Bucc reached out his hand as high as he could. Then he tried jumping. Neither achieved anything. He thought about holding out Neri to look through and the blank bounced up onto his head and drooped down over his eyes as though it had read his mind. He looked around and saw that the riftways lost their colour about ten feet from the dome. They still existed past there but as a faded shade of themselves. There was no way they’d be able to reach the coloured section, and that was even if those strange invisible riftways would take them anywhere.
“Looks like we really will die here. I’d be furious that I didn’t get my chance to watch Pyrefist die if I wasn’t so tired.” Milla seemed to sag. She sat heavily and closed her eyes. “Maybe it’s time to catch up on some of that sleep,” she muttered, more to herself than to Bucc.
“Wait,” Bucc told her. “I have a plan. You can’t give up yet, okay?”
“What plan could you possibly have? We don’t have any food, any water, or any supplies of any kind. We’re tired and weak. Face it, it’s over.”
“Weren’t you the one willing to walk to the ends of the earth to get your revenge?”
“Yeah, well as far as I can tell, this isn’t even part of the planet as we know it. There isn’t an end here to walk to.”
“But what if I told you we could reach the riftways above?”
“Well, it would be a quicker death then sitting here withering away.” Despite her words, her posture became more attentive.
“I can use my affinity to make glass, so with a bit of work maybe I can make glass blocks,” Bucc explained. “We stack them up then we can reach the edge of the riftway and hopefully enter it from there.”
“That sounds like it could work. It’ll take a lot of energy though. Are you up to the job?”
“Yes. I think so. It’s my turn to be strong.”
Bucc set to work piling up sand to scorch. Forming anything resembling blocks proved to be near impossible without any tools. Misshapen, lumpy blobs were the most common result of his efforts but he didn’t let that stop him. He channeled flames for hours while Milla carted them up the dome to build their makeshift staircase. Whenever the strain threatened to overcome him, Bucc felt a reassuring boost from Neri. It seemed that the little blank could give him some of its own energy, energy that was replenished with regular visits to the surface of the dome.
“Do you think it’ll support our weight?” Bucc asked when the unstable tower of warped glass finally reached up to the edge of the dome’s influence. It didn’t look very safe.
“Probably not. We’ll just have to be careful. Can’t you blast it with fire to melt all the separate chunks together?”
“No. I can barely stand anymore. It would take a massive amount of power to melt something this size. I don’t know that I could do it even at full strength.”
A thoughtful look settled across Milla’s face. “I wonder,” she mused quietly. She held out her arms and splayed her fingers. Yellow mist began to filter out from beneath her dress to obscure the pile of glass.”
“Fire burns better with fuel. I’ve studied flamecasters. Most have a weak flame since it is sustained by the air and the caster’s will alone. If it has a source of fuel then maybe you can send your flame out further for a short time.”
“I can try. Here it goes.”
Bucc concentrated and once more felt the heat spread through his body. Fire erupted from his hands and instantly grew in intensity as it made contact with the pollen. The entire cloud was consumed by flame with a giant whooshing noise that struck Bucc like a physical blow. It took all of his will to keep the flames under his control. His face contorted with the effort and he shouted wordlessly as he poured the last of his strength into the inferno.
His vision flashed white then he found himself on his back. Tendrils of flame still hung in the air but quickly faded. The glass glowed a faint amber colour. It hadn’t melted much, but the edges had softened just enough for the individual blocks to fuse.
Milla helped him to stand back up and as soon as the glass had cooled they began a slow climb up its steep rise. They still couldn’t see the riftway above their heads but the electric crackle was very much present. Together they perched at the top, their heads a few inches from the raging passageway.
“I guess it’s do or die time,” Milla said softly. “It’s strange, I’m not scared of dying but the thought that I could be throwing my life away for nothing is kind of daunting.”
“Don’t worry. I can’t say for sure but Neri feels confident about going through. She hasn’t led us astray so far. I trust her.” He held out his hand to Milla and offered her a smile. “You ready?”
She nodded and took his hand. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
They jumped. Bucc felt a massive pressure across his body as his muscles stretched and contorted. Colours tore around him like a tornado of lights and he found it hard to breathe. They were inside the riftway. Everything from here was in the hands of fate. He clung to Milla as their bodies were thrown in every direction at once.
