The fishman stayed unconscious but alive for the better part of the following hour. Markus, with some assistance from Mirise, used the time to make sure that every spot of affected skin was gone and that every wound had been cleaned and sealed - or re-sealed, in a number of cases. He stayed by the fishman's side to make sure he wasn't getting worse, but didn't know exactly what had happened either, so he had quite the host of questions for when he actually did wake up. As he finally opened his eyes again and started groaning, Markus laid a hand on his shoulder.
"Are you alright?" he asked.
"I am... fine." the fishman replied. "Thanks to you..."
"What was... what did you do there?"
"I... I did what I had to. Are you all... unhurt?"
"Well, you took care of that lizard thing, all right... we got away with just the shock."
"That is... that is good," the fishman said and sat up. He looked at Markus and lowered his head. "Thank... thank you for trying to help me. My name is Charon... I am a medic and apothecary from Fishman Island, in the Grand Line."
"Nice to meet a fellow practitioner," Markus said and stretched out his hand. "Markus Flint. Physician from North Blue."
"That one such as you would be the one to find me... you saved my life, despite what I am, and for that I am deeply grateful."
"I only did what I knew I had to do, too," Markus said. "So what in the world was that thing? What was that pill?"
"The medicine I consumed... was a fake Steroid."
"Fake? Seemed to me like it worked pretty well..."
"There has for a considerable time existed a story on Fishman Island, a legend of a medicine that would give the one who consumed it the strength of a thousand..." Charon explained. "It has been whispered about in every corner of my home, from the Imperial Palace to the slums of the Fishman District. The miracle drug... the Energy Steroid."
"So that was..."
"The stories of the Energy Steroid are so numerous, that it is hard to know which have basis in the truth... but many are those who have tried to recreate the Energy Steroid, tried to make that which might not exist. Create the legend, become a legend... and ensure the position for fishmen as the strongest species."
"And that's what that pill was? You managed to make this... 'Energy Steroid'?"
"Far from it," Charon replied. "I was no exception, I too attempted to produce the ultimate medicine, pursue the miracle drug, but only in an attempt to understand it. That was the closest approximation I have ever produced, and it is a deeply flawed version of it. It will work, I believe, only on myself, and the increased strength that it provides lasts but for a few moments, followed by major fatigue."
"Well... it saved us, at any rate... even if I had to patch you back up again afterwards."
"I am eternally grateful for your help," Charon said as he bowed his head and put a hand on the bandages on his chest.
"Yeah, you said that already. I'm just glad I was able to help you," Markus stated. "So... do you have any idea why you were like that?"
"I believe that the condition I was in was the result of a spider biting me," Charon replied. "I wandered into a web that I did not see, and felt a sharp sting on my arm in the moment that followed... I could not see the spider itself before it had escaped, but the following morning I began finding affected spots on my body."
"How long ago was that?"
"It has been, I believe, ten days since it occured... I attempted to create a medicine with which to cure myself, and while it slowed the affliction, it was clear that it was not enough to heal my body... and I could not have performed the procedure that you did on myself."
"Well, I'm pretty certain I got all of it, at least. We burned and buried most of the affected skin, but I saved some small samples for potential study. I hope it didn't hurt too much when I cut into you, I didn't have any anaesthetic..."
"I... felt the procedure, but the pain from the affliction was a greater one than the pain from your blade," Charon replied. "Fishmen like myself are built tough..."
"Yeah, that was pretty obvious... it was more like cutting leather than skin. So, anyway... you make medicines, then?"
"Yes, I am an apothecary by trade... I create mixtures, pills, powders, potions, salves... mainly for healing the body, but some also for strengthening it, and a select few for causing harm, when such is required... but only when absolutely necessary."
"I'm a bit short of medicines right now, my last shopping trip was kind of... interrupted," Markus chuckled. "Perhaps you'll let me buy some of yours."
"Out of the question," Charon bluntly replied.
"Oh... are they only for-"
"I will not accept any money from my saviour," Charon continued. "I will gladly donate anything you might require, to return the favour."
"Oh! Well, I can't say no to that, then. Maybe I've got some medical equipment you might need, too."
"For the time being, I have little need of any additional tools..."
"Well, we might still have something you need," Markus said and looked over at the others, who were mostly gathered around the fire. "But I think it's about time to eat."
