Sabo started and snapped out of his thoughts, turning to the familiar freckled face on his left. "Ace?" he exclaimed. "What's—"
"Luffy was talking to you," Ace said, pointing to the small boy he carried on his shoulder.
"Oh . . . sorry, Luffy. What is it?"
Luffy grinned and held up the skeleton he carried by an arm, an afro on its head and a tattered suit on its body. "I was asking if you had any ideas for what to name him!"
"The skeleton?" Sabo said tiredly. "How about Luffy Jr.?"
"No, that's dumb."
Sabo turned forward again and stopped, lifting his top hat decorated with goggles. After a few paces, Ace stopped as well and turned around, staring at Sabo with Luffy.
"What's wrong?" Ace asked.
"Where . . ." Sabo's eyes travelled up the trees looming above them, the moon barely shining through their branches to light their path. An owl hooted and something skittered in the trees as the wind whistled. "Where are we?"
"We're in the forest," Luffy said, hitching the skeleton up and holding it around its chest. Despite that it was proportionately correct, the skeleton was almost nine feet tall.
"But—but what're we doing here?" Sabo's eyes landed on Ace again. "What're we all doing here?"
"Walking home," Luffy said.
"We're lost," Sabo said. He sat against a tree with warped wood and held his head in his hands. "We're lost in the woods . . ."
"Maybe you are," Ace said. "I'm not. You could always say 'misplaced' if it makes you feel better."
Sabo glared at him. "You aren't helping."
"Neither are you. You think sitting is going to make you un-misplaced?"
Sabo glared a moment more before he sighed and stood, holding his cape around him. "You're right. As always."
"So we're gonna get un-lost, right?" Luffy said as his brothers started to walk again.
"Yeah, eventually," Sabo said, keeping his eyes peeled. "Just gotta find someone and ask for directions. No big deal."
"How about him?" Ace said, pointing through the trees. Sabo stopped, and Ace bumped into him, and Luffy fumbled with his skeleton. Sabo and Ace hid behind a tree and peeked around it.
By the light of a lantern, an old man with greying hair was chopping wood on a stump in a clearing while humming a strange tune. He wiped the sweat from his brow, tied back his hair, and gave the wood one last strike with the axe before gathering the wood into a sling.
"He seems nice," Luffy said.
"He does not," Sabo hissed. "I don't know about this. He has an axe, we don't have any weapons. I knew I should've brought my pen knife tonight. Let's just find someone else who can help."
"What about me?" came a voice from their ankles. Ace and Sabo turned around and looked down to find an orange cat staring at them with brown eyes.
"Did that cat just . . ." Sabo whispered.
"You guys are lost, right?" the cat said. "I happen to be pretty good with directions. Maybe I can help."
Sabo blinked hard and smacked himself.
"That looks like fun!" Luffy exclaimed. He hit himself in the head, laughing. The pipe cleaners taped to his headband worn over his straw hat wobbled.
"This can't be real," Sabo said, staring at the cat. "Cats can't just talk!"
"Why not?" the cat and Ace said at the same time. Sabo glared at Ace, who gave him an apologetic grin.
"This night is officially too weird," Sabo said. "Thank you, Mr. Cat—"
"Oh, sorry. Thanks, Ms. Cat, but I think we're okay. We'll just—"
"Show yourself!" roared a voice. Sabo screamed in fear, Ace screamed in fear of Sabo's scream, and Luffy screamed in excitement. The cat's tail fluffed up and she muttered something like "Don't have time for this" before slipping away into the underbrush.
It was the woodcutter, and the anger in his lined face faded when his lantern showed him who he was looking at. "Oh . . . oh, dear," he said, backing away. "Forgive me, I heard something and thought . . . never mind. What are you boys doing here?"
"Looking for home," Sabo said, recovering. Luffy stared into the lantern, fascinated, but Ace took his chin and made him look away. "We're a bit lost."
"You are indeed," said the old man, turning away. "This is the Unknown. Didn't anyone tell you? If you're here, you're more lost than you realize."
Sabo and Ace stood as the old man walked away. He stopped and looked back. "Well? Come along."
