Chapter 79

Cross-Brain AN: A friendly recommendation: when the SBS starts ringing, try listening to "Land of Confusion" by Genesis to set the mood.

In the heights of Marineford, darkness blanketed the Fleet Admiral's office. The shades were drawn to blot out the outside lights, and the few gaps in the doorway barely let in enough light to illuminate the room. Yet little was present for the light to fall upon. The walls and floors were bare, the desk cleaned off and cleaned out. The only thing of note was the emeritus in the chair.

All that was left of the preparations for the upcoming battle was to wait for Vice Admiral Doberman's return. The interim left Sengoku alone with his thoughts, which circled in his head like vultures. When had it all gone so wrong, he wondered? He was sorely tempted to pin it on the day Jeremiah Cross exited his mother's womb, but he knew himself too well for that to stick. Jeremiah Cross had had nothing to do with the many morally questionable, or outright evil acts he had signed off on as Fleet Admiral. Or as an Admiral. Or even as a Vice Admiral.

When had it gone wrong? The more Sengoku thought about it, the more he knew that the right question was, "Was it ever right?"

A quiet sigh escaped his mouth. There came a knock at his door. Three tentative raps. "Enter," Sengoku called out. The door swung open, showing another of the hundreds of faceless ensigns working as couriers.

"Fleet Admiral, sir, we've gotten word from Vice Admiral Doberman," the ensign reported, not a single quiver in his voice despite his shaking legs. "His ship has arrived with the prisoner. They're debarking him right now."

"Thank you, ensign. Dismissed."

The junior officer all but fled the office. With a sigh, Sengoku stood, his old bones creaking in protest. "Just one last time," he murmured to himself, before striding out the door.

"Time to end this."

MARINEFORD MISERY

-START-

Ace had thought his lowest point had been when he'd learned that he had motivated his kid brother to dive into Hell to try and save him. But that paled in comparison to having a true friend on the other side of the law standing by him as he prepared to die, to the thought of losing all of his family…and to dying without seeing Sabo again.

His face was a mask of misery as Isuka led him from his holding cell to the execution platform, where a scowling Sengoku waited to receive him. If he'd had the stomach to look at him for any amount of time, he may have noticed that the ire wasn't directed at him, but he had other concerns.

Namely, the view from the execution stand of the gathered army. The might of the world incarnated in the army assembled before him, all for the sole purpose of watching him die.

According to Jinbe, the events of Enies Lobby had robbed the Navy of thousands of their soldiers. But though many of the assembled troops were distinct from the standard uniforms, the numbers were everything that Ace expected for the Navy's best effort. Ultimately, what were mere thousands out of an organization designed to enforce the Government's law everywhere that the sun shined?

The answer, it seemed, was that it was a drop in the ocean, if that.

And as great as their numbers were was how low Ace's chances of survival were.

-o-

On Sabaody Archipelago, the Revolution had banked its fires. Every slaver left on the archipelago had died, been imprisoned, or fled, mostly with solely the clothes on their back.

And the pirates responsible for most of the damage hadn't even had half a day to celebrate before the news broke of Fire Fist Ace's execution, carrying with it a memo that the Archipelago had the privilege of having a live Vis-Snail feed played in all public squares.

And thanks to the purge, there was nary a businessman left on the island crass enough to peddle their wares in the face of war. Thus, in the hours before the execution, massive crowds gathered in front of the Government-provided screens with not even a funnel cake to take their minds off the scene at Marineford.

And what a scene it was. The seawall of Marineford, and the plaza in front of the execution tower itself, was crowded with troops so densely none of the stonework could be seen. More battleships than any of the observers had ever seen guarded the waters around the island. And given many of the observers were dedicated ship-watchers in this archipelago so close to Marineford, that was saying something.

As the time neared mid-morning, one particular grove had drawn Prince Fukaboshi of the Ryugu Kingdom, who had spent the last five minutes eyeing the gathered might of the Marines alongside his guards.

"It's an encirclement play," he finally said, pointing to the prongs of the circular harbor. "Look, those are their least capable troops. And the battleships are poorly positioned to properly stop a frontal assault on the harbor. In contrast, all their officers are concentrated in front of the execution platform. They're there to absorb the assault, fix it in place, and let the battleships slam the door shut."

"Aye, I tend to agree, my Prince," agreed a grizzled merman knight next to him, who stroked his chin. "And I'll bet the royal treasures that they have several surprises in store."

"I think that goes without saying." Fukaboshi's eyes narrowed. "What I'm wondering is who all those strange soldiers are."

The veteran knight narrowed his eyes. He could just spot a line of fur-clad warriors nestled right at the front of the army, arguably garnering more attention than the Navy's last high-ranking behemoth, John Giant.

"Not Marines," he declared. "I shudder to think what hole the Navy dug them out of for them to be fit for this battle."

Abruptly, the camera feed zoomed in on the execution platform, where Fleet Admiral Sengoku could be seen beside Ace. "It's starting!" Fukaboshi hissed, pointing to one mermaid soldier clutching a baby Transponder Snail. "Call the Rip-Off Bar, tell them that Sengoku and Garp are taking the field. It's going to start soon."

There was a pause as a Marine ran something up to the Fleet Admiral. Something that was shortly revealed to be a Transponder Snail at a very, very familiar sound.

"Don don don don!"

Abruptly, those few in the crowd who had Transponder Snails heard the ringing coming from them, too. And Fukaboshi was one of them.

"Pick up that snail!" he barked, one of his soldiers immediately doing so.

-o-

In every corner of the world, the people huddled by their snails wasted no time answering the call. But the start to this SBS was subtler than any ever before. The other side carried complete silence and the snails' expressions were mostly unchanged. Many would have thought that there were technical difficulties, were it not for the very familiar fire in the snails' eyes.

A minute passed in silence before, finally, the Voice of Anarchy spoke.

-o-

"No jokes. No ploys. No levity. This is the beginning of the end, so let's cut straight to the chase: I know all of you at Marineford are listening to me right now."

Cross's voice was quieter than anyone had ever heard, which only served to emphasize the frigid tone it bore. Despite knowing that neither he nor any of the Straw Hats were remotely close by, his voice still gave many on the battlefield pause. And as much as they hated to give him an inch, the rest of the world was listening. They needed to know exactly how much damage he was going to cause this time.

"You know exactly why I started this broadcast. You know what I'm going to do, and you can't stop me. But for something of this magnitude, I'll let you try. If you want to have any measure of control over what I'm going to say. Pick. Up. The snail."

A visible wave of disquiet ran through the gathered army, the new moratorium on saying so much as a word to the Voice of Anarchy weighing down anyone who may have been bold enough to try.

Several seconds passed in silence before finally, with a ferocious frown, one of the few people on the battlefield whom the punishment was worthless against dislodged the nearest snail, and called into the show.

And buried it beneath an avalanche of Conqueror's Haki. The last thing that he needed on top of everything else was Cross's invective. One good dose of willpower would—

"PTOO!" SPLAT!

Sengoku's Haki subsided, but his scowl did not. Slowly, he lowered the hand that had just intercepted the snail's attempt to spit in his eye.

"Not today," the Voice coldly stated. "You still don't comprehend how far you've pushed me, do you? Right now, nothing else matters to me. You literally cannot make me give a damn about how you're one out of a million overpowered beings in this world."

"Likewise," came Soundbite's cold hiss.

"Now, I'm only going to say this one more time: the world is listening. If you want them to hear someone besides me? Speak. Now."

For one second, Sengoku felt a frisson of unease at Cross and Soundbite dismissing his Haki. That magnitude of numbness, something that should have only been possible if they were dying, erased his last few doubts about how far they were willing to go. Then, with all the enthusiasm of signing his own death warrant, he spoke.

"…what do you want, Jeremiah Cross?"

"Fleet Admiral Sengoku," the Voice of Anarchy replied neutrally. "What I want is what I've wanted all along, what I've wanted from the very first SBS broadcast. I want the truth to be known. Now that you've picked up, I'm giving you the chance to prove that you have the moral high ground here. You're publicly executing one of Whitebeard's strongest pirates, declaring war against him in the process."

The snail's eyestalks turned to the side, and regarded the assembled might of the world, with equal parts disinterest and pity. "You're guaranteeing that hundreds, thousands of soldiers are going to die today so that you can execute this man. The world has a right to know why you're doing this. So, convince them—convince me—that this execution is worth the price."

Sengoku grit his teeth, bristling at the little shit who dared, dared to make light of these sacrifices, of what needed to be done. But if this was what he wanted? Then so be it.

"I intended nothing less from the beginning," he answered frigidly, before nodding at the executioner. "Isuka, step back."

She obliged without comment, and Sengoku turned his face to the assembled masses.

"I have something to say to you all. The execution of this man, Portgas D. Ace, is a matter of enormous import!"

-o-

"Never would'a guessed," Bege snarked, eyeing the assembled army.

"Ace… what is your father's name?"

"…the fuck?" Kid wondered, neatly summarizing the most common reaction.

"My father is… Whitebeard!"

"Tchyeah," Bonney scoffed, rolling her eyes at the declaration. "We all know he's their pops, is that all?"

"Not true!"

That brought Bonney up short, causing her to blink in surprise and hastily right herself on her teetering chair. "Or… not, I guess. Eesh, he's riding this a bit hard, isn't he…?"

"IT IS TRUE! WHITEBEARD IS MY FATHER! NOBODY ELSE!"

"Aaaand Ace is too. Man, I'm sensing a lot of Daddy issues," Bartolomeo muttered. Unsurprisingly, nobody laughed.

"Hmph. Say what you will, but we know the truth. We looked everywhere when we got word from Cipher Pol about the possibility, the possibility that one of his children might be on a certain island. We examined newborns, unborn infants, and their mothers, and found nothing."

"'His' children? Whose offspring could be worth such—?" Fukaboshi started to ask, falling silent and stiffening furiously at the sneaking suspicion that entered his mind. "Oh… oh, no."

"But that was only natural. Your mother used a trick to hide you that cost her her life! We were fooled. The whole world was fooled! Your mother lived on the island of Baterilla in the South Blue. Her name was Portgas D. Rouge. She did something we never imagined was possible. She hid her child in her womb for twenty months to save it! She bought your life… at the cost of her own."

"…the worst tortures of Impel Down could not compare to that," the Minister of the Left breathed, an image of Queen Otohime popping into his mind. He wondered if even she had been that strong-willed.

"Your father was executed one year and three months before you were born. The blood of the most terrible fiend the world has ever known runs through your veins."

"Executed… wait a—wait a minute." Killer shot out of his seat, staring at the screen with a naked horror that was slowly being mirrored among the other onlookers. "He can't mean—t-that's not—that's impossible!"

Hawkins laid down the final card in the array he'd been composing and swallowed heavily at the verdict he received. The same verdict he'd produced the last three times he'd tried. "And yet… such an impossibility… something that simply cannot, must not be… actually is."

"Don't pretend not to know!"

Law stared at the scene silently while Apoo tried, rather successfully, to recall the shock and horror he had felt ten days prior.

"YOUR FATHER WAS GOLD ROGER, THE PIRATE KING!"

-o-

Ten days prior, the world had shaken when Cross overturned the knowledge that the Navy had captured Roger. Now the world shook again as Sengoku overturned the knowledge that Roger's seed had died.

But on a hijacked battleship in the Tub Current, Luffy was surprised at the lack of hostile surprise on one of his companions. Amidst the many freaking-out prisoners—and over half of them were freaking out quite spectacularly indeed—Squard's expression was actually one of realization. Realization, and solemn contemplation.

