“This plan is crazy, even by your usual standards,” Bucc pointed out nervously. “Some might go so far as to say down right suicidal.”
“Probably,” Jesse replied. “We’re the only ones who can even attempt it though. If there’s a single chance that we can win, we have to take it. Everyone’s freedom is resting on this working out.”
“No pressure then.”
The Phoenix had fallen back from the battle and was now making its way towards the riftway. A quietness had settled over the crew as exhaustion and the bitter pang of defeat began to set in. Jesse wasn’t letting them wallow though, instead keeping everybody busy and active.
Jesse, Bucc, and Milla had joined Adward at the helm. The ship looked in a rough state but thankfully none of the damage was affecting her ability to sail. Despite this, Adward had a deep frown on his face.
“Do you think you can do it?” his sister asked.
“What you’re asking would require absolute perfection. “I’m good, but this would be a whole other level. Pirates who have studied the riftways for decades wouldn’t even dare risk it. But, if this is an all or nothing chance like you say, then I think I can pull it off.”
“I knew you could. That Ashenna captain isn’t going to know what hit her.”
Bucc still wasn’t convinced. “Let me get this straight. You want to launch The Phoenix out of a riftway and drop it on top of the Ashenna flagship?”
“In essence, yes. We cut off their head and the rest of the body loses its sense of unity. If we can take out this woman then that’ll be a massive blow to Pyrefist.”
“I like it,” Milla said. “It will take something like a ship to the face to beat that demon.”
“How can she be so powerful?” Bucc asked. “I know she is Pyrefist’s daughter, but her control of fire is unbelievable.”
Milla shrugged. “I don’t know much about her. Nobody does. Pyrefist calls her Daughter, and those under her command call her Captain. I’ve never heard her be addressed by any name except Red Demon. I just call her Red. All I know is that she’s dangerous. ”
“And you want to fight her one-on-one?”
“Yes. Though technically I want to fight her four on one. Of course, one is a pacifist and the other is a bookworm, so really it’s more like two and a half on one. But together we represent every single Affinity. That’s our advantage!”
Bucc leaned in closer to Adward. “Why are all women so insane?” he asked.
“I wish I knew. I could do with some of their confidence though.”
An idea came to Bucc and he tapped Neri gently until the familiar slid up onto his shoulder. With how all of the blanks had been acting near the riftways, he wasn’t sure that this was the right thing to do, but he felt it was worth a try.
“The blanks are in tune with the riftways somehow. If you look through them you can see the passages clearer. Some of them are invisible to the human eye. Neri here was the one who made it so I could fly through one without a ship. Maybe she can help you.”
Neri quivered and made a disgruntled squeak, but still followed Bucc’s motion to go to Adward. She floated across the gap then waited patiently for Adward to take hold of her. He cautiously took her and held her up to examine the sky. A look of wonder settled onto his face.
“This is amazing,” he said. “I could make the most detailed riftway charts in existence. This is groundbreaking. I wonder how things look inside a riftway…”
“Do you think it will help you?”
“Oh yes. I only wish I could take some notes.”
“It’s time,” Jesse interrupted. The dipped section of an air riftway loomed before them. “Is everyone ready for this?”
“Good. Take us in!”
Adward steered the ship straight at the riftway as Jesse and the older Tooth Fairies began to work their affinities. He slid his mask onto his face and Neri attached herself over it. As the ship lifted up and lurched into the swirling vortex of lights, Bucc once again found himself feeling useless.
“Are you ready for the coming battle?” Milla asked him quietly.
“I’m guessing that means you don’t expect this plan to work then?”
“I have full faith in your friend’s plan to disable their flagship. It won’t stop Pyrefist’s daughter. It might give us the element of surprise though.”
“Can we beat her? I mean, she beat Lord Captain Steeledge and Captain Ackeridge so easily.”
“Her power rivals that of her father. She is smart, fast, well trained, and has an overwhelming grasp of fire. In a few years she will probably be even stronger than Pyrefist.”
“So we can’t win.”
“I never said that. It just means that we can’t fight in a way that she would expect. Then, just maybe, if the stars align, we might just survive for more than a second.”
“You’re really good at a lot of things, Milla, but motivational speeches aren’t one of them.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. A faint sadness glimmered in her eyes. “I haven’t had people to talk to for a while.”
Bucc’s gaze passed over the rest of the crew. It was impossible to get a full feel of the mood through their masks but their body language was nervous, fearful. Everybody was scared but they were rushing off to fight all the same. Every one of them believed that they needed to fight to protect those they cared for.
“I might have a plan.”
“Might? You’re too unsure of yourself. Have the confidence in yourself that your friends place in you. They trust you. You believe in them, and they believe in you, so, in a round about way, you should already believe in yourself. Drop the doubt and embrace who you really are.”
