The biting chill of the ice sent a spark of consciousness through the fried circuits of Bucc’s brain. He coughed then threw up acidic bile that burned his throat and mouth. Every part of him felt dried out and sore. Neri flopped from his chest and sagged across his knees. Bucc carefully scooped her up and cradled her in his arms as she wheezed loudly.
Milla approached the frozen woman. Bucc made a move to stop her but doubled over in pain at the smallest motion. Nobody else dared to stand in her way. She glared at the siblings just to be sure and both took a quick step back. She tried to stand face to face with the woman but Milla was younger and the Ashenna was naturally tall. Milla had to look up to stare into her closed eyes.
A moment passed as Milla just stood there. Then she pulled back her arm and slapped the woman as hard as she could. The sharp sound rang out across the ship, piercing the dull roar of the fires that burned across the battlefield. Red’s eyes shot open. They darted around frantically then settled on Milla with a burning hatred.
“You think you’ve won?”
“Well, we aren’t the ones encased in a block of ice after being outplayed by a group of nobodies,” Jesse answered snidely.
“You beat me. I can’t deny that. But I’m just another nobody too. Your fleet is scattered and the rest of the world is still in the hands of my father. Even if you want to consider winning me as a victory, it all counts for nothing. My fleet will regroup and Father will find another weapon to replace me. At most you’ve bought yourself some time.”
“We’ve bought ourselves hope,” Bucc said weakly. “We proved that we can win if we try. And we did it my way. We’ve done it once so we can do it again.”
The woman snorted through chattering teeth. Her skin was turning a sickly blue colour from the cold. “You won’t be doing anything. I don’t know how you did it, but you absorbed my flames. That’s all still inside you. All that heat will dry you out and burn you up. You’ve sentenced yourself to death in order to trap me, a flamecaster, inside of something I can easily melt.”
“I don’t think you’ll be getting out any time soon,” he told her. “To you, victory is the only thing that matters, right? That means you’d have used up all the strength you had to avoid losing to a bunch of nobody kids. I expect any strength you have left is going straight to keeping your body warm right now.”
“That doesn’t matter. You’re still surrounded by my soldiers and you have nothing to contain me in once this ice melts. The more you think about it, the less it looks like you’ve won anything. That is, unless you’re planning to kill me?”
“I’m not,” Bucc answered simply. “I’m in no condition to stop anyone else from giving it a go though.”
At that moment, Captain Ackeridge and Captain Steeledge limped over to the group. Ackeridge was supporting Captain Steeledge from one side while her familiar, still in its larger form, supported him from the other. Steeledge’s own familiar, a large bird with metallic feathers, sat on his shoulder and nestled its head into his cheek affectionately. One of his arms was heavily bandaged, the other gripped a sword tightly. Behind them were a small cluster of other pirates, including Bucc’s parents.
“Come to gloat now that a group of children have done what you couldn’t?” The woman said sneeringly.
“No. I’ve come to execute you.”
A spike of pressure impacted everyone at the same time. Bucc looked up to see a spot of sky shimmer then warp in a rainbow of colours. The colours crackled, condensed, then split, parting to reveal a hole in the world that led straight into the riftway. Bubbles began to bleed out, slushing down and weaving through the air until they reached the deck beside the block of ice.
It took Bucc a moment to realise they were blanks. Hundreds of them span in a tight column, a low, sad moan being emitted by each until the sound was overwhelming. They lingered there for a few brief seconds then scattered, revealing a sight that nobody could have expected.
“Pyrefist!” Milla shouted. She was a blur of movement as she charged at the man. Everyone else was too stunned to move.
The lord captain stood there, looming over the other pirates without any effort on his part. His impassive, angular face could very well have been carved from stone. He didn’t react to Milla, allowing her vines to lash against him without the slightest hint of flinching.
Pyfist made a sharp whistle and the blanks regrouped and converged on Milla. She cried out in surprise as they wrapped around her and locked her limbs in place. Jesse swung two pistols up to aim at him but the metal heated up to a bright red colour in an instant. She dropped them with a hiss of pain.
Without taking his eyes off of Milla, Pyrefist reached out his hand and rested it on the block of ice that surrounded his daughter. It shattered at his touch and she fell to the floor.
“Stand,” he ordered her without looking around. Shakily, she obeyed.
He took a step forward and grabbed a large handful of Milla’s hair. “Come. We have work to do.”
Bucc managed to pull himself to his feet and stumbled towards the Ashenna leader. “Leave her alone!”
“You’re still alive,” Pyrefist stated dismissively. “Not for long by the looks of it. I have no interest in you. Everything I need is right here.” He tugged on Milla’s hair to emphasize his point.
“What do you want with Milla? I won’t let you take her!”
“You are inconsequential. As for the girl, she is the key to everything. You have no idea what you’ve had under your nose. I must commend you, girl, for escaping me twice. Having the blanks push that barrel off my ship in the riftway was one thing, but having them whisk you away before my eyes was quite another. I took the time to study the blanks and run experiments on them. I worked out their connection to the riftway, and found my own way to command them. It turns out that my goal and theirs are actually one in the same. They led me straight to you, and now they will take us to our destiny.”
