These thoughts floated through his mind as he slipped into a delirious half sleep. He woke up suddenly, drenched in sweat and panting. The ground felt hard beneath him, and for a moment he feared that he had once again been taken somewhere new. The panic calmed when he sat up and saw the desert still dominated the landscape.
He shifted his weight and noticed that the ground was smooth and solid. Bucc looked down to see his own silhouette scorched into the sand, the fine white grains melted into a glossy shadow of glass. He jumped away quickly, checking himself for any burns.
“You had a bad fever in the night,” Milla noted dryly. “Your body had an over-dramatic way of sweating it off.” Her voice was calm, but there was a nervousness in her eyes. It wasn’t exactly fear but it was too similar for Bucc’s liking.
Bucc tried to ignore that look. He ran his fingers across the glass, breaking off a small chunk to examine closer. Glass was a rare commodity to have. It was used as a material for windows and several navigational instruments. Most pirates didn’t own anything personal containing it.
“Hurry up. We don’t have time to waste. Your little night time light show made you sweat out what little water reserves your body had. If we don’t find water soon then you’re going to die.”
Bucc was feeling very dry. His mouth was parched and his lips were cracked. Even breathing hurt his throat. He nodded then pocketed the glass fragment before standing up.
They resumed their march across the sand with a confidence born from knowing that there was no known landmass that would take two days to cross. With each passing hour though this optimism faded. White sand and black rocks repeated in a seemingly infinite loop. Wherever it was that they had found themselves, it went against everything they knew.
Bucc was carrying the injured blank as they walked. It bobbed and pulsed in an increasingly agitated manner. He held it up to his face to take a closer look at the poor thing. It was hard to judge how blanks were feeling as they had little way to convey emotions. The blackened membrane still looked sore. Its darkened outer layer caused the world visible through it to take on a greyish sheen. There was something else that was visible through the translucent blob too. Bucc lowered the blank just to check, then lifted it back up again.
“Hey, Milla. Does the world usually look different through a blank?”
The girl stopped. “Not really, no. Riftways look clearer, almost like they glow, but everything else looks the same.”
The sky above through the filter of the blank shone with a million strands of pale light like a tangle of heavenly glowworms. Bucc passed the blank over to Milla without a word. She took it and stared through the creature without any outward reaction. Slowly she lowered it and turned back to Bucc.
“That isn’t normal,” she said. “They look like riftways, but I’ve never heard of invisible riftways. Or of so many in the same place.”
“Invisible riftways,” Bucc muttered to himself. The concept triggered memories in his head of one of the many conversations he’d had with Adward about the network of passages. Adward had observed that Captain Dread must have found hidden tunnels that parted from the main pathways to their true destination. If Adward was right then that could mean only one thing.
“The Nexus…” He whispered into the stunned silence. “It has to be, right? Adward was always talking about it. The Shores of the Nexus, a hidden land where all riftways eventually lead. And here we are on a strange desert bigger than any known island with a sky full of hidden riftways. Where else could we be?”
Milla took a moment to process this. “The blanks do seem connected to the riftways. But if that’s true then I have no idea how to get out again. If nobody has ever discovered this place then maybe it doesn’t exist in the same way that a normal island does. There’s a chance that there isn’t a sea to find here.”
“Lord Captain Dread did find this place though, and I doubt he had the blanks’ help. Also, why would they bring us here if it meant certain death? I mean, they have no reason to help me, but the blanks clearly want to keep you safe. They wouldn’t just dump you here to die.”
Bucc though fast to keep the momentum of hope rolling. He took back the blank and placed it on his head. It offered a welcome relief from the glare of the sun but that wasn’t his intention.
“Hi, little guy. If you can understand me then try to guide me. Maybe you can’t lead us with your injuries but you can put pressure on my head in the direction you want me to go, okay.”
The blank wiggled and swayed for a few seconds then drooped slightly to the left side of Bucc’s head. Bucc turned to face that direction and the blank shifted its weight towards his forehead. A wide grin split his face.
“This way! I don’t know where it leads but the blank wants us to go there.”
Milla looked confused. “How did you know that the blank would try to guide you?”
“When you were trapped in that barrel we used it as a raft. We were lost at sea with no islands in sight. There was a swarm of blanks that clustered around us. Around you. They made a ring and pointed out where to go. Because of them we found the island where you woke up.”
Bucc and Milla set off with renewed energy under the guidance of the blank. Even this optimism began to fail as time grinded by towards another night without any indication that they were getting anywhere. Bucc’s strength was failing and his vision was growing blurry.
“Does that rock look like a tree to you?” he asked, nodding towards a large cluster of shapes in the distance. Milla squinted then tried a shambling jog for a short way.
“That really is a tree. All of them are. It’s an oasis! That means water!”
They made a broken half run across the sand. Vivid greens became clearer with every step, the oasis gleaming like an emerald in the monochrome world. Milla pulled ahead, her fitness outpacing Bucc’s even with her injuries.
All of their hopes were confirmed by the sight of glistening blue hidden in the centre of the foliage. It was a pool of crystal water about twice as wide as Bucc was tall. Milla dove straight into it as Bucc chased to catch up. He dropped to his knees at the edge of the pool and stuck his head into the cool water to drink deeply. He choked and whipped his head back out, gagging violently. Milla emerged a moment later doing the same.
