As the Ashenna fleet approached, great torrents of water rose up around the Isles of Frindor. Miles of sea flowed upwards, encasing the isles until the entire area was enclosed in a dome of frothing water. Such a feat required the full strength of hundreds of skilled wayfarers. Bucc had never seen anything like it.
“That’s our signal,” Jesse said. “Sail for the riftway. We’ve got to take on their right flank. Adward, try to bring us out just outside of their sights.”
Milla looked unimpressed. “Does this Captain Steeledge think that a wall of water will protect them?”
“The Ashenna rely on flamecasters, don’t they?” Bucc asked, feeling slightly confused. “A wall of water seems like a good defence to me.”
“Against a few ships it would be. Against a fleet this size they’ve just made a weapon against themselves.”
“What do you mean?”
“The ocean is fairly large, correct?”
“That certainly could be said, yes.”
“Use your power on the water below us. Don’t question it, just do it.”
Bucc did as Milla asked. He approached the railing and fired a jet of flames into the sea a few feet from the ship. The water frothed then began to boil.
“You can set a small spot boiling of something unimaginably large. If every Ashenna flamecaster focuses on that dome they can bring the whole thing to boiling point. Then it’s a case of who has the most water users. If the Ashenna have more, which they probably do, they can overpower your companions’ wills and collapse the boiling dome down on their heads. That wouldn’t be pretty.”
“We’ve got a job to do,” Jesse told them bluntly. “We just have to hope that Captain Steeledge knows what he’s doing. For now we need to stay focused.”
“Agreed,” Milla said.
A nearby ship opened a small gap in the dome for The Phoenix to slip through. Other ships were doing the same across the back of the isles. The ships that left the barrer quickly disappeared into a nearby riftway.
Adward steered them towards the riftway while Jesse gathered the few Tooth Fairies that had been Awakened. The wayfarers numbered a lot less than Bucc was used to seeing for a ship of The Phoenix’s size but Jesse assured him that Adward had figured out how to maximise their limited powers.
Buc felt the familiar thrum of energy build up around him as The Phoenix dropped down into the riftway. They were only in the swirling vortex for a matter of seconds but in that brief time all of the blanks went wild. They tugged at Milla but couldn’t lift her from her spot. Then the ship was back above water and the blanks had become completely docile once more.
“What was that about?” Adward called down. “Were they trying to take you back to the Nexus?”
“Probably,” Bucc told him wearily. “Don’t get any ideas though. I don’t think they’ll take you on command. I get the feeling that Milla is the one they want, and that I just got caught up in their attempt. Is that right, Neri?”
His familiar chirped dismissively from his back.
“Fine, keep your secrets. I have a horrible feeling I’ll find out soon enough.”
“You seem to know a lot about Ashenna attacks,” Jesse said to Milla. “How long do you think it’ll take for their fleet to surround the dome and bring it down?”
“Not long. Only a few minutes.”
“In that case we need to move fast. The Ashenna hold every advantage so they’ll expect us to fight defensively. If we can pull off a swift counter attack then we might be able to surprise them. If the other captains have any sense, they’ll come to the same conclusion too.”
The sound of cannonfire was carried on the wind before any ships came into view. First the dome of water rose up from the horizon, then the black specks of ships started to appear. Adward adjusted The Phoenix’s path so she sailed straight for the centre of the fleet’s left flank. Some of the other southern ships could be seen making for the enemy too. The Ashenna had already surrounded the dome. Streaks of vivid flames shot out from each ship at the wall of water just as Milla had predicted.
The dome was already frothing angrily under the heat. It seemed to waver for a moment, then a hole opened up and the floating village emerged like a titan. Every flamecaster who was in range directed their fire at the ship while the Ashenna wayfarers did all they could to slow the collosal vessel.
There was a great roar of rushing water. The dome bloomed open like a flower, stretching out over the Ashenna ships before it collapsed down upon them in a massive tidal wave. The ships were thrown around and scattered even as Captain Steeledge’s forces rushed forward and opened fire.
“Fire the cannons!” Jesse ordered. The Phoenix shuddered and iron shots tore into the hull of the closest Ashenna ship.
Cannonfire sounded all around them now. Wisps of smoke rose up into the air, casting the battle in a grey haze as hundreds of cannons spewed destruction. The sounds drowned out everything until Bucc’s ears felt numb from the explosions. Flames sprayed over crushing waves and a fierce wind tore at sails and threatened to pull men overboard.
