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