Chapter 32. New Waves. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

Sunlight glimmered across crystal waves, giving the impression that the sea was filled with colourful gems. Shapes darted around just below the surface, while the usually static sky was filled with squawking birds of one kind or another. The world felt alive in a way that most had never known before.

Bucc watched the animals lazily from the bow of The Lady Hope. It had been a month since the Battle of Frindor, although little more than a week had passed since they had left the Nexus. A lot had happened since then, but then, not a lot had happened at the same time.

With Neri’s guidance, the young pirates had made it safely back, but they hadn’t been the first ones to arrive there. When Captain Pyrefist had opened the seal inside the Nexus, thousands of animals had begun to pour out from the riftways. Some had been beautiful, others filled even the sturdiest of pirates with terror. Rumours of the legendary leviathans had already spread across the seas.

Milla had been returned to the care of Lord Captain Steeledge’s surgeon. The man had his hands full since the battle, but Captain Steeledge himself had told him to focus on the girl’s care, despite his own terrible wounds. Against all odds, she was showing signs of recovery already. As Bucc had hoped, it turned out that she was simply too stubborn to die.

“Would you believe that the number of riftways we can access has more than doubled since the seal was opened?”

Bucc made a sound that was neither interested nor bored. Adward joined him, a notebook and quill in his hand and a look of excitement plastered across his face. Bucc had been on the receiving end of several of Adward’s new discoveries already. They were all interesting, but there was only so much wonder that Bucc could process at any one time. Adward continued unperturbed.

“I expect that they are all of the invisible passages that the blanks used. The navigational possibilities that this opens up are near endless.” 

“Is that a good thing?”

“It’s a very good thing. Before, rift travel was the danger while sailing was perfectly safe. Now we’ve already had reports of shark attacks, and even a sighting of a leviathan. The open seas have suddenly become a very dangerous place.”

“Have you heard anything new about Pyrefist or the Ashenna?”

“Nothing. Still no sightings in southern waters since they pulled back their fleet. That can only be a good thing, right?”

“Who knows? We haven’t won the war, and I don’t even know if we won the battle. This is all too confusing for me. Pyrefist did what he wanted to do, and what he did will potentially save everyone. Were we wrong to fight against him? Ah, it hurts my head just thinking about it. I’ll let the captains decide that kind of thing. On that note, where’s Jesse?”

“Where do you think? She’s overseeing the rebuilding of The Phoenix. I’m still amazed that they think they can piece those splinters back together into a sailable ship. There are plenty of other ships left to take parts from though. It’s the only peace she gets. Any time she steps out in public she gets swarmed with fans. Beating Captain Pyrefist has done wonders for her reputation.”

Bucc laughed. “She’s welcome to it. As long as she keeps all of that attention away from me.” He turned back to the sea and stared off into the sky. “I still can’t believe that we did it.”

“Let’s just hope that we don’t have to do it again,” Adward said with a tired smile. He placed a hand on Bucc’s shoulder. “You did pretty well for a pacifist. Just like you said, you protected everyone without hurting anybody. If only Kaz could have seen us fighting together like that.”

“What do you think the future is going to be now?”

“I don’t know. I guess it’s up to us to decide. We’re going to have a lot of struggles, that’s for sure.”

“Yeah, but we’ll overcome them. I still want to be a farmer, but while my family and friends are being threatened, I’ll try my hardest to get stronger. Who says I can’t do both?”


The two pirates stood in silence for a few minutes, lost in thought as they admired the new beauty of the world. Neri wiggled up onto Bucc’s head and bathed in the sun. The future was scary, but here and now, Bucc felt content. 

There was a bustle from the stairway. Bucc’s mum half jogged over to them. “Milla has just woken up. I thought you’d like to know straight away.”

A relieved grin spread across Bucc’s face. “Adward, go and get Jesse. It’s time to welcome Milla back.”

“Aye aye.”

Tomorrow was filled with uncertainty, conflict, and fears, but today, Bucc knew exactly who he was and what he needed to do. He was Buccaneer Jones, the pacifist pirate, and all he needed to be was a good friend. 

He cast a last look up into the sky as a flock of seagulls passed overhead. The squarks added a sharpness to the constant rolling slosh of the waves that Bucc had known his entire life. The world was full of movement and noise, and hundreds of colours punctuated the monotonous blue that he had grown to resent. It was the same world, but somehow it had changed beyond recognition.

“Let’s go, Neri. It’s time we show Milla that she does have a home. It’s all new waves out here, but me, you, Jesse, Adward, and Milla, will find a new way forward and face whatever tomorrow brings together. That’s a promise.”

The end.

Thanks for seeing this through to the end! I hope you enjoyed being a part of Bucc’s world. Feel free to leave your thoughts or feedback in a comment. 

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Previous – Chapter 31. Here at the End of it All.

Chapter 31. Here at the End of it All. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

Bucc shouted wordlessly. Without conscious thought his body became covered in his own fire. He ran through the wall of flame, dimly aware that the pain inside his chest had eased slightly. On the other side he came face to face with stark reality. Milla lay slumped on the golden block that was now slick with her blood. Pyrefist stood over her, his face as blank and unreadable as ever. His daughter stood a few steps away. Her eyes were fixed on Bucc and her body was ready to spring into action. 

Bucc couldn’t pull his eyes away from Milla’s pale face. Even as the dome beneath their feet started to shift and move, he stared helplessly at her closed eyes. He took an uncertain step forward. It was hard to walk. Whether from shock or the lurching of the dome, he couldn’t tell.

The dial lowered into the ground, leaving Milla in a pool of her own blood over the glass window into the shadowy well below. Pyrefist handed the sword back to his daughter without a word and they both turned to climb down the dome. Bucc’s eyes flitted between them and Milla. Then the dome began to open, its centre curling upwards and over like a blooming flower. The flat ground was quickly becoming a steep slope.

“Bucc! Stop them!” shouted Jesse. The wall of fire had disappeared now and Jesse and Adward were sprinting towards him. “I’ll get Milla. You two go after them!”

The order took any indecision from Bucc’s mind. He charged down the slope, gravity lending him a breakneck speed. Adward ran at his side. The gap between them was closing quickly. 

“I hope you have a plan,” Adward yelled between heavy breaths. 

“Stir the wind to move the sand. That’s going to be our advantage here.”

They jumped the last few steps into the soft sand a few steps behind Pyrefist. He turned to face them.

“Do you still wish to fight me? How awfully aggressive of a pacifist. Has anger and revenge clouded your morality?” He looked away from Bucc to the now vertical surface of the former dome. Shimmering light was shooting up from within it to connect to the riftway. “Even so, now isn’t the time. We are about to witness a once in a lifetime event. Though I wonder if your body can last even that long.”

The captain was right. Bucc’s heart felt close to bursting and his head was light. The moment of relief that using his power had brought him had given him an idea. He faced down the larger man. 


Adward moved his arms and a wind blew across the static landscape. The sand, which had never known a breeze, was swept up and swirled around the two Ashenna pirates. Bucc let his anger build, tentatively tapping into the excess heat that was on the verge of destroying him. He hoped that things were as simple as he thought they were. He had taken in too much heat, so he just needed to vent it back out again.

Bucc braced himself then let loose. Fire ripped through him in a torrent of raw power that blasted the landscape in scouring light. He screamed as lances of pain stabbed through his muscles and nerves. All of his own power and that of Pyrefist’s daughter poured from him in a wave of pure carnage that burned his hands.

Adward sent as much sand into the inferno as he could manage, angling eddies of sand from every direction until his powers failed him and he sagged onto his knees, breathing heavily.

Bucc felt the last of his power splutter and vanish without warning. Smoke billowed off him as he stood numbly swaying in place. Before him was a scene of devastation. The ground was a lumpy patch of misshapen glass that must have covered almost a mile of the Nexus. Everything steamed gently, filling the air with swirling mist. 

The air suddenly felt unbearably cold. A fierce chill cut deeply into Bucc. Finding that he had no strength left, he collapsed backwards into the sand. He turned his head slightly to stare into the glass wasteland. 

Both Pyrefist and his daughter were still standing. They were encased in the glass up to their knees, with lumps of glass dotting the rest of their bodies where it had rained from above. Just as Bucc had hoped, it seemed that both had used their affinity to avoid taking any direct damage from his blast. The woman was struggling wearily to free herself but didn’t have the strength left. Pyrefist himself simply stared at Bucc, showing no discomfort at all.

The lord captain rolled his shoulders and glass cracked and fell from his torso. Calmly, he placed his hand on the glass around his legs and released a quick but intense burst of heat. The glass shattered. He began a slow walk towards Bucc, completely ignoring the struggles of his daughter.

“Good effort. Your reluctance to hurt me is a deadly weakness though. You were resourceful enough to save your own life and power up your attack in a single move, yet you threw it away for your morals.”

Bucc couldn’t move. He had nothing left to give. Pyrefist’s words washed over him, barely registering in his exhausted mind. He had hoped that the effort needed to defend against the blast would have drained the man, but now he could only watch helplessly as the man’s hands began to glow with power.

Jesse came charging from the side and tackled Pyrefist. She hit him and bounced back, not moving the man an inch. She recovered fast and stood between the captain and Bucc. Her pistols were empty and she had no weapons but she stood there with fierce determination.

“I won’t let you hurt anyone else!”

Pyrefist looked down on her scornfully. “You’re no captain, girl. You are a weakling hiding behind a mask, a child playing dress up.”

He reached out a single finger and pressed it against the wooden mask. A surge of flame passed through it, shattering the mask. Jesse stared in horror at the captain, her determination draining from her face to be replaced by fear. 

“Your words lack bite now that you can’t hide away from the world. Those scars, and that face of a shy little girl, they are who you are. You can’t run away from that. You pushed all of your passion into a mask, and now without it you are worthless.”

