From the darkness came heat. It washed across the thin veil of consciousness to fire up sleeping nerves. Thoughts began to swim through mists of uncertainty. These thoughts were pushed forward by waking sensations that spread and resolved into loose words. Consciousness bloomed like a flower in the first false spring.
Bucc’s sense of self flooded into the darkness in a great rush. Panic flared in his head at the heat that was bathing his body. For a dreaded moment he feared that the flames still raged around him. This was different though. The heat wasn’t internal but external. The sun beat down on him fiercely and the ground beneath him was a fine sand that was hot to the touch. But that didn’t make sense.
He opened an eye and was almost blinded by the intensity of the sun. The searing whiteness gave way to blurry colours. The white didn’t fade though. All around him the landscape was rolling hills of pure white sand. There wasn’t a single plant in sight, and neither were there any signs of the sea. Bucc struggled into a sitting position but the sand extended unobstructed in every direction. Only tall rocks of pure black dotted the dead land.
“You’re finally awake,” said a voice close by. Bucc turned to see Milla sitting with her back to one of the rocks.
“Where are we? What happened?” he asked, trying to make sense of the events between here and his last memory.
“Pyrefist was manipulating your power to destroy that ship and everyone on it. I separated you from him, then the blanks came and, well, sort of carried us away.”
Bucc took a few unsteady steps closer to her. Her dress was blackened and she looked in an even worse state than when they had found her. She leant against the rock without moving, her breath making an audible rattling sound with each rise and fall of her chest.
“I don’t understand…” he said. “Why do the blanks follow you, and where have they brought us?”
“I don’t know. They only started following me after Pyrefist destroyed my village. My familiar was killed and I was left for dead. Next thing I know, hundreds of the little guys are circling me, keeping back the fires that consumed my home. As for where they’ve brought us, your guess is as good as mine.”
“You had a familiar? You look too young to have one.”
She tried to stand but quickly collapsed back against the rock. Bucc rushed to her side and grabbed her shoulder. Vines writhed under the fabric, unwinding to lash at his fingers. He pulled away fast.
“Don’t touch me,” she growled. “I’m fine. I just need to catch my breath.”
“I don’t suppose that any blanks will show up again to take us somewhere recognisable?”
“No. Most of them died bringing us here. Your fire burned them up. I’ve only seen one here, and it’s injured.”
She shifted her weight and lifted the corner of her dress. Beneath the cloth was a small blank that had turned a charcoal grey colour. It appeared to be having trouble holding its shape, the bottom half of its body pooling out on the sand around it while the top half bobbed miserably.
Bucc felt a pang of sickening guilt. His power had killed several blanks. The thought made him want to throw up. That captain had been the cause, but Bucc had been the weapon that dealt the damage. He tried to push the thoughts from his mind for a moment and focus.
“How long was I unconscious? They couldn’t have taken us that far. They don’t look strong enough to carry humans any distance.”
Milla shook her head. “That’s not how they work. The blanks didn’t carry us anywhere. One second we were on your ship, the next we were here. They are intune with the riftways somehow. I’ve seen the blanks use them. Maybe they can tap into the rift system somehow. We could literally be anywhere.”
“Does it count as a rescue if they just dumped us in the middle of nowhere to starve?”
The blank hissed indignantly at him.
“Dehydration will kill us first. Besides, cannibalism is always an option.”
Bucc took a hasty step back. The girl laughed then began coughing again. She slid down lower and stared up at the clear blue sky.
“We need to make a start.I don’t have time to recover. Help me up, just this one time.”
“You don’t look in a good way. You should rest a while first.”
“No. Every second I waste is another second that Pyrefist gets to draw breath. A second he escapes justice. He forced you to destroy your own home and intends to use you as a mindless weapon. Aren’t you eager to see him dead too?”
Bucc thought the question over. The man terrified him, more than he had ever thought possible. He feared the man, and he feared what he could make Bucc do against his will. What good was pacifism if others could force your hand without your own consent? He hated him for putting his friends and family in danger. But did he want to see the man dead?
“Not really. I mean, what difference would it make? It wouldn’t change the past.”
“No, but it would stop him from hurting others in the future.”
“So would convincing him that there’s a better way, and then nobody dies.”
“Are you stupid? Pyrefist is a pirate lord that has killed hundreds of people. He’s the most dangerous man in all of the seas. Do you expect to just walk up to him and make him feel bad about everything he’s ever done? You want to persuade him that hurting people isn’t a good thing? You don’t understand the world at all, do you?”
Bucc didn’t answer this time. He was getting fed up with people saying that he didn’t understand. What was there to understand? Something was bad so it shouldn’t be used. It was black and white in his mind.
He tried to shrug off the doubt and focus. Only, he wasn’t exactly sure what it was that he actually needed to do. He didn’t know where he was, whether his friends and family were safe, or what his plans were going forward. The one thing he knew was that he would die if he stayed where he was.