"I'm surprised," Luffy said quietly, unwilling to disturb whatever sort of peace Squard was finding. "Cross warned me that you'd be angry about this. Thought I'd have to knock your head in or something."

Squard glanced up at him and, taking in the curious look on his face, and he sighed.

"He… wasn't wrong. But… that was before you all attacked Enies, when Ace almost roasted me for some… dumb shit that I said." His frown deepened and he looked away, scratching at the back of his head. "I lost to that demon… lost it all… but hell, Ace isn't—he's a little shit, but still—nrgh…" The Squall Spider went silent, pinching his nose. After a moment he shoved himself to his feet and slouched off with a grumble of 'need to think'.

Luffy watched him go before turning to the other onlooking pirate. "Think he'll be alright?"

"Hrm… hard to say…" Whitey mused, scratching her chin. "On the one hand, he's gone to think about things, which is good. On the other, he's using his brain, and I do believe this be the first time he'll be usin' the ol' thing in many a year, so we'll see how it goes. Hope for the best, but don't plan for it, aye?"

Luffy nodded in agreement as he turned to await the oncoming storm.

…then he turned back.

"Your hand is frozen to your chin, isn't it?"

"Stuck fast, aye. Give a lass a hand, would ye?"

-o-

Back at Marineford, reactions to the bombshell were mixed. Those who knew already had expressions of silent determination or apparent indifference. Among the four living Warlords, Doflamingo was only amused while Mihawk and Hancock showed mild interest and Perona feigned shock. Most of the new recruits had little reaction as well, oblivious to the import of such a declaration, but for most of the army, the footsoldiers? They looked at Ace in a new light.

Aware of the ripples he'd cast out, Sengoku didn't pause despite the uproar from his own men.

"Two years ago you took your mother's family name and began working your way up at an amazing speed as the captain of the Spade Pirates. That was when we discovered that the bloodline of Gold Roger had not been extinguished!

"But we weren't the only ones who learned the truth. Whitebeard took you, the son of his former rival, aboard his ship. And for a time, it seemed you might be content to settle for such a life, but there was no guarantee. Too much of a threat. You had to be stopped. In time, your abilities would eventually allow you to lead a new generation of pirates on a reign of terror! For this reason, your execution is a necessity for the security of the world! No matter the cost!"

He turned to face the horizon, which was still barren of ships.

"EVEN IF IT MEANS ALL-OUT WAR WITH WHITEBEARD!"

His piece finished, Sengoku stopped speaking, a moment of silence settling upon the island.

The wind howled, the waves crashed, and the world… processed the true motivation of the events in motion.

Then the moment ended, and as it ever did—

"And there we have it."

The world's attention turned back to Cross. Cross, whose expression was still tiredly neutral.

"A shining example of why I can never bow my head and accept the World Government and its lackeys. Let me be honest here: If you'd said you were executing Ace for piracy, for looting and pillaging, for arson, for assaulting officers of the law, for anything on his bounty poster, then I'd accept it. Oh, I'd still oppose it and try and save his life, sure, but I'd accept that you had the moral high ground. We're criminals, you're the law, it's only fair. We chose this life of our own free will… for the most part."

The snail's expression hardened, and Sengoku shoved down a surge of anger from playing right into Cross's hands.

-o-

"But this… this isn't that, Sengoku. Do you even realize what it is you said, exactly? Do you understand the implications? You admitted, without shame, that you're not killing him for lawful reasons, you're not doing it for any moral failings on his part. You're not doing it because he broke the law, or because he's a pirate or any of that."

"This is unacceptable," Domino snarled at the person on the other end of her snail, which bore a bored, disinterested expression. "You. Lied to us. This execution is not legal! His imprisonment was not legal! To be related to an outlaw is no crime! To try and execute a person for that relation is not justice!

"There are agreements, and you and your ilk have trampled all over them! You will rescind this execution, or my God, there will be consequences. Consequences agreed to when the treaty between your government and Impel Down were drafted. Do not compound your injustice with stupidity!"

Silence greeted her, and with every second that ticked by on her watch her fury boiled higher and higher.

"For the love of Tartarus, do you not see what you're doing!? This isn't right! This is against all laws, all morality, all sanity! This—!"

Domino slammed her fists on the table, snarling viciously.

"This is TYRANNY, not JUSTICE!"

-o-

"Sengoku, you just told the world that you—that the entire Navy—are about to kill a man because he was born. I… that's… I'm honestly baffled. Quite literally. Punished for the sins of the father?"

The neutral expression finally broke. The snail's eyes sharpened, the glare as cold as Aokiji's powers. And then… Cross crossed the line.

"I'd expect better from you."

The hidden meaning remained unknown to most of the world. Two Marines in Hell cringed, one Supernova hid a grimace, and a select handful of the most seasoned Marines in Marineford felt their eyes widen.

As for Sengoku himself, his pupils shrunk to pinpricks, the golden glow of his Zoan form threatening to burst from his skin and the aura of his will shaking the surroundings. Isuka had to lean on her sword to avoid falling to her knees.

"How… dare you—?"

"Of course I dare," the pirate scoffed. "I dare because it's the right thing to do. What any person with a sense of morals and integrity would dare to do."

If Cross had been physically present, he would already be dead. Sengoku's gold sheen cut through his skin and he grew several feet. Ace observed the spectacle dispassionately while most of the others gathered were reevaluating, for the umpteenth time, the depth of Cross's knowledge and the nonexistence of his self-preservation instinct.

Minutes ticked by in silence, the man visibly restraining himself every second. Then, finally, he resumed his human form, scowling but seemingly in control of his anger once more.

"You've said your piece. Now I will say mine."

"I'm all ears," Cross answered, his tone neutral once more.

"Sengoku, what are you doing?"

All attention turned to Tsuru, who had reached the parapet where Garp and the Admirals waited and was scowling at her old friend. Sengoku scowled right back.

"Tsuru, this brat has caused me too much stress over the last year for me not to take this chance. My feelings about this war are irrelevant. Before I retire, I am going to do my damnedest to prove that the Voices of Anarchy are not always right."

"…I suppose I can't say you don't have it coming," she sighed reluctantly.

With that, Sengoku returned his attention to the snail. "Let me make this clear to you as someone who has spent more than four times as long in this world as you have: Blood has meaning, Jeremiah Cross. Argue as much as you want of clean slates and circumstances: the potential of parents always passes to their children. The danger of allowing this bloodline, this symbol to exist is unacceptable."

The snail's eyes narrowed in cold rage, but Sengoku didn't pause.

"I don't expect for that to sway your viewpoint, and I would accept that if we had killed Ace in Baterilla. But we didn't, and so the entire world now bears witness that our reason for trying to kill him has been vindicated."

He turned to look at Ace, whose face was shadowed.

"Allowed to use his potential up to this point, the 'sinless child' that escaped us twenty-two years ago has grown up into an infamous pirate. Only twenty years old and he's already reached the New World. It's plain for anyone to see that he was following in his father's footsteps. The next King of—"

"SHUT! UP!" Ace roared, reality rippling from the force of his sheer outrage. "DON'T YOU DARE COMPARE ME TO THAT MAN! I WANT NOTHING TO DO WITH HIM! I NEVER HAVE! I TOLD YOU, WHITEBEARD IS THE ONLY FATHER I HAVE! HE'S GOING TO BE THE KING!"

"You're the only one who believes that," Sengoku retorted. Grimacing, Ace turned away from Sengoku and to the snail—and by extension, the world.

"If I'm going to die anyway, then I'll set the record straight: I grew up surrounded by people telling me that my existence was nothing but a crime, that I was better off dead. I never knew any sort of love until I was 10, when a boy that would become my idiot kid brother told me that he wanted me to live."

Ace turned his head, staring melancholically at the horizon.

"I turned to piracy to be free of a world that rejected me, not to follow in anyone's footsteps. I made a name for myself, not anyone else, and I went after Whitebeard himself to do that. I was just another rookie who thought he could take his head. He spared me and brought me onboard. I didn't need his pity. I tried for a year to take his head. But it eventually sunk in that… he knew my past, and he still called me his son. The Whitebeard Pirates gave me the family I always wanted, and even now, I don't know if I deserve it for being the son of a demon like Roger. Especially not now that going against Whitebeard's orders got me here. But whether anyone believes me or not, I never wanted to be the Pirate King. For everything Whitebeard has done for me, I wanted to make him the Pirate King."

Ace bowed his head, his piece said, and Cross spoke again.

"What was that you were saying, Sengoku? You wanted to prove that I'm not always right? I'll tell you right now that I'm not. No, but I'm right whenever it matters most. This is the truth behind what you were trying to do, so tell me this: do you honestly still think that you're the hero in this story? Is anybody here, save the most deluded of bastards, still so blind that they think they're fighting on the side of angels? And I'm not asking about your own worldview and motivations, that's your own demon to wrestle. I'm asking this of the world. Do you think the people sitting at home listening to this are still cheering you on? Do you think they're still supporting you, still trusting you that you're in the right? … Honestly, even I don't know the answer to that… but I do know this."

The snail turned its head towards the sea.

And when Sengoku did the same, what he beheld was nothing short of a nightmare: ships, dozens of them, suddenly appearing on the horizon from the morning fog. No prior warning, no sign of their approach, they were just there, like spirits of an unholy vengeance.

An armada of ships, each wholly unique and bearing a different Jolly Roger, different crews, yet all banded together by an unspoken bond. By a single entity, whose flag they needn't bear.

These were the Pirates of Whitebeard's Alliance.

"I know that there are definitely people who see them as being in the right, and they are rooting for them every step of the way. You say you're doing this for Justice, but really, that's not right. The second this war started, the very definition of 'Justice' became ephemeral. And I know I'm not the only one who's realized that. So I guess I might as well give someone else some limelight."

Grimly, the snail's eyes turned to the assembled soldiers.

"It looks like you've finally got the soapbox you've been waiting for. Make it count… Doflamingo."

Sengoku outright paled, and the assembled Marines weren't nearly as composed. The downright evil laughter that echoed over the harbor certainly didn't help.

"Fuffuffuffu… I'd nearly accepted that I'd never get this chance, and now it happens at the best possible moment? Jeremiah Cross, I am officially in your debt," the Heavenly Demon purred. Then, with a single move, he leaped from his current position to the parapet over the assembled soldiers, directly beside the Admirals, and shouted, his voice carrying across the entire island.

"Pirates are evil! The Navy is just! But that's only true because history tells us so! Children who've never known peace have different values than children who've never known war! The one who wins will rewrite the definition of right and wrong. They'll decide the future and how the past is written."

Doflamingo barked out a laugh. "Will Justice prevail?! Why, there's no other way! The winner will define the meaning of Justice!"

"And that's the gospel truth," Soundbite sardonically remarked.

"Will you prevail in upholding the verdict you have laid down, and prove once and for all the immutable might of the World Government's decrees? Or will your illustrious might falter in the face of we who have been deemed 'unjust'? Whatever the case, all shall bear witness to that which occurs today, and none shall deny the truth."

"You are destroying the order we have maintained for 700 years and setting the world on fire," Sengoku seethed.

"Literally anything, even ashes, would be better than your carcass of 'order'."

Sengoku, though steaming, made the wise decision to not reply.

-o-

In another time, Cross may have swayed half of the battlefield with what he spoke. He might have swayed their hearts, stayed their hands, or at least, weakened their spines just enough to get them to turn tail and run for the hills.

