Chapter 11. The Girl who Dances with Death. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

Bucc’s mind raced but he couldn’t see any way out of the situation. The man had him in a firm grip so he wouldn’t be able to break loose and run. Fighting was out of the question. The only option was for Adward and Jesse to escape without him.

Before he could speak, Jesse acted. She grabbed a stone from the ground and hurled it at the head of the man holding Bucc. Blood splashed across Bucc’s face. The man reeled back, clutching his head, allowing Bucc to stagger away. Everybody started shouting. Jesse and Adward were already running, with the other two pirates giving chase. Bucc ran after them, moving faster than he ever had in his life.

“What’s the plan!” Adward shouted as he weaved between trees. He was already panting heavily. 

“Keep running!” Jesse called back to him. “Maybe we can lose them then double back.”

Bucc risked looking around. The men were gaining on them quickly and there was movement above them. “No. We can’t lose them. They have some kind of bird familiar.”

“Then we should go back to the girl. The blanks helped us before. Maybe they’ll help us again,” said Jesse.

“But that’s where they want us to go!”

“What other choice do we have? Come on!”

They ran around a hill then sprinted back to their camp. Bucc could hear the heavy footsteps of the men right behind them. He was too scared to look back. They were so close. He could see the canopy of their makeshift shelter.

A hand grabbed at Bucc’s shirt and jerked him back abruptly. He felt his arms get locked into place and a slither of cold steel brush against his throat. He gulped and froze, too scared to even breathe.

“Stop your running now or your friend here is going to have a really bad time!” one of the men shouted. The sword against Bucc’s throat pressed deeper to emphasise the point. 

Jesse and Adward stopped just short of the camp. Bucc tried to tell them to keep running but couldn’t make any sound. He watched helplessly as the other two men moved past him towards his friends. One was the man who had been on the receiving end of Jesse’s stone throw. He looked furious. Smeared blood covered his face, making him seem almost demonic in the flickering light that filtered down through the trees. Both had their swords drawn.

The pirate pushed Bucc forward. He shakily began to walk, being very careful not to make any sudden movements. Another pirate took hold of Adward while the other struck Jesse across her face hard enough to knock her to the floor. Bucc tensed up but felt the sword nick his skin. The bloodied man yanked her back to her feet by the scruff of her collar. 

“You’ll pay for this cut, girl. Mark my words,” he hissed as he shoved her forward. His scowl lifted quickly though as soon as he noticed the blonde haired girl laying alone beneath the canopy. 

As they approached, the blanks rose up and formed a shield around her. The pirates’ leader tied Jesse up with a length of rope then stepped up to the wall of creatures. They pulsed angrily but showed no sign of moving. He slowly reached out his hand and placed it on one of the translucent spheres. It shivered and pulsed harder but offered no other reaction. He laughed and tore it away. The hole was quickly filled by another blank.

Jesse looked over to Bucc with tears in her eyes. She didn’t speak but was clearly mouthing words at him. “Use it. Use your power.” 

Bucc felt his gut lurch just from the thought of it. He could feel the fire flickering deep inside, eager to escape in a blaze of devastation. Every instinct screamed at him to save his friends, but each time he reached out to grab the fire, he heard screams and saw flesh burn in his mind. Again he saw the ground run red with blood. Someone had died the last time that Bucc had tried to protect Jesse. His instinct to fight had cost Kaz his life. Who would die this time?

The images didn’t stop coming. Bucc’s breathing was out of control and tears streamed down his face. Everything he could do would lead to pain. His inner fire flickered, then was smothered by the weight of his fear.

“Tie them up,” the tattooed man ordered the other two men. He turned back to the blanks and drew his sword. “I don’t have time to deal with this nonsense.”

The man slashed at the blanks, cutting through several in a single swing. The creatures writhed and deflated, falling away like autumn leaves. Bucc couldn’t believe his eyes. The killing of blanks was forbidden. The man’s familiar looked on at the butchery without compassion. 

The deaths of the blanks sent a ripple of pain out to anyone with a heart. Even with the blade on his neck, Bucc couldn’t suppress a strangled sob. The pirate struck again and more blanks silently vanished from the world. More pain washed over Bucc like a physical force. He blinked several times and tried to focus on the living shield. He hadn’t been the only one who had flinched. Another slash caused another pang of hurt. He had been right! This time he saw the girl jerk slightly. 

Then her eyes opened. She looked bewildered and wild. Her hands clenched. Slowly, unsteadily, she rose to her feet. The pirate noticed her and grinned broadly.

“So, you’re awake? Good. Captives are easier to manage when they can walk. Now call off these blanks and come with us without any trouble-”

The blanks parted and a spray of yellow mist flooded out. The man shouted but Bucc couldn’t see what was happening through the mist. The other two pirates readied their swords and took an uncertain step forward. Something lashed out from the cloud and struck one of the men across the knuckles. He dropped the sword and yelped. 

As the cloud dissipated, the girl came running forward. She looked different. There were too many limbs. Bucc realised that it was the vines that worked their way around her body. She was somehow controlling them, using them as whips to strike at them men. She moved with a grace that Bucc had never seen before, spinning around sword strokes without even appearing to look. The men were double her size but after a brutal flurry of attacks, both fell to the ground and made no sign of getting back up. Their familiars stood beside them, hissing and growling, ready to protect their masters. A faint glow spread from the creatures to cover the men, shielding them from further harm. The barrier was easy enough to break, but the girl ignored them.

The remaining blanks crowded around her. She glared at the unconscious men then toppled into the dirt. Bucc crawled up to one of the dropped swords and managed to cut the rope that bound him. He rushed over to Jesse and Adward.

“Are you okay?” he asked as he sliced through the ropes that bound Jesse. Her cheek was still bright red.

“I’m fine. It barely hurt. Honest.” The moment she was free she grabbed a sword and moved to her brother. “I’ll cut Adward free. You check on that girl.”

Bucc nodded then ran to the girl’s side. She was still awake but her eyes were scrunched shut in pain and she looked feverish. All of the vines had returned back beneath her tattered dress. Jesse tried to speak with her but couldn’t get a full word out through her stammers. A hiss of frustration escaped her lips as she motioned at Bucc to take over. 

“Are you okay?” he asked nervously.

The girl opened her eyes and stared angrily up at him. “Do I look okay? What kind of stupid question is that? I’m dying, so you may as well mind your own business and get out of my way.”

“You’re not going to die? We’re here to help you.”

She laughed but it quickly became a spluttering cough. “You can’t help me. Nobody can. But don’t worry. I don’t intend to go anywhere until I avenge my family.”

“Avenge your family?”

Adward was collecting the weapons of the men. He motioned for Jesse to help him tie their hands then interrupted the conversation. “Talking can wait. We need to get off this island before they wake up. Get what supplies you can then let’s take their boat. I can probably navigate our way back south to safety.”

“Right,” Bucc nodded. He turned to the girl. “Can you walk?”

“Yes,” she answered bluntly. She struggled to her feet, each little movement bringing with it a hiss of pain. Bucc tried to help her but she shoved him away. “I don’t need your help.”

“Er, sure. Okay,” he answered uncertainty. This kind of interaction was out of his depth. He put on a smile and tried to reassure her. “I’m Bucc by the way. And these are my friends Jesse and Adward.”

The girl ignored him. She began an unsteady march towards the beach. Bucc followed close behind. 

“Just leave me alone!” she snapped at him.

“Look, just hear me out. There’s one way off this island unless you know how to build a boat from scratch. We all have to work together if we want to find safety. Anyway, we kinda rescued you so you could maybe be a bit more appreciative.”

“You rescued me? Get real. All three of you would be dead if I hadn’t saved you. Without you here those men would still be out of the way and I’d have the boat all to myself.”

“Maybe, but you’d never have made it to this island in the first place. We rowed your barrel here. Without us you would have died in that cramped darkness all alone!”

The girl stopped mid step. She hesitated for a moment then resumed her stride. “Then maybe you should have left me.”

Bucc gave up trying. He fell back to walk beside Jesse and Adward who had been following them a short distance behind. Both were weighed down with equipment so Bucc took what he could to lighten their load.

“Any luck?” Adward asked him.

Bucc shook his head. “No. The only thing she’ll talk about is her own death. She seems to want it. I… I don’t understand her. Jesse, can’t you try getting through to her. You’re a girl too after all.”

“Thanks for noticing,” Jesse muttered. Her words sounded muffled through a swollen lip. “I can’t exactly talk to her though, can I? Even when she was unconscious I stumbled over my words. There’s no chance that I can speak with her giving me that scary glare.”

“This is going to be a really long voyage, isn’t it?”

They caught up to the girl beside the boat. She was leant against its side breathing heavily. Sweat rolled down her face. Several blanks were huddled around her feet.

“Took your time,” she grunted breathlessly. “You don’t seem that eager to leave this island to me.”

This time it was Adward that tried his hand at diplomacy. “My name is Adward Reeds, this is my sister, Jesse, and our friend Bucc. We’re going to be stuck with each other for a while, so can we at least get your name?”

“Names are unimportant. If you need one though, call me Milla.”

“Well, Milla, we don’t have much of a plan other than to head back south into familiar waters. Where do you want to go?”

The girl climbed up into the boat and settled into the prow. She spoke in a low voice, each word slow and methodical. “Further to the north is a fleet controlled by Lord Captain Pyrefist. He is the most powerful pirate alive and his fleet dominates the northern seas. Very soon he’ll take the title of Pirate King. I’m going to kill him.”

