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.”