, and any progress, even if small, was still progress. That was the optimistic side of him talking, of course.
Luffy's cries of glee seemed to match his own of terror as they descended the slope once more.
"Not so fast!" he yelled as they zipped down the mountain continuously gaining speed and becoming airborne at irregular intervals, "Slower! Slow down!"
At the very least, Luffy's spirits seemed to soar with the sled, and it was definitely better than he'd felt over the past few days, even given their situation. He hadn't forgotten about it of course, but like all things, enjoying themselves and having fun where they could made it easier.
Finally, they came to another flat, about five metres wide before the slope steepened once again. But this would do for now.
Usopp peered up the mountain in mild concern and Luffy followed his line of sight. It was just the same as before. It had been the same all the way down, a lack of trees, or the occasional flattened husk of one. "I wonder why there're no trees growing in this area," Usopp voiced for a second time.
He'd said something about it earlier as well, but Luffy hadn't been paying attention. It wasn't really something he was concerned with. "Who cares?" Luffy responded with a wide grin, "No trees means it's easier to go down the mountain real fast."
Usopp side-eyed him with a slight frown. "And that's a good thing?"
"I think it is!" Luffy chirped in response, "It's not like there's anything for us to crash into, if that's what you're worried about. Oh other than those fire holes of course, but we can go over those, easy!"
The lack of trees certainly made it easier to zip down the mountain at high speeds, and if that wasn't a plus, Luffy didn't know what was. At any rate, there were other things to be concerned about aside the lack of vegetation on this side of the mountain. Usopp was aware of this, of course. They both were.
"Alright," Usopp said, "But we'll go along here for a while before we use the sled again, right?"
And so they continued for a little while, occasional friendly banter between them making the trip less tedious. But soon the mist was closing in around them again. Luffy let his laughter from Usopp's latest joke die down a little and brought up his guard. They still needed to be careful. Especially himself given his condition, even if he wouldn't admit it out loud.
As the fog crept in heavier still, Usopp didn't even need to be told. Luffy noticed him quivering slightly where he stood, but he otherwise betrayed no sound.
With no trees around, there were no leaves to crunch, no twigs to snap, no sounds of the sort that could help confirm extra presences. But the light from a nearby pit, as it glowed in the deepening fog cast shadows across the white-slate of landscape, profiles that were not their own. Without even realising it, both Luffy and Usopp had drawn to a stop. Somehow, they'd ended up positioning themselves back to back, an unspoken agreement between the two of them that this was the position they'd be needing most for what was undoubtedly coming.
A vocal sound, non-human vertebrated from the mist nearby, Usopp silencing it with a projectile before it had time to repeat itself. But even then, they did not slacken their stances; this battle was not over. There would be more. There were always more.
"Luffy, over there!" Usopp shouted.
Luffy turned, noting one of the shrieking creatures coming up through the fog on his left. A clear hammering kick to its gut sent it sprawling several meters, a dusting of snow flicking up before it fell into one of the island's many crevices. He retracted his leg and grimaced slightly. Stretching even smaller distances still caused discomfort. If only getting rid of them all was that simple. The rasping cries and shrieks of the attacking creatures filled his ears for the next several minutes. But he would keep fighting, he and Usopp both.
A new chill filtered into the surrounding atmosphere once the Shriekers began their retreat; a new enemy had appeared.
"Not these guys," Usopp muttered from behind him.
Luffy tilted his head in vague confusion as an apparition flickered amongst the few enemies still facing them. "Ghosts?" He realised he'd encountered them earlier, after being separated from Ichigo and before joining Usopp.
Usopp retrieved a handful of ammo from his bag. "Fire Bird Star!" the fiery projectile worked well, causing numerous of the growing number of spectres to disperse. However, this was met by a new problem. "Crap! I don't have much ammo left," Usopp cursed.
"It's alright," Luffy said, "I can take care of this…"
Another dozen of the spectres began encircling them just as the last of Usopp's firebird depleted.
"Cut that out!" The wave of conquerors Haki passed over his friend, and out to the spectres.
It seemed to do the Job. The spectres fled, seemingly dissolving into the night as they went.
"Are they gone?" Luffy asked after a few peaceful moments.
He felt his knees buckle, but Usopp grabbed his arm, swinging it over his shoulder. "Nice work, Luffy," he said.
Luffy grinned in response. "Don't mention it!"
"Uhh… you can turn your Haki off now though."
"Huh? I have, Usopp."
"What's with all that rumbling then?"
"Hm?" It then occurred to Luffy that there was indeed some sort of rumbling, and it wasn't coming from himself. Not even his stomach (which, whilst it was rumbling, was not the cause of the tremor in the ground around them).
