“You want to kill a pirate lord? Are you crazy?” Bucc exclaimed.
“Probably,” Milla said without emotion. “You asked and I answered. I’ve been following him for two years. I’ll kill him, or die trying. Run to the south if you want. War will spread there soon enough.”
“Wait, hold on,” Bucc said. Her words had triggered something in his head. “Is this the same pirate lord who is gathering flamecasters to create an empire?”
“That’s him. It seems that his atrocities do reach you in the south, only they fall on deaf ears.”
“Was he the one that beat you and sealed you in that barrel?”
“That’s none of your business. I’ll keep growing stronger.” She clenched her fists, her eyes sparkling dangerously. “They might have fire, but none of it burns as fiercely as my hate for them.”
“But that’s no way to live.”
“You’re giving me advice on how to live? Tell me then, why are you three out here so far from home? What grand plan do you have for your own lives?”
Bucc didn’t answer. He supposed that he never really had thought about the future. The second that things hadn’t gone to plan at the Awakening he had thought of nothing but running away from his life. Maybe he and the girl were opposite sides of the same coin. He ran away from his destiny while she had embraced it and let it consume her.
He and Adward rowed the boat in silence. They steered it in a vaguely southern direction without any real destination in mind. The girl stared out to the horizon and ignored everything else around her, seemingly blanking the others from existence. Jesse sat at the other end of the small boat with her eyes locked firmly on her own feet.
This was how the rest of the day passed. When the skies began to darken, Adward swapped places with Jesse so he could read the stars better. After another few hours, Adward offered to take the paddle again while Jesse tried to sleep.
Milla surprised Bucc by offering to take his place. “I don’t sleep,” she told him without explanation. “I can manage a few hours of light rowing.”
Bucc wasn’t about to argue with the offer so he moved over and nestled into the corner that she had occupied. He tried to have a conversation with her, asking about the strange vines that grew across her skin, but she didn’t respond. After several questions died in the air between them, Bucc gave up and attempted to rest. He fell asleep almost instantly and only woke up when Adward shook him roughly by the shoulder.
“What’s up?” he asked groggily.
“There’s a ship ahead. A sea village judging by the size.”
It was still dark. Ephemeral starlight washed over the rolling waves, a mesmerising sheen of liquid silver in an otherwise grey world. Bucc peered across the glimmering ocean and caught sight of the ship in question.
“Are northern sea villages any different to ours?”
“I don’t know. Never seen one. Do we risk getting their attention?”
“How far north are we?”
Adward frowned and looked up at the fading stars. “I don’t think we were too far north to start with. I can’t be sure but I’d say we’re sailing just north of the Free Seas Belt between the northern and southern fleets. That ship is coming from the south, so it really could be anything.”
“It isn’t a northern ship,” Milla said impassively. “Resources are more scarce up here. Ships are smaller with less crew.”
“If it’s a southern ship we should be safe to get their attention,” Adward said. The others nodded, other than the girl who had simply resumed her staring out to sea.
They rowed towards the ship until it altered its direction slightly to meet them. As it got closer and dawn began to break, the details of the ship started to become clear. Down in the tiny row boat the ship looked like a colossus of wood that grew to consume the world. It’s dark shadow returned them into night, but not before Adward had had a chance to look closely at the vessel.
“I think this might be a bad idea. It’s the Seal…”
Bucc’s face dropped. “What? It can’t be. Why would the Seal be this far north? We never leave our own waters.”
“Is there a problem?” Milla asked sharply.
“That’s our ship. We ran away after our Awakening.” Adward explained. “I imagine that we won’t be getting a warm reception.”
“Well, you’ll know soon enough. They’re sending down their welcoming party. Just know that if they stand in my way I will kill them.”
A boat larger than their tiny rowboat was lowered from the Seal and lurched towards them. Bucc tried to swallow but suddenly realised how dry his throat had become. Even from this distance he could see the telltale glint of Captain Gus’ golden nose. Accompanying it were the glints of drawn swords. It quickly neared them, only slowing just before the two vessels collided.