He backhanded her across the face with enough force to send her skidding across the sand. She lay there, unmoving, surrounded by the fragments of her broken mask. Pyrefist turned his attention away from her and back to Bucc.

“Turn your head towards the salvation of our world, Buccaneer Jones,” Pyrefist intoned, motioning towards the pillar of light that flared up out of the hole beneath the dome like a blazing beacon. Shadows dotted the light by the thousands, some small, others large beyond imagining. They were all floating upwards towards the tangle of riftways where they disappeared from sight.

“I’m not a sentimental man, but even I can see the beauty in this. Believe me, Buccaneer, I would love to say that my work is done, that humanity has been saved, but our people are simply too narrow minded to protect themselves from their own greed. You’ve seen it too. Everything revolves around instant gratification. They want to feast, fight, and consume in an endless cycle of waste. It seems to be a part of being human. They need someone to tell them no. Please tell me you can understand that?”

Bucc couldn’t answer. His mouth was too dry to form words. 

Pyrefist sighed, almost sadly. “I will be remembered as a villain and a tyrant, but at least there will be people left to remember me. That is enough.”

Flames once again appeared in his hand. He held it out, the light filling Bucc’s vision. There was nothing he could do. The flame grew then vanished suddenly as Pyrefist lurched forward with a grunt. Jesse clung to his back with one arm around his throat, a feral snarl on her lips. In her other hand was a shard of her mask that she drove into his back repeatedly with savage cries. 

Pyrefist tried to pull the girl free but she wouldn’t let go. Again and again she stabbed him, plunging the mask into him until the rough wood shredded her hand and her own blood mixed with the stream flowing down the captain’s back. 

“These scars are my mask! It’s a part of me! I’m not worthless, and never was!”

He finally grabbed onto her and threw her hard into the ground before staggering away. The captain moved with a drunken clumsiness as he lurched away from Bucc. A trail of blood followed him as he took laboured steps towards the pillar of light. Nobody moved to stop him. Nobody could. He clambered up onto the golden ramp then fell, the metal slick with his blood. On hands and knees he crawled up the ramp, only standing when he reached the edge of the light. He looked down at them, then tipped back into the riftway. The light pulled him away and his shadowy shape vanished from sight. 

Adward appeared at Bucc’s side. “Are you okay?”

“Breathing hurts,” Bucc rasped. 

“That’s probably not good.” Adward observed dryly. “Come on, we have to get back. We need water and medical attention.”

As Adward helped him up, he stared in wide-eyed amazement at Jesse. She stood nearby, drenched in blood and panting heavily. Bucc took a few faltering steps towards her but she shook her head and pointed towards the base of the dome.

“I’m fine. Go to Milla.”

“Milla!” Bucc said, his thoughts snapping back into place. 

They stumbled over to where the girl was laid. Bucc dropped to his knees at her side. Her dress was soaked in blood and her skin was sickly and pale. Somehow she was still breathing though.

“The plants tried to seal the wound,” Jesse told them as she slowly limped to join them. “I don’t think it’s enough.”

Bucc pushed away the adrenaline, and all of the doubts and fears that fought for control in his head. He felt a strange sense of clarity through the exhaustion. His fire wasn’t a weapon. It was a tool for creation and for survival. 

“Sit her up,” he told his friends. They lifted her slightly. Bucc placed one hand on Milla’s chest over the wound, his other on her back. He had seen surgeons seal bad wounds that would kill the unlucky pirate by using heated iron to cauterise the injury and stop the bleeding. Looking deep within himself, Bucc grasped at the last reserves of his strength and summoned his fire one more time. 

Milla hissed and writhed even as Jesse and Adward tried to keep her in place. Seconds passed, then Bucc laid down beside Milla with a quiet groan. Jesse and Adward slumped into the sand too, and for a moment, there was nothing but a peaceful silence.

A sharp cracking noise sounded nearby, followed by unsteady footsteps. Adward was the only one with the energy to lift his head.

“That woman is getting away.”

“Let her,” Bucc said tiredly. “The fight’s over for today. I don’t know how different the world will be, or even if we won or lost. Either way, it’s over.”

Jesse was the first to stand. “We have to go back. Milla needs proper care. We can’t stay here.”

Bucc nodded slowly. “You’re right. Let’s go.”

Previous – Chapter 30. Shores of the Nexus.

Next – Chapter 32. New Waves.

Chapter 30. Shores of the Nexus. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

Adward frowned. “Even if we can fight our way to the riftway, it’s going to take too long. There are too many Ashenna ships. We need a shortcut.”

“How are we supposed to find a shortcut through a battle?” Jesse asked.

“Leave it to me,” her brother answered with a smile. He ran over to Captain Ackeridge and began to explain his idea to her. She nodded and Adward returned a few seconds later. 

“Help me lower the boat then hold tight. We’re about to go for a ride.”

They clambered into the boat and lowered it until they hung just above the rolling waves below them. Captain Ackeridge appeared at the railing and leaned down.

“Are you ready?”

“Ready for what?” Bucc asked.


The waves rose up to meet the boat and swept it forward. The ropes fell away as the boat lifted up above the ship’s railing and was pulled in an arc over the deck atop a bridge of flowing water. Every wayfarer concentrated on controlling the torrent of water, directing it out across the Ashenna fleet and upwards towards the floating riftway that The Phoenix had fallen from a short time ago.

“Neri, you’re up!” Bucc shouted as they sped towards the riftway. The familiar leapt into action as the three pirates huddled closely together. She expanded quickly, her slimy body absorbing the three until she formed a large bubble that was only slightly smaller than the boat. 

They hit the riftway and Neri bounced out of the boat, leaving it to be lost to the raging current of lights. Bucc floated within Neri and couldn’t feel any of the usual strain brought on by the riftway. Jesse clung to one of his hands while Adward gripped his other. Usually the familiar felt cold but now she was uncomfortably warm. 

Neri zigzagged through the riftway erratically, twisting and turning at high speeds without ever slowing. Every second that passed seemed to increase the tempo of the rhythmic pulsing that passed through her body. Bucc could feel her excitement mixed with apprehension, both underpinned by the constant sting of burning.

“Not long now, buddy,” Bucc whispered. “We just have to hold on a little longer, okay?”

There was a sound like scraping glass then the rainbow of colours inverted and saturated in an instant so that only blue and white remained. Neri shuddered then burst, reforming as her usual shape and clinging to Bucc’s shirt. 

All of them screamed. They were falling through the sky high above the white sands of the Nexus. As the wind tore at his eyes, Bucc tried to get his bearings and saw the glint of gold in the distance. They were so close. All they needed to do now was not die.

“Neri! You can’t rest yet! I need you to spread yourself out like a sheet. You can do that, right?”

The familiar made a weary moaning noise then shuffled up Bucc’s back and wrapped a slimey tendril around his neck. She stretched out across Jesse and Adward, attaching herself to their necks too before reaching down to do the same around their feet. The wind caught beneath her and Neri opened out like a parachute, slowing their fall.

“So this is the legendary Shores of the Nexus,” Adward said breathlessly as they stared out at the endless white expanse. “I’ve got to admit, I expected more. How many people have dedicated their lives to finding this empty place?”

“I think there’s more here than meets the eye,” Bucc told him weakly. While Adward’s eyes wandered over everything in sight, Bucc’s were focussed entirely on the metal dome before them.

“Look!” pointed Jesse. “They really are here!”

Bucc could see them too. Three dots beside the shining gold dome could only be Milla and her capturers. Thousands of blanks circled the dome and even from that distance Bucc could hear their high-pitched chittering.

“They must be able to see us, right?” Adward pointed out. “We aren’t exactly being discreet gliding down like this. So why haven’t they just burned us up while we can’t avoid attacks?”

“You’re right. We’re open targets up here,” Jesse added. “Hey Neri, can you speed this up?”

Bucc felt a ripple of his familiar’s thoughts. He didn’t have time to ask her to stop. The familiar snapped back into a small ball, letting the three pirates free fall towards the sand. Neri accelerated and sped past them. 

Bucc closed his eyes and braced for a bone-breaking impact. An impact came, but it was soft and caused him to bounce slightly. It took him a moment before he dared to open his eyes. He, Jesse, and Adward were all laid safely atop of Neri. The familiar groaned loudly then reformed once more into her usual shape. He hugged her tightly and sent a mental message across telling her not to scare him like that again. Neri simply nuzzled his cheek innocently.

The three stood up and faced the golden dome. They could see that Pyrefist was already nearing the summit. They set off at a sprint to catch up, their feet churning up the pale sand with each step. The light that reflected from the dome seemed to grow brighter every second until it was almost blinding. 

Then they were at the foot of the golden hill. Pyrefist had crested the dome, disappearing from their sight. Bucc placed a foot on the shining metal and could feel it vibrate through his boot. Neri shook at the same frequency. The air hummed. Jesse and Adward stood frozen at the base, entranced by the scale and majesty of the mound of gold.

“So much gold…” Jesse muttered in amazement. “The treasures of every ship in the south seas couldn’t match this.”

Adward stared at it with tears in his eyes. “Captain Dread’s treasure. It has to be. He didn’t hide it, he brought all of the gold here to build this.”

“Come on!” Bucc encouraged. “We’re so close.”

They started up the rise, pushing themselves step by step up the steep incline. Bucc needed his friends’ help half way up, so together the three stumbled up the last stretch to crest the dome. There was no time to catch their breath. Pyrefist stood beside the central dial waiting for them.

The pirate lord watched them, no trace of emotion on his hardened face. His daughter stood at his side with a blade to Milla’s throat. 

“You exceed my expectations, boy. I knew you’d come, but this was fast. If not for your morals, I think you could be a great force for change.”

