Chapter 24. The Calm Before the Storm. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

The Phoenix left the Riftway a short distance from the Isles of Frindor. Bucc was impressed by how smoothly the ship navigated the riftway with so few wayfarers. They had always fascinated Adward, and his research had obviously paid off. His control of air seemed to be best suited for aiding in riftway travel. The same couldn’t be said for Jesse, who was able to control large amounts of water but lacked any real delicacy. 

The Tooth Fairies scurried around the ship with an energy not seen in older crews. What they lacked in strength and experience they more than made up for with an eagerness to prove themselves. Jesse had given them a purpose and proven to them that they could achieve great things. 

Several ships started towards them. Bucc recognised Captain Steeledge’s personal ship in the centre position. As they neared The Phoenix, Jesse emerged from the captain’s cabin with her mask on and confidence in her stride. 

“Let’s show them that we aren’t a joke,” she told the youngsters around her. “Mask up and keep your weapons at the ready.”

“Yes Captain!” they chorused. They each donned a mask and gripped crude spears as they lined up to either side of Jesse. Adward stood at her side and also pulled a mask over his face.

As had happened before, a platform was lowered down from the larger ship and Captain Steeledge and a group of his pirates stepped off to greet them. His eyebrow raised slightly at the sight of Bucc but the surprise was quickly smothered. His guards seemed on edge as they walked between the rows of masked spearmen towards Jesse. 

Captain Steeledge stopped a few steps away from her and offered a slight bow of his head. “I am Lord Captain Steeledge, nominated leader of the Southern Alliance fleet. Words of your exploits are well known here. Please tell me who I have the honour of addressing.”

“I am Captain Reeds of The Phoenix. We’ve come here to offer our help against the Ashenna.” Jesse spoke clearly and confidently but couldn’t change the fact that she still sounded like a teenage girl. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the Lord Captain nearly doubled her height.

“I must admit,” began Captain Steeledge, “I expected someone very different to be standing here before me. Are you truly the sea devil that appears from nowhere to strike down Ashenna ships?”

“Don’t be deceived by my age, Lord Captain. I’m everything you’ve heard me to be, and I’m here to win you a war. You’ll find my crew are more than up for the task.”

The Captain’s serious frown broke into a low chuckle. “We’ll see about that. All the same, I accept you into the fleet. Tonight we will celebrate in your honour. Tales of your daring have been the talk of the taverns for weeks.” He turned to Bucc. “And with you you’ve brought us back Buccaneer Jones. I’ve just heard a report stating you threw yourself overboard and condemned yourself to Davy Jones’ Locker. You’re looking awfully healthy for someone who is dead. Dead twice over no less.”

Bucc shrugged. “My Ma always said it’s in our name. Davy Jones must be family, right? So he lets us come and go freely. We’ve always been lucky.”

“Let’s hope your luck holds out for a while longer then. We’re going to need all the luck we can get in the coming days. But for now we drink!”

They docked and made their way to the same tavern Bucc had visited before. Messengers were sent out and gradually the already packed building began to be flooded with more pirates as every captain gathered. When it looked like the tavern couldn’t hold another pirate, Captain Steeledge motioned for Jesse to follow him as he stepped out onto a protruding stage on the second floor that looked out at the main area. 

“Pirates of the southern seas!” he announced loudly. “Today we are graced by the presence of a growing legend. Talk of a mysterious ship taking on Ashenna supply routes has been on everyone’s tongues, and now I can confirm that this ship is known as The Phoenix. Raise your flagons to celebrate Captain Reeds! She has agreed to lend us The Phoenix’s strength. So let’s drink to her and her crew’s health!”

The assembled pirates cheered and drank merrily in answer. Jesse stepped forward but didn’t speak or react. She didn’t need to. The mask did the speaking for her.

“That should keep them occupied for the evening. Let your crew mingle with the others. We don’t have that luxury I’m afraid. The Council is convening and you, Captain Reeds, have a seat upon it.”

The two captains entered the meeting room, leaving Bucc, Adward, and the Tooth Fairies alone. They looked at each other, not sure what they were supposed to do now. 

Adward bit his lip, then shrugged and cleared his throat. “Well? You heard the Lord Captain. Go and enjoy the celebrations. Just remember that you represent the Captain. Got it?”

“Got it!”

The Tooth Fairies filtered out into the crowd, instantly drawing the attention of many of the other pirates. Within seconds they were swarmed with people offering them drinks and asking questions.

Now it was only Adward and Bucc. “Let’s go for a walk,” Adward muttered as he removed his mask. “I never was one for celebrations.”

They left the tavern and wandered aimlessly along the beach. Twilight was descending upon the world, casting the seas and sky in a blood red that was punctuated by the lights of hundreds of ships. Neither boy spoke, but that was okay. They were used to the quiet of each other’s company.

“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it?” Adward said softly.

“Yeah. It feels it, even though it’s only been such a short time for me. I never imagined that a few days could feel so long.”

“Time is relative. Some believe we should measure it by how much happens in our individual lives. In that case, it seems like you crammed a lot into two weeks. And anyway, it really is a long time even by normal standards. Think about it. From the moment we were all gathered together by Kaz, me, you, and Jesse have never spent more than a day apart.” Adward laughed dryly. “I never imagined how much fear I could feel thinking we might never see each other again. I don’t want to lose another friend. I missed you.”

“I missed you too. I just wish we could relax instead of worrying about this stupid war. A war that I’ve only known existed for a few days and am already sick of. I never thought I’d want to go back to the old days of sailing without a purpose other than petty raids and friendly skirmishes, but right now they look idyllic.”

“Just be glad you missed the start of this war. I didn’t know how brutal this world could be until the Ashenna began their invasion. It all happened so fast. Captain Pyrefist must have been planning it for years. His forces swept down from the unclaimed seas. In the time it took the bulk of the south sea captains to band together, so much had already been taken. Every single ship in the Ashenna fleet had a flamecaster aboard and every effort we made to stop them was burned away in a wave of flame. We never stood a chance.”

“Yet here we are,” Bucc observed calmly. “Still determined to beat them back. Pirates aren’t very good at logic and reason, are we? Our freedom means so much to us that we’ll throw our lives away to keep it.”

“You know, I’m supposed to be the philosophical one, not you.”

“It’s all just got me thinking. What are the outcomes? We lose and the seas are united under the Ashenna flag and the pirate way of life fades away. But what happens if we do somehow win this war. Do we just carry on as before, even though we already have more pirates than our resources can provide for? Food will still be scarce yet we’ll keep throwing big celebrations, drinking excessively and blowing each others’ ships up?”

“You trying to say that Pyrefist is right?”

“Maybe. In his ideals at least. Not in his methods though. There has to be a better way.” Bucc was quiet for a moment then chuckled.

“What’s funny?”

“Back on the Seal, Pyrefist said basically the same thing to me. That my pacifism was a nice idea but would never work. That it was an impossible way to achieve peace. I think that violence is an impossible way to achieve peace. Pyrefist thinks this is a war of steel and fire, but really it’s a war of ideologies.”

“But how do you plan to win that war if you can’t fight back without destroying the ideology you’re fighting for?”

“I’ve been thinking about that too.”

“Careful. It’s dangerous to think too much without practice. You might break something.”

Bucc gave him a sly grin. “Just hear me out. I’m redefining the term. Pacifism is the opposition of violence, right? But violence is a little vague. We’re pirates, our very culture is violence. We enjoy bar brawls and skirmishes, settle our disputes with fistfights and pass the time by knocking each other around. But everyone likes it. It’s violence, but it never really hurts anyone. It’s just like getting hurt playing mastball, it’s all just part of the game.”

“Yeah, and you’ve always stood against all of that.”

“I have, and I still do. The difference is that I understand it. It’s consensual roughness. But it shows that we can use some kind of violence without hurting others. And that’s the line I draw. I will never willingly hurt another person, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t use any other methods to stop them from inflicting pain onto others.”

“So you want to fight without hurting your enemies. It’s crazy, but not impossible. Still, you’re just one guy. How much difference can one man really make?”

“Imagine that somebody found how to sail through the Shores of the Nexus. That would change the world. Ships could sail anywhere in no time at all. That was your dream, right? To be the man to make that discovery? You would be one man making a world of difference. Even here and now, Captain Pyrefist is only one man and he has built an empire and conquered most of the seas. Just think of the difference Kaz made, the difference he could have made if he lived. One man will always make the difference.”

“I guess you’re right. You still never answered how you intend to win though.”

“I have everything planned perfectly out.”

“You have no idea what you’re going to do, do you?”

“Absolutely none. Look, Jesse is the one with the ideas and you work out the details. Then I just come along for the ride. That’s how it’s always been.”

Their conversation was cut off abruptly by a peal of thunder that was so loud that the ground trembled and the air slammed into them like a physical force. He staggered back, his heart pounding at the suddenness of the noise. 

Within seconds the beach was crowded with pirates who had piled out of the tavern to investigate. Bucc saw the crowd part as the captains emerged and made their way to the dock. A rowboat was tearing through the water towards them. Before it had even tied up, a scrawny man scrambled from the boat and rushed over to the captains.

“It’s the Ashenna! They’re coming!”

Captain Steeledge met the man and grabbed him by the shoulder. “Calm yourself, man. Tell us the details. Quick.”

“Their entire fleet has anchored just beyond cannon range. That bang just now was them amplifying the sound of their cannons to get our attention. It took me so long to reach you because I wanted to get an accurate tally of their numbers. I counted eighty five ships, Captain.”

“Eighty five? By His noodly appendages! They must have brought in reinforcements. That puts them at over double our ships.”

“Pirates of the South Seas,” boomed a woman’s voice. “This is your final chance to surrender. Lay down your weapons and give up your ships or there will be bloodshed unlike anything you have ever witnessed. That is the will of Lord Captain Pyrefist, and I am his instrument.”

“Do we have any visually impressive ways we can show them where to shove their surrender?” Captain Steeledge growled. “Everyone to your ships. Prepare for battle!”

Previous – Chapter 23. Tales of a Lost Year.

Next – Chapter 25. All Pieces in Place.

Chapter 23. Tales of a Lost Year. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

The captain froze. “You shouldn’t have come here, Bucc.” The voice was undoubtedly Jesse’s. “Go back to the others.”

Bucc closed the distance between them and wrapped his arms around her in a hug. “I’m not going anywhere. The three of us made a promise to Kaz. You’re my best friends and I’d walk through old Davy’s locker to find you both.”

Jesse flinched and made a pained noise then pushed Bucc away. The words of his mum came back to him, telling him of what had happened on the Seal. What had happened to Jesse.

“Jesse… I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean-”

Jesse held up a hand, silencing him. “Let’s go to my cabin. Everyone else, get The Phoenix docked in the usual place.”

It was only then that Bucc noticed the rest of the crew. The handful of pirates all looked young, the oldest looking little older than Bucc himself while the youngest was half his size. He guessed that a good half of them hadn’t yet had their Awakening. They all looked at him with awed eyes or fearful expressions. 

Jesse led the way to the captain’s cabin. Adward held the door open for Bucc then followed him in. Only a bunk, stove, and a table filled the space. A chest beside the bunk and a single chair were the only other items in the room. 

