"This forest is so... alive," Muse noted as she and Allen went deeper inside the forest. "I haven't seen nature this untouched since..."
"Since when?" Allen asked in response to Muse trailing off without finishing what she was about to say. He had gone back to being a hyena, as it let him pick up on scents better.
"It... just reminds me of the forest on... the island I grew up," Muse replied, slightly reluctantly, turning away from Allen as she said it.
"Where do you come from, anyway?"
"I don't like talking about it."
"Alright, alright, I get it. It actually reminds me of my home island, too. My parents were woodcutters, we lived right at the edge of a massive forest. Hell, that thing was such a feature of the island that it's what it was named after. But I know what you mean... pretty sure I have more unhappy memories than happy ones from that place."
"Do you smell anything?" Muse asked, partly to change the subject so she wouldn't have to think of the Pua any more than necessary. Still, going hunting for the first time since her exile was going to bring up memories of hunting on Puamoku, whether or not she wanted to remember... so she decided to focus entirely on the task at hand in an attempt to keep her mind off of all the memories that surrounded it.
"Not much, no. There's the scent of those small critters, but other than that..."
"There should be something more than just mushrooms here, at least," Muse commented. Their findings so far added up to seven mushrooms and a handful of berries that they had identified as edible, albeit very sour. They knew there were birds but hadn't been able to get any opportunity to try to shoot one down, and the only other animal they knew were around was some type of small mammal. Going by the trails they had found, it appeared to be somewhere in between the size of a rat and a cat, and most likely either some sort of rodent or lagomorph. Sure, they could get meat out of an animal like that, but being that small they'd have to kill a lot of them to get enough food to be meaningful, and they didn't want to disturb the ecosystem of the island too much. Unwittingly causing the extinction of whatever it was was not quite what they were here for.
As they continued further into the forest, they had at best middling success with what they had set out to do. They gathered some more mushrooms and berries, and eventually actually spotted one of the small animals they knew were around, confirming it to be a rodent. They also came across some bird's nests and momentarily considering swiping some eggs, but nothing they had found would be a lasting solution. In either case, they were sure there had to be something else to find - an ecosystem such as this required it. Given how quickly rodents often tended to reproduce when undisturbed, and how sparse they actually seemed to be, there had to be something that kept them - and anything else - in check.
"Hold on," Allen eventually whispered. "I smell... something. Not sure what yet."
"Straight ahead, mostly."
"I'll check..." Muse replied and silently advanced. She looked around, searching the ground and the trees for signs, and soon crouched down next to one of the trunks. "That's weird..."
"What?" Allen asked and joined her. Close to the ground, slightly below eye level for Allen in his current form, the bark of the tree had been damaged. And this certainly hadn't been done by the rodents - this was something with larger claws, or teeth, or something of the sort. "What do you think?"
"A predator," Muse answered. "But I can't tell what kind."
"Which means, let's be careful."
"Yeah..." Muse said and turned around. She scanned the ground ahead of her as she kept moving, and had only taken a few steps when she spotted the first footprint. It was a strange one, though - the imprint in the ground almost looked like a human hand, with five fingers, the main difference being that the tips came to a very sharp point where it went deeper into the ground than the rest of it. Obviously something with claws, but...
"That's... new," Allen noted as he looked down at it. He brought his nose down to it and took a whiff. "And it's, well, new. Fresh." Looking up and moving in the direction of the footprint, he soon spotted another one, and then another one. Allen and Muse glanced at each other for a moment, nodded and started slowly moving in the direction the prints seemed to be heading. Muse pulled out an arrow, and they proceeded in silence for a while. They found more prints, some going in the same general direction, some going the other way - but they elected to continue on the trail they had found. It wasn't too long until they found the place the prints were leading to - a fairly nondescript hole in an elevated piece of terrain, with small bones strewn around the opening. The hole was big enough that they could easily crawl inside if they wished to, but they didn't consider that a good idea. Whatever they had found, it was definitely the burrow of the creature they were trailing... that they were hunting. If it was as big as it seemed from the tracks it left, it hopefully had quite a bit of meat on it. Muse took aim in the direction of the burrow and pulled the arrow back, while Allen sneaked up to the opening. He listened, smelled and looked, but found nothing - whatever lived here wasn't home at the moment. He looked at Muse and shook his head, when suddenly a growl was heard from behind the burrow.
They looked up and heard something approach, much faster than expected. A louder roar accompanied the arrival of the homeowner, who was now standing above the burrow and looking down at Allen. It was a reptile of considerable size - larger than Allen's hyena form, with thick gray scales over its entire body, a large mouth with sharp teeth, with a wide protrusion at the back of its head, giving it a shield-like appearance, and four stubby legs, each ending in a foot with five quite dangerous-looking claws. There was no doubt that this was a carnivore, and definitely a predator. It raised one of its front legs and started moving towards Allen, who had started backing away, when Muse let her arrow fly, striking it between the eyes - where the arrow simply bounced off. Allen and Muse exchanged a quick glance as Allen set off towards her, the reptile soon starting to follow.