Previous – Chapter 10. New Dangers.

Next – Chapter 12. The Fires of Fate.

Chapter 10. New Dangers. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

Bucc sat at the edge of their shelter feeling useless. Jesse was furiously attempting to light a fire while Adward was preparing a meal from what few nuts, berries and bulbs they had found nearby that didn’t look poisonous. Most of the island was covered in sickly green mushrooms that Bucc advised them were deadly. The mysterious girl was laid out in the centre of the space wrapped in a layer of leaves to try and keep her warm. The blanks rested on top of the leaves like giant bubbles, though Bucc wasn’t sure if they provided any heat.

None of them had much knowledge of medicine or health. It wasn’t something that interested most pirates. If plenty of rum and a hot knife didn’t solve the problem then that was that. The best they could offer was to keep her dry and try to keep her hydrated. The torrential rain at least went some way to helping with everyone’s thirst, but the food situation was still looking bad.

“She looks badly beaten, but I’d guess it’s exhaustion that hit her hardest,” Adward had announced after a tentative examination. Jesse had checked the girl over more closely but confirmed that she didn’t have any major injuries. Even so, she showed no sign of waking.

Adward handed Bucc a folded leaf then passed another to Jesse before reaching out into the rain to grab some cups that he had built from more leaves and fibres. Bucc sniffed the folded leaf then risked taking a small bite. The leaf was rubbery and tasteless, but inside was a thick paste of berries and nuts. It was bitter but Bucc didn’t care. He scoffed the rest of it down ravenously.

The rain didn’t ease up through the night. Water pooled on the ground and flowed into the shelter until there wasn’t a spot of dry floor left. At first Jesse had tried to use her affinity to keep the water at bay, but it had been a continuous battle, and in the end she’d no choice but to give up. A pile of leaves was the only protection they had to work with and it did little to keep the group dry. Exhaustion fought with discomfort, ensuring that Bucc stayed in a constant state of half sleep.

With the first light of morning came a break in the weather. A fine drizzle hung in the air, but compared to the downpour of the night it seemed almost pleasant. Bucc had barely slept and his hunger had returned. Even the sights, sounds and scents of nature were doing little to improve his bad mood.

“We need to explore the island better today,” Jesse said. She looked down at the mystery girl and her words faltered. She turned away and continued. “We need a boat, or at least a reliable source of food and a shelter that isn’t going to let so much water and cold in.”

“Do you think she’ll be safe here by herself?” Bucc asked, motioning towards the girl.

“She should be okay. Her condition looks stable. Anyway, those blanks seem really drawn to her. I’ve never seen anything like it. I think they’re watching over her. Protecting her,” Adward answered. 

With that decided, the group set off. The jungle was dense and thick mud clung to everything. The strange mushrooms covered every surface and the air was thick with humidity and the sickly sweet smell of rot. There didn’t appear to be any sign of humanity at all.

It was hard to keep track of which direction they were going and where they had been. Eventually they made their way back to the beach and decided to do a circuit of the island. At first there were no discernable landmarks until Jesse spotted something that none of them had expected.

“Hey, is that a boat?” she asked. She slowed her walk and squinted. “It is! It’s a boat!”

“Keep your voice down,” Adward snapped. “Let’s see what’s going on before you make a scene.”

There was a trail leading out of the sea up the beach that ended at a rowing boat. The churned sand looked recent and the boat seemed well maintained. It couldn’t have been there for long. That meant only one thing. They weren’t alone.

Eyes darting in every direction, the friends ran back into the jungle to find cover. In the relative safety of the trees and bushes, they crept along in search of the other pirates. Not far from where they found the boat they saw smoke and followed it to a campfire beside a sturdy tent. Two men sat next to the fire warming their hands. Both were armed with swords and pistols.

“What do we do?” Bucc whispered. “You think they’ll give us a ride off this island?”

“I don’t know,” Adward said. “I’m not even sure which crews sail this area. Some pirates would go out of their way to help us, others would rob the clothes from our backs then bury us in a shallow grave.”

The men wore more clothes than most of the pirates that Bucc had ever met. Other than their faces they had no exposed skin, and small sections of metal armour covered the padded fabric of their jackets. Their swords were bigger and straighter than a traditional pirate scimitar too. They looked well equipped for colder weather and for brutal combat.

“I guess there’s only one way to find out,” Bucc said quietly. “You two stay here. Talking to people is about the only thing I’m any good at. So I’ll go introduce myself and see if they’ll help us.”

“Or we could just watch them and see why they’re here. If they start talking about anything bad then we can run and hide, if they sound okay then you can work your charm,” Adward argued. “It’s not like we can jump in and fight them off if things turn nasty.”

“True…”

“Shhhh. They’re talking,” Jesse hushed them.

The three leaned in closer to catch the words. It was hard to hear the men over the constant rhythm of rain but thankfully the men weren’t trying to be quiet. Their speech was thick but lacked the characteristic accent that was common in the South.

“Just think of the money. What’s a little rain when we’re rolling in gold?”

“Is she really worth that much though? She’s just a girl. I’ve got no Idea why the Lord Captain wants her back so badly.”

“Nobody knows what’s going on in that head of his, but he built the Empire, so he clearly knows what he’s doing. Besides, it was the Red Demon herself who gave us these orders, so it must be important. The reward will make us rich men. But first we need to find her. This is the only island for miles. If she isn’t here then she’ll be adrift in the sea. She wants to hope we find her or she’ll die alone inside that barrel.”

“They must be talking about that girl,” Bucc said.

“Well, I doubt they’re talking about another girl in a barrel,” Jesse said sarcastically. “Not unless these northern crews have a real funny idea about how to transport women.”

“But they don’t want to find her because they care about her. They just want to sell her. They beat and starved her. We have to help.”

“But what can we do? We have nowhere to hide and no weapons to fight them off. Not that you would fight them anyway,” Adward pointed out.

“There has to be something!”

“It’s simple,” said Jesse. “There’s an obvious trail where we dragged the barrel. We carry the girl and wait for them to find it. Then when they are busy with the barrel we steal their boat and make our escape.”

“Why do all your plans revolve around stealing things,” Adward said with a sigh.

“Just be glad I don’t have any gunpowder. The plan would have been much more fun then.”

They slowly backed away from the pirate’s camp then dashed through the undergrowth back towards where they had left the girl. Bucc ran between trees then slammed into a dark shape that had appeared in his path without warning. He looked up to see a third pirate smiling down at him. Jesse and Adward froze in place, unsure whether to run or jump to Bucc’s aid.

“Now what have we got here. This ain’t no place for children,” said the man. His voice was deep and had a wicked edge to it. Tattoos covered his face and his teeth were sharpened into points. He whistled, the sound echoing loudly through the jungle.

A spike of fear stabbed at Bucc but he shoved it away and thought quickly. “No kidding. We’re starving and soaked. We got washed away and ended up stranded here. Could you help us?”

“Oh, you did? Well then, I guess we’d better drop everything to help you little urchins out then, eh?”

The man’s tone was mocking but Bucc decided to play the fool. “I’m glad. We were worried that nobody would ever find us here.”

“Listen, kid, don’t play dumb with me.” He grabbed Bucc by the shirt and pulled him up level with his face. “You have the clothes and accent of the southern pirates. You’re a long way from your own waters. What’s more, I’ve got eyes and ears everywhere, and those ears tell me that you know where our mark is.”

“Mark? Can’t say I’ve seen anyone called Mark. Are you sure you haven’t got the wrong group?”

As he spoke, Bucc saw movement beside his foot. He glanced down to see a long snake slither past him then begin to wind its way up the man’s body. The pirate didn’t take his eyes off Bucc.

“You see, boy, this is my familiar, Sentinel. I can see and hear whatever she does. I know you know where the girl is. You’re going to save us a few minutes of searching and take us straight to her. That is, if you don’t want you and your friends to get hurt.”

There was the sound of footsteps behind him now. Bucc could still see Adward and Jesse frozen in place. The two other pirates moved toward the siblings.

Previous – Chapter 9. Lost at Sea.

Next – Chapter 11. The Girl Who Dances with Death.

Chapped Lips

They say that if you shrink the world down to the size of an egg,

Then it’s surface is smoother than a brand new snooker ball.

The godly peaks of Everest and Olympus,

The sunken depths of the Mariana Trench,

Or the towering structures of man,

Are all insignificant,

Unnoticeable despite their majesty.

Just as every crater, canyon, and mountain fades beneath scale,

So too do the cracks and gaps in red lips that are chapped.

In the cosmic scale of souls adrift in the universe,

The lines of your lips go unnoticed,

Behind the interlocking of soft sweetness that is your kiss.

But then beyond the infinite is more,

Your lips planets of their own,

Each ripe with wonders to explore.

Those chaps are maps of hidden places,

Pathways through the Goblin King’s Labyrinth,

And journeys across mountains of mist.

They draw me in, gateways to the soul,

Every strip of peeling skin a mark of life lived

Like wrinkles, laugh-lines, and scars.

So call me Columbus setting sail for new lands,

Your body a temple that calls to me.

I’ll let my heart lead as we entwine hands,

And forget the ups and downs of this insignificant world.

For nothing could ever eclipse,

A kiss from your chapped lips.

Chapter 9. Lost at Sea. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

Bucc woke up gasping for air. He was underwater and there was no way to tell which direction the surface was. He cried out without thinking, choking on water as only bubbles left his mouth. The bubbles drifted away and Bucc realised that they must be going upwards. He kicked and thrashed in an attempt to find air he so desperately needed. His lungs burned and his vision was growing dim. 