Now that they were in private, Bucc tried to apologise again. “Please listen to me. What I did-”

Jesse cut him off once more. “I don’t want your apologies,” she snapped. “Look, this is just the world now. You can’t come back from the dead and change everything. Go back to your parents and try to live the life you want to live. Being here won’t be good for you. You don’t have the stomach for it.”

“I don’t care. Jesse, I don’t care about anything else except for being with you and Adward. So please, stop hiding behind that mask. I want to see my friend again.”

Jesse was silent for a moment, then seemed to explode. “You want to see? Fine then. See until you’re sick” She unfastened the mask and threw off her coat, then tossed her gloves on top of the pile of clothes. She stood there, her eyes burning with tears as Bucc looked at her wide eyed.

Above her waist she now wore only a simple wrap around her chest. Running across the length of the right side of her body was a raised mound of pink scar tissue. The wound marred her face and discoloured her skin, giving her the appearance of two different people. 

Bucc could feel tears falling down his own cheeks now. This was all because of him. “This is all my fault. Jesse…”

“Shut up!” she said angrily. Her fists were clenched and her eyes were squeezed shut to try and stop herself from crying. “I knew this is what would happen. I don’t want your sympathy! I’ve spent a year coming to terms with this. A year where I thought you were dead. The Jesse you knew died in that fire alongside you. Now you waltz back into our lives, the same old crybaby you always were, and wrapped around you are those memories of the real me. I swore I’d never cry again, but look at me now. You bring out the weakness in me.”

She took a calming breath and spoke in a low, strained, voice. “You know what hurts more than these scars? Knowing that my best friend blames himself for causing them. You always take everything to heart. How could I put this on your conscience?”

Bucc hugged her again, this time careful to not press too hard on the burns. Both of them were crying freely. 

Between sobs, Jesse tried to smile. “Don’t feel bad about this, okay. It was actually a good thing. At first I hated myself and how I looked so I hid. But then I found myself behind this mask. You remember that time you blindfolded me so I couldn’t see everyone staring at me? Well, it’s kind of like that. Wearing the mask, people can stare right at me and not really be looking at me. All of my anxiety disappears the moment I put it on, so in a way, these burns have made it so I can step up and follow my dreams.”

Bucc wiped away his tears with his hands and stepped back. “I’m happy for you. Let’s share our adventures and catch up.”

“I’m a captain now, Bucc. The safety of my crew comes first. How can I be sure your power won’t be used against us again? You’re too dangerous to pretend otherwise.”

“You aren’t the only one who’s grown. I’ve made peace with the fire. I can use it to protect people. I can’t promise that men like Pyrefist can’t overpower me, but I can promise that I will use my fire to keep those I care about safe.”

Jesse smiled at him, then suddenly remembered that she was standing there exposed. The pale side of her face blushed and she quickly bundled herself back into the coat. Bucc noticed now that, although it had a rough exterior, the coat’s inner lining was a soft, silky material. She sat on her bunk and motioned for Bucc to take the chair. Adward brought over a tray of cups filled with steaming tea that he had been boiling on a small stove in the corner. Bucc took it and felt the warmth soak into him.

Adward settled onto the bunk beside his sister. “You can go first,” he told Bucc. “I can’t begin to imagine how you filled the year between disappearing from the Seal to hurtling after our ship through the riftway. To say I’m curious how you did that is a pretty big understatement.”

“You aren’t going to believe me even if I tell you. And if you do, you might just have a heart attack.”

“Try us. The world has been a crazy place for everybody. We’ve come to expect the unexpected.”

“If you say so. Hey, Neri, come out and say hello. I want to introduce you to my friends.”

Neri wiggled free from Bucc’s shirt and settled on his shoulder. Jesse and Adward stared at it in confusion.

“This is Neri. She was one of the blanks that had gathered around Milla back when we found her. When my powers went out of control on the Seal, she and the other blanks came in and somehow transported me and Milla away from the ship. All of them but little Neri here was burned up in the fire. That’s why she looks grey. I guess I’ve left some lasting marks on two people I care about.”

Jesse reached out her scarred hand and tentatively stroked the burned membrane of the blank. Neri chirped happily and rubbed herself against the hand.

“Where they took us is the part you won’t believe. We were in an endless desert of white sand and black spires. The skies were filled with a tangle of thousands of riftways that all connected at a single point on the horizon.”

“The Shores of the Nexus…”

“That’s the only answer that made sense to us. We walked through that desert for a few days until we reached the point where all of the riftways joined together. There was a bottomless well capped by a giant golden seal. It looked like it could be opened, but it needed a key. So we jumped into the riftway instead and Neri directed us through it to land just outside of Cantruug. We met up with my Ma, then escaped the Ashenna to join up with the fleet here. And then I found you. To me and Milla, it’s only been a week or so since the fire on the Seal.”

Adward stared at him in stunned amazement. Then he bounded to his feet and grabbed a notebook and quill from the table and began to make furious notes. 

“You have to tell me every little thing that happened. If I can piece everything together then maybe I can crack the mystery of the Nexus.”

“Sure. But first you have to tell me your side of the story. A year is longer to cover than a week.”

“Us?” Adward muttered distractedly. “Not much. A few months of sitting around while Jesse recovered. She hated all the pity and the uselessness, so we stole a rowboat and left without any real goal in mind.”

“We ended up sailing into a place known as Davy’s Teeth, a graveyard of wrecked ships that crashed into shards of rock just below the water,” Jesse continued where her brother left off. “Most ships give the place a wide berth these days, but it was no problem for our tiny boat. Well, it turns out that we weren’t the only ones who drifted to that place. The broken hulls had become home to a gang of runaways and outcasts. Something about Davy’s Teeth draws in the displaced souls of the young. To the children already there, we were just two more lost souls.”

“They call themselves the Tooth Fairies and they lived off moss and any supplies that drifted through the wrecks. Occasionally they’d lure in new ships to crash then plunder them. This is where I got the idea for the mask from since the Tooth Fairies wore wooden masks whenever they attacked a ship. So I put on a mask, and from that moment on I wasn’t the meek girl that never spoke but somebody that could command. With my leadership and Adward’s brains, we gathered the Fairies together, repaired a ship and set sail to offer the Ashenna some well earned payback.”

Adward picked up the story again. “What we lacked in crew and firepower, we made up for with unconventional tactics. The Fairies knew how to take on bigger ships and better equipped opponents, and I have a good knowledge of the riftways. Working together we made a good ambushing force.”

“This ship went from wreck to ocean predator, the Tooth Fairies went from lost nobodies to a dangerous crew, and I passed through flames as a cripplingly anxious girl and emerged reborn as a captain. All of us went through hardships to become stronger, just like the legendary phoenix was said to rise from the ashes. That’s why we voted to call the ship The Phoenix,” Jesse finished.

“It’s a good name,” Bucc agreed. “But why haven’t you gone back to the others yet? Your dad is worried sick. Surely you could do more good if you coordinated with Captain Steeledge and his fleet?”

Jesse shrugged uncomfortably. “You’re probably right. Going back just feels like stepping back into the person I was back then rather than the person I am now. I’ve found this freedom… wonderful. I’m scared that seeing Pa again will somehow shatter this new image I’ve built and remind me who I really am. Besides, what can I say to make up for everything I’ve put him through?”

“Don’t be dumb. You know Pa doesn’t care about any of that,” Adward told her softly. “Bucc’s right. The Ashenna are getting wise to our attacks now. There’s not much we can do to help by ourselves anymore. Maybe it is time to make an official appearance. By the Pirate’s Code, you’re an official captain so would get to sit on the council. Even at your age, nobody can deny your rank.”

“Don’t captaincies need to be certified by the Council?” Bucc asked.

“Not really. That used to be quite rare. Captains simply need to own a ship, have a crew that supports their position as captain, and show suitable ability and skill. Since new ships are less common these days, and everyone already belongs to an existing crew, having a new captain rise up from nowhere is unusual. Add in the fact that there hadn’t been many ways to demonstrate skills without any wars or leviathans and it makes sense that they needed another way to keep the standards of captains high. Jesse technically ticks every box.”

“Come back to us then,” Bucc asked her with a broad grin. “You won’t be returning to your old life, you’re a hero now. The first part of Kaz’s dream was to become a captain and you’ve managed just that.”

Jesse considered this for a moment. “Okay. I’ll agree to go back and work with the others on one condition. You have to join my crew!”

“Deal.”

“Alright then. Adward, set us a course to the southern fleet. We’ve got some introductions to make.”

Previous – Chapter 22. Mysterious Allies.

Next – Chapter 24. The Calm Before the Storm.

Chapter 22. Mysterious Allies. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

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. 

“Jesse?”

Previous – Chapter 21. The Lady Hope.

Next – Chapter 23. Tales of a Lost Year.

Chapter 21. The Lady Hope. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

Bucc’s new cabin turned out to only be half the size of the one back on the Seal. It was a cramped space that made it clear that personal time wasn’t much of a concern on The Lady Hope. Unlike the floating Villages, The Hope existed to do a job and everything was geared towards that single purpose.

For the first time since before his Awakening, Bucc ate his meagre dinner together with his parents. For over a year they had missed him, had fought, made memories, and grown without him. It really showed. In many ways they seemed like completely different people.

Hours passed as they caught up with each other, until Bucc finally managed to persuade them to let him leave. He stopped in at the cabin that had been assigned to Milla. She was laid in her bunk and still showed no signs of waking. 

As he wandered the corridors, Bucc stumbled upon another familiar face, although it took him a moment to recognise the man. Jon-Boy Reeds had always been a slight man with a constant layer of gunpowder and oil covering his body. These days he looked gaunt and haunted, and moved with a slow vagueness as though he were sleepwalking. His eyes widened after a few seconds of staring through Bucc.

“Buccaneer Jones? Is that really you. You’re… alive.”

The man suddenly became animated, running up to Bucc and grabbing his shoulders. “Please tell me that you’ve seen my Jesse and Adward. You were inseparable. Please! I need to know that they’re safe.”

Bucc could only shake his head. “I’m sorry.”

The man’s face dropped and tears threatened to fall. Bucc placed his hands over the older man’s shaking fingers.

“I have more faith in Jesse and Adward than in anything else. I know they’ll be alright, and I think deep down, you know they are too. We’ll find them. That’s a promise.”

Mister Reeds blinked away the tears and nodded. “You’re right. Those kids are destined for great things. Thank you, Buccaneer. You’ve really grown up this past year. Death has been kind to you. Been getting personal lessons from Davy himself?”

Bucc tapped his nose with a smile. “Family secrets.”

He returned to his cabin and found that sleep came easily. It seemed as though barely any time had passed before he was ripped from his dreams by the sharp tolling of a bell. He rolled out of his bunk and hastily got dressed, rushing into the corridor expecting some kind of attack or emergency. 

Other pirates slowly started to emerge from their rooms. None of them looked panicked. They yawned tiredly and shuffled along without any sense of urgency. 

“Where’s the fire?” one of the crew asked him with a joyless chuckle. “Don’t scratch with your hook, lad, it’s just the mornin’ bell. Captain Ackeridge likes her crew to be early risers.”

