Bucc staggered onto the beach and collapsed into the golden sands. Moving was the last thing in the world that he wanted to do but he knew he had to. Every inch of him ached. He pushed through the pain and helped Milla to her feet. Neri plastered herself flat against his back and seemed content to stay there.
During their approach of the island he’d noticed a village. He hadn’t been sure as he had fought against the waves and his own exhaustion, but now he was closer he could barely believe his eyes. They had left the riftway right beside Cantruug. The odds of that were astronomical. Neri had to be involved somehow, but Buc didn’t have the time to dwell on it. He was just thankful to be on familiar ground.
“You know this place?” Milla asked him.
“Yeah. Cantruug is a wheat island with one of the busier port villages in the Fourth Sea. My ship, the Singing Seal, used to come here for supplies. It was the last island we visited before my Awakening. I wouldn’t call it beautiful but I’ve always felt at peace here. Maybe you will too.”
They walked across the beach towards the familiar buildings of Three Potatoes, but with every step a feeling that something wasn’t quite right was creeping over Bucc. The air smelled different. Even the general noises of a pirate settlement seemed muted. There were the clangs of hammers but Bucc couldn’t hear cheers, arguments, or drunken singing.
He stepped up a ramp that led into the village and was immediately struck by how dour the few villagers he could see were. More concerning though were the scortchmarks across several walls and construction sites where previously there had been warehouses. Something bad had happened. Bucc felt his stomach lurch. He stumbled over to a broad workman who stood nearby.
The man looked at him blankly. “What happened? You been livin’ under a shell? That happened,” he said, pointing discreetly across the street towards a fur clad pirate. Bucc instantly recognised it as the clothing of the northern pirates. He tried to press the man further but he refused to explain anything else, instead casting fearful looks towards the northerner.
“Let’s try the tavern,” Bucc suggested. Everyone knew that taverns were the best place for news and stories.
Bucc led the way through the familiar streets toward the village’s largest tavern. They noticed several of the northern pirates standing at corners or in doorways as they passed. The tavern still stood but two of the northerners were guarding the entrance. The hanging sign naming the tavern as the Guiding Spud was missing and there were no sounds of revelry within.
“The Ashenna are using this building as a command post. This island’s been occupied,” Milla explained quietly. She hung back in the shadows and watched the northern pirates with a mix of caution and burning hatred.
“What? That can’t be right. We’re far from the Northern Seas here. No fleet could get this far and capture an island in the few days we were gone.”
“I’ve seen enough occupied islands over the last few months. This is definitely one of them.”
“We’ll speak with Mister Blackfoot. He’s a farmer I know. He’ll fill us in on what’s happening.”
“Just be careful. It’s possible that our descriptions have been passed around. Pyrefist isn’t one for leaving loose ends. We don’t want every Ashenna pirate on our backs. I can fight off a few, but not an entire garrison.”
“No killing. We’re just going to keep our heads down, okay?”
“Until the need arises, sure.”
Bucc started down a street that led inland and stopped suddenly. Milla immediately took a fighting stance but it wasn’t a threat that Bucc had seen. He thought that he had recognised a woman in the distance, but she had disappeared through a doorway before he could tell for sure. Everything else slipped from his mind and he found himself veering towards the building. He approached the door and knocked. There was a long moment of silence then the door inched open. A scarred man that Buc didn’t know answered. Bucc couldn’t see past him to look into the room beyond.
“What?” the man asked him gruffly.
“Sorry. I… er, I thought I recognised the woman that just came in here.”
“Buccaneer?” said a woman’s voice from behind the man. The door opened wider, allowing Bucc to see clearly inside. It was a shabby, unfurnished room where several people were standing around. All of them turned their attention to the door. Bucc knew several of those faces.
The woman rushed forward, roughly shoving the man to the side before wrapping Bucc in a crushing embrace.
“Ma, you’re going to kill me,” Bucc weezed.
“We thought you were dead,” his mum sobbed. Bucc had never seen her cry before. Her Shayla bounded up onto his shoulder and brushed her head against his while purring loudly. “You were on the ship, then there was fire everywhere. We managed to escape but nobody could find any sign of you. I’m so happy you’re okay. How did you even find us here?”
“Luck, I guess,” he answered. “Is everyone here?”
“Most of us, though a lot has happened since you disappeared. The world has changed so much. Where have you been for all of this time?”
Bucc frowned. “You’re making it seem like I’ve been gone for ages.”
His mum looked into his eyes as though she was trying to read him. Her shaking fingers brushed his cheek tentatively, like she wasn’t quite convinced that he was real.
“Tell me what happened,” she told him in an unsure voice.
“It’s complicated. You remember this girl? Well this is Milla and she has a weird connection to the blanks. They came and carried us away from the ship. You won’t believe me but we ended up at the Shores of the Nexus. From there we hopped into the riftway and got thrown out right next to Cantruug. It’s been a crazy few days. But what about you? I’m impressed that you managed to get from the border seas all the way here in the few days it took us to find the riftway. Were you picked up by another ship and rifted straight here?”
