Another day passed in the endless desert. Compared to the previous days it was almost a pleasant experience for Bucc. He no longer noticed the heat, and while he was still hungry and thirsty, he didn’t feel like a dried out husk anymore. The constant walking was beginning to take its effect on his feet though. He’d spent most of his life on a ship. Long walks over rough terrain wasn’t something he had ever experienced before.
For Milla, the journey seemed to be taking a heavy toll. True to her words, Bucc hadn’t seen her sleep at all, and the small amount of water they’d shared hadn’t invigorated her as much as it had with Bucc.
“I chose to become one with the plants,” she explained in a tired voice. “I don’t just wear them, we have a symbiotic relationship. They draw nutrients from my body instead of the soil and can use them just like my own arms and legs. They also let me use photosynthesis for energy. If I had a good supply of food then it wouldn’t matter, but I don’t think I’ve had a full meal in over six months.”
“But why? You’re going to kill yourself getting this revenge.”
“That’s kind of the point. Killing him is the only thing that’s kept me going. Nothing exists past that. I have no life to return to. Milla Vantis died the night my village burned. I’m just a wraith looking for blood to pass on in peace.”
“Don’t talk like that!” Bucc shouted. “Life is all about living. You should know that as someone with an affinity for earth. On some islands they burn the ground and the flames add fresh nutrients into the soil. The destruction creates new life. That’s what you are! This is a second chance for you. Why waste it?”
Milla laughed. It wasn’t an unkind sound, but one that was very tired. “The world must look like such a beautiful place through your eyes. Everyone’s hearts shine golden and every cloud has a silver lining. I envy you, you know? All I see is a world in pain. I don’t think I have a place in either world.”
Bucc didn’t know how to answer that. They walked in silence for a long time, until Bucc couldn’t take another step. They made camp and Bucc tried to catch a few hours of restless sleep. He was woken by Milla before dawn.
“Look,” she told him.
He turned to where she was pointing and saw the blank bouncing in place, it’s speed getting quicker and quicker until it was almost a blur. It hopped over to them and nudged Bucc repeatedly before continuing its bouncing.
“It’s been like that for an hour now. Seems really eager to get moving. I think that whatever it wants to show us must be nearby.”
That was all the encouragement Bucc needed. He picked himself up and took hold of the small blank. It squirmed in his grip, making it difficult to hold. Its entire body was vibrating. He’d never seen one act so erratic. Once it was on his head it immediately began to urge him forward. As Bucc began to walk a thought came to him. He held out the blank and looked through it once again.
The warren of riftways was growing denser. If he squinted he could just make out a centre point off in the direction that the blank was urging them. It was a tight knot of passages that spiralled down to a single unseen point below. Bucc had a suspicion that the point where the riftways connected and the place where the blank was leading them was one in the same.
The riftways were still invisible to them but their presence was certainly felt. Having so many so close by made the air feel like they were walking through soup that had been hit by lightning.
“Look,” Milla said after a while. “What in the seas is that?”
Bucc could see it too. There was a strange lump in the distance, a half-sphere that shone blindingly in the light of the sun. He angled the blank in front of his eyes and saw that the static tornado of riftways was converging on that very spot.
“Whatever it is, that’s where all the riftways lead.”
“Maybe that’s the only way out of here. It’s a big risk. Entering a riftway without a ship, or even a wayfarer, is basically suicide.”
Another hour passed before they were close enough to the object to get a better look. It was a large dome made of what Bucc could only assume was gold. It was perfectly smooth at a distance but as they neared it he realised that every inch of the surface was covered in intricate lines and runes. The air all around it shimmered and shifted even without looking through the blank.
“What is it?” Bucc asked aloud. He could feel the tugging of the riftways above as he stepped closer. There seemed to be something at its top. The curve looked gentle enough to climb.
He approached the golden rise and reached out his hand to touch it. The dome was mesmerising. It seemed to draw Bucc in, pulling at his mind and body with a gentle yet irresistible force. His fingertips brushed against the icy cold surface and a ripple passed through him as though he had been suddenly submerged into frozen waters. He pulled back and fought to catch his breath.
The blank was humming with energy now. Bucc took it in his hands and looked through it at the dome. It glowed with the light of the riftways but no other secrets were revealed. He placed the creature on the ground, curious to see what it would do next. The blank bounced giddily and threw itself at the dome. It’s darkened body began to glow but nothing else happened. It looked to Bucc like the blank was feeding on the energy that was pouring from the metal.