Bucc breathed a sigh of relief. He joined up with his parents again for a small breakfast then was directed to the deck to begin mopping. For a moment, Bucc considered the fact that his affinity made him one of the most valuable members of the crew yet he was being made to scrub floors, but then he accepted it since cleaning sounded much more reasonable to him. 

He spent the whole day doing small jobs until his joints ached and his hands felt raw. It was the first full day’s work he’d ever done and it brought with it the realisation why the other adults drank so much. Still, the simplicity of the tasks were strangely relaxing and helped him keep his thoughts occupied.

No orders were sent across to The Lady Hope that day, so when the bulk of the work was done, most of the pirates pulled up barrels and began the time honoured pirate tradition of drinking as they sang and played cards. At first Bucc was dismayed as his perfectly cleaned floor quickly became drenched in spilled ale, but for the first time ever, he too was offered a place and handed a flagon. 

Bucc drank and laughed with the older pirates until the effects of the alcohol hit him hard after only a few drinks. The others laughed boisterously at him as he staggered over to the railing holding his stomach. 

Time moved in a tangle around him. Bucc wasn’t sure if a minute or an hour had passed, but eventually his stomach settled and he returned to his seat. Another drink was immediately shoved into his hand but he didn’t drink it. Instead he stared into the brown liquid, his vision swimming unsettlingly as he tried to focus.

Without really thinking he began to pour a trickle of power into the flagon. The ale started to bubble and steam. He gazed into the bubbles for several seconds and frowned. There was no fire. How did his powers work exactly? A thought struck him like a hammer. Maybe it was heat that flamecasters really controlled. Fire was just the easiest use, a visual ability with broad purposes that was instantly recognisable. Pirates weren’t good with subtlety, so why wouldn’t their use of affinities mirror this. Milla had already demonstrated that there was so much more to the powers of earth than simply helping plants grow. And if Bucc could control heat…

His chain of thought was shattered as his mum sat down beside him and slapped him on the back with a grin. She raised her flagon and chugged it.

“Crooks tells me you’ve had your first ale upchuck! The Awakening is ceremony, but you ain’t a real pirate until you’ve spewed your guts after one too many. A bit of practice and we’ll have you knocking ‘em back like a champ.”

His father sat down at his other side and nodded encouragingly. Bucc’s thoughts on affinities reminded him of something.

“Hey, Pa? I have a favour to ask you. Do you still have your sewing kit here?”

“Sure do. What are you needing?”

Bucc explained his idea then was about to return to his cabin when his dad stopped him.

“I have something I’ve been meaning to give you, Bucc. I’ve kept it with me since the Seal. It nearly killed me saving it from the fire.” He left and returned a few minutes later carrying a clay pot which he handed to Bucc. The pot was filled with soil. Nothing else was visible within. 

“I looked after your plant for you, and took the seeds it left before it withered in the winter. I replanted them in that pot, and with your care they should start to sprout soon. I know your life took a different direction, but that plant still represents an important part of yourself. You care about things. We’re proud of you, and I know that Kaz would be too.”

Bucc’s hands shook as he held the pot. Tears pricked at his eyes. “Thank you,” was all he could think to say as he hugged his dad. 

He finally said goodnight and headed back to his cabin. He placed the pot on the small bunkside table then climbed into the sheets. The room span sickeningly around him, and when he woke up his head was pounding. He laid there feeling sorry for himself until the tolling of the morning bell sounded and he forced himself up. After drinking several glasses of water over breakfast he felt basically human again.

Before they had finished in the mess hall, a messenger stood in the doorway. “Orders were passed along to the captain at dawn. The Lady Hope has been chosen to lead a raid on the Ashenna supply line tonight. Captain Ackeridge wants everyone at their stations and prepared for a skirmish. We set sail in an hour.”

Excitement rippled through the crew. Pirates were not at home sitting around and waiting. The prospect of battle lifted everyone’s spirits, except for Bucc, and the shipmates moved with renewed purpose.

Bucc found it hard to clean with so many people rushing around, so instead he wandered the ship, better familiarising himself with its layout. Neri, who had been very quiet since arriving at the Isles, left his back and floated around his head. She made a strange chirping sound that Bucc had started to associate with the creature’s attempts at speech. Sometimes they were happy little sounds, but increasingly they were ones of agitation.

“Look, I know you want us to go back to that place, but we can’t,” Bucc told her. Neri made a wheezing sound like a deflating balloon. “Milla isn’t awake, and even if both of us could somehow get back there, we still don’t have a key.”

Neri floated higher and rolled along the roof as she made a low whining sound. Bucc sighed but was quickly distracted when the ship began to move. 

He found a porthole that offered a good view and watched as two other ships pulled away from the fleet to follow them. The small group made good speed away from the Isles for a few hours until they anchored beside a large shard of rock that jutted up out of the ocean. At this point another bell rang, summoning the crew up to the deck.

Captain Ackeridge addressed them all from the bridge. “Captain Steeledge’s scouts have placed today’s supply route a short distance to the east of here. A submersive riftway crosses the path of their course. With a bit of skill we can charge them, slip into the riftway and instantly exit again, popping straight out at their other side to finish the job. Everyone needs to pull their weight for this to work. Don’t let me down.”

Nothing much happened for a while after that. The cannons were made ready and every pistol was loaded. Everyone waited impatiently as the sun dipped in the sky. Bucc stood by the railing nervously, his thoughts drawn to the coming violence no matter what he did to try and district himself. It was only when he felt a hand on his shoulder that he turned around.

“Big Tim!”

The mountainous man beamed down at Bucc with the same childlike grin, but little else about the man retained that look of innocence. A large scar ran down his cheek and neck, and a burnt patch of skin was visible on his chest beneath his open coat. It didn’t seem like he had any hair left at all on his body. He still wore an eyepatch.

“I hear that you’ve been off on an adventure without me. Jesse and Adward too. When did you all get so cool and independent?”

“Replace ‘cool’ with ‘terrified’, and ‘independent’ with ‘someone else did all the hard work’, then maybe it’ll sound close to being accurate. Anyway, it looks like you’ve seen enough adventure for the three of us. What happened?”

“What, this?” Big Tim said, vaguely indicating his everything. “A few little run-ins with the Ashenna. Nothing major.” Despite his words, he seemed very proud of the injuries. 

“Nothing major? Ha! Don’t listen to him, Bucc,” came the voice of his dad. The older Jones appeared at Bucc’s side. Namiir slithered up Bucc’s arm and nestled its scaly head into the crook of his neck. “Big Tim here fought off an entire Ashenna crew after the incident on the Seal. It’s only because of him that we were all able to escape. Even Lord Captain Steeledge honoured him as a hero.”

Big Tim was blushing furiously. Bucc couldn’t help but to smile at the sight. 

“Thank you for keeping everyone safe. All the old crew seems to be here except for Jesse and Adward. Or Captain Gus. What happened to him?”

Bucc’s dad shrugged. “Nobody’ss seen him since the Seal. The fool wouldn’t flee with the rest of us. Just kept shouting about his gold. If he somehow survived, he never made it here. But then, there’s no money to be made on the losing side of a desperate war.”

A warning signal was raised by the shipmate up in the crowsnest.

“Ashenna ships inbound!” the man called down. “We might have some trouble. I’m counting five ships!”

“Everyone to your places!” Captain Ackeridge ordered. “You all wanted a fight and it looks like you’re going to get one.”

Previous – Chapter 20. The Isles of Frindor.

Next – Chapter 22. Mysterious Allies.

Chapter 20. The Isles of Frindor. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

It was plain sailing for several days aboard the small Ashenna ship. There was a tense moment where another Ashenna vessel appeared on the horizon, but it luckily didn’t get close enough to notice that the ship was stolen. 

In that time, Milla showed no signs of waking up, but she wasn’t getting any worse either. During the first night, a single blank had floated down and settled on her chest. By the morning of the third day she had a dozen of the creatures nestled around her. The scene drew strange looks and questions from the rest of the crew but Bucc didn’t really have any answers to give.

It was on the fourth day they saw their first evidence of a battle. A skeletal mast jutted up from the sea like an accusing finger. Wooden planks floated in a wide area around them. They could see a wreck visible below.

“There was a big battle here,” Red Karla said as she examined the area. “All this debris is from multiple ships. I’d guess most went down straight to the seabed but this one settled on a rock.”

“How can you tell?” Bucc asked.

“Different sorts of wood. One ship might have a few types as it gets repaired by different islands, but by and large, each ship is mostly a single kind of timber with a single style of planks. Here we’ve got a dozen sorts of wood with all kinds of width and thickness. Ashenna ships are more boring and samey so it’s harder to tell.”

“We should ready up,” Bucc’s mum told them. “We’re close to the Isles of Frindor now. That’s where Lord Captain Steeledge is making his stand. Expect the Ashenna fleet to be nearby.”

Despite the warning, the hours passed without any sight of enemy ships, or friendly ones for that matter. What they did see was more and more debris, though increasingly it was the uniform birch wood of the northern ships that filled the water. 

On the fifth day they were finally confronted by a small fleet of three ships. Their different shapes and sizes made it a safe assumption that they belonged to south sea pirates, but considering that Bucc and the others were sailing under the guise of the Ashenna, their safety wasn’t guaranteed. Bucc was made to wave a white sheet while the other pirates stood at the railings without their weapons.

The fleet didn’t slow. The ships at either side moved to flank while the larger ship continued towards them. Bucc was beginning to fear that it would plough straight into them. The sturdy, dark wood hull of the ship looked more than capable of shattering the small Ashenna craft. 

It was almost on top of them before the ship finally came to a stop. A platform was lowered down from above, and on it were a dozen pirates. Their leader was a tall man in a vivid red coat and a wide brimmed hat with two slender swords at his waist. A metallic looking bird rested on his shoulder. He smiled at them and his teeth shone silver. 

“Captain Steeledge!” Bucc’s mum greeted the man. “I am Saltia Jones, formally of the Singing Seal. We’ve come to offer you our swords.”

“Then you’ve come just in time,” the captain answered. His words were clear and sharp yet had a faint musical quality to them. “I think our Ashenna friends are growing tired of our resistance. We’ve been a bigger thorn in their side than they expected. That thought brings warmth to my heart like quality rum on a cold night. Come, we will guide you to port. I have no doubt that your blades will be of great help.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Bucc’s mum answered. “Do you have a surgeon aboard? We have an injured girl in need of attention.”

Captain Steeledge nodded. “I’ll send my man down to see to her.”

The captain and his men returned to their ship, and true to his word, a surgeon laden with a bulky work bag was lowered onto the Ashenna vessel. He was led to Milla while the rest of the crew directed the ship to follow in the larger craft’s wake. 

By the time the Isles of Frindor came into view, the surgeon had worked his trade on Milla, patching up her shoulder, spreading ointment across her burns, then wrapping her up in bandages as best as he could around the girl’s symbiotic vines.

“To say it simply, the girl should be in a much worse state than she is. Her body is stronger than someone her age should be. I’m not sure how, but those blanks seem to be speeding up her natural recovery too. The flora that covers her appears to be drawing in energy from the sun as a backup fuel source too. She’s truly a remarkable specimen. I’d keep an eye on her. There’s many an inquisitive mind that would love nothing more than to experiment on her. All she needs is rest and she’ll be back on her feet in no time.”