But this was not that time. In this time, the half that would have listened had already long since listened, and either resigned or joined ranks with the Divine. In this time, there were only two kinds of Marine soldiers on the battlefield: the kind that was uncertain but unwilling to rebel, and the kind that Cross's words could not reach. And chiefest among the latter were the Devil Dogs.

The Vikverirs toned him out, bored after the first minute or so of him running his mouth.

The knights—that is to say, the Angevins—turned up their noses, deeming the words of a peasant dross not worth listening to, and silently approving of the Marines' decision anyway. Slaying the son of a deposed monarch was just good business, after all.

The Suomi were willing to acknowledge the points he was making, but the law was the law, Ace had broken it, and so he still needed to die.

And of particular note, Irian had many things running through her mind for how she would offer this particular corpse as a sacrifice. Never had a woman in a lei been more menacing.

-o-

The SBS maintained its connection to Marineford, but Cross and Soundbite had mercifully fallen silent, as had the battlefield. With the notable exception of the Vikverir down at the seawall jawing about, oblivious to the import of what had just happened.

Sengoku was anything but oblivious. Between the broadcast and the 41 ships that had appeared on the horizon, he needed to take control of the situation, fast, before the morale of the gathered army broke. And from the sound of footsteps heading for the stairs, an opportunity was on the way.

"Admiral Sengoku, I have important news!" an officer declared. "The Gates of Justice just opened on their own! We've tried to contact the control room but there's no answer!"

That was not the opportunity he'd been hoping for. "What?!" Sengoku demanded, staring incredulously at the officer. The Gates opening, how could they have—?

"Are you getting a vague sense of the can of worms you've opened yet?"

Sengoku snapped a glower at the demon silently glaring at him from the side.

"And before you even think of it, no, this party trick isn't on me. Heh…" The snail let out a wry chuckle, though its smirk only lasted for a trace instant. "No… no, not me in the least. After all, I'm not the one who decided to invite in the greater of two evils."

Sengoku grimaced at the complete lack of a retort he could make, at the inability to redirect it to the top where it belonged. Or where he believed it belonged. The one truly to blame heard Cross's words as well, however. It was all he could manage to not let his emotions show to the two men beside him.

As much for a distraction as a status report, the Fleet Admiral picked up his snail—his own snail in his jacket, which wasn't currently possessed by the spawn of evil—and barked into the receiver, "Where is Whitebeard? Confirm his location!"

"Sir! We're confirming over three dozen ships in all, but Whitebeard and his division leaders are nowhere to be seen! These are definitely just the pirates aligned with Whitebeard! I repeat, that is a negative on Whitebeard!" came the reply from the spotters.

In spite of himself, Sengoku smirked. So the wily old bastard was taking the route they'd anticipated. Hanging up, he dialed a different number.

"Jonathan, status on the picket line?" he ordered without preamble.

"Sir, the slugs have gone silent," Vice Admiral Jonathan answered. In addition to being in charge of managing an unprecedented communications load, he and the men assigned to him were monitoring a line of sea slugs placed to give warning if Whitebeard took a leaf from their book and tried to sneak coated ships in underwater. "And just before the lines went dead, all we heard was… singing. I suspect the Whitebeards brought a few friends with them when they passed through Fishman Island. Long gone by now, and our sentinels with them. Shall we trip the mines?"

The Fleet Admiral hummed thoughtfully, honestly considering the proposition the Chessmaster had put forth… but… "Save them for if they manage to retreat," Sengoku ultimately decided. Tempting as blasting the Moby Dick and its escorts then and there would be, he much preferred another contingency plan over a chance at hitting them.

"Aye, sir. Returning to overwatch and coordination. Good hunting."

That matter taken care of, Sengoku returned his attention to the main line in time to hear the nervous squawks from the battleships.

"Fleet Admiral, sir! Enemy ships have entered artillery range. Shall we commence the attack?"

"Do it!" Sengoku barked, snapping his hand out imperiously. "And all units within the harbor, prepare ambush plan C!"

The battleships promptly opened fire on the advancing pirates, the pirates wasting not even a second to respond with a cannonade of their own and more sail. But despite how loud the thunder was, it didn't quite drown out the blooping and gurgling sound of water frothing. All eyes not busy tracking their opponents at sea shot back and down to the harbor, where four large shadows could be seen growing large underwater. Growing larger very, very fast.

"You haven't missed a step, old man," Sengoku muttered.

No sooner did he make that declaration than did the war actually begin.

KER-SPLASH!

By means of the actual opponents in the war finally emerging.

With a resounding crash, the Moby Dick, flagship of the Whitebeard pirates, breached the surface like its namesake, water sloughing off of it in sheets. And neither was the vessel alone either, as the blue whales Ahab, Ishmael, and Queequeg surfaced behind and beside it, bringing with them some of the strongest individuals to sail the seas.

The Strongest of All, Whitebeard himself, stood on the white whale's smooth prow, bisento in hand and glare locked dead ahead at the would-be execution platform. Diamond Jozu could be seen running up the ladder to the prow, and Marco the Phoenix immediately shot into the air in a plume of blue fire.

That response saved the intruding ships from immediate annihilation. The cannons ensconced in the fortifications opened fire all at once, only for Whitebeard to slam his fists into the air—literally into it, the very space around his fists visibly stretching and rippling before outright shattering. As a direct result, the water in the bay heaved and surged up in a blast of aquatic force, the leading edge of the cataclysm-in-miniature knocking the cannons upwards and ruining their aim. What few cannonballs that were actually fired and remained on target were cut out of the sky by the Whitebeards' swordsmen.

In any other context, such an attack would have been massively devastating, obliterating the intended target with ease.

But here? Against these opponents? All it was was an annoyance, at best.

And like all annoyances, it wasn't lingered on for long, as focus shifted to more pertinent matters.

Namely…

"POPS!"

The battlefield fell silent at Ace's shout. All eyes fell on him, waiting to see what he'd say. And he had many things to say. That this was his screwup, and that the old man shouldn't lead more of his crew, shouldn't lead himself, to their deaths just to save him. That maybe… everyone was right. That he really was a demon child who didn't deserve to live.

All of that and more was about to spill out of his mouth when he suddenly found himself unable to speak. He looked at Whitebeard and his disappointed frown, at his crewmates and their determined expressions, and knew to his bones that they wouldn't listen. That they would come for him anyway, much like Luffy had in Impel Down. And dammitall, that thought was the final straw. If by some miracle Luffy had survived, then the little idiot would come here, and he'd need the Whitebeards to have any chance to survive.

So in the end, he said nothing. And as it turned out, he didn't need to.

"ACE! JUST WAIT, WE'RE COMING TO SAVE YOU!"

"ANYONE WHO LAYS HANDS ON ONE OF US SUFFERS THE CONSEQUENCES!"

"WE'LL MAKE SURE THOSE RESPONSIBLE PAY FOR IT, ACE!"

"SNAIL-BOY IS RIGHT, SCREW ROGER! WE WANT OUR FRIEND BACK!"

"AND IF ANYTHING HAPPENS TO HIM, I'LL KILL EVERYONE HERE AND THEN MYSELF!"

"WHAT THE FUCK, DUDE!?"

"You guys…" Ace breathed, open-mouthed.

"What, were you seriously expecting anything resembling 'decorum' from pirates?" Isuka huffed.

"Gurararara… what did I do to deserve such rowdy kids…" Whitebeard chuckled. "Speaking of which…" He turned his head to Izo, who'd just walked up to him with a snail in hand. He held it up before Whitebeard, the man's gaze returning to Ace.

"If you would indulge an old man's curiosity, Jeremiah Cross: how did you know?"

The words he spoke were quiet. None but his Division Commanders were near enough to hear it or the response that Cross gave, still barely above a whisper and deliberately restricted to this single snail.

"Just a wish that went way too far and let's leave it at that. It doesn't really matter at this point. The bottom line is that come what may, I will always be on Luffy's side, which in this instance, puts me on yours. And…" For the first time since this nightmare had started, Cross's voice showed emotion, a tone of regret seeping into his words. "I…I'm sorry. I tried to stop this. Tried to save him. To save… you."

A pause fell, the fourteen commanders impatiently before Whitebeard responded:

"Gurarara…who told you that you had to carry the world on your shoulders alone, brat?" he said, almost chuckling. "And either way, don't count us out just yet. These bastards haven't touched us for a long time for a damn good reason, so keep your ears open. We might just surprise you."

The snail's eyes closed, and it shook its head slowly before looking back at him.

"…I don't know exactly what my allies are planning. Been a bit…" The snail's jaw twitched. "Occupied, recently. The only thing I can be sure of is that all of them, especially Perona and Hancock, will need to be very convincing. Which means that for those of you who face them, this isn't going to be pleasant."

"We expected nothing less," Whitebeard answered. "And I'll admit I'm impressed you got two of them."

"…three if you count Jinbe."

More than a dozen eyes twitched. Then they and everyone else stopped moving as they felt the air and sea shift.

"Looks like our time's up," Whitebeard grinned.

"See you on the other side, old man."

"I'll save you a seat, Cross."

In the days to come, when Cross thought back on that last line, he would realize just how much of the old man's respect he had garnered. But thoughts like that were for the future. For now, there was a war to be fought.

-o-

"So, these are the Whitebeard Pirates," Perona said, not fully managing to hide the tremor in her voice. Which said a lot when the special bunker holding her body was miles away, deep in the bowels of the fortress-island, leaving only her intangible astral form floating on the battlefield.

"Any suggestions for which Commander to aim for?" she asked nobody in particular.

After a few moments of silence, Perona let her shoulders slump with a despondent sigh.

"Ooor we can just keep standing here menacingly, that works too." Her dour mood didn't last long. "Uh… wait a second. Does… anyone else hear that?"

"The sound of the world ripping itself asunder?" Mihawk droned, his stare unwavering from his intended prey.

Doflamingo, however, cocked his head to the side, and promptly caused more than a few heart attacks when his ever-present smile widened malevolently. Well, more malevolently. "Ya know what, Wall-eye?" he snickered, ignoring the piercing glance Mihawk nailed into his head. "You're actually not that far off. To quote the snail…"

And then all at once, the roaring and rumbling that had been just barely audible soared, as if in furious protest of the war taking place. A shadow bloomed over the proceedings, drawing all eyes to it.

"SURF'S UP!"

-o-

"I was really hoping I'd be dead before he pulled this stunt again," Garp grunted, rubbing at the back of his neck. "Damn that geezer, this always makes my joints flare up!"

"You didn't properly prepare yourself?" Tsuru asked with a glance up at her larger friend. "Then I'd suggest you grit your teeth. This storm is only going to get miles worse before it gets an inch better."

"Pft. Even I didn't need you to tell me that."

"This is the power of the man who ate the Tremor-Tremor Fruit," Sengoku growled under his breath. "The power to destroy the world…"

"And the World Government decided it would be a smart idea to poke that very power right in the eye. Truly, the very picture of a sane and sophisticated society."

Isuka glared back at the snail. "Are you actually going to contribute anything beneficial to these proceedings?"

"Did you honestly expect me to?"

And it was at that point that things got dark. Literally rather than figuratively, this time. The sun was blocked by two mountains of water rising taller than Marineford. The sight of them caused a moment of paralysis as every Marine on the island experienced a moment of primal fear, the fear every mariner shares: the fear of the ocean. That vast force that, no matter how far sailing technology advanced, remained the master of its domain.

