Milla reacted instantly, stepping back and sweeping up a wave of pollen to meet the fire. The flame caught in the pollen and consumed it in a flash, redirecting itself to follow the fuel source upwards. The flames billowed high above the rooftops in a great spire of blazing light. The display likely drew every set of eyes on the island.
This was the moment that Milla had meant. It was the perfect distraction for Bucc to make his move, but he found that he was locked in place as he watched Milla and the Ashenna flamecaster. More and more of the northern pirates were encircling them. Almost the entire island’s garrison must have been there to take down the girl. There was no way she could win.
But she had told them all to trust her. Bucc had a job to do and everyone was relying on him to complete it. He hesitated another moment before darting from his cover towards the docks. One of the seafront buildings had a clear view of the ships so Bucc clambered up onto its roof to gain a little height.
The usually bustling dock only had half a dozen ships moored there. Of those only two didn’t bear the insignia of the Ashenna. From his vantagepoint, Bucc could see the Seal crewmen grouped loosely around the smallest Ashenna vessel. That meant that everything else was fair game.
Bucc summoned his inner fire and let a small tendril of flame snake its way around his fingers. This wasn’t a living target, but it was still the first time he had willingly used his powers to destroy. He wrestled with the flame then sent a jet of blazing light out towards the first ship. The sail was at the far end of the flame’s range but it was only a few seconds before the white sheet began to burn. The flame arced from ship to ship methodically until every sail except for their escape vessel was burning.
Dizziness washed over Bucc but he forced it to the side as he staggered back down the building. He ran to his mum and the other Seal pirates as they began to board the remaining ship.
“Have you seen Milla yet?” he asked. His mum shook her head.
Bucc clenched his fist and ran back towards the tavern, ignoring his mum’s shouts. He hadn’t made it far up the street though when Milla appeared from around a corner at a breakneck sprint. Chasing close at her heels were two dozen angry pirates. Her vines pulled at barrels and anything else they could grab to obstruct the path behind her.
“Get on the ship!”
Bucc skidded to a halt and immediately changed direction. Even with his head start, Milla quickly caught up to him then pulled him along so he wouldn’t fall behind.
“Keep the fire off us!” she shouted. Flames shot over their heads to emphasize her words.
That was something Bucc had no idea how to do. He’d never tried to control an existing flame, let alone one belonging to another flamecaster. He didn’t have time to worry about if he could do it or not. He just had to act.
More fire sprayed above their heads and curved down to slam into the ground in front of them. Without slowing, Bucc reached out with his mind and tried to take hold of the flames. There was the usual wild energy that set fire apart as the hardest element to control, but beyond that there was something else, another will that fought with the flame for dominance. He remembered wayfarers speaking about being able to connect with each other when they worked the same patch of sky or sea. The wills needed to work in unity for greater strength, or one needed to overpower the rest to gain control.
Bucc grabbed at the energy and sharply pulled it to the side. The flames obeyed and splashed into the ground to his right. He felt a jolt that he could only describe as surprise ripple through the fire. The Ashenna flamecaster hadn’t expected to encounter another person with the same affinity. That had been the only reason that Bucc had been able to control it so easily.
“Keep running! I’ll see you on the ship. Just keep the firecaster away from the sails.”
A series of vines shot to either side of Milla and wrapped around posts. She used them to fire herself backwards towards their pursuers, swivelling in the air so that she flew at them head first like an arrow. The vines spiralled around her, whipping at anything that came close. The Ashenna dived away from her as the flamecaster sent a stream of fire directly at her. At the last moment another vine lunged up towards the rooftops and latched onto a chimney. Milla swung up and slammed into the roof.
Bucc reached the dock and waited beside the ship, his powers hovering at the edge of use in preparation of any sudden attacks. He watched Milla stagger back to her feet and noticed that several of her vines held swords and pistols stolen from the pirates below. She winced then started a shambling run across the rooftops. Gunshots ricocheted all around her.
“Any aircasters, get ready to slow her fall!” Bucc shouted back to the rest of the crew.
Milla was close to the docks. A bullet hit her in the shoulder, rocking her entire body, but she had too much momentum to stop. Flames roared up behind her as she stumbled towards the final ledge.