Then he breached the surface and took in lungfuls of desperate breaths. He looked around and saw Jesse paddling towards him. She was dragging Adward through the water on his back. His eyes opened and closed heavily and his breathing was shallow. There was a cut on his forehead that suggested something had hit him hard. 

“You’re alive!” Jesse panted as she neared him. “When I couldn’t see you I was scared that you’d drowned.” Her eyes opened wider and her look of relief turned to worry. “Your hands…”

Bucc stopped wading for a moment to hold his hands up to his face. The skin on his palms was burned and peeling. He couldn’t feel any pain, but then his whole body felt numb. As the adrenaline wore off he could already feel the first twinges of pain flaring up.

“Forget about that. We need to find land, or at least something to get out of the water. Have you seen the boat?”

Jesse gestured vaguely to scraps of wood that dotted the ocean around them. Bucc stared at them without answering. There was nothing else in sight. Just the three of them, wooden debis, and the open sea. 

One of the sections of wood looked larger than the rest. Bucc swam towards it, his muscles now starting to ache and his hands stinging terribly in the salty water. Even such a short distance was hard for him to swim. As he neared the object, he realised that it wasn’t a broken piece of their former boat, but was a small barrel that was about half as high as he was tall.  He reached out for it and threw his arms over its top. The barrel dipped in the water but managed to support his weight. Bucc kicked his legs and directed himself to Jesse and Adward. 

“It isn’t much but it’ll have to do,” he said as he helped Jesse pull Adward up onto the barrel. Adward had regained enough of his senses to hold on and keep his balance.

Bucc and Jesse clung to the barrel’s side while Adward took up the centre. The tide pulled them onwards but Bucc had no idea if it was towards land or further into the unending ocean. Adward gradually came around but even he couldn’t tell them where they were without stars in the sky to guide him. 

A million problems clouded Bucc’s mind, but increasingly the number one concern was the deep rumbles in his stomach. His lips were dry, but it was the skipped meals that were coming back to haunt him. He daydreamed idly about noodles and vegetables as they floated aimlessly towards their slow and inevitable deaths. 

Bucc’s fantasies of food were interrupted when he felt something brush against his foot. He jumped at the touch but wasn’t scared. No creatures lived in the water anymore so there wasn’t anything to be scared of. In his grandfather’s youth, the sea had been a deadly place, but the last of the leviathans had disappeared decades ago, as had their dangerous brood. 

Bucc ducked his head under the water and saw a long chain of blanks lazily propelling themselves along just beneath the surface. He popped his head back up to excitedly tell the others.

“They’re probably just passing by,” Adward told them. “ Blanks have been recorded everywhere, even in the most remote areas of the sea. It’s not like they swim towards land or anything.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Bucc said disappointedly. Still, blanks were always fun to watch. The world would feel dead without them. They were traveling in a single file line that curved around the group. Bucc looked around and saw that the line was a complete ring that enclosed them inside it. That was weird. 

“They’re circling us,” he explained. “Maybe they want to help us. Er, did anyone explain how to get a familiar after I left the ceremony?”

Adward shook his head then winced. “Apparently that’s something they explain on our first expedition.”

“We could try stroking them and giving them a hug,” Jesse suggested. 

“The best way to make friends is to give them food,” Bucc said, his stomach rumbling loudly in agreement. “Wait, do blanks even eat?”

He reached out and brushed his fingers against one. It was the first time that nobody had been there to stop him. The blank felt smooth and soft, and offered no friction at all as his fingers moved across its body. It was almost like touching oil-slick glass, but the glass was also as soft as fabric.

Nothing happened. The blank didn’t react to the touch in the slightest. Bucc had half expected it to transform into a familiar there and then. Why had the adults always been so strict about not touching the blanks if nothing happened?

“It looks like they are trying to get us to go that way,” Adward observed. The blanks continued their circling but their ring stretched out in an egg shape, the furthest point from the barrel always pointing in the same direction.

Jesse started to kick. “We should start heading that way then. Wherever they lead us has to be better than here. Let’s go!”

Bucc and Adward followed her lead and grabbed pieces of wood themselves. They rowed, following the point of the egg like the needle of a compass. None of the young pirates knew if the blanks were leading them to land or not, but it was their only hope, and so they clung to it as tightly as they did to the barrel. 

The sun slowly arced through the sky. At its highest point it burned them, blazing at any bare patches of skin. Then it passed further and the world dimmed into the murky gloom of dusk. Still there was no sign of land, or of any ships. As the sky darkened, the stars became visible, and Adward took to studying them closely.

“So, where are we?” Jesse asked impatiently after her brother had been staring upwards for several long minutes in silence.

“We’re further out than I thought. I didn’t expect the riftway to take us so far in the little time we spent in there. I can’t be sure, but I think we are further north than the Seal usually goes. I don’t know anything about the seas here.”

Bucc knew enough about astronomy to at least tell directions. He looked up at the sky then down to the blanks. “They’re taking us further north.”

“Yeah. It could be a long way south before we hit an island though. We just have to trust these little guys and hope for the best.”

Jesse lowered her head into the water and blew bubbles petulantly. She looked across to the boys then rose up to perch on the edge of the barrel. It dipped deeper into the water under her added weight. She patted the wood with a smile.

“We should name her. This is our first ship after all,”

“Jesse, it’s a random barrel.”

“A random barrel that saved our lives and has supported us for hours in unfamiliar seas. She deserves a name after that.”

Bucc couldn’t help but laugh. “I suppose you’ll be this ship’s captain?”

“Of course. I’m the ideal candidate with everyone’s full support, right?”

“Yeah, sure. Go ahead, Captain.”

Jesse scrunched up her face in concentration. “But what’s a good name? Think, Jesse, think! Hmm. How does Northern Angel sound?”

“Let’s hope it lives up to its name and keeps us safe,” Bucc said quietly. 

Adward sat up and stared intently into the distance. “I think she will. Look!”

Bucc followed his friend’s line of sight and squinted into the darkness. At first he couldn’t see anything, but as his eyes focused on the horizon he noticed the telltale black blotch that signified an island. Relief swelled up inside him. He was hungry and scared, but more than anything he just wanted to feel earth beneath his feet. He needed to be near nature almost as much as he needed to eat. Would it still make him feel the same now that he had been confirmed as a flamecaster?

The group upped their pace, anxious to find shelter for the night. Even then, it took them a long time to row their way close to the island. It was a hilly landmass covered with dense forest. There were no lights, smoke, or any other sign of a human settlement. That was uncommon. Any island with enough soil to grow plants was usually settled by a handful of farmers at the least. 

The sea grew shallower, allowing Bucc and the others to walk along the shore. Blanks swirled around their feet and brushed against the barrel. The Northern Angel touched down on soft sand and the young pirates rushed to roll it up out of the water before the tide could snatch it back into the sea. It was only now that they realised how heavy the barrel was. Something thudded around inside with each rotation. The blanks followed them, leaving the water behind to float through the air.

Safely on the beach, Bucc collapsed, breathing heavily. He laid back and wiggled until he was half buried in the cold sand. The damp smell of oak and cypress trees filled the air, intoxicating him. He felt the same rush of life with each movement of the coarse earth against his skin. The Awakening hadn’t taken that away from him. 

“Do you have any idea where we are?” Jesse asked Adward. Both were sat with their backs against the barrel. The blanks circled them, seemingly ignoring Bucc.  

Adward observed their surroundings carefully. “An uninhabited island of a good size somewhere in the north. I don’t know. Even the blanks don’t seem to be taking us anywhere now. I can tell you that we want to find shelter though. Those clouds over there are threatening a storm.”

Jesse immediately took charge. “Help me roll the Northern Angel up to the edge of the jungle. We don’t want to be out in the open when those clouds burst.”

They made their way up the beach and left the barrel beside the first tree. The blanks flitted around it noiselessly. The group had a quick look around but there were no obvious signs of available shelter. Adward found a nook between three hills and they decided to make camp there. Northern Angel was dragged into the centre then they set to work gathering sticks and leaves to build a simple structure and campfire. This proved harder than they had thought though since everything was damp.

None of them had any real experience with building or survival. It was only during treasure hunts that pirates began to learn about staying alive on land, and even then expeditions would only last for a few days at most. Only those with an affinity for earth that decided to settle a new island ever had to deal with living without established supplies. 

The best that they were able to do was a simple mesh made of vines that crisscrossed the surrounding trees. The large jungle leaves were placed on top of this and kept in place with small rocks and sticks. Lighting the fire proved to be even more difficult. Adward was able to get sparks from stones and from rubbing together sticks, but the wet twigs refused to burn.

The siblings were watching Bucc and he knew what was coming. They exchanged quick glances and avoided eye contact with him. Eventually Jesse lost whatever stakes the two were engaged in and cleared her throat.

Bucc cut her off. “No. I’m not going to use those powers. They exist only to hurt people. I can’t even control it. How do I know I won’t just hurt you?” He looked at the peeling skin of his hands and clenched them in frustration. This didn’t stop them from shaking.

“You have to try. Me and Adward will move over there so you don’t have to worry about us.”

Bucc sighed. “Okay. I’ll do my best.”