The captain stepped up to face them and offered the group a grim smile. “Well isn’t this an unexpected surprise, eh, Buccaneer Jones? And young Adward and Jesse Reeds too. I thought finding you three would be more challenging.”
“How did you even know where to start?”
“We followed the riftway. You’re far too valuable to let slip through my fingers,” Captain Gus told him. As he spoke he motioned for the other pirates to bring the runaways across. Bucc and the others didn’t put up a fight. There was no point. Milla looked ready to lash out at any second but allowed herself to be led along with the others.
“A good number of the crew figured you were dead. Attempting a trip through a riftway without a sturdy ship and an experienced crew is seen as suicide. I had a feeling that you made it. Looks like I was right.”
They made the short journey back to the Seal and waited for the ropes to be set up to hoist the boat back up to the deck. As they slowly rose up out of the waves, the captain continued.
“This was truly a chance encounter. We’re in these waters for a meeting. Like I said, you are a very valuable man now, Bucc. But you made it clear you wouldn’t stay with my crew. That meant you needed to be someone else’s problem. I needed a few extra chests of gold, so the situation worked itself out nicely. Our guest offered to show us the area where someone was likely to exit the riftway. You really saved us the trouble.”
“You can’t just sell me!” Bucc argued. “I’m an adult now. A pirate. That’s our creed! Live free.”
“The world isn’t an ideal place. Times are hard. If you don’t pull your weight then I won’t support that weight. I didn’t want to do this. This man’s offer is one nobody would refuse. He’ll take you whatever I do, and none of us could stop him if we tried. At least this way we get something out of it. You see, I’m only doing what is necessary to protect my crew.”
The boat rose up past the railing of the deck and Captain Gus stepped down onto the Seal. A lot of the crew had gathered on the deck and stared at the youngsters in sombre silence. Bucc scanned the crowd and saw his parents near the back. They had tears in their eyes and were being held back by other crewmates. Everything seemed tense. The air itself crackled with an agitated energy. None of the familiars scampered around like usual, instead clinging to their owners or hiding in folds of clothing. Even the captain seemed nervous.
A man and a younger woman stood opposite Captain Gus. There was a bubble of space around them that nobody crossed. The man was tall and broad, dressed head to foot in warm, dark clothes similar to what the men on the island had worn. He had a neat black beard and a bald head, but his most distinctive feature was the blood red colour of his iris. Only the skin of his face was visible and that was a latticework of scars.
The younger woman looked little older than Bucc and shared the man’s dark hair and red eyes. She too wore a heavy coat. She watched the Seal’s crew with barely veiled contempt. Unlike the man, she was armed with a long, slender sword that was sheathed across her back. Neither of them had a visible familiar.
Bucc didn’t recognise them, but from Milla’s reaction, it was obvious that she did. She charged forward without warning. Several of the Seal’s pirates stepped in her path with weapons drawn but she struck them down with fist and vine before they even knew what was happening.
The red eyed woman moved to draw her sword but the man lifted a single finger and she returned her hand to her side. Milla launched several tendrils out in front of her that the man sidestepped easily. There was an explosion of the yellow mist again which obscured everyone’s vision. It cleared and Milla was behind him. She struck out with her fist as vines swept around to either side to lock him in place. He hopped back and spun to face her, evading everything that she threw at him.
Lightning fast, he drove his knee up into her gut with sickening force. Milla staggered and collapsed, throwing up bile onto the planks beneath her. She gaped for breath as tears streamed down her cheeks.
Captain Gus stepped forward with a placating gesture of his hands. Wild panic brimmed in his dark eyes. The blackclad man smiled and stepped back, resuming his previous pose. The captain sighed with relief but was still visibly tense.