With that weight off his mind, Bucc headed to the front of the ship as the cluster of tiny islands ahead became clearer. This was a place he had never been to before. The isles were further south than the Seal’s usual waters. They were a collection of emerald green jewels rising up from clear blue seas, each island a tropical paradise filled with palm trees and golden sanded beaches. 

Dozens of ships were anchored around the isles, ranging from small boats to mighty floating villages further out to sea. Bucc had never seen so many ships in the same place before. If each one had a full crew then there were thousands of pirates gathered around the isles. He couldn’t imagine a fleet large enough to face off against such a force.

They wove their way through the scattered ships and anchored close to the centre isles. Bucc and the others boarded a boat and crossed over to the closest island just behind the captain’s own boat. The settlement they moored at was very small. There was no housing, only a large tavern and a series of market stalls that were looking barren. It was clear that the isles couldn’t support the amount of pirates that had gathered there.

Captain Steeledge spoke with a young boy who had appeared as soon as they had disembarked. The boy nodded and ran off. The captain led them up the beach and into the tavern. The building was packed to the rafters with roudy pirates. Familiars scampered around their feet and jumped from person to person playfully, The noise and smell was like a physical force that hit Bucc as they stepped inside. 

A tight pathway opened up before the captain as every pirate sober enough to recognise him shuffled to the side and nodded their head respectfully. He made his way to the back of the tavern then climbed the stairs and entered a private room. Inside was a single large table with a map laid out on it. Wooden counters marked important spots on the map.

“Welcome to the war room,” Captain Steeledge said as he ushered them inside and closed the door behind them. “Let me catch you up on where things stand. I need everyone to be on the same page if I’m to make this resistance work.”

He pointed to a section of the map littered with markers. “This is the Isles of Frindor. As you can see, we have thirty six ships anchored here. That’s the most ships unified under a single banner since the Leviathan Conflict, or it would be if Captain Pyrefist hadn’t established himself an empire while we sat by in willful ignorance. Thankfully his forces are split between two battlefronts. He may have acted too soon and overextended himself. I want to punish him for that.”

“Over here about five leagues north is where the Ashenna southern fleet have made their base. Up until very recently they had been pushing us back at a steady pace. Our last count puts them at seventy ships. This is why we have set up in these islands. The narrow gaps between them limits the effectiveness of their numbers and they know it. If they made a single push they would likely win, but there’d be a large toll to do so.

“They are also missing their lord captain. Pyrefist is the main driving force of the Ashenna. While he’s busy in the north, this fleet is under the command of his daughter, a woman known to us only as ‘The Red Demon’. She’s a fearsome warrior but has never commanded a fleet of this size.”

“I imagine supplies here are running out quickly,” Bucc’s mum pointed out. “And the Ashenna aren’t likely to get bored and leave. So what do you want us to do?”

“Securing supplies is difficult for both forces. While the bulk of the Ashenna ships are positioned nearby to stop us from establishing supply routes, we had no way to stop them from doing the same. Not until a mysterious ship began to ambush their supply ships out in the open. The Ashenna began to send more ships to guard their supply routes, so we sent a handful of our own ships to aid this mysterious ally. As things stand, both us and the Ashenna are running dangerously low on food. That means they’ll launch an attack soon to break the deadlock.”

As he spoke he motioned to various pieces on the map to highlight his points. The Seal’s pirates leaned in closer to examine the fleets’ positions. 

“But that just leaves us in the same place as before. We fight here and they win at a large cost. That isn’t exactly comforting,” Red Karla pointed out.

“True. That’s why I plan to split the fleet. Twenty ships can hold these isles for a few hours. That leaves sixteen ships to cause some chaos with. My orders will be sent out closer to the time to avoid information from leaking, but rest assured that the pirate way of life isn’t going to be destroyed without a fight.”

There was a knock at the door.

“Ah, that must be a crewman from your new ship. I knew just the vessel to assign you all to. Enter.”

The door opened and joy flooded Bucc’s heart. He smiled and stepped forward to hug the man that stood on the other side.

“Pa!”

“Bucc! My boy! I was so worried about you when your Ma wrote that you still hadn’t been found. I’m so glad you’re here!”

Before he had finished speaking, Bucc’s mum joined in the embrace. Namiir, his father’s snake-like familiar, draped across the family’s shoulders, enclosing them together. They stayed like this for a few tender moments until a cough from the captain brought them back to the matter at hand.

“You are all now crewmates of The Lady Hope under Captain Ackeridge. Mister Jones the Elder will show you to your new ship. I’ll have your injured girl transported across so she can remain in your care.”

Bucc’s father took them out of the tavern and walked the group along the beach. He named the various ships visible around the isles until he finally pointed out a sleek vessel with blue sails that blended with the clear skies around it which he identified as their new station, The Lady Hope.

“It’s a newer ship,” he told them excitedly as they boarded one of the many rowboats that littered the isles. “They built it for speed but it still packs a fair amount of firepower. Not much like the Singing Seal. Everything is built to be lightweight and minimal. The Lady Hope was made to hunt down ships and sink them, nothing else. Under Captain Ackeridge’s command, it does that purpose very well.”

“I’ve not seen you this enthusiastic for a long time,” Bucc’s mum told him. “I take it you’re confident we can win?”

“Confident that we’ll win? No. Confident that we’ll have an epic battle that will go down in legend among fellow pirates? Most certainly!” he laughed. His wife mirrored his toothy grin. Bucc could only sigh at the display.

The situation still sounded pretty bleak to Bucc. By his understanding, this pirate stronghold was only alive because the Ashenna captain was holding back. If not for this mysterious ship disrupting their supply lines then the Isles of Frindor would already be flying the Ashenna colours.

“Does anybody know about this mystery ship?” he asked his father.

“Nobody knows much. It’s only a small vessel. The ship itself isn’t special in any way really. All the reports say is that whenever a lone Ashenna ship passes a riftway, this ship emerges, opens fire, then slips back through it before anyone can retaliate. The only detail of note is that the ship is commanded by a masked captain. Nobody has got close enough to see anything else.”

“Sounds like a good omen to me,” Red Karla stated. “Mysterious allies are always a good thing. We have a mix of crews and ships here from all across the south seas. The Ashenna are too rigid to outmatch our versatility.”

Red Karla’s words got Bucc thinking. Pirates from all over the oceans were collected here. Maybe his friends had made their way here too. He asked if Jesse and Adward had been seen. His father shook his head sadly.

“I’m afraid not. The seas have been a dangerous place lately. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ashenna got to them. If so, they’d have been pressed into service on one Ashenna ship, or maybe sent to be labourers on an island somewhere.”

That hadn’t been the answer that Bucc had wanted to hear. What if they were hurt, or captured? The thought stung Bucc’s heart. Adward and Jesse had been the ones to support him after Kaz’s death, the three of them had always been side by side. Without them, it was like Bucc was missing an important part of himself. Thinking about it now, Milla had filled that vacuum since the destruction of the Seal, but now that she was unconscious, there absence was hitting him hard.

He fell into a somber mood as the boat made its way over to The Lady Hope. They were lifted aboard, and as his father had said, the deck was simple and clean. An elderly lady who was even shorter than Bucc and walked with the help of a stick greeted them. Her white hair was worn in a perm and her body was cloaked in an intricate green coat. A tired looking grey cat slept peacefully on her shoulder. Unlike his mum’s feline familiar, the woman’s didn’t seem to have any distinctive features.

“Welcome aboard The Lady Hope. I am Lady Roseline Ackeridge, but you may all just call me Captain.”

Bucc didn’t recognise the name. For a captain of her age, he would have expected to have heard stories about her. If tales weren’t told of her exploits then she probably wasn’t a great captain. 

“You don’t look too impressed, boy,” she snapped, startling Bucc. He put on a hasty smile.

“Sorry, Captain. I had something else on my mind.”

“Sure you did. You think I was born yesterday? You’re thinking ‘What has this old coot done to be a captain here in the war for the very survival of the pirate’s way of life? What does this little old lady without any reputation have to offer?’ Am I right?”

“Err, a less mean hearted thought might have crossed my mind. That’s to say I simply wondered why I hadn’t heard of somebody as, er, distinguished as yourself. Pirates don’t become captains unless they’re skilled after all.”

She smiled at him then smacked him in the knee with her walking stick. “Too right we don’t. And that gets harder the older you get because your strength and stamina start giving out on you. But it’s all good until your brain starts going. At that point you want to be fed to the fish, if we still had any. Bah, anyway, I’m unknown by choice. If your enemies underestimate you then you have the advantage, and at my age you take every advantage you can manage. So I play up these frailties. I can still more than hold my own against whippersnappers like you.”

“Understood, Captain!” Bucc answered hastily.

“Good. Mister Jones, show them to their quarters. Get yourselves familiar with the ship. We could be called upon at any minute so I want everybody to be ready. I expect a lot from my crew. I hope for your sake that you each live up to my high standards.”

Previous – Chapter 19. Dockside Battle.

Next – Chapter 21. The Lady Hope.

Chapter 19. Dockside Battle. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

Milla reacted instantly, stepping back and sweeping up a wave of pollen to meet the fire. The flame caught in the pollen and consumed it in a flash, redirecting itself to follow the fuel source upwards. The flames billowed high above the rooftops in a great spire of blazing light. The display likely drew every set of eyes on the island.

This was the moment that Milla had meant. It was the perfect distraction for Bucc to make his move, but he found that he was locked in place as he watched Milla and the Ashenna flamecaster. More and more of the northern pirates were encircling them. Almost the entire island’s garrison must have been there to take down the girl. There was no way she could win.

But she had told them all to trust her. Bucc had a job to do and everyone was relying on him to complete it. He hesitated another moment before darting from his cover towards the docks. One of the seafront buildings had a clear view of the ships so Bucc clambered up onto its roof to gain a little height. 

The usually bustling dock only had half a dozen ships moored there. Of those only two didn’t bear the insignia of the Ashenna. From his vantagepoint, Bucc could see the Seal crewmen grouped loosely around the smallest Ashenna vessel. That meant that everything else was fair game. 

Bucc summoned his inner fire and let a small tendril of flame snake its way around his fingers. This wasn’t a living target, but it was still the first time he had willingly used his powers to destroy. He wrestled with the flame then sent a jet of blazing light out towards the first ship. The sail was at the far end of the flame’s range but it was only a few seconds before the white sheet began to burn. The flame arced from ship to ship methodically until every sail except for their escape vessel was burning.

Dizziness washed over Bucc but he forced it to the side as he staggered back down the building. He ran to his mum and the other Seal pirates as they began to board the remaining ship.

“Have you seen Milla yet?” he asked. His mum shook her head.

Bucc clenched his fist and ran back towards the tavern, ignoring his mum’s shouts. He hadn’t made it far up the street though when Milla appeared from around a corner at a breakneck sprint. Chasing close at her heels were two dozen angry pirates. Her vines pulled at barrels and anything else they could grab to obstruct the path behind her. 

“Get on the ship!”

Bucc skidded to a halt and immediately changed direction. Even with his head start, Milla quickly caught up to him then pulled him along so he wouldn’t fall behind. 

“Keep the fire off us!” she shouted. Flames shot over their heads to emphasize her words.

That was something Bucc had no idea how to do. He’d never tried to control an existing flame, let alone one belonging to another flamecaster. He didn’t have time to worry about if he could do it or not. He just had to act. 