As soon as Jesse and Adward were a safe distance away, Bucc tried to concentrate on his inner fire. He could sense it, but with it came an overwhelming feeling of fear. He pushed through it and grabbed the flame, feeling the heat radiate through his body. A spark of fire curled around his fingers, lighting up the night. The sight of it caught his mind in vicious fish hooks that dragged his memories into a blistering inferno. 

At first it was his own flame, back aboard the Seal, surrounded by fearful eyes, but then the memories began to pile in on top of themselves. He heard the screams and shouts of battle and watched it all wash away in a growing pool of blood. The lifeless face of Kaz rose through the blood and Bucc felt the all too familiar stab of guilt. 

He shook his head, desperately trying to disperse the images. Reality snapped back into focus, only for Bucc to realise that his whole body was aflame. He tried to bring it under control, but instead it flared up then spluttered before dying completely. 

Bucc fell to his knees, his eyes brimming with tears. The siblings carefully sat beside him and tried to comfort him. Jesse pulled his head down onto her shoulder.

“Thank you for trying.”

An awkward quiet fell over the makeshift camp. The first drops of rain began to lash down onto their shabby canopy and a biting chill filled the air. A background beat of rain on leaf was accompanied by a chorus of rumbling stomachs.

Adward finally spoke. “No point in us sitting here slowly starving to death. Help me open up the barrel. Hopefully there’ll be food inside. Or maybe warm clothes.” He grabbed a flat stone and got to work trying to open the sealed lid. Bucc and Jesse followed his lead and they quickly pried the lid free. The blanks swarmed around them now, pulsing erratically. 

A head slid out of the barrel. Bucc staggered back and Jesse let out a squeal. There was a whole person crammed into the container. Jesse collected herself quickly and reached inside. She pulled and a young girl emerged from the barrel. 

She had long, blonde hair and pale skin. Her plain white dress was little more than filthy tatters and she wore oversized boots that contrasted with her otherwise frail appearance. Stranger still was the latticework of vines that grew across her skin like exposed veins, running up the length of her arms and legs and around her body, the dark lines clearly visible beneath the faded white dress. Bucc could have easily believed that she had been left out on an island somewhere to be overtaken by nature. The blanks span around her faster and ducked in and out to brush against her.

“Is she…dead?” Bucc asked.

Adward was too absorbed with studying the blanks to do little more than glance at the girl. Jesse stepped forward and tentatively looked for a pulse. She shook her head and let out a sigh of relief. 

“No. Somehow she’s alive. She isn’t looking good though. Quick! We need to help her.”

Previous – Chapter 8. Escaping Fate.

Next – Chapter 10. New Dangers.

Chapter 8. Escaping Fate. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

The captain hadn’t told anyone else to guard Bucc after he had sent Bruce away. The corridor was clear. Bucc crept along as quickly as he dared, his ears straining to hear the slightest sounds of approaching footsteps. The odds of him escaping unnoticed were slim to none, but it was a chance he had to take.

He saw no sign of any crew members until he reached the deck. It looked to be early morning but the deck wasn’t busy with the usual morning routine. A few pirates were still up and about, but many more were passed out along the floor and on tables. The Awakening’s celebrations had only stopped a short while ago. That was perfect.

Bucc hadn’t really thought his plan through very well. In fact, his entire plan could be summed up by the single sentence ‘Run away to somewhere not here’. It wasn’t a great plan by any stretch of the imagination, but it was all he had to work with at that moment. Kaz had always been the decision maker. After he had gone it was Jesse who usually was the one with the good ideas and Adward had the knowledge to make those ideas work. Bucc himself tended to act more on instinct. Being trapped on a ship left him a single way to escape.

The Seal had several rowboats that were used for sending pirates out to the islands. Other than trying to swim, those small boats were the only way to leave the ship. That meant that Bucc had no choice but to steal one.

He moved along the deck, trying his best to stay low and out of sight, ducking between boxes and cannons whenever he could. He made it to one of the boats that was stored further away from the few conscious crew members. The main threat of discovery was the helmsman up on the bridge. Bucc kept a wary eye in that direction as he assessed the levers and pulleys that held the boat in place.

It was only now that he was looking at the boat that he realised he wasn’t entirely sure how to lower the boat down. He had seen it done a thousand times but had never really paid attention to the details.

“You want that lever over there,” said a voice behind him.

Bucc whipped around to see Adward leaning against a cannon nearby. Jesse sat on the barrel beside him. Both had changed out of their Awakening gowns and were dressed in the colourful but practical clothes of an adult pirate. Bucc wondered if somewhere he too had new clothes. He didn’t want to be a pirate, but he did have to admit that the clothes were pretty cool. These thoughts were quickly buried by more pressing matters.

“You can’t stop me from leaving. I’ve made up my mind.”

Adward snorted. “Who’s trying to stop you? I’ve been listening to the adults since the ceremony. The second that the orb turned red for you, they stopped seeing you as Buccaneer Jones and started to see a weapon to be used. I know you well enough to know that those expectations would break you.”

“Yeah. Captain Gus was literally talking about selling you if you didn’t help him, like you were just a gun to be used or traded,” Jesse said. Anger and hurt brimmed in her voice. “He didn’t know we were listening. The way he spoke about you makes me furious!”

“I know,” Bucc said, sighing heavily. “He came to speak with me and said as much. But he also mentioned other pirates that are attacking crews to gather flamecasters. This isn’t even about my feelings. If I stay here then everyone’s in danger. I don’t want that to happen. Not again.”

“And we don’t want you to be in danger either. You’re our friend, whatever you may be, and friends look out for each other. You didn’t think we’d let you go out into the world alone, did you?” Jesse told him. Her smile was warm as she spoke.

“Don’t be stupid!” Bucc snapped. “You’re safe here. You both got exactly what you wanted. Stay here and live the life you’ve always dreamed of.”

Jesse tapped her index finger sharply at Bucc’s forehead. “That’s exactly what we’re doing, dummy. Since back when we met Kaz, we’ve all shared the same dream. He passed it on to all three of us. A world without you is as far from our dreams as I can imagine. The three of us are bound together. Whether we succeed or fail, we do it as a team. Got it?”

“Anyway, you wouldn’t survive a day without us,” Adward laughed. “Last time I checked, you struggle to read a map and have the same talent for sailing that you do for fighting.”

“Guys, I…”

“Yeah, yeah, we’re awesome. You can be all sentimental later. First we actually have to run away.”

“Right!”

With Adward and Jesse’s help, Bucc was able to lower the boat with the three of them sitting inside it. It gently touched down on the water below, catching in the waves as Adward worked to disengage the boat from the supporting ropes. It came free and the rowboat was instantly carried away from the Seal.

Bucc grabbed an ore and helped Adward row, but he couldn’t stop himself from looking back over his shoulder at the colossal ship that he had called home. Somewhere inside it his parents would be wondering how he was feeling. Would they understand why he had left?

“Did you have any plans for where you were heading after you got off the ship?” Adward asked him. Bucc shook his head. “I didn’t think you would. There should be a small island not too far from here. I’d say we should pull up there and rest while we think of what to do moving forward. We’ll just have to steer clear of an underwater riftway that curves around it.”

“We need a ship,” Jesse said. “A real one. Not one of the village vessels, but a fast one. I’ll be captain while you navigate. We can get one of those crop beds so Bucc can grow us food. We’ll be our own little crew out to explore the world. And if any pirates come to take Bucc then we can just run away because our ship will be faster.”

Bucc couldn’t help but smile. “Sounds like a plan, Captain.” He paused as emotions threatened to overcome him. “Thank you both so much. I don’t know what I was going to do. Everything I’ve ever thought about myself is a lie.”

Adward shrugged. “You are you. Nothing has changed that. You just need to figure out how the current you becomes the future you. We’ve got your back so take all the time you need.”

Tears began to roll down Bucc’s cheeks. He wiped them away quickly but they wouldn’t stop. Through blurry eyes he took a final look back at the Seal. The morning sun glinted brightly on something, almost blinding him. He blinked back the tears for a closer look. 

“No! No, no, no.”

The source of the reflection was the gold of Captain Gus’ nose. He was standing at the prow of the ship. It was impossible to tell at this distance but Bucc knew he was staring straight at them.

“We have to row faster!” he shouted. Panic was rising up in his chest, giving him a frantic energy. “I won’t be their weapon!”

“Bucc, we can’t row faster than a full ship.”

“Can’t you use your affinity to boost the sails?”

“We haven’t been shown how,” Adward answered miserably. “Even if we could, it still wouldn’t give us the speed to outsail a ship like the Seal. They have a full team of wayfarers guiding them.”

“But we have to do something!”

“I’m sorry, Bucc. We needed more time before they noticed we were gone. It’s over.”

Jesse pushed Adward away from his oar and grabbed onto it, paddling with a burning rage. The boat lurched forward but the Seal was still gaining on them fast.

“I won’t give up. Bucc is my friend and I’ll fight with every last breath to keep him safe. So stop complaining and start rowing,” she wheezed. 

“Treacherous maggots!” boomed a voice that was louder than any sound a human could naturally make. It was the familiar voice of Captain Gus, though it was twisted in anger. It was an old trick where air could be used to amplify sounds.

“You think that you can trick me, offer me false promises, desert your posts and steal my property? I’ll make you all regret surviving into adulthood. You aren’t children anymore, so don’t think you’ll get away with this!”

Bucc looked around frantically. There was nothing he could see that would help them escape. They couldn’t outrun the Seal, and neither could they hold off the crew once they were in boarding distance. 

“Adward, how far are we from the Riftway?”