“Shut up! I’m here to stop you, not impress you.”

“To do one would achieve the other,” Pyrefist answered simply. “But that doesn’t matter now. Something like this requires witnesses. That’s where you come in. Or, your friends at least. You might not have the time to return home. Such a waste. I could save you, if you at least try to see reason.”

“I don’t need another of your lessons about false compassion. You hurt people and do everything in your power to control them. Your actions speak louder than my words.”

“Good. They always should. Such violence was a heavy burden to bear, but now I’ve found a better path. All thanks to you and your friend here. Tell me, do you know where we are?”

“The Shores of the Nexus.”

“Correct. This is the centrepoint of our world, a doorway between us and elsewhere. The blanks are connected to here, while every other animal disappeared fifty years ago. I did my research and found that the leviathan threat was becoming too big to deal with so one crew took it upon themselves to seal the creatures away at their point of origin. I’m sure you know of the legends surrounding Lord Captain Dread?”

Bucc remembered the shapes that swam beneath the golden seal. Was that really where all of the animals had gone?

“You saw them, didn’t you? The shadows that swim through the darkness below our feet. This seal has all the answers to our current problems. Our so called hero failed. He didn’t only seal away the leviathans but every animal. All I have to do is open the seal and life will return to the world and the balance of nature will be restored. Humanity will still need to be better managed, but none should feel the pain of starvation.”

Bucc was trying his best to keep up with what the man was saying. So far it all seemed too sensible, too reasonable. He didn’t like it when somebody he had happily categorised as an enemy sounded… right.

Adward was the one who answered. “But wouldn’t that unleash the leviathans back into the world too? That would be very bad.”

“Nature has no concept of good and bad. It has balance. If any one animal is too good at hunting and repopulating then they run out of food and die off until a sustainable amount remain. Most animals had natural predators to keep their numbers in check. That is why we need the leviathans. Humanity needs a challenge greater than ourselves for us to unite against. Otherwise we turn on one another as we have these past fifty years. Humans revel in the thrill of the hunt, but if nothing can kill us, our very souls grow bored. Boredom leads to destructive tendencies. By locking them away, all we did was break nature’s cycle.”

“Enough talking!” Jesse cut in. “I don’t care about any of that. Just give us Milla back!”

Pyrefist stepped closer to Milla and raised her head to look him in the eyes. Even with the blade to her throat, she struggled against his grip.

“You will have to wait a moment longer for her return,” he told them flatly. “She has a purpose to fulfil first. 

“What purpose!” Bucc shouted. “You need a key. Milla knows nothing about it!”

“I am aware of both these facts. Lord Captain Dread didn’t rely on a key of iron though. That could be lost or stolen. That paranoid fool somehow made a lock that would only respond to his blood. Most of his kin were members of his crew and disappeared with him. Dread had a handful of illegitimate children scattered across the seas though. One such line leads straight to your friend here.”

Bucc didn’t like where this was going. “Get away from her!”

Pyrefist ignored him. He shoved Milla against the dial and pushed her down by her hair until her chest lay against the raised golden pillar. Milla tried to lash out with her vines but Pyrefist grabbed them and wrapped them in place around his fist. Without a word he took the sword from his daughter’s hand.


Bucc ran forwards, pulling all of the fire within him together. Light blazed and a scorching wall of flame reared up in front of him. Without slowing, Bucc tried to open up a gap or lower the temperature of a small patch, but Pyrefist’s will was as unmoving as iron. He skidded to a stop inches away from the inferno and staggered back.

Bucc could hear Milla struggling. She shouted and kicked at her capturer. He could see their heat-warped figures through the tongues of flame. Pyrefist held her firmly in one hand and positioned the swordpoint over her back with the other. Bucc’s mind was blank with panic. He started to push forward again through the heat. He had to do something.

There was a sudden movement through the flames. The sword stabbed down. A scream echoed across the empty landscape of the Nexus. Milla tensed then sagged across the dial, pinned in place by the blade.

Previous – Chapter 29. Dreams and Resolutions.

Next – Chapter 31. Here at the End of it All.

Chapter 29. Dreams and Resolutions. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

The biting chill of the ice sent a spark of consciousness through the fried circuits of Bucc’s brain. He coughed then threw up acidic bile that burned his throat and mouth. Every part of him felt dried out and sore. Neri flopped from his chest and sagged across his knees. Bucc carefully scooped her up and cradled her in his arms as she wheezed loudly. 

Milla approached the frozen woman. Bucc made a move to stop her but doubled over in pain at the smallest motion. Nobody else dared to stand in her way. She glared at the siblings just to be sure and both took a quick step back. She tried to stand face to face with the woman but Milla was younger and the Ashenna was naturally tall. Milla had to look up to stare into her closed eyes.

A moment passed as Milla just stood there. Then she pulled back her arm and slapped the woman as hard as she could. The sharp sound rang out across the ship, piercing the dull roar of the fires that burned across the battlefield. Red’s eyes shot open. They darted around frantically then settled on Milla with a burning hatred.

“You think you’ve won?”

“Well, we aren’t the ones encased in a block of ice after being outplayed by a group of nobodies,” Jesse answered snidely. 

“You beat me. I can’t deny that. But I’m just another nobody too. Your fleet is scattered and the rest of the world is still in the hands of my father. Even if you want to consider winning me as a victory, it all counts for nothing. My fleet will regroup and Father will find another weapon to replace me. At most you’ve bought yourself some time.”

“We’ve bought ourselves hope,” Bucc said weakly. “We proved that we can win if we try. And we did it my way. We’ve done it once so we can do it again.”

The woman snorted through chattering teeth. Her skin was turning a sickly blue colour from the cold. “You won’t be doing anything. I don’t know how you did it, but you absorbed my flames. That’s all still inside you. All that heat will dry you out and burn you up. You’ve sentenced yourself to death in order to trap me, a flamecaster, inside of something I can easily melt.”

“I don’t think you’ll be getting out any time soon,” he told her. “To you, victory is the only thing that matters, right? That means you’d have used up all the strength you had to avoid losing to a bunch of nobody kids. I expect any strength you have left is going straight to keeping your body warm right now.”

“That doesn’t matter. You’re still surrounded by my soldiers and you have nothing to contain me in once this ice melts. The more you think about it, the less it looks like you’ve won anything. That is, unless you’re planning to kill me?”

“I’m not,” Bucc answered simply. “I’m in no condition to stop anyone else from giving it a go though.”

At that moment, Captain Ackeridge and Captain Steeledge limped over to the group. Ackeridge was supporting Captain Steeledge from one side while her familiar, still in its larger form, supported him from the other. Steeledge’s own familiar, a large bird with metallic feathers, sat on his shoulder and nestled its head into his cheek affectionately. One of his arms was heavily bandaged, the other gripped a sword tightly. Behind them were a small cluster of other pirates, including Bucc’s parents.

“Come to gloat now that a group of children have done what you couldn’t?” The woman said sneeringly.

“No. I’ve come to execute you.”

A spike of pressure impacted everyone at the same time. Bucc looked up to see a spot of sky shimmer then warp in a rainbow of colours. The colours crackled, condensed, then split, parting to reveal a hole in the world that led straight into the riftway. Bubbles began to bleed out, slushing down and weaving through the air until they reached the deck beside the block of ice. 

It took Bucc a moment to realise they were blanks. Hundreds of them span in a tight column, a low, sad moan being emitted by each until the sound was overwhelming. They lingered there for a few brief seconds then scattered, revealing a sight that nobody could have expected.

“Pyrefist!” Milla shouted. She was a blur of movement as she charged at the man. Everyone else was too stunned to move. 

The lord captain stood there, looming over the other pirates without any effort on his part. His impassive, angular face could very well have been carved from stone. He didn’t react to Milla, allowing her vines to lash against him without the slightest hint of flinching.

Pyfist made a sharp whistle and the blanks regrouped and converged on Milla. She cried out in surprise as they wrapped around her and locked her limbs in place. Jesse swung two pistols up to aim at him but the metal heated up to a bright red colour in an instant. She dropped them with a hiss of pain. 

Without taking his eyes off of Milla, Pyrefist reached out his hand and rested it on the block of ice that surrounded his daughter. It shattered at his touch and she fell to the floor. 

“Stand,” he ordered her without looking around. Shakily, she obeyed. 

He took a step forward and grabbed a large handful of Milla’s hair. “Come. We have work to do.”

Bucc managed to pull himself to his feet and stumbled towards the Ashenna leader. “Leave her alone!”

“You’re still alive,” Pyrefist stated dismissively. “Not for long by the looks of it. I have no interest in you. Everything I need is right here.” He tugged on Milla’s hair to emphasize his point. 

“What do you want with Milla? I won’t let you take her!”

“You are inconsequential. As for the girl, she is the key to everything. You have no idea what you’ve had under your nose. I must commend you, girl, for escaping me twice. Having the blanks push that barrel off my ship in the riftway was one thing, but having them whisk you away before my eyes was quite another. I took the time to study the blanks and run experiments on them. I worked out their connection to the riftway, and found my own way to command them. It turns out that my goal and theirs are actually one in the same. They led me straight to you, and now they will take us to our destiny.”

He clicked his fingers and the blanks started to rapidly circle the two Ashenna and Milla. Bucc ran for them but in the second it took to close the distance between them, they were gone.

Bucc fell to his knees. Raw emotions tore through him then drained away as fatigue and pain overcame everything. He collapsed to the deck, breathing heavily. His parents rushed to his side, closely followed by Jesse and Adward.

“Everything we did was for nothing,” he panted miserably. “Pyrefist’s daughter escaped and they took Milla.”