In the moonlight, Usopp's skin paled to the colour of the snow and cinders around them. "Don't you hear that?" he asked quietly.
Luffy strained his ears. At first he might have thought it to be his own heartbeat, but it didn't take much to realise that was not the case. It was audible now, and growing louder by the second. A heavy, rushing, tumbling sound, coming from up the mountain like an angry deity cursing the island beneath it. Like a distant groaning of thunder it grew louder and more acute before it could reach a closer field of viewing.
"We need to get out of here," Usopp stated.
Luffy was about to respond when a massive wall of snow appeared from somewhere above them, hurdling down the mountain at an impressive speed. There was no need (nor time) to voice his agreement.
"Avalanche!" Usopp hollered. He hastily pulled Luffy the few metres to the next slope, before sitting them both down onto the sled. This time, unlike before, keen to go at a fast speed. "Go go go!"
Using their combined leg strength, the two of them pushed themselves down the icy slope, with no care for speed. It made more sense now, the lack of trees on this part of the mountain. It, unlike the rest of the island, had been free of forest, though had sported the occasional flattened tree. Avalanches must have been a common occurrence.
"Faster faster faster!" Usopp chanted, a vast contrast to his earlier pleads.
But the wall of white behind them was gaining fast, and their little strip of wood had no hope of outlasting the ferocity of the uncaring mountainside.
"Damnit," Luffy heard Usopp curse, before they were both consumed in a tsunami-like reach, their sled splintering beneath them.
Usopp had never actually wondered what it would be like to be placed in a washing machine full of ice on full-ball. But if he ever did, he would envision something a lot similar to what he was now experiencing. The wave of snow was something a lot like water. Technically it was, frozen water. He'd been dumped by waves whilst playing in the surf his fair share of times, and the sensation was something similar. Except this was more prolonged. This was colder, darker, and far more disconcerting.
After what felt like an age, the tumbling finally ceased. It was as though they'd been digested and devoured by a raging and uncaring snow spirit, to be spat out the other end in a disorientating icy jumble. His head was spinning. Was it over? Which was is up?
Survive. That was Usopp's first instinct, Make sure we both survive.
He had no idea how much snow they were buried beneath, but it felt heavy. He had a firm arm around Luffy, the convenience they had not been separated a small comfort. It didn't change the fact however, that they'd just been buried by an avalanche, which by primary nature was not a good thing. Heck, being on this island was not a good thing to begin with, though they were well past the point of establishing that. Luffy was right beside him, at least. But they certainly couldn't stay here.
Air. They needed an air pocket at the very least. The snow around them had not yet set, Usopp could shift his free arm easily enough to burrow some breathing space around himself and Luffy. But it was to almost no avail; movement would cause more snow to shift into the vacant space. This proved a dilemma—in order to breath, they had to remain still. In order to escape, they had to move.
Moreover, they had to warm up. It wouldn't do if they were frozen beneath all this. They had to get to the surface. But… which way was that? Usopp has the sneaking suspicion that it was in the direction of his feet, the avalanche having flipped him around so many times before disposing him the wrong way up. Damnit, if only he could get a proper hold on things…
Sounds came from up above them. Voices.
Shit. Something's here.
Digging sounds came from what Usopp presumed was the 'up' direction. The pressure seemed less after only a few moments.
Before he could do anything, Luffy was jerked from his grip, his friend disappearing into the world above. Panicking, he opened his mouth to call his captain's name, only for the icy particles around him to pour in, still loose and uncompressed all round him. At this rate, if he tried to dig himself out, he was only going to be buried deeper. But he needed to try, for Luffy.
What had dug him out anyway? Usopp's mind scanned over all the creatures he'd encountered thus far before a pair of large hands found his body, and he too was hefted to the surface.
The fresh night air was a welcome asset to his lungs, at least. Usopp spluttered, breathing deeply, but was more concerned by the situation at hand. He quickly reached for his Kabuto—safely secured on his back the whole time—whilst noting that whoever or whatever had pulled them out wasn't attacking, not now at least. He had to take the chance.
He rummaged his bag immediately, but his hands found only snow in place of ammo. Apparently he couldn't hold onto anything in that jumbling void.
"Whoa, bro! Relax," a familiar voice ushered him before he could resort to any backup plan. "You okay, bro?"
"Huh? Franky?" He was still in the cyborg's hold, having been pulled up from the ground by him, not unlike a weed. "Franky! Boy am I glad to see you! Luffy and I were—wait, Luffy is—"
"It's alright, we've got you both," Franky informed him.