"I dunno," Ace said, staring after him. "Maybe you were right, Sabo."
"No, he seems nice enough," Sabo said, stepping over a bush. "For a weirdo."
"Yeah, let's follow the guy with the axe," Luffy exclaimed, tapping the back of Ace's head.
"Fine, fine, just don't put it like that," Ace said, tapping Luffy back and stepping over the bush to follow Sabo and the woodcutter.
The woodcutter set his axe aside and struck two rocks together, lighting the fireplace in the old mill while Sabo and Ace sat on a couch against the wall. Luffy had climbed down from Ace's shoulder and now dusted his skeleton's clothes off, rubbing away specks of dirt on the skull.
"I found this old mill abandoned," the woodcutter said, standing and turning around. He picked up his lantern and cast his gaze around the house. "It suited my needs, so I took up residence here."
"Abandoned, huh?" Ace said, eyeing the axe.
"Your needs?" Sabo repeated.
The woodcutter sighed. "I grind the edelwood from the forest into oil, so I may keep this lantern lit," he said, holding up the lantern and pointing to the bundle of wood on his back. "This is the lot I've drawn in life. Forgive me—my name is Cobra. And you boys, what are you called?"
"I'm Sabo," Sabo said. "And, uh, this is my older brother, Ace, and my younger brother, Luffy."
"And the skeleton?"
"The skele—? He doesn't have a name."
"Not yet," Luffy piped up. "I'm still thinking of one."
Cobra nodded in approval. As he turned back around to check the fire, Ace leaned in and whispered, "Hey. I don't like this."
"Yeah, he's a little more weird than I thought," Sabo whispered back. "Should we leave?"
"What do you think?"
"What do you think?"
"I think he's used that axe for more than just chopping wood." Ace nudged Sabo and pointed to the door. "We can grab Luffy and his skeleton and get out."
"But we're still lost," Sabo whispered.
Sabo rolled his eyes. "Even if that guy's an axe murderer, he might know the way home. Let's ask him for directions, then we'll make a break for it."
"What are you boys whispering about?" Cobra said, looking back.
"They're talking about leaving," Luffy said. Ace and Sabo glared at him and shushed him.
"Leave if you wish," Cobra said, straightening up and turning around again. "But know that the Beast stalks these woods." The lantern cast strange shadows on his face as he spoke. "His only purpose, the entirety of his cursed existence, is to seek out lost souls such as yourselves."
"Oh, I see!" Luffy exclaimed. "He's helpful!"
"He's not helpful!" Cobra snapped. He sighed and went for the door by the stairs, looking back at them one last time. "I must go to the mill now. If you're still here when I return, I'll do my best to guide you."
He shut the door behind him.
"Oh, boy, I don't know about this," Sabo said, standing and pacing the room. "We could just leave, couldn't we? I don't think he'll try to stop us."
"Uh-huh," Ace said, lounging on the couch and fiddling with his red bead necklace.
"Then again, we do need directions," Sabo said, rubbing his chin. "Even if he's an axe murderer, I don't know why he'd try to kill us, do you? He lit that fire for us and everything, and it's not like we have anything worth stealing. And we haven't done anything to him."
"I'm hungry," Luffy announced.
"Just a second, Luffy. Ace, what do you think? Is there a Beast out there?"
"Yeah, he was telling the truth," Ace said, looking out the window.
"You think so, too. Okay." Sabo scratched his head under his hat and looked at the fire. "I guess . . . we'll stay here? And get directions. Then we'll leave."
"I'm gonna go look for food with my skeleton," Luffy announced, picking up his skeleton around the waist and running for the door to the outside, the legs dragging behind him.
"You do that," Sabo said, sitting on the couch by the fireplace. Ace stared at him, and then rolled his eyes and stood, going after Luffy.
Outside, Luffy ran alongside the brook flowing through the mill wheel and stopped, staring into the woods beyond. He bent his legs and prepared to jump over it, but as he leapt, someone caught him and threw him high into the air, making him drop his skeleton and catching him on the way back down.
"Ace!" Luffy exclaimed, giggling. Ace caught the skeleton and handed it back to Luffy. "Where's Sabo?"