“But why Milla?” Adward asked. “If Pyrefist was here then I’d imagine he has full control of the Northern Seas. He could have wiped the last of the resistance out just now but all he cared about was taking a young girl. Why? What could the blanks want that line up with his goals?”

Bucc clenched his fist. Neri nestled into the crook of his neck and purred loudly. He stroked his familiar and took a calming breath then rolled over. He stared into the infinite blue above as his mind went into overdrive.

“The blanks took us to the Shores of the Nexus. They keep wanting to take us back. Or take Milla back, and I’m always at her side. They wanted us to open that golden seal that was locked. Pyrefist must want to open the seal too.”

“But you said it needed a key. Do you think Milla knows where the key is?”

“She didn’t seem to. It has to be related though. We know where they’re going.”

Bucc’s mum placed a hand on his forehead then pulled it away quickly. “You’re burning up. We have to get you some help.”

“There isn’t time. I have to follow them.”

“Follow them?” she exclaimed. “Bucc, you’re dying. We need to save you first. Pyrefist is too strong. We can’t fight him but we can help you.”

Bucc shook his head. “You can’t. It isn’t an illness you can medicate, or an injury you can bandage. There’s nothing you can do. But there is something I can do. I can follow my friend and do everything in my power to protect her and bring her back. Milla has nobody. If I don’t go, nobody will. She deserves somebody to have her back. I don’t want her to fight alone any longer. I’m sorry.”

“I won’t lose you again. I forbid you from going.”

Bucc smiled at her. Mischief glinted in his eyes. “You can try to stop me from going, but I’ll still go anyway. I’m a pirate after all. Breaking the rules is kind of what we do.”

Bucc’s father placed a hand on her shoulder and softly shook his head. “We taught him to do what’s right. It was always us that misunderstood what that exactly meant. Fighting with all of your heart for something you believe in, that is the true way of pirates.”

His wife didn’t look convinced but she sighed and stepped back. Adward and Jesse helped Bucc to his feet. He could barely keep his balance without his friends holding him up.

Captains Steeledge and Ackeridge approached them, both looking pale and worn down. Steeledge looked even closer to passing out than Bucc himself did. He offered Bucc a small, respectful nod of the head.

“How do you plan to follow them? I’ve never seen anyone just disappear like that.”

“Neri knows the way,” he answered simply. His familiar was still an angry red colour but she bounced and chirped her agreement. 

“You know that you don’t stand a chance of winning?”

Bucc shrugged. “That’s for the Noodly One to decide. Milla needs me, that’s all that matters. I don’t abandon my friends.”

“Then go with all the luck and best wishes that the South Seas can offer. Though judging by the state we’re in, that probably doesn’t mean much.”

“Thank you, Lord Captain.”

Bucc motioned with his head towards Neri and his familiar jumped up and started to cover Bucc’s entire body. Neri had to stop though when Adward and Jesse placed a hand on Bucc’s shoulders.

“Don’t think you’re leaving without us,” Jesse told him sternly. “You did say we’d never leave each others’ side again. The three of us going off to face an overpowered tyrant for the fate of the free world is exactly the kind of thing that Kaz had in mind for us. And anyway, Milla is a member of my crew now. That means she’s my responsibility. We’re her family, so she’ll always have someone to rely on.”

Tears formed in Bucc’s eyes. He tried to blink them away. This wasn’t the time for that kind of thing. He needed to focus.

“You think you can manage the three of us?” he asked his familiar. Neri swayed uncertainly then whistled a determined little trill. “I guess it’s settled then. This is officially a rescue mission. Let’s go get Milla back!”


“Okay, we need a boat and a clear path to a riftway. Lord Captain, do you think you can clear the way for us?”

Steeledge eyed the Ashenna fleet that still dominated the ocean around them. “I reckon I can do that. Let’s give ‘em hell. Everyone to your stations! The battle isn’t over yet!”

The pirates ran across the deck to man any undamaged cannons and do what they could to salvage the sails. Slowly, the ship gained momentum and began to ram its way through the debris and milling vessels. This reignited the battle and an erratic beat of cannonfire began to sound.

“Are you guys sure you want to come?” Bucc asked Adward and Jesse as they found an undamaged rowboat. “It’s not like I have a plan for how to make this work out.”

“I know. That’s why we’ve got to go with you and make sure you don’t get yourself killed. We’re a team. Where you go, we go. Together we can overcome anything.”

Bucc tried to laugh but a sudden pain flared in his chest and caused him to double over. He was running low on time. Jesse and Adward rushed to his side but he waved them away and motioned at the rowboat.

“We have to hurry. I don’t know how much longer I can keep going.”

Previous – Chapter 28. Who We Really Are.

Next – Chapter 30. Shores of the Nexus.

Chapter 28. Who We Really Are. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

Milla rushed forward and launched herself into the air using her vines. She lashed out from above but she deliberately aimed too short to keep her vines away from the Ashenna woman’s sword. 

In the brief second that the woman was focussed on Milla, Jesse worked her affinity to pull a stream of water up from the ocean and onto the ship. Bucc directed his power towards it, superheating the liquid until it became steam which Adward spread across the deck using the wind. The entire deck became shrouded in warm clouds of mist.

A burst of fire appeared from where Red had been standing but the fire spread itself thin then faded. She tried again and got the same result. Bucc smiled to himself. Just like they had planned, Milla had spread her pollen into the steam while she was unseen. The fire consumed the pollen, spreading itself thin in a way that no caster would expect before being extinguished by the damp air. 

Nothing moved in the grey sheen of the steam. Bucc could feel sweat beading across his skin. He had no idea how Red would react to having her sight and flame robbed from her. From everything that Milla had told him, he didn’t expect such a simple trick to fluster her.

As though in response to his thoughts he heard a whoosh of flame and saw the steam light up again, this time bigger than before. As it faded there were sounds of a scuffle then somebody hit the deck. Milla whistled from near where the fire had come from and Jesse and Adward began to constrict the steam down into a smaller area until it was all contained in a globe a few feet in length. Bucc placed his hand on the steam and upped the temperature.

The heat and humidity within must have been torturous. The air would have been difficult to breath and the warmth was dizzying. All they needed to do was make the woman pass out and they wouldn’t need to fight her. 

Milla stood to the side, her vines disappearing into the steam. Bucc knew that they were wrapped around Red tightly, keeping her in place and restricting her breathing even further. The wet air was keeping everything too damp for her to use her flames. 

The ball began to shimmer and distort. Adward’s face creased in concentration.

“She’s heating the steam herself,” he grunted. “It’s expanding faster than I can stop it.”

Milla staggered back with a curse, her vines returning to her side. They looked dark and limp. Adward’s concentration finally gave out and the globe collapsed. 

Red sprang out and slashed at Adward. Her face was flushed but she looked nowhere close to passing out. Adward brought his own cutlass up in defence but was knocked over and skidded across the deck. Jesse unloaded her pistols at the woman, her affinity keeping the water away from the gunpowder, but the woman dodged one shot then deflected the second with her blade. 

Milla struck as the woman started towards Jesse. The Ashenna pivoted and drove her heel into Milla’s gut without missing a beat. She grabbed the girl by the throat with one hand while she blocked another volley of bullets from Jesse with the other. Milla kicked her in the stomach but it was like kicking a wall. 

“Was this your big plan?” she asked in an impassive tone. “All of your hopes were riding on a cheap trick?”

“Nothing’s cheap if you try your hardest to achieve it!” Bucc told her. “Don’t think you’re so high and mighty just because power comes so easily for you!”

“Easy?” She slammed Milla into the deck then hurled her at Jesse before starting towards Bucc. “What do you know of ‘easy’? I know your story. Buccaneer Jones, the boy who didn’t want to be a pirate. A boy who grew up on a floating village surrounded by people and never going hungry. A boy who only unlocked his affinity a year ago but now tries to stand against the power I’ve spent my life learning. You are the one who has lived an easy life and doesn’t deserve to be standing here!”

“Yeah, I have lived a pretty good life, and that’s exactly why I want things to stay the way they are.”

She grabbed him by the throat. Fire flared around her and blazed along the length of her arm until the flames brushed against Bucc’s chin. It took all of his effort to resist the heat.

“You say you want things to stay the same, but your precious society is on the brink of starvation. You must have noticed. Maybe it doesn’t feel bad today, but in a few years time your lives will be wretched. My father is driven by a single goal. His every action is made to forge a better future for everyone. He doesn’t see himself as an emperor but as a tool for change. I’m not his daughter but a weapon to be turned against those that don’t want to change. My father came from nowhere and had nothing, not even a name, but his convictions forged the man you know today. When I was born he raised me just as he had been raised, without food, shelter, or name, fighting tooth and nail every day to survive. I stand here stronger than you because I fought for that strength. So don’t you dare assume my worth.”

Bucc was running out of air. His vision started to blur and he could feel the heat rising as his concentration slipped. He looked into the woman’s eyes but found no hint of emotion other than a deep burning anger. 

The woman jolted and dropped Bucc as Milla punched her in the back of the head. She staggered and whipped around, sending a wave of flame at the younger girl. Jesse had been prepared though and a wall of water rushed between the fire and Milla.

“Now!” Bucc yelled in a hoarse voice.

Milla leapt through the water then through the flame in one swift movement, delivering a vicious blow to Red’s stomach. The sudden attack winded her and she gasped for air. Even as this was happening, Milla released a cloud of pollen spores straight into her face which she inhaled and began choking on. Water came rushing around the woman in a raging spiral that quickly closed in on her before she could catch her breath again. 

Bucc once again placed his hands on the globe of water. He was focused on the fire within and the heat of the world around him, but he was approaching this awareness from another angle. Fire came from a stirring of energy, by whipping it into a frenzy. Bucc’s own inner energy caused movement, which in turn caused heat. That process could be reversed.

