Adward frowned. “Even if we can fight our way to the riftway, it’s going to take too long. There are too many Ashenna ships. We need a shortcut.”
“How are we supposed to find a shortcut through a battle?” Jesse asked.
“Leave it to me,” her brother answered with a smile. He ran over to Captain Ackeridge and began to explain his idea to her. She nodded and Adward returned a few seconds later.
“Help me lower the boat then hold tight. We’re about to go for a ride.”
They clambered into the boat and lowered it until they hung just above the rolling waves below them. Captain Ackeridge appeared at the railing and leaned down.
“Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?” Bucc asked.
The waves rose up to meet the boat and swept it forward. The ropes fell away as the boat lifted up above the ship’s railing and was pulled in an arc over the deck atop a bridge of flowing water. Every wayfarer concentrated on controlling the torrent of water, directing it out across the Ashenna fleet and upwards towards the floating riftway that The Phoenix had fallen from a short time ago.
“Neri, you’re up!” Bucc shouted as they sped towards the riftway. The familiar leapt into action as the three pirates huddled closely together. She expanded quickly, her slimy body absorbing the three until she formed a large bubble that was only slightly smaller than the boat.
They hit the riftway and Neri bounced out of the boat, leaving it to be lost to the raging current of lights. Bucc floated within Neri and couldn’t feel any of the usual strain brought on by the riftway. Jesse clung to one of his hands while Adward gripped his other. Usually the familiar felt cold but now she was uncomfortably warm.
Neri zigzagged through the riftway erratically, twisting and turning at high speeds without ever slowing. Every second that passed seemed to increase the tempo of the rhythmic pulsing that passed through her body. Bucc could feel her excitement mixed with apprehension, both underpinned by the constant sting of burning.
“Not long now, buddy,” Bucc whispered. “We just have to hold on a little longer, okay?”
There was a sound like scraping glass then the rainbow of colours inverted and saturated in an instant so that only blue and white remained. Neri shuddered then burst, reforming as her usual shape and clinging to Bucc’s shirt.
All of them screamed. They were falling through the sky high above the white sands of the Nexus. As the wind tore at his eyes, Bucc tried to get his bearings and saw the glint of gold in the distance. They were so close. All they needed to do now was not die.
“Neri! You can’t rest yet! I need you to spread yourself out like a sheet. You can do that, right?”
The familiar made a weary moaning noise then shuffled up Bucc’s back and wrapped a slimey tendril around his neck. She stretched out across Jesse and Adward, attaching herself to their necks too before reaching down to do the same around their feet. The wind caught beneath her and Neri opened out like a parachute, slowing their fall.
“So this is the legendary Shores of the Nexus,” Adward said breathlessly as they stared out at the endless white expanse. “I’ve got to admit, I expected more. How many people have dedicated their lives to finding this empty place?”
“I think there’s more here than meets the eye,” Bucc told him weakly. While Adward’s eyes wandered over everything in sight, Bucc’s were focussed entirely on the metal dome before them.
“Look!” pointed Jesse. “They really are here!”
Bucc could see them too. Three dots beside the shining gold dome could only be Milla and her capturers. Thousands of blanks circled the dome and even from that distance Bucc could hear their high-pitched chittering.
“They must be able to see us, right?” Adward pointed out. “We aren’t exactly being discreet gliding down like this. So why haven’t they just burned us up while we can’t avoid attacks?”
“You’re right. We’re open targets up here,” Jesse added. “Hey Neri, can you speed this up?”
Bucc felt a ripple of his familiar’s thoughts. He didn’t have time to ask her to stop. The familiar snapped back into a small ball, letting the three pirates free fall towards the sand. Neri accelerated and sped past them.
Bucc closed his eyes and braced for a bone-breaking impact. An impact came, but it was soft and caused him to bounce slightly. It took him a moment before he dared to open his eyes. He, Jesse, and Adward were all laid safely atop of Neri. The familiar groaned loudly then reformed once more into her usual shape. He hugged her tightly and sent a mental message across telling her not to scare him like that again. Neri simply nuzzled his cheek innocently.
The three stood up and faced the golden dome. They could see that Pyrefist was already nearing the summit. They set off at a sprint to catch up, their feet churning up the pale sand with each step. The light that reflected from the dome seemed to grow brighter every second until it was almost blinding.
Then they were at the foot of the golden hill. Pyrefist had crested the dome, disappearing from their sight. Bucc placed a foot on the shining metal and could feel it vibrate through his boot. Neri shook at the same frequency. The air hummed. Jesse and Adward stood frozen at the base, entranced by the scale and majesty of the mound of gold.
“So much gold…” Jesse muttered in amazement. “The treasures of every ship in the south seas couldn’t match this.”
