We are in the midst of hell.
I ignore both the gibbering voice in the back of my head and the increasingly heavy blows of hail against my tails and body as I shelter Herman from the downpour. The man has had to shift to half-beast form to retain control of the wheel, and his swearing is audible even over the howling of the storm.
So is Vinci’s.
“CUNTING WHOREMONGERING SISTERFUCKING BOY-ASS-LOVING-”
Really hadn’t expected that kind of profanity out of my captain of all people, but clearly he’s learned from the rest of the crew. And it’s not like it isn’t warranted. This storm is insane even by Grand Line standards. We’ve long since lost sight of the Grandfather - thankfully, we have their transponder snail number, so we can get back into contact afterwards - and since then we’ve had to mostly deal with hurricane-force winds, hail, and of course enough rain and wave to drown a raft full of midgets.
I may be starting to get slightly loopy from lack of sleep. I may not need that much but none is clearly not helping. But the past few days have had me on deck constantly, whether to keep someone from ending up overboard - one tail flicks out, snagging a man by the ankle and yanking him back onto the deck - or to protect the others from the hail.
“-ER-SQUEEZING- C! WAVE! TWELVE ‘O CLOCK!”
There’s a crack that temporarily draws out the roar of the rain and sea as the wave in front of us, a behemoth large enough to swallow the entire ship, parts in the middle, a shroud of mist suddenly enveloping us.
And it all...stops. The hail, the rain, the wind and waves. There’s just the mist, scattering rainbow light across the deck.
The crew slowly start to pick themselves off the deck, as I retract my tails, trying to figure out what is going on.
And then the wrecks start looming out of the fog.
“ANCHOR! DROP THE ANCHOR!”
Ends Justified grinds to a halt, the ship tilting for a moment as the anchor snags on something, before the entire ship settles with a groan.
“What is this bovine excrement?” Vinci shouts. “Kaneki?!”
“Why the hell are you yelling at me?!” I shout back.
“You’re a hundred years old and know more than anyone, you didn’t see this coming?”
I look around, seeing the wrecks - ghost ships, of all kinds, shrouded in mist - floating by. “Captain...I have no idea what this is.”
Vinci slumps slightly, putting a hand on the rail, before he straightens, and gives me a nod. “Scout ahead. See if you can find a way out of here. Everyone! This is pure Grand Line bullshit, but stay calm and we’ll probably be fine. Only one or two of you are probably going to die. Maybe.”
“Is he joking?” one of the crew members - an ex-Steel Shield, judging from the axe and roundshield he carries - asks.
Jack wordlessly points to the large sign we have long since nailed to the wall of the mainmast tower.
ARTICLES OF THE SHIP ENDS JUSTIFIED AND THE NIGHTMARE PIRATES
- OF ALL PRIZES TAKEN, SCIENTIFIC PAPERS AND EQUIPMENT GO TO THE CAPTAIN, GUNPOWDER WEAPONS AND AMMUNITION TO THE ARMORER, VICTUALS AND PROVISIONS TO THE BOSUN, NAUTICAL CHARTS AND FAMED BLADES TO THE NAVIGATOR, ET CETERA. COINAGE, JEWELRY, AND OTHER SUCH VALUABLES TAKEN SHALL BE DISTRIBUTED TO THE CREW BY THE BOSUN. THE CAPTAIN RECEIVES THREE SHARES, THE FIRST MATE TWO, THE OFFICERS ONE AND ONE HALF.
- THE CAPTAIN RESERVES THE RIGHT TO EXPERIMENT ON YOU IF HE SO PLEASES.
- KEEP YOUR ARMS AND GEAR WELL-MAINTAINED AND COMBAT READY, OR THE NAVIGATOR AND THE ARMORER WILL QUITE POSSIBLY MURDER/EMASCULATE YOU.
- NEGLECT YOUR TRAINING, AND THE FIRST MATE WILL HANDLE YOUR CASE. DO NOT MAKE HIM. WE DON’T WANT TO KNOW WHAT WILL HAPPEN.
- DO NOT DISOBEY ORDERS. THE CAPTAIN WILL CONSIDER YOU A TEST SUBJECT IF YOU DO.
- BETRAYAL OF THE SHIP OR CREW TO THE MARINES CARRIES PENALTY OF DEATH BY FIRST MATE, OR BY C, WHOEVER IS CLOSEST AND HUNGRIEST.