He felt the energy in the water, but he didn’t try to make the tiny particles move faster. Instead, he drew the existing energy from the water, slowing down the particles’ movement to reduce the heat. He could feel his insides growing hotter but pressed on, chilling the water as quickly as he could.

Wind began raging, spinning around the orb of water in a great upwards draft. Adward nodded his head to Bucc as he fought hard to keep the wind tunnel stable. This updraft further cooled the water, pulling any excess heat upwards like a chimney. Particles of ice were beginning to form in the water.

A look of pure rage burned on the woman’s face. The water around her began to froth as she started to heat it. Bucc ignored it, focusing all of his attention on draining the heat before it could build up. He felt like he was burning up but he couldn’t stop now. 

It was easier to heat the water than freeze it. This was a losing battle and Bucc knew it. Fortunately he wasn’t trying to win. All he had to do was hold out longer than her breath. Judging by her face, that wouldn’t be too much longer. He just needed a little more time…

The woman snarled and the water shook with violent energy. She was unleashing all of the power she could to break out. The heat burned through Bucc’s body in a wave of constant pain now. His skin was flush and prickled with beads of sweat. His heart beat heavily in his chest. 

“Bucc!” Jesse shouted. Her posture was starting to slump and her arms shook as she maintained the water orb. “You’re burning up!”

He tried to answer but the words came out as garbled nonsense. All he could feel was blistering heat. His body couldn’t hold on much longer but he refused to be the weak link. If he gave up now then all of his friends would be hurt. He wasn’t going to let that happen.

He felt his mind slipping as the pain overwhelmed him. There were shouts from his friends but he couldn’t understand the words. The world was fading to black.

A jolt ran down his spine. Neri slid around his body until she rested over his heart. Ghostly fire was beginning to spread across Bucc’s skin but the familiar ignored it. She plastered herself across his chest then started to make a high whistling sound. A soothing cool sensation cut through the scorching heat. Neri quivered, her grey skin shifting tones towards a deep red.

The moment of relief passed as the blazing pain spread like a returning tide. Neri’s pain reflected through his mind, the feeling hurting him more than his own pain. She was growing a brighter red by the second as she channeled some of the heat away from him. Steam rose from them, causing the air above the fire to shimmer sickeningly.

Then the water stopped getting hotter. Bucc blinked away the darkness just enough to see a bubble of air escape from the Ashenna woman’s mouth and her eyes flicker closed. His brain felt foggy and it took him a moment to realise what was happening. Without the woman heating the water, the liquid globe quickly began to frost over with ice.

Jesse was quicker to react. She quickly reshaped the water so it freed the woman’s head before the whole thing froze solid. Bucc still showed no signs of stopping so she staggered up to him and shoved him away. She recoiled at the touch, his skin burning her like heated iron. His eyes were blank and unseeing. Despite the heat she hugged him tightly as she tried to pull him over to the ice. Adward and Milla ran to her side to help. Together they managed to lean him against the block of ice.

Previous – Chapter 27. Strike Back.

Next – Chapter 29. Dreams and Resolutions.

Chapter 27. Strike Back. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

“This plan is crazy, even by your usual standards,” Bucc pointed out nervously. “Some might go so far as to say down right suicidal.”

“Probably,” Jesse replied. “We’re the only ones who can even attempt it though. If there’s a single chance that we can win, we have to take it. Everyone’s freedom is resting on this working out.”

“No pressure then.”

The Phoenix had fallen back from the battle and was now making its way towards the riftway. A quietness had settled over the crew as exhaustion and the bitter pang of defeat began to set in. Jesse wasn’t letting them wallow though, instead keeping everybody busy and active.

Jesse, Bucc, and Milla had joined Adward at the helm. The ship looked in a rough state but thankfully none of the damage was affecting her ability to sail. Despite this, Adward had a deep frown on his face.

“Do you think you can do it?” his sister asked.

“What you’re asking would require absolute perfection. “I’m good, but this would be a whole other level. Pirates who have studied the riftways for decades wouldn’t even dare risk it. But, if this is an all or nothing chance like you say, then I think I can pull it off.”

“I knew you could. That Ashenna captain isn’t going to know what hit her.”

Bucc still wasn’t convinced. “Let me get this straight. You want to launch The Phoenix out of a riftway and drop it on top of the Ashenna flagship?”

“In essence, yes. We cut off their head and the rest of the body loses its sense of unity. If we can take out this woman then that’ll be a massive blow to Pyrefist.”

“I like it,” Milla said. “It will take something like a ship to the face to beat that demon.”

“How can she be so powerful?” Bucc asked. “I know she is Pyrefist’s daughter, but her control of fire is unbelievable.”

Milla shrugged. “I don’t know much about her. Nobody does. Pyrefist calls her Daughter, and those under her command call her Captain. I’ve never heard her be addressed by any name except Red Demon. I just call her Red. All I know is that she’s dangerous. ”

“And you want to fight her one-on-one?”

“Yes. Though technically I want to fight her four on one. Of course, one is a pacifist and the other is a bookworm, so really it’s more like two and a half on one. But together we represent every single Affinity. That’s our advantage!”

Bucc leaned in closer to Adward. “Why are all women so insane?” he asked. 

“I wish I knew. I could do with some of their confidence though.”

An idea came to Bucc and he tapped Neri gently until the familiar slid up onto his shoulder. With how all of the blanks had been acting near the riftways, he wasn’t sure that this was the right thing to do, but he felt it was worth a try.

“The blanks are in tune with the riftways somehow. If you look through them you can see the passages clearer. Some of them are invisible to the human eye. Neri here was the one who made it so I could fly through one without a ship. Maybe she can help you.”

Neri quivered and made a disgruntled squeak, but still followed Bucc’s motion to go to Adward. She floated across the gap then waited patiently for Adward to take hold of her. He cautiously took her and held her up to examine the sky. A look of wonder settled onto his face.

“This is amazing,” he said. “I could make the most detailed riftway charts in existence. This is groundbreaking. I wonder how things look inside a riftway…”

“Do you think it will help you?”

“Oh yes. I only wish I could take some notes.”

“It’s time,” Jesse interrupted. The dipped section of an air riftway loomed before them. “Is everyone ready for this?”


“Not really.”

“Good. Take us in!”

Adward steered the ship straight at the riftway as Jesse and the older Tooth Fairies began to work their affinities. He slid his mask onto his face and Neri attached herself over it. As the ship lifted up and lurched into the swirling vortex of lights, Bucc once again found himself feeling useless.

“Are you ready for the coming battle?” Milla asked him quietly. 

“I’m guessing that means you don’t expect this plan to work then?”

“I have full faith in your friend’s plan to disable their flagship. It won’t stop Pyrefist’s daughter. It might give us the element of surprise though.”

“Can we beat her? I mean, she beat Lord Captain Steeledge and Captain Ackeridge so easily.”

“Her power rivals that of her father. She is smart, fast, well trained, and has an overwhelming grasp of fire. In a few years she will probably be even stronger than Pyrefist.”

“So we can’t win.”

“I never said that. It just means that we can’t fight in a way that she would expect. Then, just maybe, if the stars align, we might just survive for more than a second.”

“You’re really good at a lot of things, Milla, but motivational speeches aren’t one of them.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. A faint sadness glimmered in her eyes. “I haven’t had people to talk to for a while.”

Bucc’s gaze passed over the rest of the crew. It was impossible to get a full feel of the mood through their masks but their body language was nervous, fearful. Everybody was scared but they were rushing off to fight all the same. Every one of them believed that they needed to fight to protect those they cared for.

“I might have a plan.”

“Might? You’re too unsure of yourself. Have the confidence in yourself that your friends place in you. They trust you. You believe in them, and they believe in you, so, in a round about way, you should already believe in yourself. Drop the doubt and embrace who you really are.”

The words struck straight at Bucc’s heart like a hammer. “Right! I know what to do. Everybody! Gather around. I have a plan.”

Bucc quickly explained his idea. The swirl of colours sped past them like a dazzling blizzard. Adward made a series of quick adjustments with the helm, then they were spat out back into reality.

Bucc felt his stomach drop. As The Phoenix emerged from the riftway their vision was filled with nothing but white. A powerful wind ripped at them and all of the blood seemed to be racing into his head. Then the white was gone, revealing the expansive world below them. Clustered together amidst the infinite blue of the ocean was the Ashenna fleet. 

Adward shouted directions to the other windcallers as they fought to control The Phoenix’s freefall. The wind howled through the sails and threatened to rip them from the mast. For a dreadful moment it looked as though they wouldn’t be able to gain control, but after a few seconds the ship turned and angled downwards, its bow pointed straight at the Ashenna flagship. 

“Brace for impact!” Jesse roared above the rushing wind. 

Panic passed through Bucc. How exactly did you brace for impact for a ship hurtling through the sky on a collision course with another ship? Standard safety procedures seemed to have been thrown overboard by this point. He grabbed the mast and hugged it tightly. Neri bounced over to him then expanded to cover his body.

Nothing happened in what felt like an eternity. Then far too much happened in too short a time. A wall of sound bludgeoned Bucc even as the ship around him buckled and splintered. Wood fragments flew in every direction and water rose up in a mighty splash that dwarfed the two ships. The mast snapped and Bucc was thrown down the deck.

A wave of water swept him up and pulled him away from the exploding Phoenix. He looked around and saw Jesse standing on a plank of wood atop the wave, her hands splayed above the water. Other waterweavers were at her side, helping her to control the mighty wave. The wave dipped then the crew of The Phoenix were deposited onto the deck of a nearby ship.

Bucc blinked rapidly in disbelief. Part of him hadn’t expected to survive that stunt. Looking at the sea of debris that now surrounded them, it became clear just how much carnage the attack had caused. There was no sign at all of the Ashenna flagship aside from the fractured wood around them. 