“Buccaneer Jones,” Captain Gus announced. “This man will be your new captain. Show your respects to Lord-Captain Pyrefist of the Crimson Waves, Emperor of the Ashenna Empire of the North.”
Pyrefist strode past the girl and approached Bucc with a quiet intensity. Up close his sheer size was terrifying. He towered over Bucc like a wall of muscle and gave out an intimidating aura unlike anything Bucc had ever experienced. Just standing close to him made Bucc sick with fear.
“You are a flamecaster.”
It wasn’t a question but a statement of fact. His voice was deep and rough, but each word was clear and spoken with an uncommon eloquence.
“Your captain tells me that you are a pacifist. Why?”
The voice and eyes compelled Bucc to speak even though his throat felt completely parched. He feared what would happen if he didn’t speak.
“I… I don’t want to hurt people. Pain and loss hurt everyone. I want people to be happy.”
“You are fighting against human nature. To live is to engage in violence over resources. We revel in it. Humans embrace the thrill, crave the adrenaline of gambling with pain. Your idealism means nothing in the face of this fact.”
“You’re wrong! If nobody tries then we’ll never know how far we can take it.”
“They are the naive dreams of a child. Even if your philosophy took root and spread, what then? Can you infect every human that lives and ever will live? Because that’s what it would take. In a world of pacifists, the man without morals is king. Who is going to stop him? No, only strength can overcome evil.”
Pyrefist swept his eyes over Adward and Jesse. Both took an involuntary step back. “Do you agree with your friend’s view of the world?”
Neither answered. Adward managed to shake his head slightly while Jesse just swayed where she stood.
Pyrefist’s eyes fixed once more on Bucc. “I intend to use you to bring peace. True peace, not a delusional ideal that can never be. If you wish to help the world then you should join me willingly.”
“No! I’m not a weapon!”
“Don’t fear the fire, boy. It’s a part of who you are. That spark doesn’t grow out of nothing. Embrace it. Let it set you free.”
“It might be who I am, but it isn’t who I choose to be…”
“We shall see.”
Without warning, Pyrefist took hold of Bucc’s head with one broad hand. Bucc felt an energy ripple through him. His heart began to pound in his chest and blood rang loudly in his ears. A feeling of heat rose up in his chest that he couldn’t control.
“What… are….you doing… to me?”
He could feel power building up inside him. He tried to bury it but Pyrefist was drawing the power out of him by force. The flame flared within him, it’s heat piercing his bones and burning his mind. His teeth grinded together painfully as he tried to keep control. A scream tore itself from his throat and the world became engulfed in fire.
Shouts and cries of terror sliced through the roar of flames and crackle of burning wood. All Bucc could see was blinding light. The weight of Pyrefist’s hand felt crushing, pushing Bucc’s soul down into the abyss. He tried to move but his limbs wouldn’t respond.
Through the light a shadow resolved itself into Jesse. She ran to him with a sword in her hand. Pyrefist clenched his fingers tighter and Bucc felt more power explode from him. Jesse screamed and fell back clutching her face, then she was lost once again to the blinding light.
The flames were growing more intense by the second. Bucc couldn’t breath. The fire leeched his strength, consuming him completely. The sounds of destruction cut through it all, ripping what little of his heart remained to shreds.
Something slammed into him. A cold sensation splashed against his chest, then his arm and back. Bucc forced his eyes open and saw Milla pulling him away. Blanks were swarming in and surrounding them, forcing their way through the flames to envelope Bucc’s body. The red eyed girl ran for them and Milla blocked her with a stolen sword. More blanks flooded down, several burning away in the blaze.
Something wrenched at Bucc’s body, pulling him violently in every direction at once. For a moment he was completely numb to the world until colours spiraled straight into his brain. He hit the floor hard without any sense of orientation. Unable to do anything else, he threw up then collapsed, feeling his face sink into warm sand before his consciousness retreated into the dark corners of his head.