- IF ANY MAN OR WOMAN ATTEMPTS TO FORCE THEMSELVES UPON A CIVILIAN, THE BOSUN WILL RENDER THEM INCAPABLE OF DOING SO EVER AGAIN.
- C, DO NOT EAT THE CIVILIANS WITHOUT PERMISSION.
- THE HOUNDS ARE NOT FOR ENTERTAINMENT. IF YOU PROVOKE THEM, ANY INJURIES ARE YOUR RESPONSIBILITY.
- ALL THOSE WISHING TO BECOME SWORDSMEN WILL PRESENT THEMSELVES TO THE NAVIGATOR AFTER EVENING MEAL. HE WILL ATTEMPT TO BEAT THE FOOLISHNESS OUT OF YOU. IF YOU CONTINUE TO WISH TO BE A SWORDSMAN AFTERWARDS, CONGRATULATIONS IN ADVANCE.
- IF YOU FIND YOURSELF HUNGERING FOR HUMAN FLESH FOR EXTENDED PERIODS OF TIME, SPEAK TO THE CAPTAIN AND THE FIRST MATE, IN THAT ORDER.
- IT IS QUITE LIKELY YOU FORFEITED YOUR SOUL UPON JOINING THIS CREW. DEAL WITH IT.
- NO, THE CAPTAIN IS NOT JOKING.
“Okay,” the crewman says in a rather more subdued form of voice.
I laugh, before pushing my wings out and leaping into the air, a quick flap accelerating me forwards. I claw for altitude, flying in widening circles around the ship. The mist is thin enough to see through, even though it blurs the lines of the countless wrecks...but it blots out the sun - hell, I don’t think there is a sun here, just an omnipresent light filtering through the mist.
This place is wrong.
I grimace, trying to wrench my thoughts back on track, before flying straight ahead at speed. If there’s a way free of these wrecks, of this mist, it’s my job to find it. Equally, if I can find an island or something, that’d also be useful. Maybe there is one, and that’s the source of the mist…
There. Smoke, rising up from the mist, and the outlines of land. I fold my wings, diving low, and then-
Cracks sound out, a hail of bullets lancing up, ripping into me before I can react-
Miller lowered his Kalash, staring at the edge of the water where the huddled shape had fallen. “Damn demons,” he said flatly, scanning the mist-filled shoreline.
What the hell was this? He’d put it as one of Krasynn or Artyom’s sort of things, a hallucination or memory, but they’d been on the way from Yamantau, miles from any sort of ocean...and yet here the ocean was, along with the mists. The railway even ended right at the edge.
“Krasynn, any idea what is going on?” he asked.
The young giant, standing alongside the Aurora’s engine due to the simple basis he couldn’t actually fit his ten-foot frame into the carriage, shook his head, sending the red dreadlocks that gave him his name swaying. “Not a clue,” he rumbled, before putting a hand to the ‘sword’ - really a cut-down rotor blade - at his waist. “Colonel. That’s not a demon you shot. That’s a person.”
A couple years ago, Miller would have found this statement insane. But seeing an entire procession of insanity, from Krasnyy’s unnatural powers to Artyom’s strange empathy with beasts of all sorts to the annihilation of an entire Red Line army by the Dark Ones...well, it bred a healthy respect for that sort of insanity. Normal life had ended with the War. So he simply said “Oh.”
“No worries, I think you just pissed him off,” the giant said cheerily.
“I’M GOING TO FLOSS WITH YOUR SPINE YOU TRIGGER-HAPPY FUCK!” came the shout from the shoreline.
Miller sighed, before pointing his weapon at the...well, not a demon, but something with eyes blazing the same red as Krasnyy’s hair, and scarlet tendrils reaching out from its back. The other Spartans raised their weapons, watching the person - and despite everything inhuman about it, speech demonstrated it was at least intelligent - warily. The man paced, hands clenching and unclenching, before Artyom stepped forward, hands raised.
“Sorry about that,” the second-youngest of the Rangers and unofficial ‘Moses’ of the crew (and damn Idiot for putting that concept in everyone’s head, it was asinine) said reassuringly. “We thought you were a creature, hunting us. Are you alright?”
“Been hurt worse,” the person said grudgingly. “Still don’t appreciate it.”
Krasnyy leaned on the side of Aurora’ s engine, watching the tentacled newcomer carefully as Artyom’s natural charisma went to work.
“Alright. I’m Artyom. What’s your name?”
