"So, to summarize that... Carime can't move his arms, Cagizo's jaw is broken, Cabiru almost drowned, and you have holes through both your legs. Plus, they stole gear from all of you."
"And on top of that, they got away, and blew up a battleship on their way out."
"...yes, commander," Cacira dejectedly spoke into the receiver of the snailphone, sitting in a wheelchair in the communication room of the Avasine operation fleet's flagship.
"I sent all four of you to secure the target, and now three of you are completely out of commission for lord knows how long. You've frequently been mentioned among the strongest Marines in West Blue, but after this W4 is going to be the laughingstock of the entire navy!"
"We... did not expect that level of resistance from them, and-"
"I won't deny that you got some useful information, even if it's concerning that the Demonkin have been active in these waters... but that doesn't make up for that you let a crew of mostly newcomers and nobodies walk all over you. Roland may be with them, but do remind me... who was responsible for capturing Roland in the first place?"
"It was... it was me and Cagizo."
"Being easily provoked has always been your weak point... you should have known better than to let them divide you, and crushed them in one fell swoop!"
"This... this won't happen again, once we've recovered we'll go after them and-"
"No. You are not to go after them. Not now. Not when you're recovered. Not ever! You'll be lucky to even be allowed back into active service in the foreseeable future, and that is if all of you even fully recover!"
"...Cabiru's mostly unhurt, at least let her-"
"I said no, Lieutenant. You're off the Avasine operation, all four of you! I won't force you to travel just yet, I'll let you have some time to heal... but all of you are to return to W4 within a month. Any further consequences for your failure will be delayed until then."
"I... I understand."
"That will be all... unless you have any good news for me."
"Actually... there is one thing. while we were fighting, and during their... escape, Captain Wu and her team seized a large number of documents from Mayor Lake's residence, and have been going through them."
"They have yet to find evidence of anything we could use to charge him without being seen in an even worse light, but... they have reported that they did find a little detail in his family records that I think you're going to like..."
Rink buttoned up her shirt as she left the sickbay, with a new wrapping of bandage around her chest and upper arms. Thanks to Mirise's knowledge of the winds and waters around Avasine, Aniara had already made it a good distance away from the city. The main deck was empty save for Muse, who had been waiting outside.
"Are you okay?" she asked as she started walking alongside Rink, with Markus and Charon following behind them.
"Yeah, I managed to avoid cutting myself too deep... the wrapping did its job. Thanks for the help with that... and that arrow of yours."
"More importantly, were we followed?"
"As far as I can tell, no."
"Don't think we can afford to stop, though... we'll have to keep going until we get someplace we can lay low. But we've got things to discuss with everyone..."
The four of them entered the war room, where the rest of the crew was waiting. James was sitting in the desk chair, Allen lying on his side on the floor beside it, and Mirise was sitting cross-legged on the bed with a purring Miss Moa in her lap. Charon sat down on the floor next to Allen, Markus next to Mirise on the bed, and Muse decided to remain standing, leaning against the wall opposite the cork board. Rink, meanwhile, walked up to said board and grabbed a pin from it.
"Okay... thanks for waiting, everyone. That was... quite more of an adventure than I ever expected to have in Avasine," Rink stated. "At least we got out alive and... well, mostly well."
"Are you okay?" James asked her.
"Yes, I'm fine, I just gave myself a shallow cut. But more importantly than me... Mirise, are you okay? After all that, and having to... run away from your home?"
"...yeah... I'm alright. It hurts, but... I get why dad made me leave. I know that if he really had to make the choice, he'd sacrifice the city to protect me... but now..."
"He can focus on protecting the city... as long as he knows that we protect you. And we most certainly will."
Allen chuckled. "She just took down one of the strongest elite Marine soldiers in West Blue, I don't know if she needs us for that. And I know what Cabiru's capable of, she's flattened entire pirate crews single-handedly."
"But that's the thing, isn't it? She was one of the strongest. And Mirise still managed to win against her. If you approach every fight like it's going to be an easy win for you, you're just making it more likely you'll get blindsided. Mirise had perfect knowledge of the battlefield here, so that was an advantage too... point being, we'll protect Mirise. We'll protect each other, no matter what."
"And we'll need to do that more from now on, after what we did... now that they know we're an actual crew, that I'm the captain... at least my head's probably gonna be worth a bit more soon."
"And that you can cut open battleships from a distance."
"We... really can't rely on that again. Now that they know we have that trick, they'll take measures to avoid letting us do it again. And what's more, the only reason I was even able to pull it off this time was that we could stay still. If they had been shooting at us, and we had been moving around to evade, there's not a chance in hell I would have been able to concentrate enough to land that hit. We need a consistently dependable plan for getting through blockades."
"We need a cannon," Allen said. "Or multiple."
"Yeah, that was one of the things I had planned for us to pick up in Avasine, but... looks like we'll have to do our shopping elsewhere," Rink said and turned to Mirise again. "Speaking of... where are we heading?"