More fire sprayed above their heads and curved down to slam into the ground in front of them. Without slowing, Bucc reached out with his mind and tried to take hold of the flames. There was the usual wild energy that set fire apart as the hardest element to control, but beyond that there was something else, another will that fought with the flame for dominance. He remembered wayfarers speaking about being able to connect with each other when they worked the same patch of sky or sea. The wills needed to work in unity for greater strength, or one needed to overpower the rest to gain control.

Bucc grabbed at the energy and sharply pulled it to the side. The flames obeyed and splashed into the ground to his right. He felt a jolt that he could only describe as surprise ripple through the fire. The Ashenna flamecaster hadn’t expected to encounter another person with the same affinity. That had been the only reason that Bucc had been able to control it so easily. 

“Keep running! I’ll see you on the ship. Just keep the firecaster away from the sails.”

A series of vines shot to either side of Milla and wrapped around posts. She used them to fire herself backwards towards their pursuers, swivelling in the air so that she flew at them head first like an arrow. The vines spiralled around her, whipping at anything that came close. The Ashenna dived away from her as the flamecaster sent a stream of fire directly at her. At the last moment another vine lunged up towards the rooftops and latched onto a chimney. Milla swung up and slammed into the roof.

Bucc reached the dock and waited beside the ship, his powers hovering at the edge of use in preparation of any sudden attacks. He watched Milla stagger back to her feet and noticed that several of her vines held swords and pistols stolen from the pirates below. She winced then started a shambling run across the rooftops. Gunshots ricocheted all around her.

“Any aircasters, get ready to slow her fall!” Bucc shouted back to the rest of the crew. 

Milla was close to the docks. A bullet hit her in the shoulder, rocking her entire body, but she had too much momentum to stop. Flames roared up behind her as she stumbled towards the final ledge.

Bucc gritted his teeth and forced his will into the fire again. This time it felt like the flames were a solid wall of resistance, the opposing will that controlled them held on with an iron grasp. He couldn’t overpower it. No matter how hard he tried, the fire wouldn’t budge from its intended path. 

Milla reached the edge and tumbled off without slowing just as the flames washed over her. Wind roared, billowing through the scraps of her dress. Even with the handful of pirates channeling air to slow her fall, she still hit the ground hard.

Bucc ran to her, throwing up a wall of fire between her and the remaining Ashenna. He clumsily picked her up, the weapon-laden vines dragging across the dirt behind them. He could already feel a strain on his concentration as the Ashenna flamecaster grappled to open a path through Bucc’s barrier. The sensation hit him like icy water, as did the realisation that once again he couldn’t resist another’s pressure on his mind. The fire spluttered then parted.

His feet pounded along the wood of the dock. The ship began to pull away. Bucc threw all of his strength into a mighty jump and leapt aboard. He and Milla sprawled across the deck in a tangle of vines. The ship lurched as more wind rippled across the sail and pushed them forward.

“By His Noodles, she really did it,” Bucc’s mum exclaimed as she rushed over to them. Bucc crawled to the side to allow her a closer look at Milla. “She fought off an entire garrison by herself, stole enough weapons for all of us, and made it back alive. This girl really is something special.”

Blood soaked one side of Milla’s dress while her back had visible burns through charred hair and fabric. Her skin was very pale.

“You can help her, right?”

“None of us here are surgeons. Your Pa knows the basics, but even with good winds we won’t reach him for a few days. We don’t even have any salves or the like. Crooks has the steadiest hands. I’ll get him to fish the bullet from her shoulder. After that, all we can do is make her comfortable. Are you okay?”

“Me? Yeah. I’m fine. Just please help Milla.”

His mum nodded and offered him a small smile. “We will. Go on, get some rest. The rest of the crew will man the ship and watch over her.”

Bucc shuffled over to a quiet section of the ship and sat in silence. At first he tried to watch as Crooks, a pirate with a large moustache, worked a makeshift set of tweezers into Milla’s shoulder to remove the lead round, but the sight of blood caused him to feel faint. He quickly turned away. 

The back of the ship was blocked off with a large sheet as Bucc’s mum and Red Karla, the only other female pirate in the small group, tended to Milla’s injuries. The men were all wayfarers and so occupied their time urging the ship along, leaving Bucc without anything productive to do. 

The uselessness of his presence gave him time to think. This had been his first time facing off against another flamecaster, and it had shown him just how weak and inexperienced he really was. If he wanted to avoid hurting anyone while still protecting people, then he would need to get stronger.

He was contemplating this when Shayla bounded up onto his shoulder and pawed at his back. Neri wriggled slightly out from his shirt and prodded the paw with its head. If the blank had possessed eyes then it would have been staring at the feline familiar cautiously. 

“It seems you’ve made a few friends while you were away.”

His mum sat down beside him with a weary sigh. Despite the tiredness in her eyes, she looked to be in good spirits.

“Yeah. I guess I did. This is Neri. She’s my familiar.”

“Familiar?” she asked as she reached out and brushed her hand against Neri’s body. “Interesting. Both you and that girl are full of surprises.”

“Is she going to be alright?”

“Only time will tell. Even without the injuries she got today, her body is a mess. I’ve never seen anything like it. She’s skin and bones, only her skin is as torn up by scars as her dress is. And that’s without mentioning the places where it has fused with those plants. But, she’s shown herself to be a fighter. I imagine it will take more than this to keep her down.”

“I think you’re right about that. I hope you are anyway.”

Bucc settled back and watched as Neri and Shayla played together around the mast. Several of the other familiars had joined in, tentatively inspecting Neri before joining in with the games. A ripple of joy sparked in the part of his mind that was connected to his familiar. He smiled as the second hand enjoyment flooded through him.

“Aren’t they all so perfect?” Bucc’s mum said aloud as she watched the familiars play. “Even in the darkest of times they remind us that there is good in the world. They represent our very hearts and souls. I can’t imagine the pain of losing Shayla. Make sure you take good care of your little Neri.”

“I will,” Bucc said, and he meant it with all of his heart.

Previous – Chapter 18. Dawning Rebellion.

Next – Chapter 20. The Isles of Frindor.

Chapter 18. Dawning Rebellion. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

That evening and the next day passed by like a dream. They were in occupied territory, on the verge of a battle they couldn’t win, yet it all felt strangely idyllic. Bucc was on dry land and his mum was showering him with attention without any pretense of making him embrace the pirate lifestyle. He was scared and he missed his friends, but all the doubts and fears about his own future seemed to have faded away. He knew what he had to do, and while he didn’t like it, there were no murky grey areas to get lost in. Somehow, that was oddly comforting.

He and Milla had kept their heads low on the chance that their descriptions had been spread among the Ashenna. Despite her agreement, it was clear that the wait was grating at the girl. Bucc didn’t see her relax even for a moment. For her, the day passed by in a series of mundane tasks to stave off her agitation. She did at least eat some food though, and while Bucc couldn’t be sure that she had actually slept, she’d a few hours of uninterrupted rest.

This brief time of peace passed by quickly. Before Bucc knew it, the handful of pirates had assembled and the time had come to make their escape. Bucc, Milla, his mum, and four other former Seal pirates gathered together in the small house with what meagre supplies they could find. 

“They took our weapons. Anything more dangerous than a knife was confiscated as part of the Ashenna laws. We’re going to be outgunned until we can grab some firepower of our own,” Bucc’s mum explained to them. 

Shayla, climbed down from her shoulder and stuck its nose into one of the pouches around her waist. The cat lifted its head back with an item in its mouth that was wrapped in cloth. It gracefully pulled itself up onto her arm and offered the object to Bucc.

“I wanted to give this to you after your Awakening but events got away from us. I’ve carried it with me ever since.”

Bucc carefully unwrapped the item. As the cloth came away it revealed a slender knife with a silver hilt. Every part of it shone with polish. His initials were engraved into the blade just above the handle. As far as knives went it was beautiful in its simplicity.

His mum looked nervous. She wrung her hands anxiously. “I wasn’t sure whether I should give it you. It is a weapon after all. Me and your Pa wanted you to have a custom blade, as is tradition in my family, but we worried it would upset you. I don’t want you to feel that we’re forcing you down a path you don’t want to take. If you don’t want it, I understand.”

Bucc hugged her. “It’s perfect. A knife is just like me. Sure, it can be used to hurt others, but it can also be used as a survival tool, or even something to carve sculptures or art. I shouldn’t be ashamed of my powers, just like a knife shouldn’t be ashamed of its edge. We both just have to use them for good.”

Milla opened the door, interrupting the tender moment. “It’s time. Let’s go.”

“Do you still insist on holding back the Ashenna?”

“Yes. It looks like they have a garrison of six dozen pirates. I’ll draw them in while you steal a boat. Bucc will stop any pursuit, then we meet back up to make good our escape.”

“I’m not happy about you doing this,” Bucc’s mum told her. “I’d forbid you if I thought you’d listen. A girl your age shouldn’t be putting themselves in such danger. It’s suicide.”

Milla made a sound that could have been interpreted as laughter or a dismissive grunt. She flexed her fingers and watched as the vines extended and wrapped around them. 

“Just worry about your own safety. What happens to me isn’t your concern.”

“Is she always like this?”

“Pretty much,” Bucc answered truthfully. “She has the skills to back up her words though.”

“If you say so.”

They left the house, and when they were part way down the street, Bucc and Milla split off from the others. The reality of what he was about to do was finally sinking in. They had one shot at this and he had to do everything perfectly. 

“Are you sure this is going to work? I can set fire to their sails easy enough, but won’t they just put them out straight away. They have their own flamecasters, and wayfarers can create rain to douse the flames.”

“They’ll be too busy to notice until it’s too late,” Milla said simply. “Just wait until I’ve drawn their attention. Find somewhere safe to watch until then. Don’t help me. Your role is more important. Understand?”

“Got it,” Bucc said with more confidence than he felt. He wasn’t sure that he could sit back and watch her get hurt, but telling her that would achieve nothing. 

Milla led them across to the former tavern where the Ashenna pirates had set up their headquarters. She motioned for Bucc to hide behind a low wall nearby while she stepped up to the garrison’s door. She knocked, then waited.

The door opened and a large man stood on the threshold. He towered over the small girl. Before he even had time to look down, Milla punched him in the throat. He clutched at his neck, red faced, and collapsed back. Several Ashenna heard the commotion and came rushing out of the building. Three of them moved to surround her but none had their weapons raised. It was clear that they didn’t see the tiny girl as a threat. Their familiars looked much more on edge and growled threateningly at her.

She thrust out her fist at the first man and a cloud of pollen sprayed out from her sleeve into his eyes. He staggered back, allowing Milla to swivel back towards the other two. Vines erupted from her arms and wrapped themselves around the men’s necks. She used them as anchors to pull herself closer to them until her own delicate hands rested atop their vine-choked throats. The men fell to their knees, coming eye to eye with their assailant. There was no mercy in her cold eyes. Their familiars rushed to help them but were kept back by cracking whips from Milla’s vines.

More Ashenna came running to the scene, this time with weapons at the ready. One fired a pistol at Milla that shattered a wooden post behind her. She ran towards them, her shredded dress giving her the ghostly appearance of a wraith as she moved. Another round of shots were fired and thankfully missed. 