Usopp finally took a moment to observe his surroundings, to find Robin standing nearby, her arms folded around a shivering Luffy.
"You guys are going to be super okay," Franky assured with a grin.
"Good run, Usopp," Luffy sniffed with a grin, raising a trembling thumbs-up.
Unbelievable. Literally buried in an avalanche and still had good spirits about him. His captain never failed to amaze. "We're not dead," Usopp exhaled, before laughing. "Just as I intended!"
"Of course," Franky commented offhandedly. "Well, you guys were pretty super back there."
"You could see us?"
"Only just," Robin contributed, "Had it been much foggier, Franky may not have spotted you at all.
"Super night vision!" Franky answered
"Awesome!" Luffy exclaimed, thought with notably less energy than usual as he settled into Robin's hold.
"You made plenty of noise however," Robin said, "I thought you were being killed."
"We were, almost!" Usopp spluttered in response, suddenly realising just how cold he was himself, "Ahhh… c-can we move closer to one of those fire craters? I could still be killed from the cold!"
"We can move a little closer to one," Robin said, before looking to Franky, "But then we should hurry."
He nodded in response.
"Hurry for what?" Usopp asked.
"Robin and I have found the Sunny," Franky reported, "Now we just need to reclaim it…"
Nami gritted her teeth as her grip over the Climatact tightened. Not that it would help her out any in a situation like this. In the darkness, numerous sets of glowing, menacing eyes peered at her, a ravaging thirst and hunger present in each. And there were so many!
I'm… I'm going to get out of here… Nami rationalised with herself as calmly as possible, which meant she was trembling all over.
There was no visible opening in the haphazard circle they'd ensnared her in, their grunts and growls a constant humming in the night, like a melodiless symphony edging towards its climax. Nami did not want them to reach it.
It was not long before they attacked, seemingly all at once. Nami was surprised at just how ready she was.
"Thunderbolt Tempo!" she shouted, summoning a quick thunderstorm and smiting a number of her challengers where they stood. If she could just get in a few more good strikes like that one… There'll be an end to them!
However, the relieving thought had come too soon. A high-pitched whizzing sound protruded the air, and before Nami could react, a sharp prick of pain embedded the small of her back, through her coat. It was just like the one they'd gotten Sanji with earlier.
Swearing under her breath, she removed it immediately, focusing on the imminent dangers at hand. Her coat was thick, the dart only managing to puncture the top layer of skin. Not enough to effect her entirely, but her movements had become sluggish all the same.
A sudden tug caught her off guard and her Climatact toppled to the ground, out of her reach. In her peripheral vision, she saw the Shrieker launch just a moment too late.
The body collided into her own, sending her skidding across the icy ground and narrowly missing a crevice. The Shrieker was upon her before she could to any more, its awful body grabbing at her arms in attempt to further disable her.
She rolled, desperately grasping to gain upper hand over the monster. This one was not much bigger than her, thankfully. If it were one of the larger ones, things would prove more difficult. And they would if she didn't defeat this one in time—she could hear the growls and snarls of others nearby, larger than the one she was fending off presently. The crevice beside her meant an instant, fiery death. Whilst there was still hope and whilst her Nakama were still out there somewhere, Nami would not resort to that. And if those Nakama had taught her anything, it was that there was always hope.
The muscles in her arms burned as she pushed the mass off herself, and it toppled into the crevice below, disappearing with a satisfying gurgle and hiss of flames. She launched herself for her Climatact just as the Shrieker had done her. She was so close, just inches away from grapping her staff and delivering the Shriekers the lightning show of their lives. All she would need was half a second and—
A large gnarled hand grabbed her entirely by the upper right arm. Another took her legs, bowling them out from beneath her entirely. The distance between herself and the Climatact suddenly grew until there was no hope of reaching it.
Nami found herself thrashing, but to no avail; she'd been completely overpowered and they were taking her. Panic like no other bubbled from deep within her.
What were they doing? Where would they take her?
They drew to a stop after only a few moments, on the edge of a frozen-over lake. Nami gasped; on the rock beside her was a long-dead corpse, preserved by the cold. It appeared to have been partially dismembered. So this was what became of those poor souls who ventured to this part of the Forgotten Glade. Nami's breath hitched as her hands were bound to a likewise stone with use of a painfully barbed wire and knew that whatever process transpired for that corpse was about to begin for her.
However, before they could continue, something odd happened. An eerie silence bestilled the creatures as their awful vocal sounds suddenly quietened. Nami soon realised that their attention was no longer on her, but rather another entity out there in the mist, indistinguishable from the fog. And then, as quickly as they silenced, they seemed to tense up. Nami found it strange that panic was such a universal emotion, even amongst monsters such as these. Seemingly forgetting her, the Shriekers fled. And Nami found panic of her own.