“Bucc, it’s been over a year since the Seal was destroyed.”
The words hit him like a hammer. He took a step back, stunned. Milla rushed past him and grabbed his mum by the shirt, a savage snarl on her face.
“What do you mean we’ve been gone a year? Where is Pyrefist?”
Bucc’s mum was a strong woman who was one of the raid leaders back on the Seal. Even she was intimidated by the flames that burned in the girl’s eyes.
“As soon as the Seal was destroyed, Captain Pyrefist sent his fleet south. We got reports that most of the north was already under his control but their resources were stretched to breaking point. The local pirate lords tried to bargain with him, then after that they tried to fight him, but neither worked. The Ashenna crews don’t fight like pirates. They’re organised and battle without any passion. Nothing we did slowed them down. In the year that you two were gone, three quarters of the south has fallen to the Ashenna Empire.”
“So the world belongs to him now,” Milla said in a low, threatening voice. “Where is he? I’ve waited too long to kill him already.”
“I’d give up on that if I were you, child,” Bucc’s mum tried to soothe her. “Our job now is to make the best life that we can out of what remains. That’s just a fact of life. Pyrefist is too powerful. He wiped out the entire southern alliance in a series of decisive victories. Even without his ships, he single handedly sunk several of our best vessels. To face him is a fool’s dream.”
“Maybe I am a fool. So tell me, where is Pyrefist?”
Bucc’s mum sighed deeply. Bucc knew the feeling. After a moment of thought she relented. “He returned north. I assume he returned to pacify the last holdouts. A smaller fleet led by his daughter is moving on the remnants of the southern alliance. I’d expect that within another year everything will belong to the Ashenna.”
Bucc stepped between the two women. He had his own questions that he wanted answering.
“Your Pa and me got separated after the Seal. His boat ended up fleeing to a different island. We managed to exchange messages. He’s currently with Lord Captain Steeledge and the remaining ships of the Southern Alliance. A few of us were actually just preparing to sail down there to lend a hand.”
Bucc felt a sudden hope. Lord Captain Steeledge was known throughout the southern seas as a master swordsman and charismatic leader. He had risen to the rank of lord captain very quickly and was considered by many to be the best tactician alive. Surely somebody with his reputation could oppose the Ashenna.
“But didn’t you just say that standing against Pyrefist was a fool’s dream?”
His mum smiled. “We’re pirates. Foolishness is in our blood.”
“Good. I’m coming with you,” Milla interrupted. “Until I can track Pyrefist down, I’ll have to settle for sending him a clear message. Beating the Red Demon will be a good start. I owe her for the last time we came face to face.” She stepped back to the door. “I’m going to scout out this island. I’ll be back soon.” Then she was gone.
“That’s quite the young lass you’ve found there, Buccaneer,” his mum told him in an overly sweet voice. “She’s got the fiery spirit of a real pirate, though she’s maybe a bit too cold and focused for her own good. A bit of work and she’d make a good wife. Very pretty.”
“Shut up,” Bucc snapped. He could feel a blush spreading across his cheeks. “I’ve only known her for a few days in our time. Forget about that though. Where are Adward and Jesse?”
His mum’s smile disappeared. “Come on inside and find a seat. We have a lot to catch you up on.”
Bucc’s heart dropped. It must have shown on his face because his mum quickly changed her tone.
“Don’t worry! It’s nothing like that. Adward and Jesse are both alive. It’s just that, well, a lot happened when you disappeared and the Seal was destroyed. I don’t want you to blame yourself or anything, but the fire was devastating. Most of us got out without serious burns but Jesse tried to save you. She got too close…”
Bucc felt his knees grow weak. He sat down heavily on a nearby stool. “Is she okay?”
“She got some really bad burns. I’ll not lie to you, Bucc, straight after Pyrefist’s attack it was touch and go if she would survive. She recovered relatively quickly. Thankfully it was mostly superficial damage. It took a toll on her mind though. She was always quiet, but afterwards she wouldn’t even speak to Adward. One night they just left. They took a boat and sailed off. We haven’t seen them in months.”
It took Bucc a few moments to process this information. He sagged in his seat as a million thoughts and feelings crossed his mind.
“It was my weakness that got her hurt. Captain Pyrefist pulled my strings like I was a puppet and because I couldn’t control my powers I destroyed our home and hurt my friend. He wouldn’t even have been there if I hadn’t run away.”
His mum didn’t say anything. She just bent down and hugged him. The gesture was filled to bursting with a year’s worth of loss, worry and love. He found it completely disarming. Before he even realised it he had broken down into tears and hugged her back tightly.
“I want to come with you.”
