Big Tim lumbered over to a nearby cannon. The barrel chested pirate beckoned Bucc over to him. “Fancy helping me out with the cannon? Could do with someone passing me up the cannonballs. My back isn’t doing so great.”
“I’m still a pacifist, you know.”
“Yeah. That’s fine. I’m not asking you to hurt anybody. I’m the one doing the shooting. In fact, you’re just going to be helping an aging pirate with his bad back. You’ll be moving a lead ball from one spot to another. Nothin’ violent in that, is there?”
“I don’t think that’s how pacifism works…”
“Sure it is. Here, you just hand me up the cannonballs and I’ll take the shots. I get to destroy stuff and you get good karma for helping the disadvantaged. Everyone’s a winner.”
Bucc gave up trying to argue. He stepped up to the pile of iron balls beside the cannon. It took all of his strength to lift the heavy weight. He held it out to Big Tim who took it from him with a single meaty hand. The giant pirate loaded it into the cannon without seeming to notice the weight at all.
A dozen wayfarers spurred the ships out of hiding around the rock. They charged straight for the five Ashenna ships that sailed close together in a protective huddle. The supply ships spotted them and began to move into a defensive position. The second that the cannons were within range, Captain Ackeridge ordered them to open fire.
The Lady Hope shook as every cannon fired. There was no sense of unified aiming, every pirate firing according to their own wishes. Getting multiple ships to work together was even harder. As such, cannonballs shot off in a wide spread across all five ships instead of focusing one down at a time.
“Prepare to dive!” Captain Ackeridge shouted. “Fire a second volley then brace yourselves!”
Bucc passed over a second cannonball and another wave of iron slammed into the supply convoy. The moment that the rattling of cannonfire ended the ship lurched downwards into the water with sickening suddenness. The telltale swirl of colours and thrum of energy embraced them as they passed into the riftway below them.
No sooner had the ship fully entered the riftway then it sharply pulled back out again. In that brief second, Bucc felt Neri go wild. The familiar pulled frantically at him, urging him to leave the ship behind and let the riftway carry him in its currents. Before Bucc could even react, the ship was already cresting the water again.
As soon as The Lady Hope was back on the surface it began a sharp turn to bring the cannons around to the Ashenna convoy. Bucc looked and saw that the other two ships had emerged further out than The Lady Hope. One was still in cannon range but the other would need to close the gap considerably.
He handed over the next cannonball and a thunderous volley slammed into the other side of the Ashenna ships before they could react. The convoy swung around and targeted their own cannons at The Lady Hope, it being the closest ship now.
There was a monsterous crashing sound that shook reality. Bucc found himself on the floor in a daze. Wood splinters littered the deck. He stood up and saw the damage that the returning fire had caused them. The Lady Hope wouldn’t be able to take another attack like that. A spike of fear drove itself deep into Bucc’s chest.
“Dive down! We need to split their fire!” Captain Ackeridge shouted.
“Captain, the Hope can’t take the riftways in this condition!”
“She can’t take another round of cannon fire either. Now do it!”
The Lady Hope dropped back down into the water as a series of cannonballs splashed into the ocean where they had been a moment before. As they sank, another shape loomed beneath them. Captain Ackeridge shouted orders and the Lady Hope veered to the side just in time to avoid crashing into the other vessel. Wood grated together before both ships settled into a line then immediately arced upwards back to the surface.
“We took on a lot of water, Captain,” one of the crew shouted. “The Hope’s in a bad way!”
Bucc wasn’t paying attention to any of that. His eyes locked on the second ship that had emerged right beside them. It was slightly smaller than The Lady Hope and had black sails. Nothing else set it apart as anything unusual. The masked figure on the bridge was what really drew him in.
From the stories that Captain Steeledge and Bucc’s father had told him, Bucc had built up a mental image of what he expected this mysterious masked pirate to look like. It turned out to be nothing like that. The figure was short, and the bulky coat that covered everything but the masked head was brown, simple, and tatty. Even the mask was only poorly carved wood. The person looked more like a crazed urchin than a pirate captain.
In perfect unity, both ships opened fire on the Ashenna. A rumble of cannonfire sounded from the opposite side as the other two southern ships pressed the attack. The Ashenna had taken heavy damage by this point. Slowly they circled around, laying down a spray of cannonfire in every direction, until they were retreating back towards Ashenna waters.
Bucc looked back at the mysterious ship and froze as he realised the masked figure was staring straight at him. His eyes opened wide. Beside the mask wearing captain was Adward. Bucc ran to the railing and waved his arms, shouting his friend’s name. The captain snapped orders and the ship turned back towards the riftway but Bucc wasn’t about to lose his friend again. His instincts took over.
“Neri! Let’s do this!”
The familiar spread out until it coated Bucc’s entire body like a thin film of translucent grey. This took Bucc by surprise but he didn’t think about it. Neri could feel his thoughts, and Bucc trusted her to do what was best to help him, He dived straight into the water, even as he heard the shouts of his parents from above, then swam towards the ship as it turned. It descended beneath the waves and Bucc took a lungful of air and followed.
He felt water and energy move around. He loosened his muscles and let Neri pull at his limbs. The familiar trembled and pulsed, seeming to become one with the raging torrents of power that formed the riftway. Bucc shot through it like a bullet, his sight set firmly on the deck of the ship ahead. Then, completely without grace, he entered the field of air around the ship and crashed down onto the deck heavily.
Neri released him and took her place between his shoulder blades. Bucc was face down on the deck, his breath coming in heavy rasps. He looked up to see the masked captain and Adward standing over him. His muscles ached but the pain was forgotten in an instant. He scrambled to his feet and hugged his friend tightly.
“Bucc? How did you…”
“It’s a long story. Forget about it for now. I’ve missed you so much!”
“We thought you were dead. The fire destroyed everything. You weren’t on any of the lifeboats. I was only just coming to terms with that and now you appear out of nowhere and board our ship in the middle of a riftway.” Tears streamed down his usually impassive face.
“I’m so sorry I put you through that. But I’m here now and I’m not going anywhere. Is Jesse here too?”
Without warning, the masked captain punched Bucc in the face. He staggered back and fell over.
“Hey, calm down. I’m not here to fight!” Bucc tried to explain. A fist to the gut was the only response he received.
The captain launched a flurry of blows at Bucc. Adward stood to the side, a worried look on his face. Bucc tried to defend himself but his movements were slow and clumsy. Now that he was this close he could see that the captain had several pistols strapped all across the coat. There must have been enough firepower to take out a small crew single handedly.
“I’m not going to fight you,” Bucc said between heavy breaths. He was beginning to notice a pattern in the captain’s movements. They favoured their left hand, barely ever throwing a punch with the right. Bucc tried to keep himself distanced from the captain’s left side.
The captain surprised him by catching him with a right hook. What surprised him more though was the hiss of pain that came from beneath the mask. The voice was that of a woman. Bucc’s mind quickly put everything together.
Previous – Chapter 21. The Lady Hope.
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