“I’ve never heard of anything like this before,” Milla said. She moved around the dome, leaning in close to observe the symbols and patterns of its surface. “Someone had to build it and place it here, right?”
“I don’t know,” Bucc answered. “If it is gold, I didn’t know there was that much of it in the entire world.”
He braced himself and again placed his hand on the surface. The blank slithered across to him and rolled up his arm onto his shoulder. He tentatively lifted his foot up and took the first step onto the dome. Nothing dramatic happened so Bucc made his way cautiously towards the crest.
The top of the dome was a complete contrast to its base. The topmost quarter of the structure transitioned into clear glass that emerged from the gold seamlessly. Bucc tapped it with his foot and it seemed solid. He looked down and was hit with an overwhelming sense of awe. The dome was a cap atop a huge well that descended down deep into the earth. Colourful lights swirled within the hole but he couldn’t see the bottom.
Shapes moved within the swirling vortex of lights. It was impossible to get a clear look but thousands of shadows swam together, some small, others colossal. Bucc watched them in open-mouthed amazement. The different shapes put him in the mind of familiars, but he had never heard of so many familiars gathering without humans.
Milla appeared at his side, staring wide eyed into the void below them, then bit her lip thoughtfully. She moved slightly further up and Bucc managed to pull his eyes away from the endless vortex to watch her approach a metal wheel that jutted from the centre of the dome. He followed her, his stomach dropping as he walked over the all too visible hole.
“What is it?” he asked. The wheel lay flat on a long metal pole that disappeared into a metal ring in the centre of the glass.
“I don’t know. It looks like a valve of some kind. Pyrefist’s fleet uses them to control steam. I’m not sure how they work though.”
“Maybe it’s a lock,” Bucc observed. “All of the riftways join together here, and there are all those crazy lights and shapes on the other side. This dome is like a giant seal that keeps both sides separate.”
“But why would someone do that? And how? It doesn’t make sense.”
Milla stepped up to the valve and tried to turn it but the wheel was locked in place. In the centre of the valve was what appeared to be a keyhole.
“Whatever it is, it needs a key to work. That doesn’t help us much.”
Bucc noticed that the blank was nudging the valve without success, the small blob growing more agitated with every second. He scooped it up and cradled it in his arms.
“Sorry, little guy. We don’t have the key. I’m afraid you brought us here for nothing. Unless you know where the key is?”
The blank drooped and quivered, sliding from Bucc’s arms to settle into the gap between Milla’s feet. Bucc interpreted that as a no. He turned back to Milla.
“Does this blank have a name? It seems a bit rude to not call it something.”
“Blanks don’t really have names. They all look basically identical. It makes keeping track of them hard.”
“But this one isn’t identical, is it. So it should have a name. What do you think, eh?” he said. Bucc crouched down and stroked the blank. It pulsed and made a low thrumming noise. “See? It agrees with me. But what to call you? Hmm. Well, you saved us from Captain Pyrefist, getting yourself hurt in the process. Then you guided us to that oasis. You’ve really helped us a lot, haven’t you? You’re just like one of the mythical nereid, sea nymphs that help pirates. How does Neri sound to you?”
The thrumming rose in pitch and the blank shook erratically between nuzzling Bucc’s hand. Bucc laughed and rubbed the top of the blank affectionately.
“Okay! From here on out you’re called Neri.”
As Bucc spoke the words, the blank glowed with a golden light. There was a flash then calming warmth radiated within him. The light faded and Neri jumped into his arms. The blank gave the impression that, if it had a head, then it would currently be cocking it to the side as it stared up at him.
“Wait. That’s not right!” Milla said. She stormed over to Bucc and prodded the blank repeatedly.
“The magical light display wasn’t just for show. You bonded with the blank and gave it a name. That aura was a sign that your souls formed a union and became master and familiar.”
“Master… and familiar… Wait, so Neri is my familiar now!”
Milla frowned. “Well, it should be. But it hasn’t changed for some reason. The connection is there but it hasn’t taken a new shape like it should. I’ve never seen this before.”
Bucc shrugged. “Neri accepted me, and that’s all that really matters, right bud?”
Neri rocked its whole body in an attempt to nod. Nothing had really changed about the blank, yet to Bucc it seemed that the creature somehow had more personality about itself.
“I guess you’re right, but that still doesn’t help us get out of here,” Milla said. “I’ll be honest, I half expected us to get sucked into the riftways just by climbing up here. This seal must put out some kind of barrier that stops the riftway from directly touching it. We’re trapped here.”