Bucc watched in horror at the devastation. Milla stood beside him. She observed the battle with a hunger in her eyes.
The floating village couldn’t take any more damage and the gunpowder finally exploded. The force knocked Bucc onto his back even as far away as The Phoenix was. Water and fire expanded in a sphere of carnage that sent shockwaves through the ocean and threw ships away as though they were toys. Flames mushroomed high above where the floating village had sat moments before.
“The daughter moves,” Milla told him in a cold voice. “If only we were closer.”
Bucc pulled himself up using the railing and saw that the Ashenna flagship, identifiable by its bright crimson sails, wove forward through the wreckage of the ships that had been too close to the explosion.
“Adward, throw me your seeing-glass!”
“It’s called a telescope and it’s my most valuable possession, so don’t lose it!”
Adward threw down the metal tube, which Bucc immediately almost dropped. He opened it up and aimed it at the flagship. Now he could clearly see a black haired woman standing at the front of the ship. Bucc recognised her as the girl that had accompanied Captain Pyrefist back on The Singing Seal.
She held her arms out before her towards the still blazing spire of flame that the explosion had created. The flames danced as though they were being pulled, then stretched out and began to move like a giant snake. The woman controlled it with sweeping movements of her arms, directing it to slam into southern ships in arcing movements that twisted and turned across the battle.
Bucc trembled at the display of power. With a lurching dread he realised that Pyrefist was likely even stronger than her. Any hope that he’d had burned away like the sails of the ships caught by the snaking inferno.
The flagship was still moving forward. Bucc saw that it was heading straight for Captain Steeledge’s personal ship. Several of the other allied ships must have noticed this too and moved to intercept the Ashenna craft, but they were swept aside like leaves on the wind.
“She’s going for the Lord Captain!” Bucc shouted. “Can we do anything to help?”
“We could if there wasn’t a dozen enemy ships between us and them,” Jesse answered through gritted teeth. “Adward, forget sensible sailing. Steer us straight towards them. Keep those cannons firing!”
The Tooth Fairies were already exhausted. The Phoenix’s cannons were a mismatched collection that had been scavenged due to their smaller sizes, but even with smaller cannonballs, the constant reloading was wearing them down. They still redoubled their efforts at Jesse’s word.
Jesse marched to the prow and drew two pistols which she fired at the deck of the Ashenna ship they were forcing their way past. Fire shot across from the ship towards Jesse and Bucc quickly grappled it to part before her. He felt the sharp jolt of surprise again and knew that he wouldn’t be able to do it a second time.
“I knew you’d have my back,” Jesse told him without looking around.
“It’s your front I’m worried about right now. I can’t outpower these guys so keep your head down!”
Jesse grabbed a different pistol and fired again. The flamecaster dropped with a shout. A volley of returning shots forced her to jump back and find cover. She ducked behind the mast and continued to pepper the enemy crew with shots.
The Phoenix scraped along the Ashenna ship as it forced its way past the outer defences of the fleet. Cannonballs crashed into them, rocking the ship violently. The Phoenix returned fire but they were severely outgunned.
“I can’t get us through!” Adward shouted. “They’re packed too tightly together. Those cannons are going to rip us apart if we try and push any further. We have to pull back.”
Jesse looked around quickly. The Ashenna ships were closing in on them, making it difficult for The Phoenix to turn around and escape.
“Abandon the portside cannons and focus all fire starboard!” she ordered. “Milla, can you get us on that ship?” she asked, indicating the ship that was blocking The Phoenix’s portside. Milla nodded, a small smile growing on her face. “Good. Do it then. Just me and you. Their flamecaster for that ship is down so we shouldn’t have to worry about that. Bucc, don’t let my ship get turned to ash while I’m gone.”
“This is too dangerous-” Bucc began to shout, but the two girls didn’t wait for him to finish.
Vines shot out from around Milla’s arms and stretched out to wrap around the mast of the Ashenna ship. Jesse grabbed her shoulders then the vines constricted, pulling them up towards the enemy vessel. Jesse let go and rolled onto the deck, a pistol in each hand. Milla landed a moment later, her vines already lashing out at the pirates around them.