Bucc gritted his teeth and forced his will into the fire again. This time it felt like the flames were a solid wall of resistance, the opposing will that controlled them held on with an iron grasp. He couldn’t overpower it. No matter how hard he tried, the fire wouldn’t budge from its intended path.
Milla reached the edge and tumbled off without slowing just as the flames washed over her. Wind roared, billowing through the scraps of her dress. Even with the handful of pirates channeling air to slow her fall, she still hit the ground hard.
Bucc ran to her, throwing up a wall of fire between her and the remaining Ashenna. He clumsily picked her up, the weapon-laden vines dragging across the dirt behind them. He could already feel a strain on his concentration as the Ashenna flamecaster grappled to open a path through Bucc’s barrier. The sensation hit him like icy water, as did the realisation that once again he couldn’t resist another’s pressure on his mind. The fire spluttered then parted.
His feet pounded along the wood of the dock. The ship began to pull away. Bucc threw all of his strength into a mighty jump and leapt aboard. He and Milla sprawled across the deck in a tangle of vines. The ship lurched as more wind rippled across the sail and pushed them forward.
“By His Noodles, she really did it,” Bucc’s mum exclaimed as she rushed over to them. Bucc crawled to the side to allow her a closer look at Milla. “She fought off an entire garrison by herself, stole enough weapons for all of us, and made it back alive. This girl really is something special.”
Blood soaked one side of Milla’s dress while her back had visible burns through charred hair and fabric. Her skin was very pale.
“You can help her, right?”
“None of us here are surgeons. Your Pa knows the basics, but even with good winds we won’t reach him for a few days. We don’t even have any salves or the like. Crooks has the steadiest hands. I’ll get him to fish the bullet from her shoulder. After that, all we can do is make her comfortable. Are you okay?”
“Me? Yeah. I’m fine. Just please help Milla.”
His mum nodded and offered him a small smile. “We will. Go on, get some rest. The rest of the crew will man the ship and watch over her.”
Bucc shuffled over to a quiet section of the ship and sat in silence. At first he tried to watch as Crooks, a pirate with a large moustache, worked a makeshift set of tweezers into Milla’s shoulder to remove the lead round, but the sight of blood caused him to feel faint. He quickly turned away.
The back of the ship was blocked off with a large sheet as Bucc’s mum and Red Karla, the only other female pirate in the small group, tended to Milla’s injuries. The men were all wayfarers and so occupied their time urging the ship along, leaving Bucc without anything productive to do.
The uselessness of his presence gave him time to think. This had been his first time facing off against another flamecaster, and it had shown him just how weak and inexperienced he really was. If he wanted to avoid hurting anyone while still protecting people, then he would need to get stronger.
He was contemplating this when Shayla bounded up onto his shoulder and pawed at his back. Neri wriggled slightly out from his shirt and prodded the paw with its head. If the blank had possessed eyes then it would have been staring at the feline familiar cautiously.
“It seems you’ve made a few friends while you were away.”
His mum sat down beside him with a weary sigh. Despite the tiredness in her eyes, she looked to be in good spirits.
“Yeah. I guess I did. This is Neri. She’s my familiar.”
“Familiar?” she asked as she reached out and brushed her hand against Neri’s body. “Interesting. Both you and that girl are full of surprises.”
“Is she going to be alright?”
“Only time will tell. Even without the injuries she got today, her body is a mess. I’ve never seen anything like it. She’s skin and bones, only her skin is as torn up by scars as her dress is. And that’s without mentioning the places where it has fused with those plants. But, she’s shown herself to be a fighter. I imagine it will take more than this to keep her down.”
“I think you’re right about that. I hope you are anyway.”
Bucc settled back and watched as Neri and Shayla played together around the mast. Several of the other familiars had joined in, tentatively inspecting Neri before joining in with the games. A ripple of joy sparked in the part of his mind that was connected to his familiar. He smiled as the second hand enjoyment flooded through him.
“Aren’t they all so perfect?” Bucc’s mum said aloud as she watched the familiars play. “Even in the darkest of times they remind us that there is good in the world. They represent our very hearts and souls. I can’t imagine the pain of losing Shayla. Make sure you take good care of your little Neri.”
“I will,” Bucc said, and he meant it with all of his heart.