"Right now we're on the route to Doromu, but I wasn't planning for us to go all the way there," she replied. "I'm not sure yet where we're gonna change our course, but the Marines are probably going to think that's where we're going."
"Alright. Let us know when you've found a good spot. As for our main quest..." Rink said and grabbed a paper and pencil from the desk, starting to scribble as she continued talking. "I actually managed to get some information out of that blond dancer. I... ended up telling him about the attack on Gondol, and in return he told me who the attacker must have been..."
"So, who are we looking for, then?" Muse asked.
"A crew I've never heard of before... the 'League of Demonkin', apparently," Rink said and tore off part of the paper, pinning a small drawing of a black ship, a thundercloud, and a demon face to the board.
"...wait, did you say Demonkin?" Allen asked in surprise.
"You heard about them from the Marines?"
"...no! I didn't... I didn't think they were real!"
"Let's see... 'When the darkness wanders in, the waves will bring the Demonkin. They will feast this ghastly night, spreading fear and ghastly blight...' and so on."
"I reiterate, what?"
"It was a ghost story on the island I grew up... and on some more places in South Blue, with local variations. They were usually thought of as a band of ghost pirates, coming in the night to steal away children and turn them into demons to become part of their crew... I never thought it was based on a real pirate crew."
"Was this an old story?"
"It was around when I was a kid, at least. But there's crews that have been active for longer than I have been alive, crews that outlive their founding members..."
"But if they've been around for that long, surely there'd be more stories about them?"
"He said... they rarely leave survivors. Those who survive are too traumatized, the Marines don't want to spread the story, and consider our encounter with them. We learned nothing about them. They're not a crew that loudly advertise themselves, so even those who survive might not know who attacked them," Rink said. "Which brings us to the one lead I also managed to wrangle out of him."
"And what was that?"
"A Marine who survived their attack on a Marine outpost, and that was in South Blue. I don't know when that happened, but she's now a Rear Admiral and got a permanent assignment in the Grand Line five years ago. Lydia Spaulding, also known as 'Black Iron Lydia'," Rink said and wrote her name down, pinning it to the board as well.
"Her I have heard about, but nobody said anything about the Demonkin when mentioning her... just something about bravely defending a base."
"A story from South Blue, hmm..." Rink said and turned to Markus. "Markus, Muse.... you're from North Blue, any ghost stories about the Demonkin there?"
"Evil ghost pirates are a pretty common story, but that name isn't something I've heard," Markus said.
"Me neither," Muse added.
"Charon, what about in the Grand Line?"
"I have never come across such a story," Charon stated. "Brother Haros told me many of the stories he had found, but none made mention of any 'Demonkin'."
"Right. So... they're most likely from South Blue, then. A ruthless crew that's become a ghost story..."
"We've picked quite the target to go after, huh... if even the Marines haven't been able to do anything about them in all those years, how are we going to stand a chance?"
"...I don't know," Rink admitted. "I do think we should follow this lead, but we're not gonna be heading for the Grand Line right away... I'd like to see if we can find out something more first, and with all I've heard, we're not strong enough for it. So... let's focus on that for a bit, and what we learned from fighting the four clowns. As for me and James... we won in the end, but it was more thanks to luck and deception than any actual fighting skills we had. It made me realize that I'm not going to be able to rely on my powers the way I have until now, I'll have to do more with it. Gonna have to figure out how to use that sword without cutting myself. We need to figure out how to fight more effectively together. Allen, Mirise, you fought together today, how did that go down?"
"We mostly tag-teamed them," Allen replied. "Switching who was fighting who when needed... and when they started doing their combo attack, we had to think fast to come up with something. So we did a thing together to get in again, then we had them divided until Cabiru fell in a hole... Mirise took care of her, then helped me getting Cagizo off balance so I could knock her out."
"You did some combo thing too?"
"I just rode on Allen and used my water so we could get through a wall of fire."
"It worked, but was something we had to come up with on the fly to deal with that specifically, not really a duo fighting style, you know?"
"Yeah. Quick thinking like that is good too, of course. Muse, how about you?"
"Wasn't much to learn, honestly... he kept whipping my arrows, so I slowed down his arm, then took him out."
"Hm. Okay, that might have been less to go on than I thought. So... training it is, when we have the opportunity. And if anyone has any ideas, I'm open."
"Actually..." Muse started.
"We need to consider our tools, too. I won today because I had made new arrowheads with the thorns from that guy's whip we took last time. Took his whips after the fight today to make more. You all took something, but... were you planning on using it, too?"
"Not really," Allen said. "Just wanted to make sure they wouldn't."
"We don't fight like they do, so we wouldn't use their weapons like they do. But I can take a look at them, see what could be made with them... and who could use it best."
"That guy's gloves fit me," James added.