He pulled his eyes away from the devastation to look at his immediate surroundings. After a moment he realised that they were standing aboard Captain Steeledge’s vessel, The Cutting Edge. A knot began to form in his stomach as he slowly turned around. 

Piercing red eyes met his own. The Ashenna captain stood facing the newcomers, her face as effective a cover for her emotions as Jesse’s mask. Both Captain Steeledge and Captain Ackeridge lay at her feet, breathing, but barely. 

It was only now that Bucc realised how little attention he had paid her back when they had first met. Pyrefist dominated his environment so much that everything around him faded into the background. Without her father here to overshadow her, it was clear how intimidating she was in her own right. 

Those scarlet eyes cut straight through Bucc, burning into his very soul. She was taller than Bucc and stood with an overpowering confidence, each of her tiniest movements perfectly precise in their execution. Where Pyrefist had a neutral expression on his rough face, she wore a permanent scowl that was made more severe by a large scar that split her face from the cheek across her mouth in a diagonal line.

“You southern pirates are always so full of surprises,” she said in a cold voice that seemed impossible of expressing anything close to surprise. “A decisive attack on the enemy command that can’t be defended against. Clever. I’m afraid it was a wasted effort though. Any ship I stand on is my flagship.”

“Then we’ll just have to knock you overboard then. Maybe the water will help you cool off,” retorted Jesse. 

“I don’t take pleasure in killing. Stop this senseless violence and surrender. My father’s path is the only one that will ensure all pirates get to see another generation. You clearly can’t be trusted with resources. Wood and food can’t meet demand. Something has to give, and nobody but my father has the will to change. Why fight against your best interest?”

“Why?” Milla started angrily. Fire burned in her eyes strong enough to rival the deathly glare of the Ashenna woman. “What was in my best interest about watching my village burn and my family die? What was in anyone’s best interest fighting a war as you turn the very wood you claim to care about into worthless ash? You’re both hypocrites filled with nothing but the hot air your fires create.”

“Your case was different, but that isn’t of concern right now. The first steps are always the hardest. We all need to endure these birthing pains of a new world. So, will you give up this foolishness and lay down your weapons?”

Bucc willed his legs to move and took a step forward. “I think that we’ll have to pass on that,” he said with all the false confidence he could muster. 

“If it isn’t the pacifist flamecaster. Don’t you see the irony in you choosing to prolong a war? I’ll admit, your little stunt the first time we met really stirred things up. Though I expect you were just in the right place at the right time. Your friend there is the special one. You are nothing.”

“Well, when you’re tied up and unable to fight and somebody asks you what happened, you’ll be able to answer “Nothing”. Won’t that be nice for your pride?” He offered her a sly grin.

“So be it. What’s a little more blood on my hands? Come. Let’s get this over with.” 

Previous – Chapter 26. The Last Stand.

Next – Chapter 28. Who We Really Are.

Chapter 26. The Last Stand. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

As the Ashenna fleet approached, great torrents of water rose up around the Isles of Frindor. Miles of sea flowed upwards, encasing the isles until the entire area was enclosed in a dome of frothing water. Such a feat required the full strength of hundreds of skilled wayfarers. Bucc had never seen anything like it.

“That’s our signal,” Jesse said. “Sail for the riftway. We’ve got to take on their right flank. Adward, try to bring us out just outside of their sights.”

“Can do.”

Milla looked unimpressed. “Does this Captain Steeledge think that a wall of water will protect them?”

“The Ashenna rely on flamecasters, don’t they?” Bucc asked, feeling slightly confused. “A wall of water seems like a good defence to me.”

“Against a few ships it would be. Against a fleet this size they’ve just made a weapon against themselves.”

“What do you mean?”

“The ocean is fairly large, correct?”

“That certainly could be said, yes.”

“Use your power on the water below us. Don’t question it, just do it.”

Bucc did as Milla asked. He approached the railing and fired a jet of flames into the sea a few feet from the ship. The water frothed then began to boil.

“You can set a small spot boiling of something unimaginably large. If every Ashenna flamecaster focuses on that dome they can bring the whole thing to boiling point. Then it’s a case of who has the most water users. If the Ashenna have more, which they probably do, they can overpower your companions’ wills and collapse the boiling dome down on their heads. That wouldn’t be pretty.”

“We’ve got a job to do,” Jesse told them bluntly. “We just have to hope that Captain Steeledge knows what he’s doing. For now we need to stay focused.”

“Agreed,” Milla said.

A nearby ship opened a small gap in the dome for The Phoenix to slip through. Other ships were doing the same across the back of the isles. The ships that left the barrer quickly disappeared into a nearby riftway. 

Adward steered them towards the riftway while Jesse gathered the few Tooth Fairies that had been Awakened. The wayfarers numbered a lot less than Bucc was used to seeing for a ship of The Phoenix’s size but Jesse assured him that Adward had figured out how to maximise their limited powers. 

Buc felt the familiar thrum of energy build up around him as The Phoenix dropped down into the riftway. They were only in the swirling vortex for a matter of seconds but in that brief time all of the blanks went wild. They tugged at Milla but couldn’t lift her from her spot. Then the ship was back above water and the blanks had become completely docile once more.

“What was that about?” Adward called down. “Were they trying to take you back to the Nexus?”

“Probably,” Bucc told him wearily. “Don’t get any ideas though. I don’t think they’ll take you on command. I get the feeling that Milla is the one they want, and that I just got caught up in their attempt. Is that right, Neri?”

His familiar chirped dismissively from his back. 

“Fine, keep your secrets. I have a horrible feeling I’ll find out soon enough.”

“You seem to know a lot about Ashenna attacks,” Jesse said to Milla. “How long do you think it’ll take for their fleet to surround the dome and bring it down?”

“Not long. Only a few minutes.”

“In that case we need to move fast. The Ashenna hold every advantage so they’ll expect us to fight defensively. If we can pull off a swift counter attack then we might be able to surprise them. If the other captains have any sense, they’ll come to the same conclusion too.”

The sound of cannonfire was carried on the wind before any ships came into view. First the dome of water rose up from the horizon, then the black specks of ships started to appear. Adward adjusted The Phoenix’s path so she sailed straight for the centre of the fleet’s left flank. Some of the other southern ships could be seen making for the enemy too. The Ashenna had already surrounded the dome. Streaks of vivid flames shot out from each ship at the wall of water just as Milla had predicted. 

The dome was already frothing angrily under the heat. It seemed to waver for a moment, then a hole opened up and the floating village emerged like a titan. Every flamecaster who was in range directed their fire at the ship while the Ashenna wayfarers did all they could to slow the collosal vessel. 

There was a great roar of rushing water. The dome bloomed open like a flower, stretching out over the Ashenna ships before it collapsed down upon them in a massive tidal wave. The ships were thrown around and scattered even as Captain Steeledge’s forces rushed forward and opened fire.

“Fire the cannons!” Jesse ordered. The Phoenix shuddered and iron shots tore into the hull of the closest Ashenna ship. 

Cannonfire sounded all around them now. Wisps of smoke rose up into the air, casting the battle in a grey haze as hundreds of cannons spewed destruction. The sounds drowned out everything until Bucc’s ears felt numb from the explosions. Flames sprayed over crushing waves and a fierce wind tore at sails and threatened to pull men overboard.

Bucc watched in horror at the devastation. Milla stood beside him. She observed the battle with a hunger in her eyes.

  The floating village couldn’t take any more damage and the gunpowder finally exploded. The force knocked Bucc onto his back even as far away as The Phoenix was. Water and fire expanded in a sphere of carnage that sent shockwaves through the ocean and threw ships away as though they were toys. Flames mushroomed high above where the floating village had sat moments before.

“The daughter moves,” Milla told him in a cold voice. “If only we were closer.”

Bucc pulled himself up using the railing and saw that the Ashenna flagship, identifiable by its bright crimson sails, wove forward through the wreckage of the ships that had been too close to the explosion. 

“Adward, throw me your seeing-glass!”

“It’s called a telescope and it’s my most valuable possession, so don’t lose it!”

Adward threw down the metal tube, which Bucc immediately almost dropped. He opened it up and aimed it at the flagship. Now he could clearly see a black haired woman standing at the front of the ship. Bucc recognised her as the girl that had accompanied Captain Pyrefist back on The Singing Seal.

She held her arms out before her towards the still blazing spire of flame that the explosion had created. The flames danced as though they were being pulled, then stretched out and began to move like a giant snake. The woman controlled it with sweeping movements of her arms, directing it to slam into southern ships in arcing movements that twisted and turned across the battle. 

Bucc trembled at the display of power. With a lurching dread he realised that Pyrefist was likely even stronger than her. Any hope that he’d had burned away like the sails of the ships caught by the snaking inferno.

The flagship was still moving forward. Bucc saw that it was heading straight for Captain Steeledge’s personal ship. Several of the other allied ships must have noticed this too and moved to intercept the Ashenna craft, but they were swept aside like leaves on the wind.

“She’s going for the Lord Captain!” Bucc shouted. “Can we do anything to help?”

“We could if there wasn’t a dozen enemy ships between us and them,” Jesse answered through gritted teeth. “Adward, forget sensible sailing. Steer us straight towards them. Keep those cannons firing!”

The Tooth Fairies were already exhausted. The Phoenix’s cannons were a mismatched collection that had been scavenged due to their smaller sizes, but even with smaller cannonballs, the constant reloading was wearing them down. They still redoubled their efforts at Jesse’s word. 

Jesse marched to the prow and drew two pistols which she fired at the deck of the Ashenna ship they were forcing their way past. Fire shot across from the ship towards Jesse and Bucc quickly grappled it to part before her. He felt the sharp jolt of surprise again and knew that he wouldn’t be able to do it a second time.