"Get on my back!" Allen shouted as he approached. It wasn't the most graceful of mountings, but Muse managed to get on Allen's back, facing backwards - looking right at the creature that was chasing them. For having such short legs, it was surprisingly fast. She fired another arrow, but it too was deflected by its hide.
"What in the world is that?" she exclaimed.
"I have no idea but I don't like it," Allen replied. "Do you think you can kill it?"
"My arrows just bounce off!" Muse replied. "Hold on, let me try..." she continued and shot another one, this one catching fire as it struck - but their pursuer didn't even seem to notice it. An electric charge didn't do much either. Even if it was an unsteady ride as Allen and Muse moved back through the forest, they were helped by the fact that due to its wide head, the reptile sometimes could not pass through the trees as cleanly, often hitting them as it went past. At least that explained the bark being torn off, and while it slowed it down a bit, it didn't actually seem to bother it more than that, and they could definitely not count on it getting stuck anywhere. "This isn't working. Any ideas?"
"I don't know," Allen said. "I don't know if I can fight that thing on my own if it's that strongly armoured... we'll have to..."
"You don't mean-"
"Pretty sure it's the only choice we have," Allen replied as he sped up as much as he could. "Just hold on tight!"
Rink wiped some sweat off Markus's brow as he finished cutting away another patch of dead skin from the fishman's arm. He slowly peeled it off, placed it together with the other skin he had removed so far in a small hole in the ground, handed the scalpel over to Rink who lowered the blade into the boiling water, while Mirise - as per Markus's instructions - dabbed the fresh wound with a wad of cotton dipped in rubbing alcohol before Markus sealed it up as best as he could. It was the first time he operated on a fishman - first time he ever saw one, even, and there hadn't been a lot of mentions of them in the medical books he had studied - and if this one was any indication, they at the very least had much tougher skin than humans. More slippery, too - he had to make his cuts very slowly to avoid slipping and cutting something he didn't intend to cut, be it on the fishman or himself. He had started on the chest, getting rid of the largest lesions first, then proceeded to the right arm, carefully getting rid of every trace of the ailment he could spot. He wasn't sure how much of his incisions the fishman could actually feel, and he wished he could have administered some kind of anesthetic, but at least the patient wasn't complaining - and Markus hoped he could tell that they were trying to help him.
"So... this fishman really sounds like me?" Mirise whispered to Rink as Markus got started on the next incision.
"You know how I said you sound like the sea?" Rink whispered back. "Well, I hear the same thing here. And you're the only other living thing I have ever heard that in. Not even fish have that."
"Do you think it could mean that I'm part fishman?"
"Who knows? There's more of him that doesn't sound like you. I've never actually heard a fishman before, not that I know of, but... this guy's a mess. I don't know what they're supposed to sound like... but it certainly can't be like this. It's like... his body is in conflict with itself. Like it's hurting, in some way, beyond that... necro... face..."
"Necrotizing fasciitis," Markus corrected, apparently having heard more of their conversation than they intended.
"That. And people who are sick... they usually barely sound any different at all. So I don't know what this is."
"Huh..." Mirise said and administered another helping of rubbing alcohol. She remained curious, but decided to ask more later, when Markus was done and the fishman had woken up.
The pile of dead skin kept growing, and Markus was soon cutting away bits that were quite small, but he knew that everything had to be taken care of. He had carefully gone over the fishman's body several times, and couldn't be sure if he had actually found everything, given that he wasn't too knowledgeable about fishman anatomy. He had started removing a cluster of lesions on the fishman's back when Rink stood up and looked in the direction Muse and Allen had left.
"Um... guys?" she said.
"Wait, I'm not done with this yet..." Markus replied.
"We... might have to take a break, actually. Depending on what this is."
"What?" Mirise asked.
"Well, Muse and Allen are on their way back... but they're running and they're being chased by something that I wish I had the slightest idea what it was."
"You think they're in danger?" Mirise asked and stood up as well.
"Probably. And if they're in danger, and heading this way..."
"Then they need help," Mirise said with a nod as water started dripping from her hair. Rink pulled out a tuning fork from her pocket - and since W4, she had decided to always wear her arm guard when away from the ship.
"I can't- I have to finish this," Markus commented. He had taken off his coat and his swords, which were currently lying on the ground next to James, who was writing something in a notebook he had brought with him. He was close enough to hear that trouble was on the way, but in his state, there wasn't anything he could do even if he wanted to. Even if it was probably meaningless, just for safety's sake, he put the notebook and pen back in his pocket and grabbed one of Markus's swords. But hopefully, the rest of them could deal with whatever was about to happen.