"Noted, James," Rink said. "Alright, that's a very good thought, Muse. I'll admit, I didn't really think of that much... we made use of the torch Allen threw our way, but just as a spur of the moment thing and it didn't really fit either of our fighting styles. So, you get to work on that. Like I said, I've got my singing sword to figure out, so unless you come up with something super special for me, concentrate on everyone else for now."
"You're the strongest of us, any thoughts?"
"Not... not really, coming up with strategies isn't really my thing... I guess I could show some of you how to punch better," Allen said while rather clearly looking at one person in the room.
"Don't think I don't see you," James quipped in response.
"Keep it cool, you two. But still, anything that could help... and most of us could probably do with some kind of training from a seasoned fighter, which most of us kinda aren't. But, what I really want to emphasize of what I mentioned before is that we need to start working more as a team. No matter who of us ends up fighting together for one reason or another, we should be able to support each other, play off of each other's skills and abilities. So that's something I want you all to keep in mind. Markus and Muse have got experience with that already, of course, but I do want everyone to start considering ways we could work together, mainly but not only when it comes to fights. Ways to get out of situations, as well... like when we were cornered today. Everybody got that?"
"Okay. Good. I don't think we're gonna get much further with this for now... also, nobody seemed to have any serious wounds, but Markus and Charon should probably give everyone a checkup anyway."
"Sure," Markus replied.
"While you do that, I'll cook us some dinner, then we need to get some good rest. And... Markus, Charon, I'm sorry to ask even more of you, but since you weren't fighting, would you mind taking first watch? Just want to be sure the Marines won't sneak up on us while we're sleeping..."
"I do not mind."
"Good. James and Muse take the second shift, and... if needed, me and Allen take the third. Alright?"
"Then that's it for today. Get yourselves to the sickbay, and then to the dining room. I'll whip up something simple," Rink stated to finish up their meeting, with her heading to the kitchen and the rest of the crew to the sickbay. Some bandages and potato soup later, most of the New Harmony Pirates headed belowdecks for an early bedtime after an intense day. James and Allen entered the boys' room, only to find that the large wardrobe had fallen over, spilling clothes and bags out on the floor.
"Must've happened during our escape from Avasine," Allen said. "It wasn't an entirely smooth ride, they did get some hits in on us... guess that thing wasn't as secured as we thought."
"Ah, this is a mess..." James said as the two of them worked together to raise it back up.
"Well, I can't be bothered to clean all of this up now," Allen stated and grabbed a cloth sack, but as he had not paid enough attention to which end was which, some silver goblets started falling out of it. Allen picked one up. "What the..."
"Don't touch that!" James suddenly exclaimed, lunging for the item Allen was looking at, but he quickly moved his arm away.
"Hey!" Allen said and continued studying the goblet. It had a somewhat ornate design, and the bowl had a prominent crest featuring a large bird of prey spreading its wings, holding a flower in its beak and a sword in its claws.
"Give me that!"
"This emblem... this is the crest of a noble family. Where'd you get this?" Allen asked and started pulling out some more items from the sack.
"I, uh... found them," James replied.
"Plates, cups, trays, in silver and gold..." Allen said as he looked through the contents. "And it's the same crest on all of them. And they don't look like they're from long ago... you didn't find these."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"I've been traveling and scavenging for over fifteen years. The only way you'd have gotten this collection is if you always had it. Or you robbed the same family of all their belongings... and as much as I would love for you to prove me wrong, blondie, I know you don't have that in you. These were yours to begin with, weren't they?"
"These belonged to your family. You're a nobleman!"
"No!" James exclaimed and pulled the goblet from Allen's hands. "Don't ever call me that!"
"I could never be a nobleman... because I respect other people's lives!"
"Dude... calm down," Allen said.
"You have no idea what-"
"Hey!" the nightgown-clad Rink shouted as she entered the room, interrupting James. Muse and Mirise were right behind her, and having heard the commotion, Markus and Charon soon joined them as well. "What's going on here? Why are you screaming? And what's... all this?" she asked, indicating the mess on the floor.
"The... the wardrobe had fallen over, and..."
"And it turned out that this guy had been hiding his family treas-"
"Look, I just..."
"See for yourself," Allen said and tossed the sack in front of Rink before James had any time to stop it. She picked it up, inspecting the contents.
"This is... worth a lot," she noted. "With all of this, couldn't you just have bought a ship and hired a crew? You went through all that trouble just get me and Mirise to join you, on that small boat you built yourself..."
"Then what's the point? That would've been just like what the nobles always do. Pay other people to do things for them. Get everything served up. Don't have any experiences outside your carefully arranged life, and learn nothing."
"James... what's this really about? I don't really care much for nobles either, but this... this seems to be rather personal for you."
"I... alright. I suppose that if I should tell it to anyone... it's you guys, now that we're a crew and all," James said and picked up a goblet, looked at the crest, and sighed. "Allen... is right. I was born a nobleman. And..." James put his hand over his face.
"James isn't my real name."
To be continued in Volume 07: Feathers