Just as she was about to engage with the pirates, Milla sprang back and released a wide cloud of pollen around them. She left the cloud and approached the fallen Ashenna. Two vines wound their way around the handles of the men’s daggers while Milla herself grabbed one of their swords. It looked too heavy for her thin arms but she hefted it in a way that suggested she knew how to use it. The cloud was clearing but she showed no sign of rushing. She began to calmly walk towards them, all three blades held out threateningly before her.

The men ran at her. Two vines shot out at the right-most pirate and wrapped around his wrists, yanking his arms apart. One of the daggered vines lunged into the opening, driving straight into the man’s throat while the second dagger swung around in a high arc to ward off the other Ashenna.

One pirate peeled off from the group at a sprint towards a nearby station equipped with a signal bell. Milla watched him go but didn’t react. Instead her vines lashed out at a nearby stall, causing it to collapse with a series of loud bangs. They fished into the wreckage and began to hurl wood at the guards. 

The bell started to ring but the sound was almost immediately overridden by the whoosh of flames as fire erupted across the street. Bucc jumped at the sudden light and heat even in his hidden position. Milla didn’t flinch. A new Ashenna strode into view. He wore more armour than the other guards and his expression was one of grim anger. Milla stared him down without any fear. The man shifted his arms and blasted a fresh stream of flame straight at her.

Previous – Chapter 17. Warmth and Revelations.

Next – Chapter 19. Dockside Battle.

Chapter 17. Warmth and Revelations (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

Bucc staggered onto the beach and collapsed into the golden sands. Moving was the last thing in the world that he wanted to do but he knew he had to. Every inch of him ached. He pushed through the pain and helped Milla to her feet. Neri plastered herself flat against his back and seemed content to stay there. 

During their approach of the island he’d noticed a village. He hadn’t been sure as he had fought against the waves and his own exhaustion, but now he was closer he could barely believe his eyes. They had left the riftway right beside Cantruug. The odds of that were astronomical. Neri had to be involved somehow, but Buc didn’t have the time to dwell on it. He was just thankful to be on familiar ground.

“You know this place?” Milla asked him.

“Yeah. Cantruug is a wheat island with one of the busier port villages in the Fourth Sea. My ship, the Singing Seal, used to come here for supplies. It was the last island we visited before my Awakening. I wouldn’t call it beautiful but I’ve always felt at peace here. Maybe you will too.”

They walked across the beach towards the familiar buildings of Three Potatoes, but with every step a feeling that something wasn’t quite right was creeping over Bucc. The air smelled different. Even the general noises of a pirate settlement seemed muted. There were the clangs of hammers but Bucc couldn’t hear cheers, arguments, or drunken singing.

He stepped up a ramp that led into the village and was immediately struck by how dour the few villagers he could see were. More concerning though were the scortchmarks across several walls and construction sites where previously there had been warehouses. Something bad had happened. Bucc felt his stomach lurch. He stumbled over to a broad workman who stood nearby.

“What happened?”

The man looked at him blankly. “What happened? You been livin’ under a shell? That happened,” he said, pointing discreetly across the street towards a fur clad pirate. Bucc instantly recognised it as the clothing of the northern pirates. He tried to press the man further but he refused to explain anything else, instead casting fearful looks towards the northerner. 

“Let’s try the tavern,” Bucc suggested. Everyone knew that taverns were the best place for news and stories.

Bucc led the way through the familiar streets toward the village’s largest tavern. They noticed several of the northern pirates standing at corners or in doorways as they passed. The tavern still stood but two of the northerners were guarding the entrance. The hanging sign naming the tavern as the Guiding Spud was missing and there were no sounds of revelry within.

“The Ashenna are using this building as a command post. This island’s been occupied,” Milla explained quietly. She hung back in the shadows and watched the northern pirates with a mix of caution and burning hatred. 

“What? That can’t be right. We’re far from the Northern Seas here. No fleet could get this far and capture an island in the few days we were gone.”

“I’ve seen enough occupied islands over the last few months. This is definitely one of them.”

“We’ll speak with Mister Blackfoot. He’s a farmer I know. He’ll fill us in on what’s happening.”

“Just be careful. It’s possible that our descriptions have been passed around. Pyrefist isn’t one for leaving loose ends. We don’t want every Ashenna pirate on our backs. I can fight off a few, but not an entire garrison.”

“No killing. We’re just going to keep our heads down, okay?”

“Until the need arises, sure.”

Bucc started down a street that led inland and stopped suddenly. Milla immediately took a fighting stance but it wasn’t a threat that Bucc had seen. He thought that he had recognised a woman in the distance, but she had disappeared through a doorway before he could tell for sure. Everything else slipped from his mind and he found himself veering towards the building. He approached the door and knocked. There was a long moment of silence then the door inched open. A scarred man that Buc didn’t know answered. Bucc couldn’t see past him to look into the room beyond.

“What?” the man asked him gruffly.

“Sorry. I… er, I thought I recognised the woman that just came in here.”

“Buccaneer?” said a woman’s voice from behind the man. The door opened wider, allowing Bucc to see clearly inside. It was a shabby, unfurnished room where several people were standing around. All of them turned their attention to the door. Bucc knew several of those faces. 

The woman rushed forward, roughly shoving the man to the side before wrapping Bucc in a crushing embrace. 

“Ma, you’re going to kill me,” Bucc weezed. 

“We thought you were dead,” his mum sobbed. Bucc had never seen her cry before. Her Shayla bounded up onto his shoulder and brushed her head against his while purring loudly. “You were on the ship, then there was fire everywhere. We managed to escape but nobody could find any sign of you. I’m so happy you’re okay. How did you even find us here?”

“Luck, I guess,” he answered. “Is everyone here?”

“Most of us, though a lot has happened since you disappeared. The world has changed so much. Where have you been for all of this time?”

Bucc frowned. “You’re making it seem like I’ve been gone for ages.”

His mum looked into his eyes as though she was trying to read him. Her shaking fingers brushed his cheek tentatively, like she wasn’t quite convinced that he was real.

“Tell me what happened,” she told him in an unsure voice.

“It’s complicated. You remember this girl? Well this is Milla and she has a weird connection to the blanks. They came and carried us away from the ship. You won’t believe me but we ended up at the Shores of the Nexus. From there we hopped into the riftway and got thrown out right next to Cantruug. It’s been a crazy few days. But what about you? I’m impressed that you managed to get from the border seas all the way here in the few days it took us to find the riftway. Were you picked up by another ship and rifted straight here?”

“Bucc, it’s been over a year since the Seal was destroyed.”

The words hit him like a hammer. He took a step back, stunned. Milla rushed past him and grabbed his mum by the shirt, a savage snarl on her face.

“What do you mean we’ve been gone a year? Where is Pyrefist?”

Bucc’s mum was a strong woman who was one of the raid leaders back on the Seal. Even she was intimidated by the flames that burned in the girl’s eyes.

“As soon as the Seal was destroyed, Captain Pyrefist sent his fleet south. We got reports that most of the north was already under his control but their resources were stretched to breaking point. The local pirate lords tried to bargain with him, then after that they tried to fight him, but neither worked. The Ashenna crews don’t fight like pirates. They’re organised and battle without any passion. Nothing we did slowed them down. In the year that you two were gone, three quarters of the south has fallen to the Ashenna Empire.”

“So the world belongs to him now,” Milla said in a low, threatening voice. “Where is he? I’ve waited too long to kill him already.”

“I’d give up on that if I were you, child,” Bucc’s mum tried to soothe her. “Our job now is to make the best life that we can out of what remains. That’s just a fact of life. Pyrefist is too powerful. He wiped out the entire southern alliance in a series of decisive victories. Even without his ships, he single handedly sunk several of our best vessels. To face him is a fool’s dream.”

“Maybe I am a fool. So tell me, where is Pyrefist?”

Bucc’s mum sighed deeply. Bucc knew the feeling. After a moment of thought she relented. “He returned north. I assume he returned to pacify the last holdouts. A smaller fleet led by his daughter is moving on the remnants of the southern alliance. I’d expect that within another year everything will belong to the Ashenna.”

Bucc stepped between the two women. He had his own questions that he wanted answering.

“Where’s Pa?”

“Your Pa and me got separated after the Seal. His boat ended up fleeing to a different island. We managed to exchange messages. He’s currently with Lord Captain Steeledge and the remaining ships of the Southern Alliance. A few of us were actually just preparing to sail down there to lend a hand.”

Bucc felt a sudden hope. Lord Captain Steeledge was known throughout the southern seas as a master swordsman and charismatic leader. He had risen to the rank of lord captain very quickly and was considered by many to be the best tactician alive. Surely somebody with his reputation could oppose the Ashenna.

“But didn’t you just say that standing against Pyrefist was a fool’s dream?”

His mum smiled. “We’re pirates. Foolishness is in our blood.”

“Good. I’m coming with you,” Milla interrupted. “Until I can track Pyrefist down, I’ll have to settle for sending him a clear message. Beating the Red Demon will be a good start. I owe her for the last time we came face to face.” She stepped back to the door. “I’m going to scout out this island. I’ll be back soon.” Then she was gone.

“That’s quite the young lass you’ve found there, Buccaneer,” his mum told him in an overly sweet voice. “She’s got the fiery spirit of a real pirate, though she’s maybe a bit too cold and focused for her own good. A bit of work and she’d make a good wife. Very pretty.”

“Shut up,” Bucc snapped. He could feel a blush spreading across his cheeks. “I’ve only known her for a few days in our time. Forget about that though. Where are Adward and Jesse?”

His mum’s smile disappeared. “Come on inside and find a seat. We have a lot to catch you up on.”

Bucc’s heart dropped. It must have shown on his face because his mum quickly changed her tone.

“Don’t worry! It’s nothing like that. Adward and Jesse are both alive. It’s just that, well, a lot happened when you disappeared and the Seal was destroyed. I don’t want you to blame yourself or anything, but the fire was devastating. Most of us got out without serious burns but Jesse tried to save you. She got too close…”

Bucc felt his knees grow weak. He sat down heavily on a nearby stool. “Is she okay?”

“She got some really bad burns. I’ll not lie to you, Bucc, straight after Pyrefist’s attack it was touch and go if she would survive. She recovered relatively quickly. Thankfully it was mostly superficial damage. It took a toll on her mind though. She was always quiet, but afterwards she wouldn’t even speak to Adward. One night they just left. They took a boat and sailed off. We haven’t seen them in months.”

It took Bucc a few moments to process this information. He sagged in his seat as a million thoughts and feelings crossed his mind. 

“It was my weakness that got her hurt. Captain Pyrefist pulled my strings like I was a puppet and because I couldn’t control my powers I destroyed our home and hurt my friend. He wouldn’t even have been there if I hadn’t run away.”

His mum didn’t say anything. She just bent down and hugged him. The gesture was filled to bursting with a year’s worth of loss, worry and love. He found it completely disarming. Before he even realised it he had broken down into tears and hugged her back tightly. 

“I want to come with you.”