Bucc didn’t want to just stand there while his friends put their lives on the line. He had to do something. It was time to put some of his theories to the test. He tried to focus through the cannonfire and shouts, clearing his mind until only self awareness remained. If he was right, his ability to channel fire came from being able to generate heat. Lots of heat in a small space created flame, but what if he spread out that heat?
He concentrated on the fire deep within him, feeling the energy seep through his limbs and tingle across his skin. It took a lot of effort but he resisted the call of the fire and released the heat into the air as a shimmering wave like he had seen on especially hot days. The heat spread out around him. He tried to control it, pushing it all in front of himself and away from the Tooth Fairies. Some of it was directed down towards the ocean until the heated air was thick with humidity.
The Ashenna ship’s cannons fell silent. Bucc opened his eyes. His skin was slick with sweat but he managed a smile through laboured breaths. He watched as the Northern pirates struggled to pick up the smooth and heavy cannonballs in sweaty hands, then find themselves unable to light the soggy fuses on the cannons.
Adward swung The Phoenix around in a tight arc even as several Ashenna wayfarers fought to keep the ship in place. Bucc took a deep breath then wrestled with the fire once again to spread the sickly heat as far as he could manage. Another allied ship moved to support them, drawing away some of the Ashenna firepower and allowing Adward to peel away from the engagement.
As The Phoenix began to pull away from the Ashenna fleet, Milla and Jesse made a running jump over the railing and swung across to the ship using Milla’s vines. The ship they had just left veered sharply towards another Ashenna craft, its helm empty.
Bucc scrambled up into the crowsnest to get a better look over the battle. He looked through Adward’s telescope to see what was happening with Captain Steeledge’s ship. The Ashenna flagship had stopped beside the captain’s vessel. Bucc focussed in further and saw the black haired woman standing alone on Captain Steeledge’s deck, surrounded by allied pirates. The Lady Hope was anchored at the other side, her crew moving onto the other ship to support Captain Steeledge’s crew.
Captain Ackeridge stood beside Captain Steeledge, dwarfed by his towering presence. They were both facing down the younger woman, though she didn’t seem phased in the slightest at the presence of two captains, especially one of Steeledge’s reputation. Bucc shouted this information down to the others.
The captains stood there unmoving for a while, likely speaking with one another. It looked like the conversation broke down though when Captain Steeledge drew his two swords and charged at the Ashenna woman.
What happened next was too quick for Bucc to see, even using the telescope. Captain Steeledge slashed then fell to the deck in a spreading pool of his own blood, clutching the stump of his arm where a hand had been a moment before. Bucc hadn’t seen the woman move but now she too held a sword in her hand. She didn’t even glance at the lord captain, instead keeping her eyes fixed on Captain Ackeridge.
Ackeridge’s familiar snarled then jumped down from her shoulder. It arched its back and hissed at the woman, all traces of its usually lazy demeanor were gone. Captain Ackeridge herself shuffled a few steps closer, leaning heavily on her walking stick. The younger woman approached her calmly, her sword lowered yet clearly ready to strike.
The captain’s familiar sprang into the air, suddenly growing in size until it hit the deck again as a colossal grey tiger. At the same moment, Captain Ackeridge rushed towards the woman without any sign of age. She pulled on her walking stick, revealing a slim blade, and lunged straight for the woman’s heart as her familiar pounced at her from the side.
The woman stepped away from the blade with a precise movement and grabbed Captain Ackeridge’s wrist. In one swift motion she pivoted and threw the older woman into the path of her own familiar. They crashed into each other and sprawled across the floor. Both were back on their feet with unbelievable speed but the Ashenna woman gave a dismissive flick of her arm and a wave of flame tore along the deck.
“Our ships are being scattered!” Adward shouted. “We can’t win this battle. If we stay here we’ll be sunk.”
Thick clouds of smoke rolled across the ocean, blocking the view of a large section of the battle. Adward was right though, it seemed that all of the southern ships were trying to break away and retreat.
“Jesse, what are your orders?” her brother pressed. “You have to make a decision fast.”
Jesse was silent for a moment. “Pull back.”
“So that’s it then? Pyrefist has won. The world is his,” Milla said quietly.
“Not yet,” Jesse announced. “Their fleet isn’t the threat. That woman is the one that single handedly stopped us. If we can take her out then the Alliance might be able to regroup and counterattack.”
“I’m guessing you have a plan then?”
“You bet I do. Hold on to something. Things are about to get really bumpy.”