She'd only encountered one thing that had made the Shriekers act like that. And she never wanted to meet it again. Struggling against her confinements, she noticed the towering figure in question slowly loom into view just on the edge of her scope of vision.
Whether or not the figure was totally silent or made noise as its feet glided over the ice of the embankment, Nami was unsure; the sound of her own blood pumping as her heart raced was the only thing she could hear as she struggled. An entity such as this, which could send ferocious creatures such as the Shriekers into such fear, was something she barely wanted to imagine, let alone encounter.
After what felt like an age, her trembling hands broke through the bonds. She payed no mind to the way the barbed wire cut through her flesh. She's deal with it later. With only two steps, she found herself flat on the ground. Damnit… not now!
Her adrenaline would keep her going long enough, she figured. As swiftly as she could, she got to her feet and ran, her mind only focusing and hanging on to the tiny fact that she had to get away. But she knew her pace was slow, and that whatever had chased the Shriekers away was quickly catching up. She knew she was growing tired and that it could see her. She could feel its gaze on her, the target of its advancing trajectory. It was just like a nightmare and she couldn't escape.
Before long, a hand ensnared her by the upper arm, and Nami finally found voice enough to scream, as if such a thing would frighten it off. She clenched her eyes shut and tried to force herself out of its vice-like grip. It didn't work, despite her struggles.
But something was different. The grip was strong, there was no doubt about that. But unlike the Shriekers, it wasn't hostile. It was… gentle.
Nami opened her eyes, her vision finally swimming back into focus. She blinked, her breathing steadying. "Brook?"
Relief settled in the skeleton's lidless eyes. "Yes, Nami-san," he answered, the sound of his voice helping to soothe her all the more, "It's me. Are you alright?"
Nami nodded, her mind replayed the events as she straightened up, trembling and trying to make sense of what had just happened. "You…" she began, "You're…" An intense relief washed over her and she suddenly found herself leaning into the warmth (or lack thereof) of her Nakama, trying to hold back tears of that relief as Brook linked a gentle arm around her in return, smoothing out her hair. "Brook, those monsters… they… Sanji-kun and I got separated… I can't find any of the other's… it's—"
"It's alright, Nami-san," Brook said, "You've been through a lot in a short amount of time, I presume. But don't worry yourself any further. It will be alright. We'll find Sanji-san and the others, you'll see."
Nami sniffed and nodded, pulling back as Brook guided her safely out of the clearing whilst explaining something about the creatures fearing him. Nami didn't hear much of it, her drowsiness from the battle starting to settle in. With Brook's hand over her shoulder again, she figured he was guiding her to someplace to rest for now. It would be a little while before they saw the others, it seems. But it was okay. Nami let her mind wander as she felt herself relax all the more, trusting herself to the song that she knew so well.
A few hours passed, by which Luffy recovered most of his strength (the prospect that reclaiming the Sunny would mean access to meat seemed to help) and Usopp had found himself warm to the point he was satisfied he would not be turning into a human icicle. He also found himself positioned within the confined of an on-the-spot canon Franky had miraculously crafted from nearby ruins.
"The Sunny is just over that ridge," Franky reported, "But so is some sort of colony of those creatures. It's in their territory, and I don't think we can just walk in and ask for it back… Do you all understand the plan?"
"Yes," Luffy said right away, earning questionable glances from his crewmates.
"Why do I have the crap job?" Usopp asked, deflated.
"You're most suited for it," Robin assured, "And don't worry. We'll make sure you're not killed horrifically."
"I'd rather not be killed in any way," Usopp replied, retreating further into the canon before Franky spoke again.
"Are you ready to fly, Usopp?"
Usopp gulped, adjusting his goggles over his eyes. He would be needing them. "Do I have to answer that?"
"Good point. Do us proud."
On Franky's action, the canon went off. And Usopp flew.
Next time: Luffy, Usopp, Franky and Robin fight to reclaim the Sunny as the others continue to search for and find each other (among other things they were not searching for but happened to find them) and the mystery within the mountain is revealed in the execution of the climax…
Only about 3 chapters of this arc left, all of which should be out within the next 15 months! Thank you to all who stuck around for this chapter. It was pretty sluggish for me to get through, I guess I'm just rebuilding my momentum for this fic (in case this chapter seemed somewhat off). At any rate, I'll probably look over this chapter again once I'm fully in touch with the story and fix the parts that were bothering me (: Thanks!