And now that very force was being brought to bear upon their heads. All for the sake of one life, and at the command of one man.

One man, who spoke over the roaring of the world.

"One chance, Sengoku."

And speak Whitebeard did, loudly enough for everyone to hear him over the roaring waves that promised complete and total devastation.

"I'll give you one chance: Give me my idiot son, and I'll just cripple your island, not sink it."

For a short time—less than a second, really—the Fleet Admiral genuinely considered the offer. Considered capitulating, considered bowing his head and bending the knee. But then the moment passed, and Sengoku's eyes closed. When he responded, his voice carried neither rage nor indignance. Only fatigue.

"Frankly, I would if I could, Edward," he softly admitted. "But this is beyond my authority."

It was not a good day for anyone. Least of all for the assembled officers. Their already-rocky morale dropped even further at their own leader stating he'd rather surrender than fight.

Admiral Aokiji let out a sigh of deep resentment as he raised his head and beheld the waves. The next second, he was in the air, ice shooting from his palms to the tsunamis. And the second after that? What had moments ago been water ready to crash down on Marineford was now as solid, unmoving, and ostensibly harmless as a statue.

"Ice Age," he intoned coldly, staring down at the pirates before him hanging in midair, suspended by the poles of ice on his arms.

Breathing in deeply, he tilted his head up and blew out a blizzard of air, creating a rapidly coalescing iceberg that shadowed the entire Moby Dick.

An action that left several people around the execution stand surprised, but if Whitebeard raised an eyebrow at Kuzan's actions, it went unacknowledged, because he also raised his fist.

And the onlookers immediately realized what was about to happen, leaving them cringing. Or ducking for cover.

The airborne iceberg had barely dropped a meter when the Emperor's fist literally cracked the air, causing the space above himself and his ship to ripple. After a second, cracks appeared across the surface of the iceberg. After two, cracks appeared across the surface of the Admiral.

And then everything above the skies of Marineford shattered, and the sky itself fell.

To call the occurrence 'hail' was a gross, almost insulting understatement. In reality, it was more akin to a spontaneous avalanche crashing down on the Marines' fortifications and troops. Outright boulders of ice blasted back at them and wreaked… not nearly as much devastation as might have been expected.

This was on account of the ranked officers among the Marines' troops, Captains and up, who lashed out at the largest chunks of the oncoming ice and broke them down into even smaller chunks. These smaller chunks were still dangerous and caused a swathe of injuries among the rank and file, but that was nothing compared to the craters the larger boulders that were left carved out.

And in the middle of all this devastation, one specific hail of ice fell straight down, straight into the bay of Marineford itself—

KR-CRACK!

—where, upon impact, it froze the entire surface of the bay over into a pane of ice, locking the Whitebeards' ships where they were - while also providing them a new avenue forward.

In the center of this new avenue, Aokiji slowly pieced himself together, rising from the ice until he was fully reconstituted, standing tall and staring at the oncoming army. The army he'd incited, coming to fight the war he'd caused…

The Iceman blew out a sharp, sub-arctic breath as he reached up and yanked his facemask over his eyes. It wasn't like he needed his sight to fight, after all. Nor did he need to worry in the least about who he was hitting. Everyone was a valid target today.

Even him.

"Let's get this over with. My nightmares are waiting."

-o-

Whitebeard's surprise was plain to see for everyone. The attitude of the ice-man was one that, ironically, he hadn't expected: as cold and numb as a winter's night.

"Looks like what he did is weighing on him after all," Marco remarked.

"Hmph," Whitebeard grunted, turning aside to his commanders. "He'll be a problem if he's left alone. Jiru, keep his attention in one place. The rest of you, go get that idiot off that stage."

"Yes, Pops!" over a dozen of the strongest pirates on the face of the planet answered back.

The 14th Division Commander led the charge, literally, shooting off the Moby Dick and into the blizzard. Two partisans met his lance halfway, ice and iron evenly matched.

And while the other division commanders and those who could best be defined as the 'merely elite' of the crew charged through and around the blizzard toward the island, the gunners aboard the escorts had other plans.

Specifically, doing their best to reduce their stores of cannonballs to zero, blasting away at the massive threat that was coming to kill them all. And, to a lesser extent, on the rest of the Marines behind him.

The Marines responded in kind by counter-charging, Akainu's Devil Dogs out in front and their own artillery blasting in reply to the Whitebeards' cannonade. They clashed upon the ice, the impact shaking the world itself.

Now the war had started in earnest.

-o-

"This… is hell," Perona whispered to herself, staring unblinkingly at the moshpit of bodies and carnage arrayed before her. Abilities flaring left and right, artillery raining destruction. It was one of the greatest displays of devastation that decade, the Darkest Day included. "I… have lived the majority—if not the entirety—of my adult life in two actual hellholes… and now I'm part of a third. Actually, not only a part of it, but on the wrong side of it. Thanatos help me, what has my life become…?"

The only recently infamous Hellbeast Princess was only given a few seconds to contemplate her mental breakdown before a derisive snicker pierced it. Annoyed, she snapped a glare at the source.

"I-I'm sorry, it's just…" Doflamingo sneered at her. "You're an adult?"

"And of course, that's your takeaway," Perona groaned, pinching the bridge of her nose in a fit of existential misery. There was movement out the corner of her other eye, and she snapped an incredulous glare up. "And what in all the various circles of hell do you think you're doing?!"

"I just want to measure the true distance between that man and us," Dracule Mihawk answered, drawing his sword.

Perona's eye twitched—men!—but even she was not immune to the awe-inspiring sight of the world's greatest swordsman swinging his sword with full force. The resulting wave of wind shone like fire and tore through the ice towards Whitebeard, soldiers and pirates alike diving out of the way.

Nobody expected it to be that easy, least of all Mihawk himself. Yet it still came as a surprise when, before it was halfway across the field, one of the charging Division Commanders slammed right into the wave, breaking it as if it had struck a rock.

The diamond dust parted as he kept charging forward, to reveal more diamonds. Specifically, Third Division Commander 'Diamond' Jozu, the user of the Sparkle-Sparkle Fruit.

And seeing the World's Greatest Slash not only repelled but offhandedly tanked—something that even Mihawk was slightly surprised to see—Perona's awe disappeared and her exasperation shot back up.

"Well, this is just great! Can someone explain to me what we're doing here, other than standing around looking menacing and being irrelevant?!"

Mihawk didn't spare her a glance.

"Well, I don't know about you, princess, but I'm certainly having a fun time!" Doflamingo snickered.

"Kizaru. Akainu."

The gathered Warlords turned to Sengoku, who was staring down at the two occupied seats near the execution stand.

"Go."

That one word said all that they needed to hear. Akainu erupted from his chair and descended into the battlefield, while Kizaru, sighing melodramatically, broke into light and disappeared into the air.

"Warlords. The same to you. I want to see heads rolling."

"Fuffuffuffuffu… well, if you insist!" Doflamingo chortled, leaping into the air and hanging in the air over the chaos like the malevolent demon he was. Close behind him were Hancock and her serpentine companion Salome, Mihawk immediately behind her. Kuma alone remained where he stood, while Perona was left sighing and rubbing a hand to her face.

"My mistake for tempting fate… someone's going to have my head for this. But, needs must and if the devil is driving so hard… so be it."

In a move long-ingrained, she buried her feelings beneath her love of mischief and mayhem, her sense of invulnerability, and rose her spirit into the air as Hollows coalesced and swirled about her in a cackling shroud.

"Let's put my powers to a real test!" 'Hellbeast Queen (PRINCESS!)' Perona giggled malevolently. "Ready or not, here I COME!"

And with a swipe of her arms, her Hollows howled forth into the fray.

-o-

Kizaru, ever the lazy one, did the obvious thing when Sengoku finally compelled him into action: he parked himself in the air and rained lasers down on the battlefield. Low risk, high reward, and completely ineffective thanks to Marco the Phoenix flaring his blue flames in the way of every single shot.

"Marco the Phoenix, huh… so scary," Kizaru remarked in his usual way.

Not saying a word, Marco shifted fully into his phoenix form and shot straight at the Admiral. Kizaru fired more lasers, a rapid-fire spread, but they were simply absorbed by the blue flames and did nothing to stop him. With alarming speed, Marco was in Kizaru's face and swinging a leg into his blocking arm.

"Oh, that hurts," the Admiral whined through a perfectly straight face.

A straight face that Marco glared back at with a viciously unamused expression. "You know, any other day I'd love to make this a bit, but today, I'm more than a little pissed, in no small part at you specifically. So do me a favor by cutting the crap and dying, monkey."

That was all the warning Kizaru got before the world was engulfed in a blue inferno that the admiral swore he could feel burning at his soul, however briefly. From one second to the next, the Yellow Monkey flashed back to glacies firma, directly beside his fellow Admiral.

"Woo, tough crowd. Everyone's quite tense today, huh, Aokiji?" he lackadaisically remarked.

"Shut up and fight, Borsalino."

Kizaru blinked in confusion as Aokiji stormed off, still relying only on Haki for sight.

"Was it something I said?" Then he whirled around, seeing Marco still making a beeline for him.

"It sure seems like it was something I said." With a quick flash of his Sacred Yata Mirror (and making damn sure there were no reflective surfaces anywhere near his path) he warped away to another position.

Specifically, he warped on top of the mast of the Moby Dick, aiming at Whitebeard. But before he could fire, Whitebeard turned his head and looked at him. It was a look that screamed, "Come and get me, if you dare." Kizaru being Kizaru, he hesitated for just one second.

One second long enough for Marco to catch up and try to claw his face off. Kizaru once again caught it on his arm to no effect and used the opportunity this time to warp away. Marco followed in hot pursuit, beginning the dance again.

-o-

When Mihawk stepped onto the battlefield behind Doflamingo, he had eyes for only one opponent. The Whitebeards had a great many skilled swordsmen: Haruta or Fossa would make for an excellent warmup, for example. The best, though, was Vista of the Flower Swords, and it was likely he would provide the sort of challenge he desired.

Danger blared in his mind, and Mihawk raised Yoru into a leisurely block. His piercing eyes flicked between Vista's twin swords, one aimed at his waist and the other at his neck. Then they darted to the Whitebeard swordsman, seeking an explanation and finding it in the grim set of his face.

"Any other day, Hawk-Eye, I'd draw this out, make some banter," the Flower Swordsman stated in an eerie calm. "But today, I'm not in the mood. There any chance I could get you to move out of the way?"

"I'm afraid not," Mihawk replied.

Vista's response was a flurry of sword strikes from every conceivable angle, thrusts in addition to slashes. So fast was the flurry, in fact, that Mihawk was forced to half-sword his weapon, gripping the back of the blade to better control the very large and heavy Yoru.

Still, Mihawk was only briefly on the defensive. Vista's attacks had a pattern, and Mihawk was quick to spot an opening for him to thrust Yoru at the pirate. Vista, startled, only barely had time to get his swords in between himself and Yoru's edge, and though he escaped harm, the thrust itself continued beyond the sword to punch a hole in one of Whitebeard's whale ships—and one of the allied pirate ships behind him—and then one of the battleships moving to close the line of surface retreat.

By then Vista had gone back on the offensive, but far more cautiously. Flower petals obscured his form and his swords. Not completely, but enough to hide many of the usual visual tells. Each strike was deliberate, and methodical, and also allowed Mihawk to make attacks of his own. Pirates and Marines and Devil Dogs alike gave the fight a wide berth, wary of the misses that nonetheless carved up the landscape between them.