“It’s salt water!”
Milla stomped out of the pool and placed her hand on the smooth bark of the closest tree. She growled then sprawled out on the floor in the plant’s shade.
“Most plants can’t absorb salt water. My vines certainly can’t. I thought maybe these plants were a rare variety that had adapted to it. They’re not.”
“What do you mean? They have to be drinking this water or the oasis wouldn’t exist.”
“This place isn’t real. Everything is a memory of reality. This tree isn’t alive. I can’t really explain it. It’s like the tree was frozen as a moment in time, a physical memory almost. It isn’t withering, but it isn’t growing either.”
“So we’re back at square one? I don’t know how much longer I can go without water.”
Bucc rolled away from the pond and stared up through the leaves at the sky. To be so close to water yet be unable to drink it was torture. It was like being on a ship surrounded by undrinkable water, but that was normal life. Pirates still had water to drink. They just filtered the sea water when it was needed. All it took was heat and a smooth, cold surface like sheet metal or glass…
He looked at his hands nervously. With a little concentration he felt heat flow out from his chest and down his arm into his fingers. They began to glow with a faint, warm light.
Fire was a dangerous thing. It offered the potential for great destruction and death, but then, it was a tool just like every other element. Milla had taken the power of life and weaponised it, perhaps Bucc could take the power of death and turn it into something peaceful. He moved away from the oasis then knelt, placing his hands down in front of him after flattening a patch in the sand. After a deep breath he began to channel flames into the sand as evenly as he could.
The strain of his affinity was causing him to sweat. The last of his body’s water reserves were going into this job. Any hope of them surviving now rested in his hands, and in the powers he hated. This was different though. Nobody was going to get hurt. Instead of destruction, he would create.
This was all new to him. Controlling the power was one thing, but knowing what level of heat was needed was another. He had never seen something like this being made before. He adjusted as he saw fit, and was surprised by just how much heat he was needing to generate in order to achieve anything. Milla approached him. Her whole body was tense and her eyes stared numbly at the flames that covered his hands.
“Can you make a bowl or something out of whatever you can find nearby? Something that will hold water?” he asked her without looking away from his work.
“I think so,”
“Good. Do it twice if you can.”
Understanding dawned on her face. She nodded and disappeared back into the oasis. Minutes passed before Bucc took a step back to admire his hard work. The sand before him had been melted into an uneven sheet of glass that still glowed with heat. On a whim he channelled a small amount of power into his fingers and touched it. The near molten glass didn’t burn him. Could he make himself resistant to heat, he wondered. Maybe he could use it to avoid getting more sunburns.
The amber glow of the glass dimmed quickly. Bucc carefully dug out the section of glass and picked it up. After a quick trip to the pond he had it fully cooled and cleaned up. Nobody would have accepted the lumpy and thick rectangle as a windowpane but it would work for what he needed. Milla joined him holding two shallow bowls made from leaves. The craftsmanship looked very neat but Milla still looked disappointed.
“If they were normal trees I could have triggered their cell production and physically fused the leaves together. Then it would be fully waterproof,” she answered at Bucc’s sceptical look.
Together they built a small stand from sticks and stones that held the cumbersome panel of glass at an angle. One bowl was placed beneath the lower end of the glass while the second was filled with salt water from the pond then placed below the higher end of the glass. Being very careful not to burn the leaves, Bucc slowly heated the water until it boiled. Thin clouds of steam rose up from the bowl and condensed on the cold surface of the glass where it beaded into droplets that slid down the slanted pane and gathered at the lower end where it began to drip into the second bowl.
It was an old pirate trick. Salt was heavier than water, so when saltwater was boiled the particles of salt would form as silt at the bottom while the pure water evaporated into steam. That steam cooled back into water if it was caught on a cold surface like metal or glass.This water could be collected and drank safely. It was a useful thing for a people that could go months without seeing any sources of freshwater.
It took a while but eventually the second bowl was filled with clean water. Bucc took a few thankful sips then passed it to Milla while he refilled the first bowl. They repeated this process a few times until both of them had sated their thirst. Now that he wasn’t dehydrated, Bucc found that he slept easily in the soft grass of the oasis. It was the first peaceful night’s sleep he had gotten since before his Awakening and he hadn’t known just how much his body had needed it. Waking fully rested but very hungry, Bucc realised that they had a difficult decision to make.
“Should we really leave here? Who knows when we could find another source of water.”
“It isn’t really a choice. We might have water but we don’t have any food. These trees don’t have anything edible on them. We might survive longer here, but we’d still die far quicker than I’d like. Listen, nobody is going to come here to save us. Our only hope is to keep going and try to find some way back out again.”
The blank bounced around Bucc’s feet impatiently. It certainly seemed to want them to continue. Bucc picked it up and placed it back on his head. He experimented with his power slightly to block out the sun then stepped out of the oasis’ shade.
“Okay then, little guy, lead the way. Our lives are entirely in your hands. Wait. Entirely in your… er… sphere?”