Bucc took Milla’s hand and helped her up. The blank clung to her arm. “There’s a lot I don’t understand. I know we can’t stay here though. Any idea what we should do?”
“I’m going to keep hunting. Whichever way we go we should reach the sea before too long.”
“You sure you’re okay?”
“I’ll still be moving long after you’ve collapsed from exhaustion. Worry about yourself.”
The two began a steady walk through the sand. Each step left a clear footprint that marked a long trail behind them. Nothing moved. There wasn’t even a light breeze to cool their skin or shift the fine sand. They walked in silence, the sound of their steps seeming strangely muted. Bucc wasn’t sure if he was still disoriented or if the world had truly become numb.
An hour passed and the scenery hadn’t changed in the slightest. If not for the footprints behind them then Bucc could easily have believed they hadn’t moved at all. He didn’t think that he had ever been on an island before that he could walk in a straight line across for an hour without reaching the sea. Bigger islands existed, but he struggled to comprehend just how big this landmass must have been.
Hours slid by with syruppy slowness and still there wasn’t any signs of a shore. Dread began to drift across Bucc, like shadows of stray clouds passing across the sun on a winter morning. The sun was slipping down into twilight and there hadn’t been a trace of water or anything edible. As the sun disappeared from sight, a fierce chill cast out the lingering heat of the day until Bucc could barely think from just how cold he was. Fatigue dragged him down and he could feel his pace slowing.
Milla still walked with the faltering steps of the injured, but her pace was showing no hints of slowing. She cast frustrated glances back at Bucc as he fell further behind. Bucc couldn’t get a read on her at all. She was beaten and exhausted yet continued onwards one step at a time with a single-minded determination. With the thin, ripped up dress that she wore, she should have been half frozen on top of everything else, but she showed no outward sign of discomfort.
Finally Bucc’s legs gave out on him and he collapsed face first into the sand. He could feel tears stinging the corners of his eyes and he hated himself for it. He tried to wipe them away but he was so cold and hungry that they just kept coming. He heard Milla sit down beside him and expected a scathing comment. None came.
“You lasted longer than I expected,” she told him softly. “You held yourself together against a lot of physical and emotional stress. It was bound to hit you eventually.”
The words didn’t comfort Bucc. Frustration and anger burned within him.
“Why? Why can’t I keep it together and keep going? Why am I always letting people down? I should be the one supporting you, not the other way around. You’re younger! And you’re injured! Yet I’m the one crying on the floor like a pathetic baby. I’m so useless! I couldn’t even stop myself from hurting those I love! Just once in my life I don’t want to be a failure!”
“I don’t have any answers,” Milla said in her dull tone. “Failure stings, doesn’t it? I broke down after the massacre of my village. I lost my family, my friends, and the piece of my soul that was my familiar. I had nothing. I was a shattered mess, and it was hatred that stuck those fragments back together. But it still isn’t enough. I’ve sacrificed what little remained and the gap between me and Pyrefist is still so wide that I might as well not have tried at all. But what else can I do? Revenge is the only thing that keeps me going. I can’t let go.”
Bucc looked at the girl with tear blurred eyes. He realised how broken she really was. A burned and abandoned doll trapped inside a statue of a warrior. The emotionless sheen of her eyes was just a mask to hide the pain beneath. Somewhere along the way the line between the hurt farmgirl and the ruthless hunter had blurred and now even she didn’t know what her true self looked like.
“You have an affinity with the earth, don’t you?” he asked her.
She nodded. “There was a storm. I left shelter like a fool and was swept into the sea by a giant wave. I felt myself die out there in the darkness of the ocean. But then I woke on the beach with a familiar on my chest and my affinity awoken. I don’t know how it happened. I was only six at the time. By the time Pyrefist arrived I was already one of the better farmers on the island. But then in those flames all of my love for nurturing life died. I wanted blood, but all I had was the ability to grow crops.”
“So you weaponised it?”
“It was the only thing I could think of at the time. I took the power of life and twisted it until it was a tool of destruction. Every advantage I could take from the plants I took without a second thought. Vines grow across my body that obey my will. I have spore pods that can shoot pollen to blind opponents, and chlorophyll cells line my skin to take in the sun’s light as a secondary source of energy. I can go for a long time without much sleep or food thanks to that. Part of me wonders if I’m even human anymore. But against fire, none of it matters. I’ve taken earth affinity beyond its bounds but I still couldn’t beat even the weakest of flamecasters. The world isn’t a fair place, is it? Yet you have all that power and waste it. Why?”
“Does it matter? I don’t want to hurt people and my affinity exists to cause pain.”
“But why do you, out of every pirate on the seas, have such conviction against battle. Are you just a naive fool, or a coward? I don’t care if you are a pacifist, I want to know why you are one.”
Bucc closed his eyes. Part of him wanted to ignore her, to push away the question and go to sleep. Milla had just told him everything about her own history. Even though he tried to avoid them, the memories floated to the surface of his mind and he found the words were already forming on his lips.