“No. Stay here where it’s safer. The Ashenna hold Cantruug. No boats sail without their say so. It’s going to be a battle just to leave here, and they’ll send pursuers. It’s too dangerous. Unless you are willing to fight…”
Bucc gently removed his mum’s arms from around him and stood up. She was reluctant to let go. “I don’t know. I need to think. Time to clear my head. I have a year’s worth of information to process. Give me some time to think things over.”
He left the house and had to once again fight down the discomfort of how different everything was. It wasn’t just the scorch marks and northern pirates that made Three Potatoes unfamiliar. While he couldn’t tell for sure, it appeared to be less crowded than he had seen it before. Buildings had been demolished and saplings or crops grew in the new open spaces. There wasn’t any of the characteristic smells of cooking food or marketplace herbs and spices. In fact, it looked as though none of the shops were in business.
Bucc skirted around the village and headed into the woods towards Mister Blackfoot’s small plot of farmland. It quickly became apparent though that the small farm hadn’t escaped the changes. Before, several patches of farmland owned by individual farmers dotted the woodland. Now the small huts had been removed and the patchwork of fields were joined together in uniform strips. More Ashenna stood guard over labouring islanders.
He spotted Mister Blackfoot working at a nearby patch of dirt. He looked gaunt, his formerly fat and jolly appearance replaced by a much slimmer ghost of himself. The farmer noticed Bucc and froze as though he had seen a spirit.
“Buccaneer Jones? As I live and breath, it really is you,” the man laughed, his face lighting up with some of its old joy. “From the way the Seal’s crew were talking, I’d put you down as dead. You’re sure a sight for tired eyes, lad.”
“It feels like I step away for a week and suddenly the world’s sank straight into Davy Jones’ Locker. Makes me feel very important.”
The farmer laughed softly. The Ashenna guards watched them but didn’t make any moves to get Mister Blackfoot back to work. He noticed Bucc looking at them and waved them off dismissively.
“Don’t worry about them. They’re sticklers for the rules but they don’t go out of their way to antagonise folk. Well, other than taking all of our land and assuming command of the entire island. All food and supplies are strictly rationed and a lot of new laws have been enforced. Still, they ain’t outlawed talkin’ just yet.”
“Maybe they haven’t, but I have to say that you aren’t looking great. Nobody is.”
Mister Blackfoot shrugged. “Times are hard. Supplies were running low. Everyone knew it but nobody wanted to do anything about it. Pyrefist and his Ashenna did what nobody else wanted to do. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. Who knows? In this world though, might makes right, and Pyrefist’s army has that in abundance, so what can we do?”
As the man spoke, Bucc noticed Milla standing in the woods just past the field. She had a dark look of anticipation on her face that set Bucc’s nerves on edge. He was genuinely concerned about what she might try when surrounded by people she perceived as enemies. Worried about leaving her alone, Bucc quickly turned back to Mister Blackfoot.
“I think things are going to get interesting soon. Try to keep yourself healthy, okay? I’ve got to go.”
“You be careful yourself, Mister Jones. When your crewmates told me what happened after your Awakening it had me worried. You seem to have grown a lot this last year. I wish you all the best. You’ll make a fine man, mark my word.”
Mister Blackfoot held out his hand and Bucc shook it happily. He smiled at the words. Had he really changed that much in the few days since the Awakening? Everything had changed, but he still felt like that same frightened child. A warmth radiated across his back from Neri that put him at ease. Bucc nodded to the farmer then headed towards where Milla skulked.
The girl didn’t acknowledge his presence. Her eyes were fixed firmly on the Ashenna guards. A grim smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.
“Your people will need a distraction if they want to leave. I have just the thing.”
Bucc sighed. “Look, just relax for a while, okay? For a few days we’re safe. Let’s take the time to recover. You can’t hope to fight in your state. The Ashenna aren’t going anywhere.”
“That’s my worry. Pyrefist is going to rule the entire world. Then there’ll be nowhere to run or hide, no safe havens or pockets of resistance. If I have any chance of killing him then I need to strike now. My body only has to survive until then.”
“The others have to finalise their preparations anyway. One hot meal and one night’s sleep. That’s all I ask. Okay? Then we can go be freedom fighters.”
“We? Have you given up your silly ideas?”
“No. If anything my powers scare me more. Back on the Seal I hurt my friend, Jesse. She got all burned trying to save me. I did that to her. Even when I tried to avoid conflict I still managed to hurt someone. The thought of that happening again terrifies me.”
“It was that same fear that drove me to become stronger. I can only protect people by being strong enough to beat anybody that wants to do harm. You have a great deal of power inside, Bucc. You have to ask yourself how to use it to save those you love without hurting others. Maybe you can even manage it. It isn’t impossible. It just means you have to be smart. And have the skills to back it up.”
She turned to leave. As she walked away she spoke again. “My plants need some overdue care. A day or two to prepare everything might not hurt us too much.”