The words struck straight at Bucc’s heart like a hammer. “Right! I know what to do. Everybody! Gather around. I have a plan.”
Bucc quickly explained his idea. The swirl of colours sped past them like a dazzling blizzard. Adward made a series of quick adjustments with the helm, then they were spat out back into reality.
Bucc felt his stomach drop. As The Phoenix emerged from the riftway their vision was filled with nothing but white. A powerful wind ripped at them and all of the blood seemed to be racing into his head. Then the white was gone, revealing the expansive world below them. Clustered together amidst the infinite blue of the ocean was the Ashenna fleet.
Adward shouted directions to the other windcallers as they fought to control The Phoenix’s freefall. The wind howled through the sails and threatened to rip them from the mast. For a dreadful moment it looked as though they wouldn’t be able to gain control, but after a few seconds the ship turned and angled downwards, its bow pointed straight at the Ashenna flagship.
“Brace for impact!” Jesse roared above the rushing wind.
Panic passed through Bucc. How exactly did you brace for impact for a ship hurtling through the sky on a collision course with another ship? Standard safety procedures seemed to have been thrown overboard by this point. He grabbed the mast and hugged it tightly. Neri bounced over to him then expanded to cover his body.
Nothing happened in what felt like an eternity. Then far too much happened in too short a time. A wall of sound bludgeoned Bucc even as the ship around him buckled and splintered. Wood fragments flew in every direction and water rose up in a mighty splash that dwarfed the two ships. The mast snapped and Bucc was thrown down the deck.
A wave of water swept him up and pulled him away from the exploding Phoenix. He looked around and saw Jesse standing on a plank of wood atop the wave, her hands splayed above the water. Other waterweavers were at her side, helping her to control the mighty wave. The wave dipped then the crew of The Phoenix were deposited onto the deck of a nearby ship.
Bucc blinked rapidly in disbelief. Part of him hadn’t expected to survive that stunt. Looking at the sea of debris that now surrounded them, it became clear just how much carnage the attack had caused. There was no sign at all of the Ashenna flagship aside from the fractured wood around them.
He pulled his eyes away from the devastation to look at his immediate surroundings. After a moment he realised that they were standing aboard Captain Steeledge’s vessel, The Cutting Edge. A knot began to form in his stomach as he slowly turned around.
Piercing red eyes met his own. The Ashenna captain stood facing the newcomers, her face as effective a cover for her emotions as Jesse’s mask. Both Captain Steeledge and Captain Ackeridge lay at her feet, breathing, but barely.
It was only now that Bucc realised how little attention he had paid her back when they had first met. Pyrefist dominated his environment so much that everything around him faded into the background. Without her father here to overshadow her, it was clear how intimidating she was in her own right.
Those scarlet eyes cut straight through Bucc, burning into his very soul. She was taller than Bucc and stood with an overpowering confidence, each of her tiniest movements perfectly precise in their execution. Where Pyrefist had a neutral expression on his rough face, she wore a permanent scowl that was made more severe by a large scar that split her face from the cheek across her mouth in a diagonal line.
“You southern pirates are always so full of surprises,” she said in a cold voice that seemed impossible of expressing anything close to surprise. “A decisive attack on the enemy command that can’t be defended against. Clever. I’m afraid it was a wasted effort though. Any ship I stand on is my flagship.”
“Then we’ll just have to knock you overboard then. Maybe the water will help you cool off,” retorted Jesse.
“I don’t take pleasure in killing. Stop this senseless violence and surrender. My father’s path is the only one that will ensure all pirates get to see another generation. You clearly can’t be trusted with resources. Wood and food can’t meet demand. Something has to give, and nobody but my father has the will to change. Why fight against your best interest?”
“Why?” Milla started angrily. Fire burned in her eyes strong enough to rival the deathly glare of the Ashenna woman. “What was in my best interest about watching my village burn and my family die? What was in anyone’s best interest fighting a war as you turn the very wood you claim to care about into worthless ash? You’re both hypocrites filled with nothing but the hot air your fires create.”
“Your case was different, but that isn’t of concern right now. The first steps are always the hardest. We all need to endure these birthing pains of a new world. So, will you give up this foolishness and lay down your weapons?”
Bucc willed his legs to move and took a step forward. “I think that we’ll have to pass on that,” he said with all the false confidence he could muster.
“If it isn’t the pacifist flamecaster. Don’t you see the irony in you choosing to prolong a war? I’ll admit, your little stunt the first time we met really stirred things up. Though I expect you were just in the right place at the right time. Your friend there is the special one. You are nothing.”
“Well, when you’re tied up and unable to fight and somebody asks you what happened, you’ll be able to answer “Nothing”. Won’t that be nice for your pride?” He offered her a sly grin.
“So be it. What’s a little more blood on my hands? Come. Let’s get this over with.”