-o-

Contrary to everyone else, when Hancock moved into the battlefield, it was slow, dainty, and utterly self-assured. She marched into the fight with all the care of a morning stroll, flanked by two hooded bodyguards that cleared away anyone in her way indiscriminate of their uniforms.

The Empress seemed to be looking for something, and after a short while, she stopped, having apparently found it. Out from the crowd stepped a graceful figure in a kimono: Izo, Commander of the 16th Division. For a long moment, the two sized each other up, and then Hancock spoke.

"I would prefer if we didn't need to do this, but since we do, let's make it beautiful. I am earnestly curious as to which of us would win."

"I agree to your terms," Izo spoke. "Though we could use a little more… space."

At once, two towering snakes burst out of their cloaks, Boas Sandersonia and Marigold assaulting the armies on either side of them. Marines and Whitebeards alike felt their wrath, hastily falling back. Only the few Devil Dogs in the area—a lance of Angevins, a team of Suomi, and several dozen scattered Vikverir—remained unmolested.

This created a bubble of space around Izo and Hancock, the two fighters once again still and unmoving. But this time there was a palpable tension, a sense that one careless move would spell doom.

In one swift fluid motion, Izo broke the spell by drawing one of his pistols and aiming. In a flash, Hancock's leg lashed out and impacted his forearm, spoiling his aim—and by the confused look on her face at his unpetrified limb, confusing her quite handily.

"How—"

"Your charisma is impressive, Empress. If Kozuki Oden had been a lesser man, you may have swayed me," Izo replied. With that, he drew his other pistol and aimed it.

"I shall take that as a compliment," Hancock replied, pivoting on her plant foot to flip the Whitebeard into the air. "Even if it is becoming quite annoying just how many are immune to my power."

Upside down, Izo still took aim, only for Hancock to plant her kicking leg and thrust up with the other, once again ruining his shot. He brought his other hand up, only for Hancock to blow one of her trademark hearts onto it. This time, it worked, the pistol becoming useless stone.

"Hmph," Izo grunted, tossing the weapon away. He leaped back from a kick that splintered ice, and actually fired a shot. Hancock, still precariously balanced on only one foot that was nowhere close to properly anchored, somehow swayed back and out of the way of the shot.

Her airborne foot planted hard, splintering the ice, and she kicked off for Izo. The Whitebeard lined up another shot, but once again Hancock interrupted him, this time by stretching her arm for Salome to shoot off and wrap around her opponent's gun arm. His elbow bent, aiming the gun at the sky. Izo dropped the gun, kicked it into his free hand with his foot, but was too late before Hancock slammed her knee into his gut.

The pirate went flying back into the scrum and did not re-emerge. After about a minute, Hancock decided he wasn't coming back, and eyed the Devil Dogs nearby, who were to a man (and some women) staring at her slack-jawed.

"Do not besmirch me with such lustful gazes!" Hancock snarled with genuine malice, angling her hands into a heart. "Suffer for your crimes! Love-Love Beam!"

-o-

When the two armies had charged towards each other, one group had quickly separated itself from the pack of Marines: the Vikverir who, eager for gold and glory, had rushed ahead. Normally, this would've been suicide. Even the ordinary Whitebeards were pirates who made most Paradise captains look like rank amateurs. The Vikverir, outrunning their support, should've crumpled like thin sheet metal.

Instead, they slammed into the Whitebeard charge and, briefly, stopped it dead in its tracks.

Briefly, because several Division Commanders arrived on the scene and began carving paths through the mass of Vikverir. They were exceptionally tough, strong, and ferocious fighters, but they were no match for the Division Commanders.

Fossa, commander of the Fifteenth Division, was deepest in the mass of fur-clad soldiers. His sword, lit afire by his cigar, flashed like a venomous snake, carving through weapons, armor, and flesh alike. Behind him lower-ranked Whitebeards widened the gap, threatening to cut the Vikverir contingent into small pockets.

He'd just cut down black-haired-and-bearded warrior when, abruptly, his Observation flared, and he ducked right before a ballistic hammer nearly took his head off, accompanied by a cry of "TEMPOS!" Standing, he saw the hammer return to the hand of a mountain of a man with red hair and a horned helmet.

"I am Angmar, son of Ragnar!" the man declared. "Vikverir, forward! For gold and glory!"

"FOR GOLD AND GLORY!" bellowed those Vikverir still able, and all at once their axis of advance shifted. Rather than trying to keep shoving forward, they all surged to the left, sandwiching the Whitebeard columns in between them.

Fossa had no time for such tactical niceties. He sprang forward, intending to bisect this Angmar at the neck. Instead, with a loud clang, his sword was caught on the hammer's haft, its wielder not even flinching at the flaming liquid that dripped on him. Fossa, grunting, pushed forward, pushing Angmar back a bare inch. Angmar pushed back, and Fossa slid back an inch.

"Well, then," the old man grunted. "You could be a problem."

The bearded man grinned eagerly. "Tell me your name, swordsman."

He couldn't help it. He grinned back. "I am Fossa, Fifteenth Division Commander of the Whitebeard Pirates."

"You know my name, but I am also the chosen king of Vikverir and champion of the war god. I shall pray for a swift conveyance of your soul to the paradise of warriors. Now, may he who dies…"

With one almighty stomp, Angmar shattered the ice beneath their feet, breaking the lock by sheer necessity of footing.

"Die well."

Fossa tapped down on a piece of ice, balancing it like a board, and took in the situation. The shattered ice created a bubble around them, devoid of any other fighters. Behind, the Vikverir were in a cohesive whole and had linked up with a large force of Marines, and were busily fending off any attempts to dislodge them from the base of the seawall.

"TEMPOS!"

Once again the hammer came screaming in. And once again Fossa dodged it. However, in jumping to the left to evade Angmar bodily slammed into him and brought him to the ground, one arm pinning Fossa's right behind his back and legs wrapped around his hips and sitting right on his thighs. Only one hand was free, and it needed to catch Angmar's wrist to keep that damned hammer from splitting open his head like a watermelon.

The two strained at each other, Fossa trying to keep the hammer away and Angmar trying to force it down. This time it was Fossa who broke the deadlock, rolling over into the water. His opponent broke off, and the two clambered onto another chunk of ice, dripping water and glaring at each other.

All at once, Angmar relaxed, standing upright and unconcerned. "It appears neither of us is to die today," he cryptically declared. "We shall resume some other day, Fossa of the Whitebeard Pirates, and gods permit, we shall bring this to a conclusion." And with that, he leapt from their chunk of ice back to the shelf over the harbor.

Without the risk of a hammer to the face, Fossa turned around, and blanched. There, advancing down from the seawall, was a wall of gleaming armor.

-o-

The sound of skis heralded the arrival of the Suomi to the battle. Soldiers in groups of twelve, clad in grey, skirted the edges of the Whitebeard army on their skis, either taking potshots while moving or stopping to unleash devastating volleys. Attempts to engage them proved fruitless. Their rifles fired rapidly and they kept retreating to bait pirates into machine gun nests hidden among the ice or mortar barrages from the seawall.

It was Curiel, leading the Whitebeard Pirates' 10th division (which had most of their firearm specialists) who organized a proper counterattack.

"Alright, boys!" the pirate bellowed as he jogged towards the Suomi stronghold. "Persistence is key! Keep advancing no matter what these pansy ski-boys throw at you!"

"Aye!" came the chorus… right as several Suomi fireteams slide in out of nowhere and unleashed rifle volleys.

Curiel met them, still running, with a spray of bullets from his twin auto-pistols. He managed to hit three Suomi before they all fell back, leaving more casualties on the ice than any of their previous engagements. Curiel grinned.

"That's what I'm talking about! Forward, boys! Press them back!"

With a roar, the pirates took off in pursuit. More Suomi fireteams popped up, but they stuck to taking potshots and leaving, unwilling to engage the pirates directly. The pirates, for their part, took this as a sign the plan was working and pressed further.

It was only after rounding a fairly large ice hill that they found they were somewhat mistaken.

Several Suomi machine guns opened up, striking down the leading edge of the pirates and forcing even Curiel to take cover.

'How did those damned ski boys infuse their bullets with Armament Haki?' he demanded, before leaning around the ice and emptying both his bazookas at the machine guns. He got a gratifying screech of metal and several screams of pain, but more attention from the other machine guns forced him to duck back again. 'This isn't working…'

"Commander!" shouted one of his pirates, panicked. "The Suomi just closed our line of retreat!"

Curiel whirled around to find that yes, the skiers had gotten behind them. Somehow. However, they were also stationary, which gave him an idea.

"So give 'em a full-division volley already!" he bellowed. From the lightbulbs Curiel saw go off, most of them had genuinely not thought of that. Morons.

Sadly, the Suomi were already starting to pack up when the volley was fired. They got a bunch of them, but most of the soldiers retreated in good order. And then the mortar shells started falling again.

"Fall back, boys!" Curiel declared, before grabbing a bazooka in one hand and an automatic pistol in the other. "I'll take care of this."

Ducking out from his cover, Curiel blasted the nearest machine gun with his bazooka and sprayed the rest to suppress them a bit. He was just about to reload and go after the next when he was abruptly tackled and brought to the ground.

"How—?" he bit out, because his Observation Haki should've warned him, but one look at the Suomi soldier's crazed eyes, completely unlike the calm, focused determination the rest of the soldiers were wearing, explained everything: he was drugged to the gills and not consciously thinking. Growling, Curiel pushed back, trying to break the grapple he was in, to no avail. Whatever drugs the guy was on, they were the good stuff.

The Whitebeard changed tactics. While one hand was needed to keep the Suomi from strangling him, the other grasped one of his machine pistols and unloaded it into the soldier's gut. The arms went slack, for without a spine the drugs could only do so much, and he shoved the dying man off.

Just in time for a mortar shell to explode right in his face. Hacking, but no more than superficially hurt, Curiel responded with a bazooka shot and unhinged but mostly affected laughter.

"C'mon, boys!" he roared. "You're mincemeat!"

-o-

Of the Devil Dogs, the Angevins had caused Sengoku the most headaches. Not because of their off-duty behavior—the hard-drinking Vikverir had the entire rest of the Devil Dogs combined beat there—but in the planning. The Vikverir wanted to be on the front lines: simple enough. The Suomi would prefer a flanking position: done and done. Irian was Akainu's problem.

But, as the Angevins explained, their way of fighting required some… accommodation. Specifically, they needed a runway, and they needed plenty of horizontal space. Being heavily armored cavalry, they did not go straight from a standing start to a gallop.

There were two reasons for this. The first was that even their coursers and destriers, extensively bred for generations to be the perfectly knightly warhorses, simply couldn't accelerate that fast. Oh, they were fast creatures, but it was a speed that needed to be built up to, especially with several hundred pounds of man, armor, barding, and weaponry on their backs. Not to mention that despite their best efforts the Angevins had never been able to do much about their horses' stamina. One mile at a gallop was the best they could do.

The second was cohesion, and that had brought more than a few nods from the officers gathered to set the formations. Knights at a gallop could not maintain cohesion, and for armored cavalry like the Angevins, cohesion was everything. Cohesion was the difference between a hard rain and a firehose, and all Marines knew how hard a firehose hit.

The accommodations were made, including the Angevins' late arrival. When the Vikverir charged over the seawall, the 1500 Angevin knights set off at a walk. On the ramp down to the ice, they accelerated to a trot. Even at this speed, every man on the ice felt the thunder of their hooves shake their footing. They accelerated to a canter. And now every man knew their presence.