Adward stared at it with tears in his eyes. “Captain Dread’s treasure. It has to be. He didn’t hide it, he brought all of the gold here to build this.”
“Come on!” Bucc encouraged. “We’re so close.”
They started up the rise, pushing themselves step by step up the steep incline. Bucc needed his friends’ help half way up, so together the three stumbled up the last stretch to crest the dome. There was no time to catch their breath. Pyrefist stood beside the central dial waiting for them.
The pirate lord watched them, no trace of emotion on his hardened face. His daughter stood at his side with a blade to Milla’s throat.
“You exceed my expectations, boy. I knew you’d come, but this was fast. If not for your morals, I think you could be a great force for change.”
“Shut up! I’m here to stop you, not impress you.”
“To do one would achieve the other,” Pyrefist answered simply. “But that doesn’t matter now. Something like this requires witnesses. That’s where you come in. Or, your friends at least. You might not have the time to return home. Such a waste. I could save you, if you at least try to see reason.”
“I don’t need another of your lessons about false compassion. You hurt people and do everything in your power to control them. Your actions speak louder than my words.”
“Good. They always should. Such violence was a heavy burden to bear, but now I’ve found a better path. All thanks to you and your friend here. Tell me, do you know where we are?”
“The Shores of the Nexus.”
“Correct. This is the centrepoint of our world, a doorway between us and elsewhere. The blanks are connected to here, while every other animal disappeared fifty years ago. I did my research and found that the leviathan threat was becoming too big to deal with so one crew took it upon themselves to seal the creatures away at their point of origin. I’m sure you know of the legends surrounding Lord Captain Dread?”
Bucc remembered the shapes that swam beneath the golden seal. Was that really where all of the animals had gone?
“You saw them, didn’t you? The shadows that swim through the darkness below our feet. This seal has all the answers to our current problems. Our so called hero failed. He didn’t only seal away the leviathans but every animal. All I have to do is open the seal and life will return to the world and the balance of nature will be restored. Humanity will still need to be better managed, but none should feel the pain of starvation.”
Bucc was trying his best to keep up with what the man was saying. So far it all seemed too sensible, too reasonable. He didn’t like it when somebody he had happily categorised as an enemy sounded… right.
Adward was the one who answered. “But wouldn’t that unleash the leviathans back into the world too? That would be very bad.”
“Nature has no concept of good and bad. It has balance. If any one animal is too good at hunting and repopulating then they run out of food and die off until a sustainable amount remain. Most animals had natural predators to keep their numbers in check. That is why we need the leviathans. Humanity needs a challenge greater than ourselves for us to unite against. Otherwise we turn on one another as we have these past fifty years. Humans revel in the thrill of the hunt, but if nothing can kill us, our very souls grow bored. Boredom leads to destructive tendencies. By locking them away, all we did was break nature’s cycle.”
“Enough talking!” Jesse cut in. “I don’t care about any of that. Just give us Milla back!”
Pyrefist stepped closer to Milla and raised her head to look him in the eyes. Even with the blade to her throat, she struggled against his grip.
“You will have to wait a moment longer for her return,” he told them flatly. “She has a purpose to fulfil first.
“What purpose!” Bucc shouted. “You need a key. Milla knows nothing about it!”
“I am aware of both these facts. Lord Captain Dread didn’t rely on a key of iron though. That could be lost or stolen. That paranoid fool somehow made a lock that would only respond to his blood. Most of his kin were members of his crew and disappeared with him. Dread had a handful of illegitimate children scattered across the seas though. One such line leads straight to your friend here.”
Bucc didn’t like where this was going. “Get away from her!”
Pyrefist ignored him. He shoved Milla against the dial and pushed her down by her hair until her chest lay against the raised golden pillar. Milla tried to lash out with her vines but Pyrefist grabbed them and wrapped them in place around his fist. Without a word he took the sword from his daughter’s hand.
Bucc ran forwards, pulling all of the fire within him together. Light blazed and a scorching wall of flame reared up in front of him. Without slowing, Bucc tried to open up a gap or lower the temperature of a small patch, but Pyrefist’s will was as unmoving as iron. He skidded to a stop inches away from the inferno and staggered back.
Bucc could hear Milla struggling. She shouted and kicked at her capturer. He could see their heat-warped figures through the tongues of flame. Pyrefist held her firmly in one hand and positioned the swordpoint over her back with the other. Bucc’s mind was blank with panic. He started to push forward again through the heat. He had to do something.
There was a sudden movement through the flames. The sword stabbed down. A scream echoed across the empty landscape of the Nexus. Milla tensed then sagged across the dial, pinned in place by the blade.