"Still inside, brooding," Ace said, setting Luffy down on the other side of the brook.
"Brooding? What's that?"
"You know when hens sit on their eggs and they look like bread dough? That's brooding."
"Sabo's sitting on eggs?"
"Maybe. You should go ask him. What're you up to, shorty?"
"Just exploring with my skeleton," Luffy said.
A low growling came from the woods beyond and they froze. Ace held Luffy closer to him and squinted into the darkness.
"What's that?" Luffy whispered. "A tiger?"
"Hush up," Ace hissed, taking a step back.
Two glowing eyes appeared in the darkness.
Sabo sat up on the couch at a crash from outside. Thumping sounds came from the door next to the stairs and Cobra burst through.
"What's going on?" he demanded. He looked around. "Where did your brothers go?"
"I—I dunno," Sabo said.
The door to the outside burst open to reveal Ace carrying Luffy and Luffy carrying his skeleton. "Sabo, run!" Ace yelled, and Luffy yelled, "Sabo, get off your eggs, it's coming!" and the door flew off its hinges to reveal a monstrous creature, almost canine in nature, its glowing eyes bulging and sharp teeth bared.
"Wh—What is that?" Sabo yelled, jumping to his feet. "Is that the Beast?!"
"Stay back!" Cobra roared, raising his axe. "This creature, vicious though it may be—"
Luffy reached for a vase on a table and hucked it at the creature. His aim was poor, and he struck Cobra in the head instead. Cobra sank to the floor, his axe clattering away.
"Luffy!" Ace exclaimed. "Be careful!"
"Luffy, you're messing everything up again," Sabo snapped as the creature turned to where the thrown vase had come from.
"I'm sorry!" Luffy cried. "It tried to eat my skeleton, and I was mad!"
"It was trying to eat you," Ace snapped.
"So why did you bring it here?" Sabo demanded.
"I had to warn you! What if we got away, and it came after you?!"
The creature charged at Sabo, snarling. Sabo looked around and picked up the fireplace grate, using it as a shield. Ace snuck behind the creature and picked up the axe, whacking the creature on its behind with the blunt side. Holding the axe and Luffy, he made a break for the door to the mill while Sabo hit the creature on its behind with the grate as it turned around. He threw the gate into its face and ran after Ace and Luffy.
Ace was already on the upper level. Sabo followed him up the ladder, where they backed up against the wall as the creature scrabbled at the edge of the platform with giant paws.
"Take Luffy or the axe, I can't hold both," Ace said. Sabo grabbed the axe and held it out, but the creature didn't falter. Sabo did, however, and backed away again.
"This is so cool!" Luffy exclaimed, trying to get out of Ace's arms.
"It's not!" Ace and Sabo yelled.
"Can we go up that ladder?"
Ace and Sabo followed Luffy's pointing finger to the ladder, which led to a ledge on the wall, which lead to a trapdoor in the roof of the mill.
"Luffy, you go first," Ace said, setting Luffy down. He took the skeleton and Luffy wailed. "Luffy, listen, you'll go faster if you're not carrying him. I'll carry him for you and I'll be extra-careful, I promise."
"Pinky-promise?" Luffy said, pouting.
Luffy scampered up the ladder with Ace close behind, carrying the skeleton. Sabo made a threatening swing with the axe before following, the axe on his shoulder. Crashes and bangs below them told him the creature wasn't far behind, climbing and destroying the machinery on its way up. Ace and Sabo sidled along a ledge and reached the ladder, climbing it with one hand each, Sabo holding the axe and Ace holding the skeleton, and they fell onto the roof above, getting their bearings.
"Ace," Luffy said, holding out his hands. Ace handed him his skeleton back and Luffy hugged it. At that moment, the creature burst through the roof, sending boards and wood chips flying everywhere. Sabo shielded Luffy and Ace shielded Sabo and all three backed up, Sabo catching Luffy before Luffy could back up right over the edge of the roof.
"What do we do?" Sabo exclaimed, looking at Ace.
"We need to get it off the roof! Can't you think of anything?!"