Three hundred pounds of man and armor. Three thousand pounds of horse. All moving very, very fast, and wielding weapons that ended in almost needle-thin points. The Angevins had great confidence in their charge. None had stood their ground against a charge and lived.

On the battlefield of Marineford, the charge met its match. Shattered like spun glass against an immovable object: Diamond Jozu, who simply by standing his ground ripped the guts out of the charge. Lances shattered, horses went careening on impact, and the charge's center lost all cohesion entirely. And then the man waded into the melee.

The center was not the only unit savaged by the Division Commanders. On the right, the charge was brutally interrupted by a huge section of ice collapsing, sending several dozen knights and their horses plunging into the drink. For their fellow knights, who knew this to be a death sentence in their heavy armor, such an underhanded attack aroused their ire. So too did learning the identity of their assailant.

Several dozen knights were in the process of dismounting when another spot of ice shattered and Namur, commander of the Eighth Division, darted out and grabbed one of the knights in his jaws, armor shattering under the points. The fishman promptly dragged the screaming knight underwater.

He did not scream for long after.

"Coward!" bellowed a knight. "Demon! Show yourself!"

"Gladly," growled the voice of the ocean from all around them. Namur shot out of the water again and was almost impaled on several arming swords. Some he caught in his hands, others in his jaws. Either way, once he wriggled free he found himself on dry (if icy) land, facing down dozens of knights.

"Well. This hardly seems fair," he blandly remarked.

"C'est la guerre, demon," one of the knights retorted.

Namur's eyes narrowed. Suddenly, his opponents found the knight who had spoken gone and Namur standing where he'd been, fist outstretched and grin wide enough to show all his very sharp teeth.

"Oh, I don't mean for me."

And on the left, the first inkling the knights had that they were under attack was when two helmeted heads came flying off their bodies. The charge didn't stop—it frankly couldn't—and heads continued to fly off, though the knights extracted a gruesome toll of pirates in return.

It was when the line wheeled to try and support the rest of their army that it happened. One knight, nondescript except for the golden lions etched into his armor, closed his eyes, sinking into a state of hyperawareness that he'd cultivated over long years of training and combat. A state of nothingness he could sink into, where everything slowed as if moving through molasses.

Sir Lionel opened his eyes and found his opponents, and was deeply alarmed to see that they were moving at normal speeds even in this state. The swordsman seemed to have noticed him because he was moving towards Sir Lionel with obvious intent to kill. The lancer, who was impossibly fast instead of ridiculously, seemed content to keep killing his knights.

It burned at him but Lionel had no time to indulge such feelings. He hastily drew his sword, and because he'd seen that sword carve through steel plate like wood, utilized the Rising Swan instead of a more conventional parry to deflect the attack by the flat.

Sadly, his opponent was, as he'd suspected, a master swordsman. Adjusting his footing, the swordsman turned the deflection into a vicious thrust aimed at Lionel's cheek. The knight kicked his spurs into his horse, which with a whinny galloped a few paces forward just fast enough that Lionel could duck ahead of the strike.

It was then that his instincts screamed at him, and he drew his horse up short just in before the lancer would have impaled him.

The next few minutes were a blur. Two opponents was an impossible task for all but the most skilled knights, and that was when the two opponents were in the normal range of skill! The two opponents Sir Lionel faced—Division Commanders, they had to be—were well beyond that. And yet, Lionel's sword was always there to intercept their weapons, to make them stumble just long enough to keep them out of synch with each other.

Then he came back to his senses—his normal senses—to find the two gone, his breath roaring in his ears, and his life still with him. He pulled off his helmet to suck in air, and it was like this that another knight found him.

"Sir Lionel! You're alive!" he declared, surprised.

Lionel couldn't help it, he smirked. "You don't get to be named the Lion of the Rock by collecting dust." Then he sobered. "In all seriousness, I didn't expect to survive that, either. What's our status?"

The knight, even under his armor, visibly grimaced. "We've been carved to pieces, Sir Lionel. I'd estimate almost 200 knights are dead already. The survivors have grouped into three and are currently moving to assist the Vikverir in their advance."

"Good," Lionel nodded, putting his helmet back on. "Direct me to the nearest company, they'll need every man on hand."

"Aye, sir."

But Lionel's eyes had already fallen on a silhouette in the fog, a silhouette who made his danger sense scream.

"Gods above and devils below…" Sir Lionel of the Knights of Mare breathed as a titanic shadow loomed out of the mist.

-o-

Most of the time in battle, the single most critical mistake a fighter could make was taking their eyes off their opponent. And yet, in a single moment, every soldier, warrior, and pirate fighting on Marineford broke that cardinal rule.

An understandable misstep, as there were few sane reactions to the sight of a Titan who outweighed most castles stepping forth from the mist for all to see.

The Marines crewing the battleships outside the harbor were scrambling to fire their cannons in hopes of doing something. Unfortunately, their target had other ideas.

"ACE!" the ever-so ironically named 'Little' Oars Jr. bellowed, his booming voice setting many ears ringing, and not even showing an ounce of strain or effort as he hefted a Marine Battleship as easily as if it were a toy. "HOLD ON! WE'RE COMING TO SAVE YOU!"

CRAAAASH!

And with that, he swung the battleship at the left flank of the island's seawall, reducing the ship to splinters but accomplishing what all the cannonballs onboard couldn't: the wall collapsed, creating a straightforward opening for all of the pirate crews near it.

"ALERT! ALERT!" An alarm blared across the battlefield, a sizable amount of terror in the speaker's voice. "THE PERIMETER HAS BEEN BREACHED! THE PIRATES ARE ADVANCING!"

"Yeah, we noticed!" One of the Marines on the remains of the wall snarled as he helplessly watched the Titan march through their defenses without pause. "What I want to know is how we didn't notice sooner! We should have seen this guy coming from a mile off! Someone tell me, how did he sneak up on us? HOW!?"

"Sea turtles," Oars rumbled without stopping, having somehow heard the question.

Despite the situation, the surrounding Marines face-faulted.

"NOT THAT ANSWER, A REAL—!"

SPA-LOOOOSH! The waters on the eastern side of the island abruptly erupted in a massive plume of water… and suddenly, the Marines were presented with much bigger issues to concern themselves with.

"…oh, crap."

-o-

"You have got to be kidding me," Sengoku ground out, more tired than anything at this point.

The world had heard Cross use the 'sea turtles' line more than once since the fall of Enies Lobby. At one point, he had even explained the story it came from, though not the name of the pirate who had told it. It was just a lie, in the end. Just a wisecrack.

Which made the sight before them not only frustrating but sanity-straining. Little Oars Jr. did, indeed, approach Marineford with the help of actual sea turtles.

Except that they were sea turtle Sea Kings, complete with diamond-hard shells and skullplates that were allowing them to make quick, brutal work of the other side of their fortified sea walls.

"When did they start taming Sea Kings!?"

No response came. Which, after a few moments, led him to reluctantly eye the snail again. It blinked slowly.

"Oh, I'm sorry, were you hoping I knew?" Cross asked dryly.

"Don't you?" Sengoku challenged.

"Of course I do. Were you hoping I'd be dumb enough to actually tell you? Sorry again. As it is, I'd advise you to pay less attention to me, and more to the field. Your men are about to have company."

Sengoku fumed, not helped when a final mighty CRASH! signified the collapse of the right wall. The only positive was that with their deed done, the massive turtles vanished back into the depths as quickly as they'd arrived. He wasn't confident that he had seen the last surprise that the Whitebeards would bring up from the deep, but at least they didn't have to worry about fighting three mountain-sized monsters for the time being.

That the dozens of crews that followed Whitebeard now had two openings through which to reach the mainland was enough of a headache for now.

Openings that they immediately exploited. Pirate ships converged on the breaches, their crews pouring down to the waiting warzone as soon as they were within jumping range. Whitebeard would soon have his full army upon the battlefield, and for all that that was a threat, Little Oars Jr. was still front and center. And becoming more and more pertinent by the second as he stomped forwards, one earth-shaking, unshakeable step at a time.

The battle lines heaved, surged, and then buckled, the Marines falling back inland as the pirates pressed their advantage.

-o-

"How do we fight something this big?!" demanded one of the hapless Marines in Oars' path. The answer to his question was made all the more complicated when, with a single sweep of his sword, Oars demolished the makeshift defensive line the Marines had fallen back to. Further hampering efforts came in the form of the pirates streaming in through the breach Oars had made, screening the supergiant from attempts to bring in heavier weapons and stronger fighters. And if that wasn't enough, joining the crowd of pirates to support Oars were two of Whitebeard's Division Commanders, Rakuyo and Blamenco.

"Damn it, we can't stop that thing!" another Marine further inland lamented.

"So you say. But we say much different."

The panicking Marines stared incredulously at one of the Vikverir—no, the Chief Vikverir, Angmar, as he spoke. The size of their enemy did visibly discomfit the viking leader, but his visage was one of determination rather than fear as he hefted something massive from off his shoulder. And it wasn't his mighty warhammer.

"When facing a foe larger than yourself, get something bigger to fight it for you."

The 'something' was now revealed to be a massive horn. Clearer still when he breathed in deeply—

BA-ROOOOOH!

—and blew out a reverberating blast of pure sound that rattled in the skulls of pirates and marines alike. All over the island, combatants stopped and looked around for the source of the noise.

And in that brief pause, two new noises came to the attention of the combatants.

One was a series of earth-shaking footsteps, clearly coming from beings much larger than any humans. Footsteps that were heavy, frequent, and numerous.

The other noise, however?"

"▂▂▃▃▄▄▄▄▅▅▅▅!"

It was the sound of pure fury. Fury at its most raw, primal, and bloodthirsty.

The source of the noises became apparent seconds later, as they emerged from around the back of Marineford's mountainous central fortress. Pirates and marines both reeled in shock at the sight before them.

"What the hell are those?!" the Marine standing next to Angmar demanded fearfully.

"Our answer," the war chief chortled grimly. "Let's see how your 'problem' fares against our Jotun."

And they were a substantial answer indeed: giants, over a dozen in number and the traditional size, but covered head-to-toe in arctic-white fur that gave them a truly bestial appearance. Their only garments were belts and loincloths of heavy fur and metal, and even heavier helmets covering their heads that seemed welded on.

Yet the helmets did nothing to stifle the bellows of the beasts as they stampeded for the battlefield in an avalanche of might and muscle.

"They are formidable normally. Now that we've stimulated them, they should be too much for even this monster," Angmar said with a vicious smirk. "I hope they leave the skull intact this time, it shall make a most worthy trophy!"

Nervous or disturbed expressions spread amongst the onlookers as the berserk giants charged headlong into the advancing pirates. And then both groups abruptly slowed in their advance.

Few of the pirates were built to fight giants of any stripe, and so either fled or were swept away by weapons crafted from ice and bone. Rakuyo and Blamenco dove into the fray ahead of Oars. Rakuyo's flail struck by biting into one Jotun's Achilles and tearing it in two, sending the ice giant toppling to the ground, while Blamenco yanked a massive hammer out of his chin and slammed it into a Jotun kneecap, sending the owner sprawling as well.

Unfortunately, that still left plenty more Jotun charging at Oars. As one, they bellowed, rocking the battlefield and drawing Oars' attention. One, a little faster than the rest, reached melee range first and slammed a hammer made out of a giant femur bone into the flesh of Oars' thigh.