“Don’t even think about it! These kinds of boats aren’t designed for riftways. We’ll be torn to pieces.”

“It’s the only way!”

“No! It’s too dangerous.”

“This is our only chance to escape. If we go back to the Seal then we’ll never get the opportunity to leave again. It’s now or never.”

“You’re going to get us killed!”

“A pirate’s life is all about exploration and adventure, right?”

Adward shook his head and sighed. “Noodles be damned. Fine. Bear east, it should be just ahead. I don’t know that we’ll reach it in time though.”

“We have to try,” Bucc said through gritted teeth. He rowed as fast as his scrawny arms could move. Sweat and spray from the waves drenched him. His movements were fueled by adrenaline and fear, but even they couldn’t make up for the fact that he had done as little exercise as possible over the years. The Seal was still gaining.

A wall of static hit him. Bucc looked across to Adward who nodded. He peered out into the sea beneath the boat and could make out a lighter patch within the water that marked the riftway. 

Adward stepped into the centre of the boat. “Jesse, take my hand. We need to create a bubble of air around the boat.”

“How do we do that?” Jesse asked nervously as she slid her hand into his. 

“Er, I don’t actually know,” he said carefully. “I can guess though.”

“Guess!”

“Just channel the power of water and try to shape it around us. Push it away to make a bubble. I’ll drive a wedge of air into the water below us so we drop down into the riftway then help you keep the bubble stable.”

Bucc watched his friends prepare themselves and suddenly found himself feeling very useless. He glanced back at the ship and saw that several boats had been lowered into the sea and were slowly trying to close in around them. The Seal’s crew would be on them any second.

“Now!” Adward ordered. 

There was a crackle of energy then the boat dropped suddenly as the rifteway opened up below them like a giant mouth. Water splashed into the boat, flowing in through unseen gaps through the orb of air. Adward held out his free hand and the holes closed in on themselves. In an instant they were snagged by the currents of the riftway and were sent hurtling through the swirling passage.

Jesse cried out. The strain on her face was already visible. She was flushed with the effort of maintaining the bubble that protected them from the violent torrents of the riftway. Even Adward looked faint, his skin pale in the chaotic light that surrounded them.

“I can’t hold it much longer!” Jesse hissed. It had only been a few seconds since they had entered. The boat span and shook erratically, the force of the riftway affecting the smaller boat far more than it did with larger ships. 

“We need to get out! Now!” Adward shouted. “But I can’t do anything. If I stop focusing on the bubble for even a second then the whole thing will collapse.”

Bucc had no time to think. He stretched out his arms towards the side of the boat and concentrated, looking for that burning sensation within his chest which he quickly found. He channelled the heat out into his arms then released it as a single blast of flames.

The world seemed to flip. Water roared and wood cracked, the sounds rushing in all around him painfully. He was thrown back and hit something unseen that knocked the air from his lungs. There were screams and shouts, some of them probably belonging to Bucc himself, then there was silence.

Previous – Chapter 7. Sinking Hopes.

Next – Chapter 9. Lost at Sea.

Chapter 7. Sinking Hopes. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

There was a long moment of silence. Time seemed frozen as the words sank in. Then the crew erupted into applause. They howled in joy and hugged one another as though all of their problems in life had been washed away. Bucc didn’t react. He couldn’t. His whole mind had shut down, collapsing in on him in an instant. He just stared, completely numb to the world. 

Captain Gus slapped Bucc on the back with a grin that split his face. “I always knew you had it in you, lad. A flamecaster born on my ship. Can you imagine that? Praise be to the Noodly One. Things are looking up!”

Bucc was breathing heavily. No matter how hard he sucked in the air he still felt suffocated. His vision started to blur. The next thing he knew he was laying on his back staring up at the stars. They danced chaotically until they were covered up by the captain’s face.

“Quick! Get him inside. I don’t want him to hurt himself. That little head of his is the most valuable thing on this ship now. Make sure someone stays with him at all times. Bucc’s got a stupid streak a mile long so I don’t want him trying anything reckless.”

Unseen arms lifted Bucc from the deck and carried him into the hull. He could feel damp trails working their way down his cheek. He wasn’t aware that he had been crying. Absently he traced the line with a finger and stared at the dampness. His hand shook terribly. Everything was starting to sink in now, and that only brought fresh panic.

“Let me go! There has to be a mistake. Please!” He started to struggle and fight, doing everything he could to free himself. Whoever was carrying him didn’t loosen their grip. 

This couldn’t be right. Affinities were supposed to be reflections of your soul. Bucc was a green-fingered pacifist, the perfect template for those who were attuned to the earth. Fire was as far from that as was possible. The element represented power and war. It was an affinity with the sole purpose of wreaking destruction. 

Fire was scary. That wasn’t who he was. That wasn’t right at all. The orb was wrong. There was no other explanation. Those with an affinity for fire were the most brutal warriors. They lived for battle and commanded respect from everyone. It was their purpose to be living weapons, tools of destruction against any who opposed them. Nothing but pain and fear were left in their wake.

“I don’t want to hurt people. The orb is wrong! Get off of me!”

Bucc screamed, his emotions tearing through his body and threatening to overwhelm him. He felt the heat in his chest again and blind terror overtook him as he fought harder to free himself. There was a flash and the men carrying him shouted out in pain. Bucc hit the floor hard. It knocked the air from his lungs.

He looked up and cried out. Fire burned across the wooden walls of the corridor. Heat rolled across him but he barely felt it. He reached out a shaking hand and touched the flames but felt nothing other than a slight tingling. The other pirates had retreated back and still had their arms up to protect against the blazing heat. 

“Get the buckets, and be quick about it!” snapped Captain Gus from nearby. “Bucc, calm down or you’ll sink us all. If one lick of fire gets to the rum stores than they’ll be finding chunks of us on every island for a hundred miles. Take a deep breath and we’ll talk this through, okay?”

Bucc turned and ran. He didn’t know why or where to, he just needed to get away. Sparks of fire skittered from his skin as his feet pounded down the corridor. Conscious thoughts didn’t guide his feet but he found himself outside of his cabin. He threw the door open and ran inside to huddle in the far corner just as he had many times in his life. He grabbed the old boot and held it tight like a buoy out at sea. He didn’t even try to stop the choking sobs that racked his body.

He didn’t know how much time had passed before he heard his door open. Through blurry eyes he saw his parents step into the room with a caution that he had never known from them before. They looked worried, almost scared, and that hurt him more than he could have imagined.

Despite the fear and worry, Bucc could see something else in their faces. They were proud of him, happy that he had turned out to possess powers that every pirate secretly wanted. They had always tried to convince him that he shouldn’t aspire to be a gardener and now everything they had ever said had been proven true.

A jolt of anger flared within him that he quickly fought to smother. His face paled as he remembered just how fast his anger could catch fire now. He felt a fresh wave of tears teeter at the edge of his eyes.

“My son,” Bucc’s mum began in a soft tone. She took a step closer towards him and stroked his cheek. “I know this isn’t what you wanted, but you have been given such a gift. Think of all the good you could do. The Singing Seal will do so much better with a flamecaster aboard. You are so, so special, and this just proves it. Don’t you remember that Kaz always said he’d be a flamecaster? He’d be so proud of you.”

The words washed over Bucc meaninglessly. He didn’t look at his parents, his eyes instead stared hollowly at his own hands. It almost felt like they belonged to somebody else now. Familiar, yet a complete stranger.

“Just give it time,” his father told him. He was trying to look sympathetic but he couldn’t quite hide the smile that tugged at his lips and shone in his eyes. “As a kid, you always had a passion for the pirate life that you refused to accept after Kaz was gone. But our affinities don’t lie, Bucc. There’s a lot of responsibility on your shoulders now, but I know you’ll rise to the challenge.”

His mum reached out to stroke his hair and Bucc flinched. He tried to sink deeper into the wall behind him. She frowned then moved away. “You have a lot going on in your head right now. We’ll leave you to think things over.”

Bucc inched his head forward in a slight nod. He hadn’t really taken in the words but it seemed like an acceptable gesture to get them to leave. His parents stepped out of the room and closed the door behind them. He could hear faint voices from the other side.

“Who’d have thought that your Bucc would have an affinity for fire. If I hadn’t seen it myself then I’d never have believed it. He’s so, er, not a warrior.” That voice belonged to Captain Gus. Even when he tried to whisper his voice still carried clearly. 

“It’s a big shock for him too. He needs time,” came his mum’s voice.

“He needs to pull his head out of the clouds and accept who he is,” retorted the captain. “A flamecaster is a treasure unlike anything you can imagine. If we use him then our ship will storm up the rankings. We might even make the inner circle. Or we could sell him. I know several captains that would pay top gold for one.”

The voices were growing quieter. Bucc sat alone. The occasional squeak of a floorboard outside his door told him that someone had been ordered to stand guard over him. He couldn’t leave even if he had wanted to. But then he didn’t know what he wanted to do, nor how he should feel. So he just sat there. What else could he do?

Hours passed by in a hazy half sleep without rest. Every time Bucc closed his eyes he saw flames playing across his eyelids. Lack of sleep and the stress of his crushed dreams were taking their toll on his mind.

There was a knock on the door and Captain Gus entered with a bowl of food. He took in Bucc’s red eyes and unsteady movements with a frown. He placed the bowl beside Bucc then lowered himself onto the bed. 

“Eat up, lad. You didn’t stay around long enough for the feast last night. An empty stomach is no good for thinking clearly.”

