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.”