“My parents are both skilled pirates, and our family has quite the reputation in the south seas. When I was young I was full of confidence and loved to fight. For my age, I was pretty good at it too. I could make friends with anybody and had the skills and courage to always be the leader of the children. I didn’t have a direction though. I wanted to win everything because winning made me feel special. That was all.
“That changed when an older boy came back to the Seal. He had been born there, but after his parents had been killed in a skirmish, he left for two years. He was called Kaz, and he was the perfect picture of what a pirate should be. He had a natural charisma that made people want to follow him and had such big ambitions. He was one of those people who was good at everything they turned their hands too. Nobody doubted that he’d go far.
Well, even though all of the adults wanted to guide and befriend him, Kaz preferred helping the younger children. Somehow, he ended up taking me, Jesse, and Adward under his wings. I was directionless, Jesse couldn’t speak to anybody except for her brother, and Adward was a serious kid who tried to have an answer to everything. He saw our potential and worked hard to help us grow. He shared his dreams and made us understand that together we covered each others’ flaws. He was the older brother that bound us together as a family. The four of us together were unstoppable.”
“I’m guessing things didn’t stay that way?”
“No. Three years ago we were visiting an island on the eastern borders. Kaz was a few weeks away from his Awakening.” Bucc paused and took a calming breath before continuing. “Jesse has always liked weapons, and Kaz had encouraged that interest. She saw a pirate there with a custom pistol, three gilded barrels, a real work of art. Following Kaz’s example, she tried to talk to the man to get a better look at it. Usually she would have been too anxious to even try, but Kaz had made real progress with her. This pirate wasn’t the sort that you spoke to though. He was a bounty hunter with a nasty reputation, not that we knew that then. He shoved her to the floor.
“I saw it happen, and me being the reckless, overconfident kid that I was, ran straight up to him and pushed him back. I shouted at him to apologise to her, my hand on my knife. That was a mistake. He pulled that beautiful pistol out without thought and aimed it straight at me. He fired it, and if Kaz hadn’t come charging at the man then I’d be dead. The round still clipped my side and I fell. I could only watch as Kaz faced down the man.
“Kaz was our idol. He was a rising legend and everybody knew it. Nothing could stop him from becoming the greatest pirate who ever lived. That was just a fundamental fact of our life. I saw him standing there with nothing but his knife and a look of cold rage in his eyes, and I knew everything would be okay.
“There was a crack of a pistol and Kaz staggered back. I remember being so confused. He ran forward, and all I could focus on was how much blood there suddenly was. The bounty hunter fired again. There was more blood. Kaz didn’t stop. He ran on and stabbed at the man. The man tried to dodge but couldn’t. He got a nasty cut across his throat, but it wasn’t deep enough to kill him. Without even flinching, he headbutted Kaz then drew his sword, running him through without hesitating.
Kaz collapsed. I was too shocked to really know what was happening. The bounty hunter left as though nothing had happened. It was all over so quickly. We ran to Kaz. I don’t think that either of us could understand what had happened. Kaz was untouchable. He’d give us one of his cocky grins and laugh the whole thing off. He didn’t.
“His pale face was so unlike him. I almost couldn’t believe it was Kaz there on the ground. Blood was everywhere. There wasn’t any famous last words or moments of clarity, just our hero crying in a pool of his own blood as the life left his eyes. He was scared. I’d never seen him be scared of anything. All of his reputation and confidence had melted away and I saw that underneath all of that he was just like us. He was a child terrified that he was dying. His last words to me were “I don’t want to go”. There was nothing I could do.”
Milla had been listening to his story in silence, but to Bucc, she didn’t exist. His mind had taken him back to those blood slick streets. He realised he was crying again. He tried to blink them away.
“Jesse blamed herself for approaching the man. Her confidence unravelled and now she’s back to only being able to speak to me and Adward. I blamed myself for confronting him. He likely would have ignored Jesse after shoving her away, but I threatened him with a knife. Kaz died to protect me. My mistake put him in that position. I saw how quickly violence could escalate, and I saw the raw pain that it brought. Any time I even think of hurting another person, that pale face rises up from my memory.
“We pledged that we’d keep his dreams alive inside of us. Jesse wants to become a great captain just like Kaz wanted to be, and Adward wants to find the Shores of the Nexus and claim Captain Dread’s treasure, the treasure that Kaz had always set his sights on. As for me, well, I guess I ran away from that like I do everything. I pitched it as fulfilling Kaz’s desire to help people by providing food and making sure that nobody went hungry. Really though, I just wanted to nurture life since death scared me so much.”
“It sounds like he was a great man,” Milla told him softly. “He sacrificed his life to save you. He saw something in you worth giving everything for. Don’t throw that away.”
Those words rang in Bucc’s head long after they were spoken. He lay there lost in his own thoughts for a long time. Milla’s fate had been to be a farmer. She was born into it, had the right affinity, and excelled at the work. But then she had taken all of that and reforged it for a new purpose, one that was so far from it’s intended use that it sailed against the current of common knowledge.