He clicked his fingers and the blanks started to rapidly circle the two Ashenna and Milla. Bucc ran for them but in the second it took to close the distance between them, they were gone.
Bucc fell to his knees. Raw emotions tore through him then drained away as fatigue and pain overcame everything. He collapsed to the deck, breathing heavily. His parents rushed to his side, closely followed by Jesse and Adward.
“Everything we did was for nothing,” he panted miserably. “Pyrefist’s daughter escaped and they took Milla.”
“But why Milla?” Adward asked. “If Pyrefist was here then I’d imagine he has full control of the Northern Seas. He could have wiped the last of the resistance out just now but all he cared about was taking a young girl. Why? What could the blanks want that line up with his goals?”
Bucc clenched his fist. Neri nestled into the crook of his neck and purred loudly. He stroked his familiar and took a calming breath then rolled over. He stared into the infinite blue above as his mind went into overdrive.
“The blanks took us to the Shores of the Nexus. They keep wanting to take us back. Or take Milla back, and I’m always at her side. They wanted us to open that golden seal that was locked. Pyrefist must want to open the seal too.”
“But you said it needed a key. Do you think Milla knows where the key is?”
“She didn’t seem to. It has to be related though. We know where they’re going.”
Bucc’s mum placed a hand on his forehead then pulled it away quickly. “You’re burning up. We have to get you some help.”
“There isn’t time. I have to follow them.”
“Follow them?” she exclaimed. “Bucc, you’re dying. We need to save you first. Pyrefist is too strong. We can’t fight him but we can help you.”
Bucc shook his head. “You can’t. It isn’t an illness you can medicate, or an injury you can bandage. There’s nothing you can do. But there is something I can do. I can follow my friend and do everything in my power to protect her and bring her back. Milla has nobody. If I don’t go, nobody will. She deserves somebody to have her back. I don’t want her to fight alone any longer. I’m sorry.”
“I won’t lose you again. I forbid you from going.”
Bucc smiled at her. Mischief glinted in his eyes. “You can try to stop me from going, but I’ll still go anyway. I’m a pirate after all. Breaking the rules is kind of what we do.”
Bucc’s father placed a hand on her shoulder and softly shook his head. “We taught him to do what’s right. It was always us that misunderstood what that exactly meant. Fighting with all of your heart for something you believe in, that is the true way of pirates.”
His wife didn’t look convinced but she sighed and stepped back. Adward and Jesse helped Bucc to his feet. He could barely keep his balance without his friends holding him up.
Captains Steeledge and Ackeridge approached them, both looking pale and worn down. Steeledge looked even closer to passing out than Bucc himself did. He offered Bucc a small, respectful nod of the head.
“How do you plan to follow them? I’ve never seen anyone just disappear like that.”
“Neri knows the way,” he answered simply. His familiar was still an angry red colour but she bounced and chirped her agreement.
“You know that you don’t stand a chance of winning?”
Bucc shrugged. “That’s for the Noodly One to decide. Milla needs me, that’s all that matters. I don’t abandon my friends.”
“Then go with all the luck and best wishes that the South Seas can offer. Though judging by the state we’re in, that probably doesn’t mean much.”
“Thank you, Lord Captain.”
Bucc motioned with his head towards Neri and his familiar jumped up and started to cover Bucc’s entire body. Neri had to stop though when Adward and Jesse placed a hand on Bucc’s shoulders.
“Don’t think you’re leaving without us,” Jesse told him sternly. “You did say we’d never leave each others’ side again. The three of us going off to face an overpowered tyrant for the fate of the free world is exactly the kind of thing that Kaz had in mind for us. And anyway, Milla is a member of my crew now. That means she’s my responsibility. We’re her family, so she’ll always have someone to rely on.”
Tears formed in Bucc’s eyes. He tried to blink them away. This wasn’t the time for that kind of thing. He needed to focus.
“You think you can manage the three of us?” he asked his familiar. Neri swayed uncertainly then whistled a determined little trill. “I guess it’s settled then. This is officially a rescue mission. Let’s go get Milla back!”
“Okay, we need a boat and a clear path to a riftway. Lord Captain, do you think you can clear the way for us?”
Steeledge eyed the Ashenna fleet that still dominated the ocean around them. “I reckon I can do that. Let’s give ‘em hell. Everyone to your stations! The battle isn’t over yet!”
The pirates ran across the deck to man any undamaged cannons and do what they could to salvage the sails. Slowly, the ship gained momentum and began to ram its way through the debris and milling vessels. This reignited the battle and an erratic beat of cannonfire began to sound.
“Are you guys sure you want to come?” Bucc asked Adward and Jesse as they found an undamaged rowboat. “It’s not like I have a plan for how to make this work out.”
“I know. That’s why we’ve got to go with you and make sure you don’t get yourself killed. We’re a team. Where you go, we go. Together we can overcome anything.”
Bucc tried to laugh but a sudden pain flared in his chest and caused him to double over. He was running low on time. Jesse and Adward rushed to his side but he waved them away and motioned at the rowboat.
“We have to hurry. I don’t know how much longer I can keep going.”