Bucc took the bowl but didn’t eat. He stared absently into the watery soup. His stomach rumbled but he ignored it.

“You’re an adult now, so I’m going to speak plainly to you, Buccaneer. Things aren’t looking so good for the Seal at the moment. For any ships to be honest. Food and timber are in short supply. Everyone’s having to cut back. That means we need every bit of help that we can get.”

“You want me to fight?” The words came out as a hoarse rasp. Bucc only now realised how dry his mouth was.

The captain shifted his weight uneasily then sighed. “I want you to know what’s coming. Less supplies means more fighting over what little there is. That’s not all though. This uncertainty has created new problems. There is a pirate lord up in the north who has started to gather power. He has a mind of steel that one. They say he wants all pirates to live under strict rules, to strip us of our freedom. Rumours in the taverns say he’s building a crew of flamecasters to conquer the seas. You have quite the target painted on your back, lad. I don’t know that you’ll have a choice in whether or not you want to fight.”

“You think this captain will come for me? But I don’t want to hurt people. What good is a flamecaster who won’t fight?”

Captain Gus laughed aloud. “You don’t understand the world or the people in it. There are ways to make you fight. They can hurt you or hurt the ones you care about. They can manipulate and coerce you. Once you’re broken you’ll be like clay in their hands. A kid like you doesn’t stand a chance.”

“But you aren’t going to let them take me, right?”

The captain’s dark eyes settled on Bucc as he spoke. “A target on you is a target on the Seal. We aren’t even an Inner Circle crew. If this lord is as powerful as people say then we wouldn’t stand a chance in a battle. So the options are pretty simple. You fight for me so I can defend my crew, or I send you off for a healthy pile of gold and stay under the radar. What say you, Mister Jones?”

This was all too much for Bucc to process. Bucc had enough wits left in his head to know that his next words would decide his future. Cogs began to turn in his sleep deprived mind. He pushed all his worries and doubts aside and wrapped himself in confidence that he didn’t feel.

“You’re right. It’s time I grew up. I have to protect those I care about.”

The captain smiled. “That’s the spirit! Glad to have you aboard. None of us know how to train a flamecaster so this is going to be a learning experience for us all. With you on the crew we’ll beat back any ships that threaten to plunder our supplies and treasures.”

“Yeah!” Bucc nodded enthusiastically. “I’ll keep the crew safe. That’s a promise.” He patted his stomach and began to wolf down the soup. “I’ll need my strength though. Can I have another portion? I’m starved.”

“Of course you can, lad. A healthy appetite is a good sign for a growing man. Bruce!” A head poked around the door. The captain turned to address the pirate. “Go get young Bucc another portion of broth. I need to plot a course to one of the barren islands so we can begin your training. I knew you had it in you. Eat up! Today is a glorious day!”

Both men left. Bucc put the bowl back down. He gathered up his few possessions and shoved them into a bag. He didn’t know how much of what the captain had said was true, but it was clear that the safest thing for Bucc to do was leave. The last thing he wanted was for his existence to bring danger to his family.

He took a moment to look down at the tiny plant in his old boot. It represented a life he would now never get the chance to live, a dream that never had a chance to become reality. Bucc felt another pang of pain in his chest but he pushed it down. He placed the boot on his bed then left his cabin.

Previous – Chapter 6. Awakening.

Next – Chapter 8. Escaping Fate.

A Voice Through the Wires.

Do you remember when we used to talk?

Real talk. Talk with sound.

Vocalisations from our heart and through our lips

That crossed the distance between us no matter the miles

So far apart yet bound together

Tethered by coiled wires that we twirled dreamily between our fingers

Each curl and swirl reflecting the giddy loops of our heartbeat

As we laughed and traded secrets 

In those quiet moments we could snatch

Like thieves in the night while parents slept.

Even now, I hear your voice,

The memory trudging up a smile,

Or occasionally the ghost of a shiver down my spine.

Your breath in my ear,

Like whispers of what could be.

.

We still talk now, I guess.

Idle words through the ether

That materialise before us on glowing screens

But the electrical warmth is no match for the warmth of your voice.

These words now slide from thumb to glass 

Rather than from those soft lips that smiled

Yet, at the tap of a finger we could reconnect,

A light brush of that imitation green receiver

An icon of that plastic crescent I held so tight

Because I couldn’t hold you.

But now, not only distance separates us, but life

Different turns in different roads

As we shed the fragments of our childhood selves

Until little of those lovesick dreamers remained

And our hearts hardened with the years.

.

Still, each pinged message summons your face in my mind

And the photos you post for the world fill my screens.

I see you more, know more than ever before

But somehow it all seems hollow without that static buzz

That once was the backdrop to every word. 

Somehow, that old, yellowed phone had stripped us,

Undressing our struggles and hangups until only our souls remained

Meeting somewhere in that tangle of wires 

Our private haven where only we existed

Without anything but our truest selves

That the rest of the world could never see. 

.

My finger hovers over the call sign now

And you are but a tap away,

But why?

Why would I call you? It isn’t like the old days.

A call is an event, especially out of the blue.

Would your voice still sound the same?

Mine certainly doesn’t. Would I interrupt the new life you live?

The life you built where I’m just one of many sets of words on a screen?

And how would I stay calm without that blessed wire to fidget away anxiety?

.

Maybe we, like those old phones, are a relic of the past.

The coil that bound us has gone wireless, severing us,

Setting us adrift. Setting us free. 

Or, perhaps there is still a chance.

I desperately want to hear your voice again,

So I breathe,

And bring my finger down as though to reach through the glass to you,

Searching in hope that your hand is reaching out too,

As the first rings sound.

Will you even answer?

The Girl

Gloria looked up at the moon from her weathered rocking chair on the patio. The cold white sphere cast the world around her in a delicate silver glow like the faelight of her childhood fairytales. The light sparked something inside her, causing her to struggle to her feet. As a child, she had loved looking up at the moon. How had she forgotten that? She found herself drawn back to the past as if by frozen hands that dragged at her, pulling her down into the inky black waters of some unknown lake. 

Her heart raced, but it was an unsteady rhythm that left her gasping for breath. Still, there was something there, deep inside of her, something that was desperate to escape into the moonlight. Thoughts that hadn’t crossed her mind for many years floated to the surface like bubbles in a fizzy drink, leaving her feeling strangely giddish. She had dreamed of flying to the moon as a little girl. Vaguely, she wondered when that dream had died. Had it, or had it just hidden itself away in the dark corners of her mind where that little girl still clung to existence? 

For the first time in too long, Gloria took a moment just for herself. She bathed in the light, breathing it in deeply and letting it soak through to her core. Her skin tingled, and to her fevered mind, she could see her fingers quiver and shrink, receding down to the chubby cocktail sausages of her younger years. The wedding ring melted away, as did all other memories that tied her to the here and now.

She felt the wrinkles that lined her face melt and run down her skin like makeup in the rain. Each year was stripped from her in delicate layers that dissolved in the moonlight then reformed as shining butterflies that fluttered away into the night until the sky was filled with their brilliant forms that outshone the stars. She watched them and giggled. It was a sound that her throat had been unable to make for decades.

As the years were stripped from her, Gloria felt a weight lift from her shoulders, giving her the feeling that she was floating. She had known a hard life, and had increasingly become a hard person. That little girl had long since grown up, but she had also become smaller since leaving childhood behind. She was worn, her existence faded and hollow, a bloated yet empty shell of the person she had always dreamed she would be. No little girl dreamed of being old and alone. None dreamed of washing clothes for pennies each day for decades. None dreamed of a loveless marriage with a fat and balding labourer, or of the early death of that unloved yet central pillar of her life. 

There had been children. Three of them. As a girl she had doted on dolls and spent countless hours caring for her teddies. Reality had never seemed to mirror that nurturing joy and she had found herself a poor example of motherhood. She had been spread too thin to care about her own life, so there had been little spare to pass down. They had all long since flown the nest, their existence compressed down into a single poundshop Christmas card each year. Her eventual funeral would be the longest time they would spend in her presence since they had clung to her dress as children.

No, Gloria was barely a person, and it was a nagging knowledge that always gnawed on the edge of her mind. That little girl had dreamed of love and happiness, of adventure and purpose. In those days she rode the waves of feminism, confident that she could achieve anything she could set her mind on. Reality had different ideas. The poor, naive little girl would be so disappointed in herself. The thought stung. She could feel herself bleeding out from emotional wounds that she had plastered over and ignored since the day that little girl’s smile had faltered and never returned. 

Why should it have returned. Her parents had died in a car crash, and her uncle became increasingly free with his hands. Hardening her heart had been the only way to keep going. Frank had offered her an escape, and even knowing that he wasn’t right, she had clung to that chance. He had been cold, fat, and loved a pint with the lads more than he had ever loved Gloria, but he had been a good soul. Still, the emotional neglect gnawed away at her just as painfully. Shutting away that need for friendship and love had numbed that pain, numbed her, until even her own children couldn’t make her feel again.

Her thoughts all spiralled through the desolate ruins of her memories, greyscale ghosts and fragments of people, places, and part felt experiences that slipped past her like half observed photographs of other people’s lives, her consciousness pulled past them all to the single speck of vivid colour that was the event horizon of the little girl’s grin.

 She realised that she was crying. When had she last shed a tear? When Frank died? No. She had needed to be strong back then for the children. Emotion was a weakness and she had led by example, burying anything human away deep inside herself. Maybe the tears had died with the girl. That innocent caterpillar had cocooned herself away but had never emerged again. She was no butterfly but a perpetual seed of lost potential. 