And what happened was that Allen with Muse on his back came rushing into the clearing, with the lizard close behind.
"Muse!" Rink shouted. "What's-"
"I don't know but it's got an incredibly tough hide," Muse replied before anyone had the time to say anything else. "Do something!"
"Uh... okay," Rink offered and sent two sound bullets towards it, bullets that did absolutely nothing. She followed up with a high-pitched shriek, which momentarily stopped the lizard, but not nearly long enough for anyone to be able to do anything.
The shriek had, however, succeeded in doing something else - it woke up, to whatever degree that applied, the fishman. He opened his eyes and raised his head, looking up at Markus.
"What is... occurring..."
"Well, uh, there's some big lizard here, and-"
"The lizards here... a dangerous sort..."
"We figured that out, the others are trying to take care of it, you just take it easy-"
"I must... help... I know what..."
"You're still not in any shape to do anything, you're going to have to-"
"Please... give me... from my pack... the glass jar, with... black-and-white pills..."
"I- I don't think that-"
"Quick, you must... give me one, and... my scythe..."
"Your... what? You're in no shape to fight!"
"Oh, for-" Markus said and turned around. "Mirise, go get this guy's pack and... apparently there's a scythe too, so get that too!"
"Okay!" Mirise replied and ran over to where the fishman had been lying earlier. She found a large cloth bag with a shoulder strap that she grabbed on to, and next to it on the ground, there was indeed a scythe. She picked it up by the end of the shaft and dragged both of the items over to Markus, before rejoining the efforts to keep the lizard at bay. With four of them and their various abilities, that was currently not the biggest problem, but they were probably not going to be able to keep it up forever - and it didn't show any signs of intending to retreat back into the forest sometime soon.
"Jar, jar..." Markus opened the bag, which was filled with various containers containing an assortment of pills, powders, plants and the like. He soon found what looked like the thing that had been requested - a small glass jar, holding four oblong pills, white with irregular black spots. He took one out and looked at it for a second. "So, what is..."
"Give it to me..." the fishman repeated and opened his mouth. Markus just shook his head but did as he had been asked, and the fishman bit down on the pill with his sharp teeth, chewing it up before swallowing it. He closed his eyes for a second, rolled over so that he was facing upwards, then opened his eyes wide - and far more intense than before. The previously white sclera around his red irises had taken on a yellow hue, and the blood vessels within them had become much more visible. He shot up, almost knocking Markus over, grabbed the scythe lying next to him and started running towards the lizard. As he was approaching, his body started getting covered in black fur, and two tusks appeared at the edges of his mouth. His nose seemed to have been flattened, too. With a snarl, he approached the lizard.
"What the-" Allen said as the changed fishman leaped towards the lizard, holding his scythe behind him.
"Forgive me!" he exclaimed as he rotated his body, sending the scythe into a wide vertical swing - and before anybody had really managed to figure out what was going on, the lizard's head fell to the ground, separated from its body. Blood started spraying from the neck before the body collapsed, next to the fishman - who also collapsed, now definitely unconscious, having reverted to his regular state. He was bleeding as well. Markus stood up and looked at the scene in front of him, briefly regretting that he had let the fishman have that pill.
"Get- get him back here immediately!" he exclaimed. Allen (back in human form), Muse and Rink carried his body back to Markus, who looked at it with a sigh. Many of the wounds he had just closed had opened up again, and he quickly set Mirise to work at cleaning them again as he got started on sealing them... again.
Meanwhile, the others were taking in what had just happened. Allen looked at the body of the lizard that they had had so much trouble with, that the fishman had killed in one strike. Though it was always easier to take care of things like that when you knew what their weak spot was, he thought, and it wasn't like they had gotten any opportunities to attack it in the neck before.
"Well... at least that explains it," Rink said and glanced at the fishman. Of course. A fishman, a creature of the sea... who had eaten a devil fruit, rejecting him from the same. Of course that had to be it, the reason why his body seemed so at odds with itself. Humans with devil powers did have a certain sound to them, but the fishman sounded so different in so many other ways, that it wasn't until Rink listened specifically for that particular quality that she even noticed that it existed at all within him. That was one of the downsides to the whole thing about hearing all kinds of things - sounds that belonged to the same thing had a tendency to blend together very easily.
"That was not one of my better hunting trips," Muse sighed as she dragged a hand across the lizard's hide. It was quite the creature, this - tail included, even without the head on it was easily over two metres long. She tapped on its scales, wondering why it would need a hide this thick in a place like this. But maybe she could use it for something...
"Well, you brought something back, at least," Rink noted and walked up next to Muse before locking her eye on the lizard's body. "Sooo... you think this thing is edible?"