While Markus was patching up and keeping an eye on Charon, the others had, under Rink's supervision, been working on preparing the food. Getting the meat out of the lizard had taken some work, but once they had figured out how to get under the scales it had just been a matter of carving out enough chunks for seven people. They had concluded that the meat was safe to eat, even if somewhat rubbery in texture and lacking in taste. But it was by far the best they had, and so had opted to cut it into small bits and boil it in a stew. Mirise and Allen had been sent to pick up some additional cookware, plates and bowls, spices and the bag of rice from Cassandra, to add a little more taste and components to the meal. Muse had done a quick trip into the immediately surrounding forest to find some more mushrooms, since they had dropped part of their earlier harvest when escaping from the lizard. Even James had assisted, mainly with the task of cutting the meat into smaller pieces. Currently, Mirise was watching the rice, as Rink was stirring the large cauldron with the main course. She leaned down, brought the ladle to her mouth, tasted the stew and nodded.
"Food's done," she announced. "Gather 'round, everyone!"
"The rice is done too," Mirise added and stood up. Save for James, who didn't have any real choice but to remain sitting down, everyone present did as instructed and gathered around the cauldron, being handed plates or bowls and spoons by Rink.
"So, we've got lizard stew with grilled mushrooms and rice," she explained. "Dig in!"
It may perhaps have not been in the most orderly of fashions, but they lined up in front of the cauldron to get their food, Allen holding an extra plate for James. As Rink was about to serve Charon, however, he raised his hand to stop her.
"I hope you will not take offense, but I will decline the stew..." he said.
"I do not consume meat, if given the choice, even though I was responsible for killing this one..." Charon explained. "I refrain from killing as far as I am able, but it is not always a choice that is given... I will do what I must to survive."
"Huh... well, fine, we've got plenty of rice and I didn't use all of the mushrooms we found in the stew, so take what you want," Rink said. "But that's surprising... don't take this the wrong way, but I always heard that fishmen were a violent sort."
"The reputation my species has is not an unfounded one..." Charon said with a sigh. "It is true that many are quick to anger, and consider themselves superior to other beings... several among my own kin found me weak."
"Seems harsh... either way, take what you want. Nobody's going hungry on my watch."
Soon they were all sitting down in an approximate circle with their food, eating heartily. Even if they had done what they could to improve the lizard meat, it was definitely a meal eaten more for filling than for being tasty. But given the situation they were in, nobody had any reason to complain.
"So, what was that lizard, anyway?" Muse asked between bites, looking at Charon.
"I do not know if they have a proper name, but I have called them shield monitors... they are the apex predator of this island, the only large carnivores here..."
"I don't understand this ecosystem," Muse commented. "The birds and those rodents, sure... but those lizards are way too extreme for a place like this."
"I concur," Charon said with a nod. "I cannot tell if they originated here, perhaps became what they are in competition with other predators, eventually eradicating the others... or if they were brought here and took over the island. They certainly are a territorial sort, I have never seen more than one at a time..."
"At least you know how to deal with them," Allen commented with a grin.
"I have been forced to kill two of them previously... their scales are exceedingly tough, but they have soft necks... severing their head in a single strike is the only sure way to fell them."
"And you found that out when one attacked you?" Muse asked.
"No, I had earlier happened to come upon the carcass of a recently deceased one, and I took the opportunity to study it. I did not require it at the time, but I concluded that if needed, the teeth and claws might be utilized as cutting implements, and I learned about its anatomy... and so I knew how to approach if one should assault me."
"Well, I can probably think of some more ways to make use of it," Muse said and looked over at the half cut open body of the lizard. "Natural hide that tough is rare..."
"You're going to drag that whole thing with you?" James asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Maybe not all of it... but I think we need to bring it for the meat either way."
"You do as you wish..." Charon said. "But to thank you for all you have done for me, let me tell you my story..."
"Except for Markus, we didn't do that much, did we?" James whispered to Rink.
"I was a part of the Bluefin Expedition, a crew that set out from the Grand Line about a year and a half ago. Our crew consisted primarily of scholars, and our trip was one for exploration and research... but we knew that humans, especially Marines, would not be our allies..."
Twenty months earlier...
"The preparations are all complete, yes?"
"The crew has been assembled, and the Argo is ready to launch. We are looking to leave within the hour..."
"Then, on behalf of all of Ryugu, I wish you luck on your journey, and hope that you will make many important discoveries, yes."
"I don't know how much there is left to discover... or how much the humans will let us discover."
"The world has changed a lot since the Pirate King was executed, yes."
"But has it changed for the better? We fishmen have for long been considered beneath the humans... even though we are superior."