Her tears ran down her face, ran down the years that seperated Gloria from herself and finally rejoined the salty streaks that stained the rosy cheeks of her past. Like a stream, those two lines connected them, making them whole for the first time. The butterflies flew around them until everything else was lost to sight, enclosing them in their own personal shell of self reflection that pulled past and present closer and closer together.

Gloria stood face to face with herself and felt burning shame wash through her. Eight years old and so full of hope. She reached out a shaking hand, and like a mirror, her past did the same. Identical hands met, yet where Gloria trembled with insecurity, the girl who would become Gloria, or perhaps the real Gloria that this feeble old woman would rise from like scum atop a pond, held out her arm calmly, confidence radiating from her plump pink skin. What had happened to her? Life. It chewed up optimism and spat out the bitter husks that couldn’t be digested.

“I am so sorry.”

The words were little more than a choked whisper but they held a weight and depth that couldn’t be expressed in any other way. They contained a lifetime of regret and cold voids of every missed opportunity, every word ever left unsaid, every tear suppressed. 

Her past didn’t answer. All of her words were already etched into history. There were no words that could make things better even if she could break free and exist beyond a fragment of memory.

The girl didn’t break free. How could she? Instead, she looked her future in the eyes and smiled. If Gloria thought that her four simple words contained her entire life then that smile expressed all of humanity. How could the twitch of muscles, the upturn of lips, say so much? It unarmed Gloria, stripping away her doubt and her sadness. 

Que sera, sera. Whatever will be, will be…

She had loved that song back then, singing it in off-key tones to her toys as she pretended to put them to bed. The song played now. It didn’t come from anywhere in particular, and Gloria couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t all in her own head. She was the song. Nothing else existed. She mouthed the words and the girl did the same. It wasn’t a song, but a universal truth. The past was the past, and the little girl had already lived her life, would live it forever, and never again. 

Every moment was the past. Gloria became aware that just beyond the cocoon of butterflies stood an unmoving crowd, an uncountable number of Glorias that had lived their passage of life then sank into the memories of the next. They were all her, and she was all of them. Their presence was reassuring. She had always feared that she would spend this moment alone.

The regrets were still there, nothing could change that, but maybe in another life she would do better. Maybe she wouldn’t. It didn’t matter now.

She moved her fingers, interlocking them with the girl’s. Gloria returned the girl’s smile. It felt good to smile. She had forgotten that. The girl squeezed her hand tighter, comfortingly, and Gloria understood. She nodded.

Her past self closed her eyes. Her body began to glow with the same light as the butterflies. She stepped forward and embraced her future, the light outlining Gloria as the two became one. It shimmered then stretched as the butterflies added to the glow. Even the ranks of her every self dissolved and blew towards her like leaves on the wind. Every petal of light swirled around her then settled into position across her shoulder blades until two white wings resolved themselves and stretched out.

Infinity stretched out in every direction. Gone were the crumbling mortar walls of the houses and the tarmac streets, as was the lone bird feeder that hadn’t been refilled since Frank had died. Only the pregnant fullness of the moon remained. Gloria had always looked up at that singular, watchful eye, and had made many wishes upon it until her sense of wonder had hardened and her wishes were transferred to the bottom of wine bottles. Those wishes called to her now.

She fluttered the wings tentatively. Vague memories of first steps rose up from the depths of her mind. She had learned to walk, and had taught others too. Then they in turn had passed on that independence to their own children. Whatever her mistakes, life went on and the world continued spinning. Everything would be okay.

That thought buoyed her. With the confidence given to her by the girl, she opened her wings and stepped forward. She felt young again. Nothing but her true self remained. Everything else had been left behind. They weren’t important. She breathed her final breath and rose into the sky, weightless and free. Gloria flew towards the moon without a care.

Chapter 6. Awakening. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

Every member of the Seal’s crew was assembled on the deck. Bucc’s eyes drifted across them and upwards towards the full moon above. The usually silver glow was a blood red colour that cast everything in an unsettling light. Even the waves around them seemed muted. The moonspire loomed above them a few feet away from where the Seal was anchored. 

A handful of other ships clustered around the moonspire. It was one of the few times that ships would gather without conflict. The moonspires were neutral waters, their protection universally accepted.

The Awakening took place on the bridge of the ship. Only Captain Gus stood there, the crimson light of the moon reflecting brightly across his golden nose. Bucc’s mum was waiting nearby with both Shayla and Namiir resting on either shoulder. Bucc could see flashes of white in the crowd but it was too dense to get a good look at the other children. 

Captain Gus raised his hands and the assembled pirates fell silent. The moon inched its way through the sky, finally reaching a position where the moonspire was fully bathed in its light. The pearly white surface became flushed with vivid red that seemed to bleed out into the water. 

The captain beckoned for the children to approach the bridge. Bucc was ushered to the stairs by his parents, as were the others. The group climbed the stairs and arranged themselves in a line facing out towards the crew. Each child was presented at the front, with the parents positioned a step behind them. 

Bucc felt something touch his shoulders. He looked over to see his parents’ familiars settle into place beside his ears. This was happening across the line, each child guarded by the two familiars that represented their parents. All except for Adward and Jesse, who stood close together and had their father’s small blue hamster nestled in the joint between their arms.

Bucc glanced nervously down the line. As silly as he felt in the clothes, they looked good on the others. Each was slightly different but kept the same general appearance. It was strange to see his friends clean and tidy. Adward was stood up without his usual slouch and there was no trace of ink on his fingers. Jesse’s hair was straight and untangled, and for the first time in Bucc’s memory she didn’t have any dirt or gunpowder smeared across her cheeks. She almost looked like a different person. 

“The Moon of Change watches us from the heavens. By its grace we will see a new generation of pirates step forward,” Captain Gus announced. His voice carried easily in the quiet night air.

From a chest at his side, the captain carefully removed a round object that was wrapped in cloth. He unbound it, revealing a clear sphere of glass. One of the crewmen carried a metal stand and placed it in front of the captain. Golden Gus placed the globe into the top of the stand where it caught the moonlight. 

The sphere pulled Bucc’s attention to it like a magnet. Reflections warped and twisted as the crimson light filtered through it, creating vague silhouettes that played out unknown scenes. They whispered voicelessly to him, tempting Bucc to reach out and sink into the crystalline depths.

It was an Orb of Awakening. Every pirate ship had one, though no record existed of where they originally came from. Older ships had always seemed to have one, and on new ships they were said to just appear one day. Pirates found few things in the world sacred, but the orbs were treated with the utmost reverence.

“With this Orb of Awakening, the children we have raised and protected will unlock their hidden powers and join us as our brethren,” continued Captain Gus. “Adward Reeds, step forward.” Adward approached the orb as instructed, his face a mask of calm.

“Now, place both hands on the orb and clear your mind. Close your eyes and proudly state the Pirate Code.”

Adward cupped the sphere with his hands and closed his eyes. He stood there in silence for a moment as he tried to clear his mind. His father’s familiar had clung to his shoulder and now ran down his arm to his splayed hands. It lowered its head down and nicked one of his fingers on either hand. Adward barely flinched. Thin trails of blood ran down to the glass which began to pulse excitedly.

“Live free!” Adward declared.

Wind swirled around them, a rainbow of colours appearing and disappearing through the air as the orb and the moonspire flashed in a steady rhythm. All of the colour and light of the world seemed to be drawn into the moonspire, then drained across into the orb. The orb grew blindingly bright, then in an instant, all of the light was transferred into Adward.

Slowly everything returned to normal. The orb didn’t reflect the crimson light of the moon any more but a milky white glow. Adward had an aura of the same colour that burned across his entire body for several seconds before fading.

“Welcome to the crew, Adward Reeds,” Captain Gus announced loudly. “May your affinity with the air guide our sails.”

The crew cheered and clapped, warmly welcoming Adward to their ranks. Somehow he seemed to stand taller than before. Joyful tears glistened in his eyes. He moved to stand beside the captain, facing towards the remaining children rather than standing with them. He wasn’t one of them any longer. 

Jesse was called up next. With so many eyes on her she was barely able to function. Her hands shook on the orb, threatening to knock it from its stand, and she swayed perilously where she stood. The process was repeated and this time it was blue flames that enveloped her. Her awakening didn’t calm her nerves, but as she joined her brother with unsteady steps, she seemed to glow with health.

“Welcome to the crew, Jesse Reeds. May your affinity with the water carry us on favourable tides,” intoned Captain Gus as Jesse took her place.

Jim Haddock, then Annie Clyde, went next. For both of them it was a blue light that filled the orb and covered their bodies. Captain Gus welcomed them both then they joined the Reeds siblings. 

That left only Bucc alone in the line of children. He tried to steady his breathing but was failing. This was it. His entire future rested on the outcome of the next few fleeting seconds. The thought utterly terrified him.

“Buccaneer Jones,” the captain called out. The words sounded like a death sentence in Bucc’s ears. He stepped up to the orb. His entire body felt numb. It was destiny dragging him forward, not his free will.

He reached out his hands and placed them on the surface of the orb. It was icy to the touch, almost painful against his skin. His eyes were closed but he couldn’t suppress the thoughts that ran amok in his mind, even when he tried to push them away and focus on the tingling of his fingers and the weight of his parents’ familiars on his shoulders. They shifted their positions, making the short journey down his arms to his hands. He braced against the coming pain but still couldn’t help but flinch when the familiars scratched his skin.