"Um—it's like a dog, right? Dogs like bones! Luffy, throw your skeleton at it!"
"No!" Luffy cried, clutching the skeleton close to him and frowning at Sabo. "He'll get eaten!"
"We have to do something!"
Luffy reached forward and grabbed the axe from Sabo's hands. "Here," he said, handing the skeleton back to Ace. He held up the axe. "Hey! Dog! Do you wanna stick? Do you wanna get it?"
To Sabo's and Ace's shock, the creature dropped to its belly, eyeing the axe.
"Okay! Go get it!" Luffy turned around and lobbed his arm in the direction of the mill wheel behind them. The creature bounded forward with a guttural sound, knocking Ace, Sabo, and Luffy off of the roof and landing between the mill wheel and the building. Ace landed in the brook, and stuck out a protective arm which Sabo landed on instead of in the water, and Luffy landed on Sabo. The mill wheel's motion squeezed the creature against the building, and something small and black flew out of its mouth, and the creature started to shrink.
"Luffy, that was amazing, but that was also really dangerous," Ace said, sitting up and making Sabo sit up with him. He stood and Sabo picked up Luffy, setting him on the bank before climbing out himself with Ace's helping hand. "You shouldn't be throwing axes until you get the hang of throwing knives."
"But I didn't throw it," Luffy said, holding up the axe. He gave them an impish grin. "I used to pretend to throw sticks all the time for Mr. Hocker and Mr. Boodle's dog Chouchou, to trick him, until he got smart."
"Still," Sabo said, rolling his eyes. Ace traded Luffy his skeleton for the axe, and Luffy wrung some water out of the skeleton's clothes.
A cry of anguish made all three of them turn. The woodcutter Cobra was awake, and standing outside, and staring up at the remains of the mill, destroyed by the creature's rampage.
"The mill," he said, holding up the lantern. "It's destroyed. It's destroyed . . . the oil for the lantern . . . !"
"Um . . . at least we got rid of the Beast," Sabo said, looking around for the creature. All he saw was a large shaggy dog, loping away into the night. "Right?"
"That creature?" Cobra turned around and Ace and Sabo flinched at the grimness in the lines on his face. "You poor boys, you have no idea, do you? That was not the Beast. The Beast is not some mindless force of destruction, and cannot be defeated so easily. His form is terror, his voice is an omen, and his very being is the death of all hope. If he were to find you children, he would—he is ruthless, he—my—"
He covered his mouth with his free hand, shaking. Sabo smacked the back of Luffy's head. "Look what you've done," he muttered.
"You are the older one, are you not?" Cobra said, approaching them and taking the axe back from Ace. "You should take responsibility for your brother."
"I—" Sabo looked at Ace, who folded his arms and nodded. "You're right. I'm sorry. Could we help fix it? I was reading about woodworking the other day—oh, we'll need tools—"
"Please, just leave me be," Cobra said, shaking his head. He pointed. "Cross this brook and head north. Look for a town."
"That's it!" Luffy exclaimed.
Ace, Sabo, and Cobra looked at him. "What's it?" Ace said.
"That's the perfect name for my skeleton! Brook!" Luffy hugged the skeleton again. "Brook, Brook, Brook! You've got a name now!"
This brought a smile to Cobra's face, but only for a moment. "One last thing," he said as the brothers started to cross the stream. "The Beast seeks out those who are lost. Stay on guard, and leave the Unknown . . . if he doesn't find you first."
"Of course," Sabo said, nodding. "Thank you again. Come on, Luffy."
"Hear that?" Ace said as they crossed the brook. He picked up Luffy and put him on his shoulder again, Brook the skeleton's legs now dragging on the ground a little less. "Stay on guard."
"You have to stay on guard, too, if he wasn't crazy," Sabo said, nudging him.
"I told you, I'm not lost." Ace nudged him back.
"Are too." Sabo punched him.
"Are not." Ace punched Sabo. Sabo punched Ace again and they traded blows over and over, Luffy helping by bopping one or both on their heads intermittently, but soon enough they fell into step again, talking amongst themselves as they walked into the night, and into the Unknown.