“I knew you’d have my back,” Jesse told him without looking around.

“It’s your front I’m worried about right now. I can’t outpower these guys so keep your head down!”

Jesse grabbed a different pistol and fired again. The flamecaster dropped with a shout. A volley of returning shots forced her to jump back and find cover. She ducked behind the mast and continued to pepper the enemy crew with shots.

The Phoenix scraped along the Ashenna ship as it forced its way past the outer defences of the fleet. Cannonballs crashed into them, rocking the ship violently. The Phoenix returned fire but they were severely outgunned. 

“I can’t get us through!” Adward shouted. “They’re packed too tightly together. Those cannons are going to rip us apart if we try and push any further. We have to pull back.”

Jesse looked around quickly. The Ashenna ships were closing in on them, making it difficult for The Phoenix to turn around and escape. 

“Abandon the portside cannons and focus all fire starboard!” she ordered. “Milla, can you get us on that ship?” she asked, indicating the ship that was blocking The Phoenix’s portside. Milla nodded, a small smile growing on her face. “Good. Do it then. Just me and you. Their flamecaster for that ship is down so we shouldn’t have to worry about that. Bucc, don’t let my ship get turned to ash while I’m gone.”

“This is too dangerous-” Bucc began to shout, but the two girls didn’t wait for him to finish. 

Vines shot out from around Milla’s arms and stretched out to wrap around the mast of the Ashenna ship. Jesse grabbed her shoulders then the vines constricted, pulling them up towards the enemy vessel. Jesse let go and rolled onto the deck, a pistol in each hand. Milla landed a moment later, her vines already lashing out at the pirates around them. 

Bucc didn’t want to just stand there while his friends put their lives on the line. He had to do something. It was time to put some of his theories to the test. He tried to focus through the cannonfire and shouts, clearing his mind until only self awareness remained. If he was right, his ability to channel fire came from being able to generate heat. Lots of heat in a small space created flame, but what if he spread out that heat?

He concentrated on the fire deep within him, feeling the energy seep through his limbs and tingle across his skin. It took a lot of effort but he resisted the call of the fire and released the heat into the air as a shimmering wave like he had seen on especially hot days. The heat spread out around him. He tried to control it, pushing it all in front of himself and away from the Tooth Fairies. Some of it was directed down towards the ocean until the heated air was thick with humidity.

The Ashenna ship’s cannons fell silent. Bucc opened his eyes. His skin was slick with sweat but he managed a smile through laboured breaths. He watched as the Northern pirates struggled to pick up the smooth and heavy cannonballs in sweaty hands, then find themselves unable to light the soggy fuses on the cannons.

Adward swung The Phoenix around in a tight arc even as several Ashenna wayfarers fought to keep the ship in place. Bucc took a deep breath then wrestled with the fire once again to spread the sickly heat as far as he could manage. Another allied ship moved to support them, drawing away some of the Ashenna firepower and allowing Adward to peel away from the engagement. 

As The Phoenix began to pull away from the Ashenna fleet, Milla and Jesse made a running jump over the railing and swung across to the ship using Milla’s vines. The ship they had just left veered sharply towards another Ashenna craft, its helm empty.

Bucc scrambled up into the crowsnest to get a better look over the battle. He looked through Adward’s telescope to see what was happening with Captain Steeledge’s ship. The Ashenna flagship had stopped beside the captain’s vessel. Bucc focussed in further and saw the black haired woman standing alone on Captain Steeledge’s deck, surrounded by allied pirates. The Lady Hope was anchored at the other side, her crew moving onto the other ship to support Captain Steeledge’s crew.

Captain Ackeridge stood beside Captain Steeledge, dwarfed by his towering presence. They were both facing down the younger woman, though she didn’t seem phased in the slightest at the presence of two captains, especially one of Steeledge’s reputation. Bucc shouted this information down to the others.

The captains stood there unmoving for a while, likely speaking with one another. It looked like the conversation broke down though when Captain Steeledge drew his two swords and charged at the Ashenna woman. 

What happened next was too quick for Bucc to see, even using the telescope. Captain Steeledge slashed then fell to the deck in a spreading pool of his own blood, clutching the stump of his arm where a hand had been a moment before. Bucc hadn’t seen the woman move but now she too held a sword in her hand. She didn’t even glance at the lord captain, instead keeping her eyes fixed on Captain Ackeridge. 

Ackeridge’s familiar snarled then jumped down from her shoulder. It arched its back and hissed at the woman, all traces of its usually lazy demeanor were gone. Captain Ackeridge herself shuffled a few steps closer, leaning heavily on her walking stick. The younger woman approached her calmly, her sword lowered yet clearly ready to strike. 

The captain’s familiar sprang into the air, suddenly growing in size until it hit the deck again as a colossal grey tiger. At the same moment, Captain Ackeridge rushed towards the woman without any sign of age. She pulled on her walking stick, revealing a slim blade, and lunged straight for the woman’s heart as her familiar pounced at her from the side.

The woman stepped away from the blade with a precise movement and grabbed Captain Ackeridge’s wrist. In one swift motion she pivoted and threw the older woman into the path of her own familiar. They crashed into each other and sprawled across the floor. Both were back on their feet with unbelievable speed but the Ashenna woman gave a dismissive flick of her arm and a wave of flame tore along the deck. 

“Our ships are being scattered!” Adward shouted. “We can’t win this battle. If we stay here we’ll be sunk.”

Thick clouds of smoke rolled across the ocean, blocking the view of a large section of the battle. Adward was right though, it seemed that all of the southern ships were trying to break away and retreat. 

“Jesse, what are your orders?” her brother pressed. “You have to make a decision fast.”

Jesse was silent for a moment. “Pull back.”

“So that’s it then? Pyrefist has won. The world is his,” Milla said quietly. 

“Not yet,” Jesse announced. “Their fleet isn’t the threat. That woman is the one that single handedly stopped us. If we can take her out then the Alliance might be able to regroup and counterattack.”

“I’m guessing you have a plan then?”

“You bet I do. Hold on to something. Things are about to get really bumpy.”

Previous – Chapter 25. All Pieces in Place.

Next – Chapter 27. Strike Back.

Chapter 25. All Pieces in Place. (Buccaneer Jones and the Fires of Peace)

Bucc, Jesse, and Adward returned to The Phoenix to prepare for the coming battle. Messages between captains were exchanged by dozens of flying familiars that criss-crossed through the air between the ships. 

The Ashenna fleet was visible as a dark smear that seemed to fill the horizon. The mirth and celebrations of the last hour were faded memories already. The southern pirates knew that they were beat but nobody seemed quite willing to admit it.

“What grand plan does Captain Steeledge have then?” Adward asked his sister after Jesse had finished reading another of the Lord Captain’s messages.

“Twenty ships are to stay here in the Isles while the other seventeen peel away and try to flank the Ashenna fleet.”

“That doesn’t sound like a winning plan to me,” Adward said sourly. “They have the numbers to surround the Isles and have ships guarding their parameters. He must have something else up his sleeve.”

“I don’t think so,” Jesse admitted. “His whole plan is based on mobility. Around the Isles they can’t use the strength of their full fleet, and the ships they do use can’t turn as fast as the ships Captain Steeledge has assigned to stay there. Our flanking ships will be acting independently. He hopes that we’ll be hard targets to hit while the Ashenna are so closely packed together that we’d struggle to miss even with wild, unaimed cannonfire.”

“I still don’t like it.”

“What are they doing with that floating village?” Bucc observed.

“It’s rigged with all of our gunpowder reserves,” Jesse told him gleefully. “The plan is to sail it right into the middle of their fleet. Unless the Ashenna ships focus their cannons on it, they’ll struggle to bring it down in time. At that point we get to witness the biggest bang in pirate history. Seeing that will make this war worth the effort.”

A bell rang, telling them that a rowboat was approaching them. The boat carried only Bucc’s parents. They were quickly pulled aboard. Bucc realised that he probably should have found the time to let them know he was safe after jumping overboard back on The Lady Hope. They hung back nervously for a moment so Bucc rushed over to give them a hug.

“We have so much that we want to talk with you about,” his mum began, “But I’m afraid we’re here on business. Your friend Milla is showing signs of waking up and we thought you’d like to know.”

Bucc couldn’t help but smile. “That sounds right. She wouldn’t miss the chance to fight against the Ashenna. Can I see her?”

“We were hoping you would. Seeing a friendly face when she wakes will do her good. A girl like her could be quite dangerous if she wakes up in an unfamiliar place, scared and confused.”

Bucc agreed. He joined his parents and made the short trip over to The Lady Hope. As they rowed, a million feelings drifted through his head. This could be the last time he ever had a chance to speak to his parents if the battle went poorly. Being shoulder to shoulder with them made that reality somehow more solid than when he had been lost. 

“You worried?” his mum asked, sensing his mood. 

“Worried is putting it lightly. I’m terrified. Sure, I’m scared of fighting, but the thought of everyone else risking their lives makes it hard to breathe.”

“I think you’re right,” his father nodded. “I’ve been in more battles than I can count, but it was always just fun and games. Now, everything I hold dear is on the line. That’s a lot of pressure to carry. Whatever happens, Bucc, I want you to know that I’m proud of you.”

“The same goes for me,” his mum agreed. “I’d love to fight at your side, but I understand that you belong somewhere else. All these years I’ve wanted you to become a true pirate, and now that you are standing proud against the biggest threat we’ve ever known I just want you to run and be safe. The human heart is a strange thing, isn’t it?”

“Can we win?”

“We can try. Captain Steeledge is the greatest pirate alive, and under his command are the bravest crews in the southern seas. He’s a hero, and frankly anybody who has chosen to fight here is a hero too. What do the Ashenna have to face that?”