A whirlwind of warm light engulfed him. He could feel power coursing through him, bursts of static crackling through his veins. He felt completely weightless and a dizziness danced through his head. There was a warmth in his heart unlike anything he had ever experienced before. It grew hotter until he could barely take the pain. It burned at his core then spread like lava was replacing his blood. He tried to scream but couldn’t make any sound at all.

The pain spread through every inch of him then dragged itself back to his heart like the ebb and flow of the tide. Slowly Bucc’s senses returned to him. He realised that he hadn’t been breathing. The lights had vanished and the orb felt like normal glass. He opened his eyes and blinked uncertainty.

Captain Gus was wide eyed, his mouth open. The crew below them stared in complete silence. Even Adward and Jesse had taken a step back and wore looks of stunned uncertainty. Everything was tinged in a hazy red aura that wasn’t coming from the moon.

The captain opened and closed his mouth a few times before finding any words. Finally he managed to speak, the words falling from his lips numbly.

“Welcome to the crew, Buccaneer Jones. May your affinity with the fire burn our enemies from existence…”

Previous – Chapter 5. Childhood’s End.

Next – Chapter 7. Sinking Hopes.

Chapter 5. Childhood’s End. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

Bucc didn’t sleep much that night either. He cradled the old boot in his arms as he lay in his bed. A rich smell of soil filled his nostrils. Every now and then he would carefully stroke the tiny leaves of the daffodil within. He usually found that this helped, but it did little to calm him now.

Knowing that the next time you went to sleep you would no longer be a child was a daunting thought. Questions and fears raced through his mind. What if he didn’t have the right affinity? What if he had no choice but to fight? What if the ceremony changed him in some way, took away a part of who he was as a person?

He gave up trying to sleep and decided to wander the ship. He stepped out onto the deck and felt insignificant beneath the millions of stars that shone above him. Bucc didn’t see the universe with the enthusiasm that people like Adward managed to. For Adward, he saw stars as a symbol of the vastness of the universe, a sign that there are so many wonders out there to explore. All they did for Bucc was to remind him how absolutely tiny he really was.

Neither the helmsman nor the few pirates that occupied the deck paid Bucc any notice. With so many people aboard the floating village, there were always people up and about whatever the hour. 

The world glowed with a silver light from the bloated moon above. Tomorrow would be a special full moon. There was only a single night each year that the Awakening could take place, so every ship across the world made the pilgrimage to one of the many moonspires that were scattered throughout the seas.

It seemed that Bucc wasn’t the only one who couldn’t sleep. Adward sat at the forecastle staring up at the sky. Bucc sat down beside him without speaking. They just sat there for a while, watching as the darkness of the sky grew murky with the first hints of morning.

“Did Jesse manage to sleep?” Bucc asked after a while. Adward chuckled at the question.

“No. Last time I looked she was hyperventilating in the corner of her cabin. You worry about far off things like the future. She worries about being forced to stand in front of the entire ship as the centre of attention. Unless she calms down you might just get out of the ceremony when she drops dead from a heart attack.”

“What about you?”

“Me? I’m fine with it all. I’ve never really had any hangups like you and Jesse. Things will be different, but that isn’t a bad thing. I can’t change it so why waste time worrying?”

“Has anyone ever told you how annoying it is that you’re always so calm?”

“A few people might have mentioned it.”

Bucc stared out at the sea thoughtfully. “I just wish Kaz was here. This feels like something he should have seen. Though I doubt we’d be worried at all if he was still around.”

“Yeah. I know. I think a lot of Jesse’s nightmares have been about him. She still blames herself. For him and our Ma.”

“I know the feeling,” Bucc answered tiredly. He was all too aware how large a part in Kaz’s death he had played. “Do you think he’d still be proud of us?”

“He always had big dreams, for himself and for us. He wanted to surpass Captain Dread, find his treasure, and become the greatest pirate in the world. He probably could have done it too. But he also taught us to be our own people. He was the one who showed me my first map of the riftways. He was the one who showed Jesse how to use and maintain a pistol, and he gave you your first seed, as well as that book on plants. As long as we are the ones making our own choices, I think he’d believe in us to do what is best.”

“You’re right, as always. Thanks.”

Adward turned his eyes back to the sky. He lifted a finger and traced a constellation. His lips moved silently as though he was trying to work something out. 

“We’ll reach the moonspire about two hours after dawn,” he said. “We should really try and get some sleep. It’s going to be a busy day.”

Bucc agreed and returned to his cabin. He managed to get an hours’ fitful rest before being subjected to his mum’s suffocating enthusiasm when she came to wake him.

“Today’s the big day,” she said in that universal tone of sickly sweet maternal pride used by mothers across the known world. “My little boy is going to be all grown up.”

“Ma! This whole thing is embarrassing enough without you getting all soppy. Can’t I just stay in my cabin until tonight?”

“Of course you can’t. The Awakening might be tonight but there’s still a lot of preparation needed. Anyway, it’s your special day. Everyone wants to see you,” his mum said, ploughing through his complaints. Shayla wove around their feet with her tail held high in the air.

“I’m pretty sure that nobody wants to see me,” Bucc answered miserably. “Most of the ship is waiting to see how I disappoint their already low expectations. I just want to have my affinity confirmed then get out of here.”

“Of course people like you,” she said, hearing only the parts of his reply that she wanted to. “You’ll look at everything differently after the ceremony. You’ll see that everyone only has your best interest at heart. Why, once you become a full pirate we can see about getting you in some raids to capture someone from another ship and woo them, just like I did with your Pa. Or, if that isn’t your style, we can see about getting you and Jesse married.”

“What? Ma! Why do you have to be like this! I don’t want to be a pirate and I don’t want to get married yet!”

“But you and Jesse get on so well together. Her ambition and your confidence might make a full pirate.”

Bucc ignored the unintended insult. “We get on well because we’re friends. Now for the love of the Noodly One, please stop talking about it. This day’s going to be hard enough already.”

As Bucc emerged onto the deck, his eyes were immediately drawn to the tower of white rock that rose up out of the sea ahead of them. It was as wide as the Seal was long and reached up through the clouds to pierce the heavens above. The spire looked like it was polished pearl but nobody had ever been able to chip any fragments off for a closer inspection. A few greedy captains had even opened fire with cannons over the years, but nothing had ever left a scratch.

The deck was already busy with activity. The Awakening ceremony was the largest event in any given year. The only thing that could eclipse it would be a new promotion of a ship’s captain to a Pirate Lord. It seemed that extra supplies had been set aside for the ceremony despite the recent food shortages. Decorations were hung and tables were being laid out with food and kegs of ale and rum.

Despite his mum’s insistence that he be seen, there really wasn’t much for Bucc to do. He was led around to speak with just about everyone on the ship until what little energy he had was drained from him. A few times he had tried to slip away and escape, but his mum’s familiar, Shayla, had taken to sitting on his shoulder to keep an eye on him.

It was only when evening began to set in that Bucc really had any role to play. His father finally appeared and led him away from the deck back to Bucc’s cabin. His familiar was nowhere to be seen. A chest sat in the middle of the room that hadn’t been there that morning. His father opened it to reveal a neatly folded set of white clothes.

“It’s finally the day,” his father said solemnly. “It’s been just over twenty years since I stood where you are now. A lot’s changed since then. I used to be like you. I was small for my age, and really shy. Things got better though. I gained my affinity, joined in with the raids and made some good friends. Then your Ma clobbered me in the head and tied me up for a few days. I’ve never looked back.”

Bucc picked up a shirt from the top of the pile as his father spoke. The white material was thin and ornate, with an uncomfortable amount of ruffles and lace. Everything else in the chest had the same design. 

“Doesn’t it look good,” his dad said with a smile. “It’s tailored using your birthshroud. The first thing you ever wore will be the first thing you wear as an adult. Then one day you’ll have children of your own and these clothes will be joined with your partners to create a new birthshroud, continuing on the cycle.” He was starting to get teary eyed now. Despite his appearance, Bucc’s dad was as sentimental as pirates came.

It was a fight to get into the elaborate clothing but eventually Bucc managed it. There were no mirrors in his cabin so he could hardly begin to imagine how ridiculous he looked. The only colour came from plain gold jewelry that adorned his wrists and neck. 

His dad fussed around him, brushing his scruffy hair and scrubbing at his face. Bucc had given up resisting. It was proving quicker and less painful to just surrender. Sweet smelling oil was rubbed into his skin, then his father stepped back to admire his handiwork. 

“You look good. Like a proper pirate.” He paused, then after a small hesitation, he hugged Bucc. “I know that you have your own dreams, and that maybe your Ma and me have wanted you to live a different way, but I just want you to know that we’re proud of you whatever happens. Even if you don’t have an affinity for earth like you want, there’s plenty of roles on a ship that don’t need you to fight. And you never know, maybe your mind will change as you grow up. The sight of blood used to make me pass out, but your Ma helped me to overcome that. I wanted to be a tailor before she bludgeoned her way into my life. So let’s go and show everyone what you’re made of, okay?”

Bucc took a deep breath. “Okay. It’s not like there’s anywhere to run or hide, so let’s do this.” He didn’t feel even close to as confident as he tried to sound.

Together they made their way back up to the deck. The bleached white shoes that Bucc wore echoed loudly with each step. It was a warm evening but a fierce chill seemed to surround him. It took all of his effort not to visibly shake.

Previous – Chapter 4. The Riftways.

Next – Chapter 6. Awakening.