“No. Stay here where it’s safer. The Ashenna hold Cantruug. No boats sail without their say so. It’s going to be a battle just to leave here, and they’ll send pursuers. It’s too dangerous. Unless you are willing to fight…”

Bucc gently removed his mum’s arms from around him and stood up. She was reluctant to let go. “I don’t know. I need to think. Time to clear my head. I have a year’s worth of information to process. Give me some time to think things over.”

He left the house and had to once again fight down the discomfort of how different everything was.  It wasn’t just the scorch marks and northern pirates that made Three Potatoes unfamiliar. While he couldn’t tell for sure, it appeared to be less crowded than he had seen it before. Buildings had been demolished and saplings or crops grew in the new open spaces. There wasn’t any of the characteristic smells of cooking food or marketplace herbs and spices. In fact, it looked as though none of the shops were in business. 

Bucc skirted around the village and headed into the woods towards Mister Blackfoot’s small plot of farmland. It quickly became apparent though that the small farm hadn’t escaped the changes. Before, several patches of farmland owned by individual farmers dotted the woodland. Now the small huts had been removed and the patchwork of fields were joined together in uniform strips. More Ashenna stood guard over labouring islanders. 

He spotted Mister Blackfoot working at a nearby patch of dirt. He looked gaunt, his formerly fat and jolly appearance replaced by a much slimmer ghost of himself. The farmer noticed Bucc and froze as though he had seen a spirit. 

“Buccaneer Jones? As I live and breath, it really is you,” the man laughed, his face lighting up with some of its old joy. “From the way the Seal’s crew were talking, I’d put you down as dead. You’re sure a sight for tired eyes, lad.”

“It feels like I step away for a week and suddenly the world’s sank straight into Davy Jones’ Locker. Makes me feel very important.”

The farmer laughed softly. The Ashenna guards watched them but didn’t make any moves to get Mister Blackfoot back to work. He noticed Bucc looking at them and waved them off dismissively.

“Don’t worry about them. They’re sticklers for the rules but they don’t go out of their way to antagonise folk. Well, other than taking all of our land and assuming command of the entire island. All food and supplies are strictly rationed and a lot of new laws have been enforced. Still, they ain’t outlawed talkin’ just yet.”

“Maybe they haven’t, but I have to say that you aren’t looking great. Nobody is.”

Mister Blackfoot shrugged. “Times are hard. Supplies were running low. Everyone knew it but nobody wanted to do anything about it. Pyrefist and his Ashenna did what nobody else wanted to do. Maybe they’re right, maybe they’re wrong. Who knows? In this world though, might makes right, and Pyrefist’s army has that in abundance, so what can we do?”

As the man spoke, Bucc noticed Milla standing in the woods just past the field. She had a dark look of anticipation on her face that set Bucc’s nerves on edge. He was genuinely concerned about what she might try when surrounded by people she perceived as enemies. Worried about leaving her alone, Bucc quickly turned back to Mister Blackfoot.

“I think things are going to get interesting soon. Try to keep yourself healthy, okay? I’ve got to go.”

“You be careful yourself, Mister Jones. When your crewmates told me what happened after your Awakening it had me worried. You seem to have grown a lot this last year. I wish you all the best. You’ll make a fine man, mark my word.”

Mister Blackfoot held out his hand and Bucc shook it happily. He smiled at the words. Had he really changed that much in the few days since the Awakening? Everything had changed, but he still felt like that same frightened child. A warmth radiated across his back from Neri that put him at ease. Bucc nodded to the farmer then headed towards where Milla skulked.

The girl didn’t acknowledge his presence. Her eyes were fixed firmly on the Ashenna guards. A grim smile tugged at the corners of her mouth.

“Your people will need a distraction if they want to leave. I have just the thing.”

Bucc sighed. “Look, just relax for a while, okay? For a few days we’re safe. Let’s take the time to recover. You can’t hope to fight in your state. The Ashenna aren’t going anywhere.”

“That’s my worry. Pyrefist is going to rule the entire world. Then there’ll be nowhere to run or hide, no safe havens or pockets of resistance. If I have any chance of killing him then I need to strike now. My body only has to survive until then.”

“The others have to finalise their preparations anyway. One hot meal and one night’s sleep. That’s all I ask. Okay? Then we can go be freedom fighters.”

“We? Have you given up your silly ideas?”

“No. If anything my powers scare me more. Back on the Seal I hurt my friend, Jesse. She got all burned trying to save me. I did that to her. Even when I tried to avoid conflict I still managed to hurt someone. The thought of that happening again terrifies me.”

“It was that same fear that drove me to become stronger. I can only protect people by being strong enough to beat anybody that wants to do harm. You have a great deal of power inside, Bucc. You have to ask yourself how to use it to save those you love without hurting others. Maybe you can even manage it. It isn’t impossible. It just means you have to be smart. And have the skills to back it up.” 

She turned to leave. As she walked away she spoke again. “My plants need some overdue care. A day or two to prepare everything might not hurt us too much.”

Previous – Chapter 16. Return to Reality.

Next – Chapter 18. Dawning Rebellion.

Chapter 16. Return to Reality. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

Bucc reached out his hand as high as he could. Then he tried jumping. Neither achieved anything. He thought about holding out Neri to look through and the blank bounced up onto his head and drooped down over his eyes as though it had read his mind. He looked around and saw that the riftways lost their colour about ten feet from the dome. They still existed past there but as a faded shade of themselves. There was no way they’d be able to reach the coloured section, and that was even if those strange invisible riftways would take them anywhere. 

“Looks like we really will die here. I’d be furious that I didn’t get my chance to watch Pyrefist die if I wasn’t so tired.” Milla seemed to sag. She sat heavily and closed her eyes. “Maybe it’s time to catch up on some of that sleep,” she muttered, more to herself than to Bucc.

“Wait,” Bucc told her. “I have a plan. You can’t give up yet, okay?”

“What plan could you possibly have? We don’t have any food, any water, or any supplies of any kind. We’re tired and weak. Face it, it’s over.”

“Weren’t you the one willing to walk to the ends of the earth to get your revenge?”

“Yeah, well as far as I can tell, this isn’t even part of the planet as we know it. There isn’t an end here to walk to.”

“But what if I told you we could reach the riftways above?”

“Well, it would be a quicker death then sitting here withering away.” Despite her words, her posture became more attentive.

“I can use my affinity to make glass, so with a bit of work maybe I can make glass blocks,” Bucc explained. “We stack them up then we can reach the edge of the riftway and hopefully enter it from there.”

“That sounds like it could work. It’ll take a lot of energy though. Are you up to the job?”

“Yes. I think so. It’s my turn to be strong.”

Bucc set to work piling up sand to scorch. Forming anything resembling blocks proved to be near impossible without any tools. Misshapen, lumpy blobs were the most common result of his efforts but he didn’t let that stop him. He channeled flames for hours while Milla carted them up the dome to build their makeshift staircase. Whenever the strain threatened to overcome him, Bucc felt a reassuring boost from Neri. It seemed that the little blank could give him some of its own energy, energy that was replenished with regular visits to the surface of the dome.

“Do you think it’ll support our weight?” Bucc asked when the unstable tower of warped glass finally reached up to the edge of the dome’s influence. It didn’t look very safe.

“Probably not. We’ll just have to be careful. Can’t you blast it with fire to melt all the separate chunks together?”

“No. I can barely stand anymore. It would take a massive amount of power to melt something this size. I don’t know that I could do it even at full strength.”

A thoughtful look settled across Milla’s face. “I wonder,” she mused quietly. She held out her arms and splayed her fingers. Yellow mist began to filter out from beneath her dress to obscure the pile of glass.”

“Fire burns better with fuel. I’ve studied flamecasters. Most have a weak flame since it is sustained by the air and the caster’s will alone. If it has a source of fuel then maybe you can send your flame out further for a short time.”

“I can try. Here it goes.”

Bucc concentrated and once more felt the heat spread through his body. Fire erupted from his hands and instantly grew in intensity as it made contact with the pollen. The entire cloud was consumed by flame with a giant whooshing noise that struck Bucc like a physical blow. It took all of his will to keep the flames under his control. His face contorted with the effort and he shouted wordlessly as he poured the last of his strength into the inferno. 

His vision flashed white then he found himself on his back. Tendrils of flame still hung in the air but quickly faded. The glass glowed a faint amber colour. It hadn’t melted much, but the edges had softened just enough for the individual blocks to fuse. 

Milla helped him to stand back up and as soon as the glass had cooled they began a slow climb up its steep rise. They still couldn’t see the riftway above their heads but the electric crackle was very much present. Together they perched at the top, their heads a few inches from the raging passageway.

“I guess it’s do or die time,” Milla said softly. “It’s strange, I’m not scared of dying but the thought that I could be throwing my life away for nothing is kind of daunting.”

“Don’t worry. I can’t say for sure but Neri feels confident about going through. She hasn’t led us astray so far. I trust her.” He held out his hand to Milla and offered her a smile. “You ready?”

She nodded and took his hand. “Yeah. Let’s go.”

They jumped. Bucc felt a massive pressure across his body as his muscles stretched and contorted. Colours tore around him like a tornado of lights and he found it hard to breathe. They were inside the riftway. Everything from here was in the hands of fate. He clung to Milla as their bodies were thrown in every direction at once. 

Bucc’s mind was focused on pure survival. He was in a disoriented freefall without end that threatened to pull each of his limbs from their sockets. A constant roar like a fierce storm battered at his ears and an acrid smell filled his nose. His lungs were burning and cramps wracked his muscles. 

Unconsciousness began to creep into the corners of his thoughts, threatening to tear away all control from him, but something else prodded at the parts of his mind that continued to fight. It was an icy calmness that probed his thoughts, injecting emotions directly into his brain. Vaguely he was aware of the cold weight on his head that was Neri. The two were connected.

Images flashed through his subconscious and Bucc finally realised that this was Neri’s attempt to communicate with him. She was preparing him for what he needed to do. He forced his eyes open and stared through the blurry maelstrom to find Milla. She was curled up in the fetal position other than the one arm that held onto Bucc, her eyes closed and a look of calm concentration on her face. He hesitated for a moment but a mental pressure from Neri spurred him to act.

Bucc reached across with his free hand and pulled the girl closer until he was able to wrap his arm around her waist. She opened an eye to stare accusingly at him, but then closed it again. He waited. The strange, not quite words, from Neri told him to listen to his heart. They told him to act when he knew that he should. That didn’t mean anything to him but he tried to obey the command. He thought about everything that he loved, repeating the names and faces and memories of everything that defined who he was. 

He felt something twang deep inside his chest. Bucc braced himself then let go of Milla’s hand, immediately firing off a stream of flame that slammed into the wall of the riftway. The energy propelled them backwards and they hit the opposite wall. He felt the swirling lights part around him like raging water. It hurt but he gritted his teeth against the pain. 

Then, as suddenly as it had started, the pain and the pressure vanished, leaving Bucc feeling weightless. He enjoyed this for a few beautiful seconds until he realised the weightlessness was caused by him hurtling through the sky towards the sea far below. He shouted in panic, any sensible thoughts abandoning ship before impact. The shouts caused Milla to open her eyes again, at first in annoyance, then wide-eyed terror a moment later.

Milla dragged herself closer to Bucc then swiveled so that she was the closest to the sea. She held out her hand and vines crawled up her arm and whipped out ahead of her. The vines thrashed as she straightened out her body into a diving position. Bucc quickly tried to do the same. 