“You got any idea what this place is, Kaneki? We were in Russia, and now we’re here.”
Kaneki froze. “Russia,” he said flatly. “How the fuck…”
Krasnyy inhaled, and then vaulted over the Aurora’s engine, landing with unnatural grace before walking over to Kaneki.
“Krasnyy, what are you doing?” Miller asked.
“Colonel…” Stepan said. “Look at them. Closely.”
Kaneki was shorter, the same height as Miller. His features were gaunter, the skin stretched tighter by stress and malnutrition, reddish veins stretching under his eyes like twisting worms. His hair was brown, cropped short, rather than Krasnyy’s dreadlocked mane. His clothes were little more than khaki trousers and a grey tank top, utilitarian and simple in comparison to the barbaric Watchman pelts Krasnyy wore. And yet…
“Identical, the same face in two men,” he breathed. “What fresh hell is this?”
“That,” Krasnyy said, “Is an excellent question, Colonel. This place…”
“...it is not natural,” Kaneki finished.
“My senses are uncertain of what to make of it,” the giant continued. “But...a crossroads, of sorts? A mutual fraying in reality, or something of the kind. It would not be the first thing I have encountered of that kind.”
“Spare me the mystical claptrap, Krasnyy,” Miller said warily. “You. Kaneki. I assume there’s a reason you look so much like our manic psychic giant friend.”
And the fact that that sentence was something he’d uttered perfectly encapsulated exactly how insane his life was now. If he’d known, he likely never would have concocted his plan to deal with the Dark Ones when Krasnyy had showed up with a wounded Ranger on his shoulder and a traumatized young man following in his shadow. Never have found D6, fought for it, never have found out the truth about the Metro or been forced to run away when the paranoid shits at Moscow Command had branded them traitors enthralled by a mutant. Never have discovered that Yamantau was filled with horrific cannibals (and now was filled with their crisped corpses, because by the Holy Mother, Krasnyy and Artyom exercising the full breadth of their power was something to be terrified of) and that there was nothing keeping the memory of the Soviet Union, of Russia , intact as a government.
But it didn’t matter. The past was past, and even Krasnyy or the Dark Ones couldn’t change that.
“There is,” Kaneki said cautiously. “I think. Meaning of life?”
“Forty-two,” Krasnyy answered promptly.
“Queen of Escalation.”
“Make the rocking world go round.”
“Kill me now, there’s two of them,” Tokarev muttered.
“Da, and the new one looks like a walking nightmare,” Duke said with a laugh.
Krasnyy grinned. “Well, it’s answered Colonel. He’s me. Or at the very least, a variant. Multiverse theory and all that.”
“You’re telling me Idiot actually had the right idea when he started philosophizing about how you were possible?” Miller growled. “Wonderful, just wonderful. Now, Kaneki, please tell me you know a way out of this place.”
“What do you think I was looking for when you shot me?” Kaneki asked. “Hell, we just got here. You know what, stay here, we’ll come to you. Captain and crew probably need to be filled in on...whatever this is, and this is the first spot of land I’ve seen.”
“Yes, yes, bring your crew,” Miller said, waving his hand.
“Might do us some good to meet a group that isn’t trying to shoot us on sight,” Anna commented.
Elsewhere in the fog, perched atop the protruding mainmast of one of the innumerable wrecks, a skeleton and an angel regarded one another. The first, despite his inhuman appearance, wore casual clothing, a red hoodie and cargo shorts. The second wore baggy trousers as a concession to modesty, but the upper half of its stone body was unclothed, leaving the straight line of burning holes threading its torso visible, the flame within them a sullen crimson. Each of them had a companion - the skeleton, a slim woman in a dark grey outfit, the yellow-orange lenses of her buglike mask shining in the fog, the angel, an equally young man, red-haired and with dark circles around his empty eyes, a massive gourd strapped to his back. A cloud of insects shrouded the woman, a haze of sand the man.
The two equally inhuman individuals regarded one another, before turning to their respective companions.
“Serif, so he’s basically alternate you?” the woman queried. “What kind of place is this?”
“I would like to know this as well, Master Forty-Two Encompassing Rage,” the young man added quietly.
“Something very strange,” the angel mused, before turning towards the distant source of light and noise. “Fifty dollars says we aren’t the only ones out here,” he continued.
The skeleton scoffed. “Sucker’s bet,” he said.
“Then shall we investigate?”