Bucc’s mind was focused on pure survival. He was in a disoriented freefall without end that threatened to pull each of his limbs from their sockets. A constant roar like a fierce storm battered at his ears and an acrid smell filled his nose. His lungs were burning and cramps wracked his muscles.
Unconsciousness began to creep into the corners of his thoughts, threatening to tear away all control from him, but something else prodded at the parts of his mind that continued to fight. It was an icy calmness that probed his thoughts, injecting emotions directly into his brain. Vaguely he was aware of the cold weight on his head that was Neri. The two were connected.
Images flashed through his subconscious and Bucc finally realised that this was Neri’s attempt to communicate with him. She was preparing him for what he needed to do. He forced his eyes open and stared through the blurry maelstrom to find Milla. She was curled up in the fetal position other than the one arm that held onto Bucc, her eyes closed and a look of calm concentration on her face. He hesitated for a moment but a mental pressure from Neri spurred him to act.
Bucc reached across with his free hand and pulled the girl closer until he was able to wrap his arm around her waist. She opened an eye to stare accusingly at him, but then closed it again. He waited. The strange, not quite words, from Neri told him to listen to his heart. They told him to act when he knew that he should. That didn’t mean anything to him but he tried to obey the command. He thought about everything that he loved, repeating the names and faces and memories of everything that defined who he was.
He felt something twang deep inside his chest. Bucc braced himself then let go of Milla’s hand, immediately firing off a stream of flame that slammed into the wall of the riftway. The energy propelled them backwards and they hit the opposite wall. He felt the swirling lights part around him like raging water. It hurt but he gritted his teeth against the pain.
Then, as suddenly as it had started, the pain and the pressure vanished, leaving Bucc feeling weightless. He enjoyed this for a few beautiful seconds until he realised the weightlessness was caused by him hurtling through the sky towards the sea far below. He shouted in panic, any sensible thoughts abandoning ship before impact. The shouts caused Milla to open her eyes again, at first in annoyance, then wide-eyed terror a moment later.
Milla dragged herself closer to Bucc then swiveled so that she was the closest to the sea. She held out her hand and vines crawled up her arm and whipped out ahead of her. The vines thrashed as she straightened out her body into a diving position. Bucc quickly tried to do the same.
Bucc hit the ocean. The impact rattled his bones and he gasped. The water rushed in to fill his emptied lungs. Every inch of him stung. The very concept of up and down was lost to him for a frantic few seconds as he fought to right himself and find the surface. His head emerged and he took several ragged breaths.
He looked around. The sea was perfectly calm and the sky was blue. Not too far off was a large island. The only thing missing was Milla. She was nowhere in sight. Bucc dived back under the water but he quickly needed to surface again. Neri squirmed then covered his head like a helmet, creating a pocket of air between Bucc and herself. He ducked back under the waves and pushed himself lower.
Milla was floating below him without moving. Her eyes were closed and her hair and dress billowed like ghosts. Bucc swam to get to her then kicked with all of his remaining strength to pull her up to the surface. She wasn’t breathing.
“Come on!” he shouted at her. “You can’t die like this! Your motivation is awful, but you’ve got to see it through, right? How can you beat a pirate lord if you can’t survive being thrown through a riftway unprotected and falling into the sea at terminal velocity?”
A million thoughts clustered in his brain, each one shouting at the others about what to do. Stay calm, Bucc, he told himself. I’m a pirate who lives on the sea. I’ve seen people almost drown before. How did the adults save them back then?
A memory came to him and he gulped nervously. There wasn’t time to waste though. He had absolutely no idea about the actual details on what was supposed to happen, but more than once he had seen someone brought back from the brink by someone else breathing for them. He leaned in and took a deep breath.
“If you even think about it I’ll kill you.”
“Thank the Noodley One! You’re alive!”
Milla groaned in response then started to cough and splutter. She sagged in the water but her breathing eased into an unsteady rhythm. Slowly Bucc paddled through the water, pulling the girl along behind him.
“Are you okay?”
Bucc couldn’t see her face but from the icy silence he assumed she was glowering at him.
“Neri, can you help her stay afloat,” he asked the familiar. The translucent ball seemed to nod then slithered across to Milla. “There’s an island just ahead. We’ll be on dry land in no time.”
“And then what?”
The question took Bucc by surprise. The unexpected part of it was that he immediately knew the answer. “Then I find my crew.”