Bucc hit the ocean. The impact rattled his bones and he gasped. The water rushed in to fill his emptied lungs. Every inch of him stung. The very concept of up and down was lost to him for a frantic few seconds as he fought to right himself and find the surface. His head emerged and he took several ragged breaths.

He looked around. The sea was perfectly calm and the sky was blue. Not too far off was a large island. The only thing missing was Milla. She was nowhere in sight. Bucc dived back under the water but he quickly needed to surface again. Neri squirmed then covered his head like a helmet, creating a pocket of air between Bucc and herself. He ducked back under the waves and pushed himself lower.

There.

Milla was floating below him without moving. Her eyes were closed and her hair and dress billowed like ghosts. Bucc swam to get to her then kicked with all of his remaining strength to pull her up to the surface. She wasn’t breathing.

“Come on!” he shouted at her. “You can’t die like this! Your motivation is awful, but you’ve got to see it through, right? How can you beat a pirate lord if you can’t survive being thrown through a riftway unprotected and falling into the sea at terminal velocity?”

A million thoughts clustered in his brain, each one shouting at the others about what to do. Stay calm, Bucc, he told himself. I’m a pirate who lives on the sea. I’ve seen people almost drown before. How did the adults save them back then?

A memory came to him and he gulped nervously. There wasn’t time to waste though. He had absolutely no idea about the actual details on what was supposed to happen, but more than once he had seen someone brought back from the brink by someone else breathing for them. He leaned in and took a deep breath.

“If you even think about it I’ll kill you.”

“Thank the Noodley One! You’re alive!”

Milla groaned in response then started to cough and splutter. She sagged in the water but her breathing eased into an unsteady rhythm. Slowly Bucc paddled through the water, pulling the girl along behind him.

“Are you okay?”

Bucc couldn’t see her face but from the icy silence he assumed she was glowering at him. 

“Neri, can you help her stay afloat,” he asked the familiar. The translucent ball seemed to nod then slithered across to Milla. “There’s an island just ahead. We’ll be on dry land in no time.”

“And then what?”

The question took Bucc by surprise. The unexpected part of it was that he immediately knew the answer. “Then I find my crew.”

Previous – Chapter 15. Seal of the Lifestream.

Next – Chapter 17. Warmth and Revelations.

Chapter 15. Seal of the Lifestream. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

Another day passed in the endless desert. Compared to the previous days it was almost a pleasant experience for Bucc. He no longer noticed the heat, and while he was still hungry and thirsty, he didn’t feel like a dried out husk anymore. The constant walking was beginning to take its effect on his feet though. He’d spent most of his life on a ship. Long walks over rough terrain wasn’t something he had ever experienced before.

For Milla, the journey seemed to be taking a heavy toll. True to her words, Bucc hadn’t seen her sleep at all, and the small amount of water they’d shared hadn’t invigorated her as much as it had with Bucc. 

“I chose to become one with the plants,” she explained in a tired voice. “I don’t just wear them, we have a symbiotic relationship. They draw nutrients from my body instead of the soil and can use them just like my own arms and legs. They also let me use photosynthesis for energy. If I had a good supply of food then it wouldn’t matter, but I don’t think I’ve had a full meal in over six months.”

“But why? You’re going to kill yourself getting this revenge.”

“That’s kind of the point. Killing him is the only thing that’s kept me going. Nothing exists past that. I have no life to return to. Milla Vantis died the night my village burned. I’m just a wraith looking for blood to pass on in peace.”

“Don’t talk like that!” Bucc shouted. “Life is all about living. You should know that as someone with an affinity for earth. On some islands they burn the ground and the flames add fresh nutrients into the soil. The destruction creates new life. That’s what you are! This is a second chance for you. Why waste it?”

Milla laughed. It wasn’t an unkind sound, but one that was very tired. “The world must look like such a beautiful place through your eyes. Everyone’s hearts shine golden and every cloud has a silver lining. I envy you, you know? All I see is a world in pain. I don’t think I have a place in either world.”

Bucc didn’t know how to answer that. They walked in silence for a long time, until Bucc couldn’t take another step. They made camp and Bucc tried to catch a few hours of restless sleep. He was woken by Milla before dawn.

“Look,” she told him.

He turned to where she was pointing and saw the blank bouncing in place, it’s speed getting quicker and quicker until it was almost a blur. It hopped over to them and nudged Bucc repeatedly before continuing its bouncing.

“It’s been like that for an hour now. Seems really eager to get moving. I think that whatever it wants to show us must be nearby.”

That was all the encouragement Bucc needed. He picked himself up and took hold of the small blank. It squirmed in his grip, making it difficult to hold. Its entire body was vibrating. He’d never seen one act so erratic. Once it was on his head it immediately began to urge him forward. As Bucc began to walk a thought came to him. He held out the blank and looked through it once again.

The warren of riftways was growing denser. If he squinted he could just make out a centre point off in the direction that the blank was urging them. It was a tight knot of passages that spiralled down to a single unseen point below. Bucc had a suspicion that the point where the riftways connected and the place where the blank was leading them was one in the same.

The riftways were still invisible to them but their presence was certainly felt. Having so many so close by made the air feel like they were walking through soup that had been hit by lightning. 

“Look,” Milla said after a while. “What in the seas is that?”

Bucc could see it too. There was a strange lump in the distance, a half-sphere that shone blindingly in the light of the sun. He angled the blank in front of his eyes and saw that the static tornado of riftways was converging on that very spot.

“Whatever it is, that’s where all the riftways lead.”

“Maybe that’s the only way out of here. It’s a big risk. Entering a riftway without a ship, or even a wayfarer, is basically suicide.”

Another hour passed before they were close enough to the object to get a better look. It was a large dome made of what Bucc could only assume was gold. It was perfectly smooth at a distance but as they neared it he realised that every inch of the surface was covered in intricate lines and runes. The air all around it shimmered and shifted even without looking through the blank. 

“What is it?” Bucc asked aloud. He could feel the tugging of the riftways above as he stepped closer. There seemed to be something at its top. The curve looked gentle enough to climb. 

He approached the golden rise and reached out his hand to touch it. The dome was mesmerising. It seemed to draw Bucc in, pulling at his mind and body with a gentle yet irresistible force.  His fingertips brushed against the icy cold surface and a ripple passed through him as though he had been suddenly submerged into frozen waters. He pulled back and fought to catch his breath.

The blank was humming with energy now. Bucc took it in his hands and looked through it at the dome. It glowed with the light of the riftways but no other secrets were revealed. He placed the creature on the ground, curious to see what it would do next. The blank bounced giddily and threw itself at the dome. It’s darkened body began to glow but nothing else happened. It looked to Bucc like the blank was feeding on the energy that was pouring from the metal.

“I’ve never heard of anything like this before,” Milla said. She moved around the dome, leaning in close to observe the symbols and patterns of its surface. “Someone had to build it and place it here, right?”

“I don’t know,” Bucc answered. “If it is gold, I didn’t know there was that much of it in the entire world.”

He braced himself and again placed his hand on the surface. The blank slithered across to him and rolled up his arm onto his shoulder. He tentatively lifted his foot up and took the first step onto the dome. Nothing dramatic happened so Bucc made his way cautiously towards the crest.

The top of the dome was a complete contrast to its base. The topmost quarter of the structure transitioned into clear glass that emerged from the gold seamlessly. Bucc tapped it with his foot and it seemed solid. He looked down and was hit with an overwhelming sense of awe. The dome was a cap atop a huge well that descended down deep into the earth. Colourful lights swirled within the hole but he couldn’t see the bottom. 

Shapes moved within the swirling vortex of lights. It was impossible to get a clear look but thousands of shadows swam together, some small, others colossal. Bucc watched them in open-mouthed amazement. The different shapes put him in the mind of familiars, but he had never heard of so many familiars gathering without humans.

Milla appeared at his side, staring wide eyed into the void below them, then bit her lip thoughtfully. She moved slightly further up and Bucc managed to pull his eyes away from the endless vortex to watch her approach a metal wheel that jutted from the centre of the dome. He followed her, his stomach dropping as he walked over the all too visible hole.

“What is it?” he asked. The wheel lay flat on a long metal pole that disappeared into a metal ring in the centre of the glass. 

“I don’t know. It looks like a valve of some kind. Pyrefist’s fleet uses them to control steam. I’m not sure how they work though.”

“Maybe it’s a lock,” Bucc observed. “All of the riftways join together here, and there are all those crazy lights and shapes on the other side. This dome is like a giant seal that keeps both sides separate.”

“But why would someone do that? And how? It doesn’t make sense.”

Milla stepped up to the valve and tried to turn it but the wheel was locked in place. In the centre of the valve was what appeared to be a keyhole. 

“Whatever it is, it needs a key to work. That doesn’t help us much.”

Bucc noticed that the blank was nudging the valve without success, the small blob growing more agitated with every second. He scooped it up and cradled it in his arms.

“Sorry, little guy. We don’t have the key. I’m afraid you brought us here for nothing. Unless you know where the key is?”

The blank drooped and quivered, sliding from Bucc’s arms to settle into the gap between Milla’s feet. Bucc interpreted that as a no. He turned back to Milla.

“Does this blank have a name? It seems a bit rude to not call it something.”

“Blanks don’t really have names. They all look basically identical. It makes keeping track of them hard.”

“But this one isn’t identical, is it. So it should have a name. What do you think, eh?” he said. Bucc crouched down and stroked the blank. It pulsed and made a low thrumming noise. “See? It agrees with me. But what to call you? Hmm. Well, you saved us from Captain Pyrefist, getting yourself hurt in the process. Then you guided us to that oasis. You’ve really helped us a lot, haven’t you? You’re just like one of the mythical nereid, sea nymphs that help pirates. How does Neri sound to you?”

The thrumming rose in pitch and the blank shook erratically between nuzzling Bucc’s hand. Bucc laughed and rubbed the top of the blank affectionately. 

“Okay! From here on out you’re called Neri.”

As Bucc spoke the words, the blank glowed with a golden light. There was a flash then calming warmth radiated within him. The light faded and Neri jumped into his arms. The blank gave the impression that, if it had a head, then it would currently be cocking it to the side as it stared up at him.

“Wait. That’s not right!” Milla said. She stormed over to Bucc and prodded the blank repeatedly.

“What?”

“The magical light display wasn’t just for show. You bonded with the blank and gave it a name. That aura was a sign that your souls formed a union and became master and familiar.”

“Master… and familiar… Wait, so Neri is my familiar now!”

Milla frowned. “Well, it should be. But it hasn’t changed for some reason. The connection is there but it hasn’t taken a new shape like it should. I’ve never seen this before.”

Bucc shrugged. “Neri accepted me, and that’s all that really matters, right bud?”

Neri rocked its whole body in an attempt to nod. Nothing had really changed about the blank, yet to Bucc it seemed that the creature somehow had more personality about itself. 

“I guess you’re right, but that still doesn’t help us get out of here,” Milla said. “I’ll be honest, I half expected us to get sucked into the riftways just by climbing up here. This seal must put out some kind of barrier that stops the riftway from directly touching it. We’re trapped here.”

Previous – Chapter 14. Acceptance.

Next – Chapter 16. Return to Reality.