The Nightmares were exhausted, battered, and generally out of fucks to give about the weirdness of the universe.
So, naturally, upon coming to the first spit of land, land which held some kind of gigantic huffing rail engine and a small group of soldiers in extremely advanced armor wielding strange weapons, they did the first thing that came to mind.
Which, being Grand Line Pirates, was simple and something that connected to the simplest and most primitive parts of the human brain.
That is, break out the booze and throw a massive party to celebrate surviving, drawing the strangers into it by the combination of liberal amounts of said booze, general friendliness, and in Lauren’s case, a spirited discussion about gunpowder mixes.
Vinci didn’t have time to party, though he had brewed himself a large mug of coffee. His special blend - it could wake the dead and doubled as an effective solvent for metals.
Possibilities were whirling in Vinci’s brain as he watched the ongoing celebration.
He was quite certain he’d seen a walking skeleton and a flaming statue (as in, on fire, not flamboyant) join the giant and the Kaneki he recognized, before all four had wandered off.
And that set him thinking.
It was obvious this place was some sort of crossroads, to judge from the simple fact of, well, alternate Kanekis. And he’d bet his bottom beri that all of them had experienced the same situation his own had.
But why only Kaneki and whatever companions had been brought with him? Where were their own alternates? The Nightmares counted nearly a hundred men and women, and none of them had doubles. Why only him?
“Captain! There’s ships approaching!”
“PIRATES! STRIKE YOUR COLORS!” came a shout from the distance.
“PIRATES?” came worried screaming from another direction.
Two more ships lunged out of the mists.
The first, a fat tub of a cruise vessel, something that would make a fine prize on the seas, crowded with civilians at the rails.
The second...a lean, mean Marine frigate, the mirror image of the Ends , and standing at the bowsprit…
Vinci’s brain temporarily short-circuited as he beheld a woman, tall, strong, and buxom, her hair black as his own, the same scars on her face, the same stitched-together coat…
Without diverting his eyes from the oncoming ships, he reached out and snagged the collar of the nearest Nightmare. “Bring me alcohol. Vast quantities. I wish to get very drunk right now,” he said tonelessly.
“PIRATE VESSEL!” his gender-flipped twin shouted, much louder. “STRIKE YOUR COLORS AND SURRENDER, OR WE WILL OPEN FIRE!”
“WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!” came the despairing moan from the cruise ship.
Vinci cupped his hands around his mouth. “What makes you say we’re pirates?” he shouted back.
His doppelganger wordlessly pointed at Ends Justified’s mainsail, proudly displaying their Jolly Roger.
“Okay, fair enough, but I think you’re a bit out of your jurisdiction! This mist ain’t natural, and I’m betting you’re from another world compared to ours!”
“You’re still pirates!” his doppelganger shouted back, a bit quieter this time. “And you’re stealing my look!”
“C’mon, we aren’t hurting anyone, and you lot are welcome to join the party. Besides, if a version of me became a Marine, that means you guys are a lot less of a bag of assorted idiots than our Marines, and your pirates a lot worse! We’re just sailing the seas for fame and fortune, not out to hurt anyone who doesn’t try to kill us first!”
He could see his doppelganger’s eyes narrow, before she nodded.
Vinci turned to the cruise ship. “Goes for you guys too!” he shouted. “Come and anchor with us! Leastaways we can have some company, maybe start figuring out how to get out of these mists?”
After several moments of deliberation, the ship tacked towards them.
Vinci sighed in relief.
“Ah, excellent. Always good to see unnecessary bloodshed avoided,” a voice said behind him, resonating through the entire ship.
Vinci turned slowly, facing himself. Well, if he was eight feet tall, clad in golden monk robes, and wearing what looked to be a halo of all things.
“Okay, so there’s me, the pirate, female Marine me, and I’ll bet you anything some civilian type is on board that ship,” he said slowly. “So what the hell are you, and did you bring an entire crew of equally themed versions of my own people with you?”
“I believe I am you, albeit one who strove for inner peace and spiritual well-being instead of power,” his haloed counterpart said. “And of course I did. I had little choice in the matter, due to our raft being sucked into the mists.”
“You rode a raft into the Grand Line?”
“We ride a raft wheresoever we please.”
“Fair. Now, I’m going to try to see if I can kill my own liver, so if you have any spiritualist claptrap, save it for when I’m sober enough to retort,” Vinci said flatly.
“As it pleases you.”