Given it had been aiming for Oars' knee, the retaliation was swift and effective. "Hey, that hurt!" he bellowed, punting the Jotun straight up into the air.

As it landed head-first behind him with a sickening crunch, Oars met the rush of the rest of the pack with another sweep of his sword. The Jotun were bowled over, many bleeding from the deep cut made by the blade, until the last met the strike with another hammer, this one made of hard blue ice. The improvised weapon shattered under the strain, the force of the blow sending that one hurling away and into the side of a battleship that had been frozen in the bay, the hell crumbling around him.

But the Jotun's efforts were not completely in vain, as the destruction of the beast's weapon also shattered Oars's sword.

Flaring his nostrils in annoyance, Oars tossed aside the hilt and advanced anyway, stomping on and punching past the Jotun. They fought back, of course, hammers and picks and axes biting into Oars' flesh. But he was too big for them to seriously damage.

This was also when Rakuyo and Blamenco rejoined the fray. Rakuyo's living flail sought out joints with all the accuracy of a heat-seeking missile, paralyzing Jotun where they laid battered by Oars' blows. Blamenco merely waded into the fray, trusting that Oars wouldn't hit him. Certainly his hammer blows had no issue providing the coup de grâce after the beating Oars was giving them.

Within the span of a minute, the entire Jotun force laid in crumpled heaps, some clutching savaged joints, and Oars advanced, the two division commanders readying themselves to head back to the fight at the plaza seawall.

"Tch. Had me going for a minute there, but no, he's not stopping," the Marine from earlier bit out dismissively, drawing his blade in grim anticipation of the unstopped juggernaut. "Why would you keep these guys back as a secret weapon anyways?"

"Simple…" Angmar's malevolent aura grew all the more, the man pointedly not preparing to fight. "Because they can do this."

It was at that instant that one of the Jotun—the very one that Oars had punted, that he'd taken out first—charged him from behind and dove for his left knee.

Caught completely off-guard, Oars' leg buckled and he crashed to the ice, shattering it and ending up kneeling in the harbor's frigid water. With a growl, he plucked the giant off his legs and squeezed. With a snapping sound, the giant's skull gave way, and it went limp, Oars contemptuously tossing the body at the execution platform, only for a blast from Akainu to intercept and melt it.

Unfortunately, that distraction proved to be critical as the rest of the Jotun, miraculously and impossibly still mobile, leapt at and onto Oars. Some grabbed his limbs and held fast despite his thrashing bellows. Others rained down blows from fists and weapons of stone, ice, and bone.

For a moment, Oars simply took the beating, and then with a roar of exertion he flipped over, squashing several Jotun under his mass and flinging a few more off. No longer completely weighed down, he planted his feet and charged for the execution platform, heedless of the Jotun still draped over him. One scrambled to its feet and tried to tackle him again; it was met with a palm to the face that sent it windmilling through the air.

All their might, all their fury, and for all that they were genuinely starting to hurt Oars Jr., starting to make him bleed, they couldn't stop him from coming close, so close to his goal.

"AAACE!" the titan bellowed, reaching out to save his comrade, save his friend.

Isuka's hand clenched tight on her rapier's hilt, staring unblinking at the approaching turret-sized hand. "Sir, we appear to have an impending situation…"

Sengoku, meanwhile, showed no reaction or emotional shift. His only response, his face blank, was to raise his hand and gesture at the Titan.

Ace's reaction, however, was overt and very emotional. "No… no, Oars!" He jerked in his chains, panic set on his face. "Oars, look out—!"

The snail on the platform tensed and looked away. "Oh, this is gonna suck—"

And then in one brief, blazing moment…

"GREAT ERUPTION!"

KRA-THOOM! "ARGH!"

Any hope Oars sought to bring was violently put out.

Like a bolt from the blue, a great fist of lava the size of Oars' head blindsided him from his flank and smashed into his face. The supergiant reeled back, a heady mixed stench of burning hair and cooked pork spreading over the battlefield. And, off-balance and blinded by the pain, he stumbled and fell onto his rear, half-crashing through the bay's cap of ice.

That momentary lapse proved to be his downfall, the Jotun renewing their assault with a possessed fervor, striking harder, fiercer, and more importantly, striking at Oars' head. The mega-giant tried to fight back. He struggled and flailed, and slammed and broke the Jotun time and again. But where they were willing and able to ignore their own wounds, Oars was not.

Bit by bit, the strength went out of Oars' limbs, and his struggling slowed, until finally he was left with a single active limb, his hand. Raised and trembling as he futilely reached out for his brother.

"Ace… hold… on…"

The limb fell to the ice and went still. As did Oars.

Once Oars' struggles and thrashing ceased, so too did the Jotuns' assault. Deprived of a moving target, the giants turned to the allied crews streaming in.

Rakuyo and Blamenco, meanwhile, had problems of their own. When the Jotun had dogpiled Oars, the Vikverir in position had entered the fray. Blamenco had found himself swarmed by the beasts' handlers, who were to a man tough, mean sons of bitches who were doing an admirable job of pressing him. And Rakuyo…

"TEMPOS!"

"Gah!" the pirate yelped, ducking under Angmar's ballistic hammer. He lashed out with his flail, and was annoyed to see the war chief grab the head by the jaws, flip it under him, and leap at Rakuyo with the momentum, his hammer returning to his hands.

"No time for a full introduction, pirate!" he declared, swinging the hammer. "May he who dies, die well!"

The hammer landed, and in a fifty-foot radius the ice shattered. The spray did nothing to deter Rakuyo's weapon, which screamed in and tore a chunk out of Angmar's back. He did little more than grunt in pain, straightening and concentrating on the head as it returned to its owner. One second… two…

Angmar hurled the hammer again, and was rewarded by a bout of swearing. Unfortunately, that was all, and he couldn't pinpoint the pirate's location, so his next reward was the flail tearing in again.

Back and forth the two fighters went, their long-range duel mostly inconclusive, though Angmar was definitely getting the worse, small wounds adding up all over his body. He had just retrieved his hammer from the twelfth clash when his instincts screamed at him to move. He jumped back, right as Blamenco's hammer smashed into the spot he'd been standing.

"Tempos!" he bellowed, hurling the hammer and catching Blamenco square on the chin. Angmar took the opportunity to retreat. Much as he would've loved to fight at least one division commander to a conclusion, two on one was no fun, and there was plenty more fighting to be had elsewhere.

Blamenco, for his part, didn't press. He rubbed at the developing bruise on his chin as Rakuyo jogged up to him, face grim.

"Oars is still breathin'," his crewmate reported, and indeed, the combatants were giving the space in front of the supergiant's mouth a wide berth. Likely as much for the smell as the gusts. "For now, we just gotta trust he'll get up again." Rakuyo glanced at him. "You okay?"

"I'll be okay when we get Ace back," Blamenco replied, sneering up at the ever-imposing platform. "In the meantime, what say we unclog this sector a bit?"

Rakuyo hefted his flail, his scowl matching his weapon's tooth-for-tooth as they both growled rabidly. "Gladly."

-o-

By now, Marineford Harbor was completely engrossed in battle. Despite the efforts of the Warlords, Vice Admirals, Devil Dogs, and regular Marines in the plaza and ice field in front of the execution platform, the Whitebeards continued to push closer, exacting a deep toll in blood. In the skies above, Kizaru and Marco continued their duel while Doflamingo was as indiscriminate in his string slicing and friendly fire facilitating as Hancock was pretending to be. And on the right wing, the pirate advance had stalled out with Oars down and the Vikverir Jotun wreaking havoc unopposed.

One, attracted by the fluttering sails of the Moby Dick and its joints intact, leaped for the ship and what its berserker mind thought was a mere statue on the prow.

With a distorted halo wrapped around the head, Whitebeard slammed his bisento into its chest like a baseball bat. Tough though they were, these giants were no more able to take Whitebeard's earthquakes than regular giants. The Jotun went flying at the execution platform. This time it was Garp who batted it aside.

Coby watched all these events with all the pants-darkening terror of a green soldier thrust into action for the first time. This was war, a battle of the scale the world had not seen in decades. A broken and bloody captain landing in front of them certainly didn't help. And perhaps understandably, he broke. Coby fled the battlefield into the dependents' housing to the rear of the fighting, Helmeppo running after him.

'I can't do this!' was the litany running through his head. 'So many people, so much stronger than me, getting swatted by flies!'

Where he was running to, he wasn't sure, other than away. But he wasn't so frightened that the feminine bark of "Get back to the battlefield!" didn't seize him up immediately.

Coby skidded to a halt behind a corner, carefully peeking around. There, standing in front of a Marine who seemed to have had the same idea, was that strange priestess Akainu had brought with him. Irian, her name was.

"Please, let me go!" the Marine begged, desperate. "I've lost my nerve! I don't wanna die! I got a family! I gotta take care of them, please!"

The smile on Irian's face should've been comforting. It was warm and friendly and reached her eyes. It was not comforting in the slightest. Rather the opposite, really.

"Of course, of course. I understand completely," Irian crooned. "And I promise, you can go."

"Really?!" the Marine demanded in obvious relief.

"Of course! You just need to do one thing for me." Faintly, as if from a great distance, Coby and Helmeppo heard a sound of drums. "Let the beat take hold."

Abruptly, the Marine's body language… shifted. Where before it had been desperate and fearful, hunched over to make himself smaller, now he stood straight, stiff, and even more terrified. Turning, he marched off towards the front lines, following the cadence of the drums.

"W-What's going on?! I-I can't control my body!" the Marine exclaimed.

"That's working as advertised!" Irian cheerfully called after him.

Footsteps sounded rapid-fire, a courier running up to Irian and saluting. "Miss Irian, I'm here to report that preparations are complete."

"Oh, fooey," she groused. "I was hoping to sweep up a few more deserters. Oh well, I think I have enough. Lead the way!"

Coby and Helmeppo didn't move, didn't dare breathe, as Irian walked away, shoes clacking on the cobblestones. Only when the sound of drums faded away entirely did they relax into heaving gasps.

"What the hell was that?!" Helmeppo demanded.

"I-I don't know, but whatever it is, it's really bad," Coby answered.

There was a moment of silence between the two friends, and then Helmeppo grabbed Coby by the shoulder and began to drag him back the way they'd come.

"Hey! Helmeppo, what are you doing?!"

"Saving our lives!" Helmeppo answered, before adding, "Hopefully."

"Hopefully?! Wait, are we going back to the battlefield?! Helmeppo!"

Abruptly, his fellow Marine turned around and grabbed Coby by the shoulders and pulled him close. His sunglasses had slipped down slightly to reveal wild eyes.

"Yeah, I know how fucking outclassed we are there, okay?! But you know what?! There's Akainu's scary woman prowling around looking for deserters, which means Akainu himself is going to show up at some point! And I don't know about you, but I'll take my chances with a battle that might kill me rather than a fucking Admiral who'll give me a magma enema on the spot!"

Panting, Helmeppo stared Coby in the eyes, willing him to understand. And damn it all, Coby did. He hung his face in his hands. "This situation is so…!"

"No argument from me," Helmeppo agreed, pushing his glasses back up. "Now come on, let's get back before someone notices we're gone."

As they moved back towards less certain death, Coby's miserable expression dropped all the more.

"…I wonder if the Navy was the best choice after all," he mumbled.

-o-

Sengoku watched, outwardly impassive but inwardly furious.