In the throne room of the Imperial Palace of Ryugu, in the center of Fishman Island in the Grand Line, a single fishman was bowing before the king. He was facing the ground with his eyes closed, with his right knee and fist on the floor. His body was primarily a greenish gray, with the fins on his head and arms outlined in bright blue, as was common in the bluefin trevally. This was Pluto Bluefin, fishman archaeologist, captain of the newly assembled Bluefin Expedition. In front of him, sat upon his throne, was King Neptune - a giant coelacanth merman, with a muscular upper body, long, orange, curly hair covering his entire back underneath his large golden crown, and a beard to match.
"Do not hate the humans..." came a weak voice from the entrance of the room. Pluto, knowing the voice well, turned his head to find the source of it.
"Queen Otohime," he said. "I did not know you were listening..."
"I... just arrived," the blonde, thin, frail-looking goldfish mermaid, queen of the Ryugu Kingdom, replied as she walked towards her husband. "I had a feeling..."
"I won't make any promises I'm not sure I'll be able to keep," Pluto said and stood up. "But the less humans we have to deal with on our journey, the better."
"You are sure you do not want any guards with you, yes?" Neptune asked as Pluto turned around and started leaving the throne room.
"I have all the people I want and need," he replied and looked back. "My king, my queen... I will return in three year's time, as agreed."
"I look forwards to hearing what you have discovered when you return, yes," the king said.
"Safe travels..." Otohime added in a meek voice as she watched Pluto exit the throne room.
"What do you really think?" Neptune asked, still looking at the door.
"About... what?" his wife asked in response.
"About these research trips," the king replied. "This is the third to launch since Gold Roger's death, yes."
"We must learn," Otohime said. "If the citizens are ever to be able to agree with the humans, we must first understand them."
"You have more hope than the rest of the kingdom put together, my dear queen," Neptune noted. "I pray that it is not misguided."
"Fancy that, a visit to the royal palace," a voice called out to Pluto as he left the main gates of the palace. "Aren't you the famous one."
"Anubi," Pluto commented as he spotted the speaker swimming in a pool of water next to the path he was walking on. A black-haired mermaid with thick glasses, wearing a black leather top, with primarily black scales on her tail with three wide fins at the end. "I told you I didn't need any accompaniment."
"Hel insisted," Anubi replied. She was a marble angelfish mermaid, and one of Pluto's crew - being the Bluefin Expedition's linguist and philologist. "You know how she can be."
"I know too well," Pluto replied. "You can tell her I'm on my way, and I take whatever time I want."
"If you say so," Anubi said as she dived back underwater and swam off, much faster than Pluto had any chance of keeping up with.
As suggested, Pluto took his time making his way to the docks where his ship, the Argo, lay ready and coated. A small group of people had gathered in front of it to see the expedition off, primarily the families of the crew. It was not the largest vessel, but it had more than enough room for its crew of seven, plus any sort of samples they might want to bring back. The front quarter of the upper deck held a pool of water, mainly for the merman and mermaid on board, but also for keeping any marine specimens they wished to study. Atop the mast, the expedition's flag was flying - a white flag with a basic, blue outline of a fish in the middle, intersected by the black outline of a quill over it. As Pluto approached, he was not surprised to see what was waiting for him - next to the gangway, a tall, slender, greenish-yellow figure, with her arms crossed. From her arms and legs, long, thin, wide protrusions draped across her body, almost giving the impression that she was wearing a dress. It was Hel, ecologist and the expedition's cook - a leafy sea dragon fishwoman - that was waiting for her captain.
"You're late," was the first thing she said as he came close enough.
"We did not decide on a specific time to leave, Hel," Pluto replied and looked up at her as he passed. She was easily the tallest of the crew, standing three heads taller than the already imposing presence of Pluto. She was quite thin, albeit appearing much larger due to her leaf-like growths. She followed him up on deck, where the rest of the crew was already waiting. There was Haros, the historian, a tiger shark fishman, the only one on the crew bigger than Pluto in all directions. Next to him, his younger brother, Charon, the medic and apothecary, a devil catfish fishman. Sitting down next to them with a book in hand, the very short, almost entirely white Izanami, the expedition's anthropologist, a white spot tetra fishwoman. And in the deck pool, next to Anubi, the ship's navigator and engineer - Somnu, an electric ray merman.
"Welcome aboard, captain," Somnu said and got out of the pool, using a piece of bubbly coral to create a floating bubble to get around on. "She's all ready to go once you give the word."
"Then there is no reason to wait any longer. I hope you have said your goodbyes and not left anything behind, because we will not be back for three years. I don't know what we'll find, but there are many mysteries left in the world, and perhaps we'll get to solve at least one of them!"
"Then here we go," Somnu announced before Argo started moving, soon breaching the giant bubble surrounding Fishman Island - marking the start of the Bluefin Expedition...