As good a job as the Jotun were doing on the right flank, those damned sea turtles had torn a hole into the left that the pirates were taking ample advantage of. That sector was lightly defended, troops having been shifted to the right and center, and the pirates attacking it were fresh, having been blocked by a massive traffic jam from trying to aid their comrades on the right. All of which meant they were making alarming amounts of headway.

"They've breached our defenses at two points! We may be overrun, Fleet Admiral Sengoku!" the officer who'd reported the situation to him shouted.

"This is fine," Sengoku replied, and really, it was. They wanted the pirates drawn into the bay. This made it easier.

So why did he have a sinking feeling in his stomach?

He ignored the feeling, picking up his snail and dialing a number. "Jonathan, we're enacting the plan."

"I suppose it's time," the Vice Admiral replied. "Transmitting the appropriate messages to the fleet now, Fleet Admiral."

Nodding, Sengoku put away his snail. He had a more important problem to handle.

"Gramps…" Ace breathed as Vice Admiral Garp stepped onto the platform.

"What are you doing here, Garp?" Sengoku asked. "Don't tell me you're getting cold feet."

"No. We're fighting pirates here. There's no reason to show any mercy," the Fist of the Marines said, just a little too forcefully, as he sat down cross-legged.

"So…"

"Just shut up and let me sit here!" Garp barked.

A short time passed in silence. Then…

"Outlaws deserve no mercy," Garp repeated, his shoulders trembling. "But this is family! What am I supposed to do?"

Tears welled in his eyes, a shocking sight for anyone who knew him. Ace gaped in shock, while Sengoku continued to stand outwardly impassive. Inside, though, he was cursing up a storm. Of all the times for Garp, of all people, to have doubts!

"Ace!" he cried out, voice choking. "Why? Why didn't you live the way I told you?"

"Gramps…" Ace breathed.

Sengoku said nothing for a long moment, worst-case scenarios flowing through his head. If Garp turned, here and now…

"Just don't get any funny ideas in your head, Garp, or I'll dispose of you, too," he finally said.

"Hmph!" the hard-headed Marine snorted heavily, before shooting a scowl that was more insulted than anything at his commander. "Dumbass. If I was going to do that, I'd have done it a long time ago."

"Same song and dance from all the decent men left at the top: all they can do is too little, too late."

Garp snapped his head to the snail, a thunderous scowl creasing his brows.

"I don't want to hear it from you, brat. All you're doing is whining to the whole world about how this isn't fair, somewhere nice and safe from this battle. I don't see you trying to stop it."

The silence that followed blared from snails all over the world. A lesser man than the Hero of the Marines would have flinched.

"…you're wrong on all counts, Garp," Cross whispered solemnly. "I'm not whining. I'm not in a safe place. I've fought harder to stop this madness than anyone else before it was even fact. And if you can't see what I'm doing to put an end to this mess…"

The snail's expression morphed into rage, and the next five words hissed across the world.

"I suggest you look up."

It took a moment for them to process what he had said. The next moment was a breath of hesitation, on the off chance that Cross… no, because it was only an off chance that he wasn't right.

Slowly, and not being the only ones on the battlefield to do so, the four people on the execution stand followed Cross's advice.

And something was indeed there. Something very big that was falling very fast.

Sengoku's face turned red and his teeth grit. Garp wasn't far off, shock and anger mixed together, though he seemed more indignant than anything. Ace's jaw slowly fell open. And Isuka…

Ultimately, all she could manage was to blink in numb surprise. "Well. This is new."

-o-

Vice Admiral Jonathan grimaced at the orders he was sending out. Accelerating Fire Fist's execution made perfect military sense with Whitebeard knocking on their door. In literally any other circumstance he would be applauding this decision. Now, he only hoped that Luffy had a Transponder Snail on whatever ship he'd hijacked and that he got here in time to actually use the information.

Jonathan had, in the battle plan, been assigned to the communications room of Marineford, the nerve center through which communications flowed. And he did more than just relay plans; as a Vice Admiral he was authorized to make amendments and even send out plans of his own, on the theory that this battle would be sufficiently chaotic that they needed to let the men on the spot make decisions. That would come in handy later. But for now, it was a source of anxiety.

"Uh, Vice Admiral, sir?"

Jonathan started, realizing he'd gotten lost in his thoughts, and directed his attention to the Lieutenant who'd spoken up. "Yes? Do you have something to report?"

"Um, I think?" the lieutenant said. "It's weird, and might just be a malfunction…"

"Just share it already," Jonathan said, mildly impatient.

"Well, according to the vis-snails we're using for monitoring, there's a Marine battleship falling out of the sky, but I've accounted for the entire fleet already."

Jonathan blinked, genuinely surprised, before shaking his head. "Just can't arrive normally, can you, Straw Hat…"

Cross had gone into extremely fine detail where he had deemed it appropriate and skimmed the remainder. The Masons hadn't pressed due to the time constraints, but it had the somewhat annoying effect of certain details catching them off-guard. Such as 'After Hancock became an ally' omitting the fact that she fell in love with Luffy. And for what was currently happening, he had given the woefully inadequate description of, 'That's when Luffy and the escapees arrive.'

"…and what will the third one be this time?" he muttered to himself.

-o-

Indeed, the battlefield had halted for a hot minute so that everyone could gawk at the battleship falling from the sky, and the figures falling alongside it. And bickering. Constantly.

"I'm telling you, you keep going too far!"

"Blame the witch."

"It's instinct, I tells ya! Instinct! I see ice, I break it!"

"Well, there's ice down there! Go and break it with your skull so we don't all die!"

It was Ace, of all people, who summed up the mood with a simple, flat "What."

"AAAAAAH! WE'RE FALLIIIING!" Straw Hat Luffy shouted as he entered the battlefield, falling from a great height, before blinking in realization. "Hey, wait! I'll be fine, I'm made of rubber."

"Well, the rest of us aren't! DO SOMETHING!" rose a great chorus.

"I never should've listened to you and Cross's loony ideas, Straw Haaaat!" Buggy the Clown added in a wail.

The war was about to get a lot crazier, everyone could tell.

-o-

In the depths of the Sixth Hell, the second pirate who had gambled everything to rescue his brother was pacing feverishly back and forth. As minutes morphed into hours, caution had faded. Clearly, nobody was going to interrupt them anytime soon, which given how long it was taking to thaw Byrnndi was a damn good thing.

"Captain, what's eating you? The process is almost finished, and our defenses are solid. Another hour, likely less, and we'll be on our way back to the submarine," Nightin said, her eyes straying only momentarily from the melting ice.

"That's exactly why I'm worried, Nightin," the elderly man responded. "How long have we been waiting here for Byrnndi to thaw? How long has it been since Luffy left? And aside from that acid dump earlier that almost tripped Gairam into whatever's below this floor, what's come of it?"

He tugged on the horns of his helmet. "No matter how things ended up against the Warden and his staff, it has to be long finished by now. They know why we're here and where to look for us. So why hasn't anyone shown up yet? What else is going on that's as troublemaking as Luffy?"

The grim feeling spread to the others, and Byojack sighed.

"Not to mention that before we get out of here, we need to find the hitchhikers. After all the risks we've taken, I'd rather not add betraying him at the end of it. Even they aren't stupid enough to risk that, and neither are we."

"Not even with the Captain backing us?" Gairam asked curiously.

Byojack heaved an even more tired sigh. "Seeing as Byrnndi will likely want to do business with that scum of the earth once all is said and done, better we stay on his amicable side…" His scowl deepened with a fearful shudder. "Especially given that he could easily overpower even Byrnndi if he felt so inclined. Or have you forgotten how his recruitment pitch went?"

The World Pirates collectively swallowed at that particular reminder, uneasily rubbing at their throats.

"Alright, point made…" Nightin admitted, before gritting her teeth as she contemplated the new problem. "So then, how are we supposed to hunt down Caribou, assuming the slimeball is still alive?"

"Kehihihihi… About that…"

The World Pirates all jumped as a murky chuckle suddenly sounded from the cell's corner. They spun to see the slimy swamp-man peeking through a hole that most certainly had not been there before, leering and wringing his sleeve-engulfed hands eagerly.

"Your task, you see, might turn out easier than you'd think," he snickered, licking his lips with with ill-concealed—outright naked, really—malice. "Sooo sorry for the delay. Ran intoooo… well, let's call it a little trouble."

Byojack's already grim demeanor slipped over the edge to indignant at Caribou's tone. "You… feckless bounty hunter!" he barked, shambling towards him as fast as his old bones could carry him. "What have you done? What have you brought down on our heads?! Answer me, right no—OOF!"

Byojack's advance was abruptly halted when his path was suddenly blocked by someone stepping in front of him, causing him to smack into a solid wall of flesh and fall onto his rear.

The impact merely stunned the old man, nothing too serious. But then he looked up, up at the person he'd run into.

He looked up, saw his face, his demeanor that spoke of nothing but cruelty and bloodshed, that wretched, horrible smile…

And then he was trapped. Trapped in a nightmarish memory he'd tried his hardest to escape for years. One that refused to be bound in the past where it belonged.

A memory, well over forty years old, which reprised itself, word for word, in the present. The man before him in the present and the devil he'd met forty years ago spoke as one.

"Move aside, runt. You're in my way."

Byojack's already panicked breathing accelerated, his heart pounding to the point where he was dead certain it would leap out of his chest. "N...N-No… t-that's impossible… y-y-you died!" his tearful blubbering escalated in terror and volume as he frantically swept his arm out, scrambling back in an effort to put some, any distance he could between himself and the monster before him. "You died! They killed you! YOU'RE SUPPOSED TO BE DEAD!"

His screaming brought his crewmates running to his side, already primed for combat, but also confused and worried. None had been with the crew from the very beginning like him, but they had been there for a long time. And in all that time, through all the horrors that Byrnndi had perpetrated, that they themselves had committed, not once had they seen Byojack in such a state as this.

The World Pirates as a whole were summarily ignored as the towering man who'd breached their hiding place turned back to his slimy compatriot. "What's with Grandpa? He having a heart attack?"

"Kehihihi…he's likely confused," Caribou simpered, bowing his head in deference to the superior monster. "I would wager he expected to die at Magellan's hands… rather than yours."

"Oh yeah, good point…" The man scratched his chin thoughtfully, before baring that Smile again, every inch as deadly now as it had been all those years ago. "Well then old man, it's your lucky day! Because that—"

For a single second, Byojack swore he felt his heart stop as a cloak of Darkness—his Darkness, the Darkness that should have died with him, this couldn't be happening!—swept over the foul man. It was at that point that mortal terror finally kicked the poo-flinging monkey part of his brain into overdrive, dumping adrenaline into his system in a demand from mind to body to live. "RUN! RUN—!"

"—CAN BE ARRANGED!"

Before any of the older pirates could react, the Darkness leapt off the man and towered above them all. The shadow of death, sure, certain, and merciless.

"LIBERATION!"

A cascade of purple slime erupted from the darkness, an oncoming tide of liquid death that overshadowed the pirates… and killed all hope of escape, without exception.

"ZEHAHAHA!"

And in his last moments, as their doom fell upon them and spelled the end of the World Pirates, Byojack begged and pled in his mind what he knew was a vain wish:

'Byrnndi… please… if I ever… meant anything to you as a brother… for once in your life… listen to me… don't fight… just run… just run…'

And then… nothing.

He was gone.

"ZEHAHA! ZEEEEHAHAHAHAAAAA!"

Patient AN: Here's a fair warning in advance: this cliffhanger here? It has absolutely nothing on the one that we'll be putting at the end of Part 3.