“Superior numbers, standardised training and a wealth of flamecasters,” his father answered dryly. Bucc’s mum glared at him. He coughed awkwardly. “Right, sorry. What I mean is, all that scary sounding stuff doesn’t stand up to good old fashioned passion and bravery. Gods love plucky underdogs. Whenever you have a million-in-one chance of winning, it stands to reason that you have a ninety percent success rate.”

“I don’t think that maths adds up…” 

They arrived at The Lady Hope and were quickly lifted aboard. As they crossed the deck, Captain Ackeridge inched her head towards Bucc but didn’t speak. He had technically deserted her crew and joined another without asking her. 

It wasn’t long before they entered Milla’s cabin. The room was dark but the girl’s deathly pale skin and blonde hair seemed to glow in the gloom. She looked so frail laying there alone. 

Bucc’s mum lit a candle and placed it on a table beside the bunk. Bcc sat besideMilla and could hear her unsteady breathing, but when he listened closer he could just make out fevered mumbling beneath her breath. Her eyelids fluttered but never opened.

“Nightmares,” his mum explained sadly. “Bad ones by the sound of them. But the fact that she can string together thoughts and react to them physically is a good sign. The surgeon expects her to wake up soon. Though perhaps she’d be better to sleep through this battle. Pushing herself so soon after waking up won’t do her any good.”

His parents left to help prepare for the coming battle. Bucc sat alone for a while without knowing what he was supposed to be doing. He had only known her for a week longer than everyone else, and most of that time they had been forced together by circumstances beyond their control. Who was to say that Bucc would be someone she wanted to see?

“Milla?” he asked tentatively. The word sounded too loud in the quiet of the room. She still mumbled quietly to herself. Bucc thought about what might get her to wake up. “The Ashenna are about to attack us. If you want your chance to fight them then you’d better get up.” She stirred slightly at the name but didn’t wake. 

“I found my Pa, and Jesse and Adward. Jesse’s a captain now. I hurt her badly back on The Seal but somehow she’s grown stronger from it. I’m part of her crew now. Neri still wants us to go back to The Shores of the Nexus, but we have a battle to win first. I’m not sure why, but she insists that you’re there when we go. That means you’ve got to pull through and keep yourself alive, okay?”

Milla didn’t move, but Neri did. His familiar wriggled out from his shirt and rolled over to the door where she nudged it repeatedly. Bucc opened it and Neri slipped out of the room. He frowned then sat back down. He could tell from their link that she didn’t want him to follow her. 

A few minutes passed until Bucc sensed that Neri was returning. She rolled back into the room followed by a stream of floating blanks that filled the corridor beyond. They filed into the small room until Bucc was crushed into a corner. The blanks flocked around Milla, pressing against her and making a deep rumbling noise that seemed to charge the air. A gentle glow began to come from each blank until the entire cabin was bathed in a soft green light. 

They lifted Milla from the bed and into the air. She was wearing a simple nightgown that another crew member had provided for her. It hung below her like ghostly wisps. Her body shivered, then slowly her eyes opened. 

For a moment she hung there without moving, taking the scene in with vacant, sleepy eyes. Then they focussed in and the look of peace on her face twisted into a scowl. She jerked herself to the side and landed on the ground where she staggered and fell. Bucc pushed his way towards her but she stood up again before he could reach her. She swayed perilously and blinked dizzily. 

“Where am I? What’s happening?”

“You’re safe. We escaped Cantruug but you were hurt. We’re aboard a friendly ship. I’d say everything’s okay, but we’re literally about to be attacked by an Ashenna fleet.”

“Good. Point me towards them.”

“I’m not going to do that.”

“I’ll find them myself then,” she snapped. She tried to scatter the blanks from her path and walked towards the door. She missed it and walked into the wall. 

“The blanks woke you up but I get the feeling you aren’t fully recovered yet. How many times do I have to tell you that you need to eat to get your strength back up?”

Milla made a low growling noise. Even she must have known that she was in no condition to fight. 

“Fine. Bring me food.” She paused then tugged at the nightgown. “Where’s my dress?” A trace of distress lined her voice.

“It was ripped and burned during the escape. More than it already was. It barely stayed on you.”

“Where is it?” she asked again. Thinly veiled anger reflected in her face and words. 

Bucc hoped that his parents had had the foresight to leave the dress in the room. He checked the chest and breathed a sigh of relief. Inside was a bundle of white material. He picked it up and offered it to her.

“Like I said, it was badly damaged. The others wanted to throw it away and get you some new clothes but I had a feeling this dress was really important to you. My pa has a bit of skill as a tailor so I got him to repair it for you. The only material similar enough that we had was my Awakening shroud. I hope you don’t mind having my shirt sewn into it.”

Milla took it gingerly and carefully unfolded it. Bucc’s father had done a good job with it. It was almost impossible to see where the rips had been patched with the Awakening shroud. There were no signs of the burn damage and all of the dirt and blood had been meticulously washed out. Bucc had never seen the dress in its original state, but it looked like he had always imagined it should have.

“You gave up your shroud for this?” Milla asked in a shaking voice. “Those clothes are sacred. They are there to be used for the next generation.”

Bucc shrugged awkwardly. “That’s in the future. It might not even happen. Until then, none of it’s real I guess. What is real is what’s in front of me. I could save those clothes for a future that might not happen, or I could use them for a present that I know will impact someone’s life. And, well, you probably won’t have a shroud of your own since your village was destroyed, right? So I wanted to show you people still care.”

Silent tears rolled down Milla’s face. She hugged the dress tightly. “Thank you,” she whispered. She smiled gleefully even as the tears continued to fall. Without warning she started to slip off the gown to change into the repaired dress. Bucc span around to face the wall, blushing furiously.

“It looks just like it did on the day my dad gave it to me,” Milla said.

Bucc risked looking around and saw that she was now in the dress. He sighed and turned back to her.

“I’m glad you like it. We’re about to go into another battle though. Don’t you want some other clothes to wear to keep the dress safe?”

“No.” The word was spoken with a firm determination. “I wore this dress on the day the Ashenna attacked my village. The ash of my home and the blood of my family became part of this fabric. I’ll keep wearing it until Pyrefist is dead. Now let’s go. I don’t want to miss out when the fighting starts.”

Milla made it through the door this time, though her steps were still unsteady. A crowd had gathered in the corridor outside that had followed the sudden appearance of the blanks. They parted without a word as Milla passed them. The blanks swirled around her. Bucc followed quickly in her wake.

Without slowing she made her way up to the deck and scanned the crowd, directing her steps straight towards Bucc’s mum. When she got there she stopped and pointed to Bucc’s father as the blanks spread out and floated above her.

“Are you Bucc’s dad?”

“Yes, last time I checked. That’s me.”

She considered him for a moment then offered him a curtsey. “Thank you for caring for my dress. I am in your debt.”

His dad looked taken aback by the statement. No doubt that all of the gossip involving Milla had mentioned her cold attitude and hostile actions. He held his hands up and quickly shook his head with a nervous laugh.

“There’s no need for that. It was Bucc that insisted I fix it up for you. I’m just glad it all seems to fit nicely. Call it a reward for getting my wife and son back to me safe. No debt necessary.”

 “Understood,” she said with a nod. “Now, please point me in the direction of the enemy.”

Bucc grabbed her arm. “We aren’t marching straight towards a fleet of eighty five ships. That’s crazy even for you. Listen, just come with me and then if we see an opening you can go wild, okay?”

Milla considered this. Her fists clenched and unclenched repeatedly. Finally she gave a frustrated sigh and stopped pulling against Bucc’s grip. 

“Fine. I’ll do it your way until I see a better path. It isn’t Pyrefist out there so I can afford to wait.”

Captain Ackeridge hobbled over to them, her familiar’s usually sleepy eyes locked on Milla with a quiet intensity. “I suppose you’ll be wanting to join my deserting deckhand? If the stories about you are true then I’m reluctant to release you from my service. But then, you were unconscious when they brought you aboard so you can hardly be considered as a binding crew member. So you both better go quickly. It looks like the Ashenna are moving into position.”

“Bucc tells me they have eighty five ships.”

“Yes. They don’t want us to hold this position.”

“Don’t be fooled by their numbers and logical way of thinking. The Ashenna will use any advantage they can get. Don’t underestimate them.”

“Captain Pyrefist isn’t leading them. Without its head, the Ashenna empire lacks a certain bite.”

“I could kill everybody aboard this ship here and now. If the daughter of Pyrefist was here she would make me look like a newborn. Pyrefist has trained her from birth to be his successor. She will wipe out this fleet without mercy.”

A near feral grin spread across the captain’s face. “Then I welcome the challenge.”

Bucc said a heartfelt goodbye to his parents as a boat was prepared to take them back to The Phoenix

“I’ll see you both later. That’s a promise.”

A few minutes later they arrived on The Phoenix and Milla was introduced to the Tooth Fairies. They were more interested in the tide of blanks that accompanied her and now floated idly around the deck. Jesse, her mask in place, shook Milla’s hand firmly and officially invited her to the crew. Milla shrugged then agreed.

“You seem like a different person. This year I’ve lost has gifted you with confidence. Do you have enough to command a ship against near unwinnable odds?”

“I feel like I was born to do this. You did all the fighting last time. Now it’s my turn to show you what I can do.” Jesse answered. 

Bucc couldn’t be sure, but he had a pretty good guess that she was smiling beneath the mask. She was looking forward to the battle even in the face of death. It seemed to him that everyone had lost their minds. He turned to Adward.

“Please tell me that you aren’t looking forward to this battle too?”

“Me? By His Noodles, no! There’s a lot of the world to explore yet before I take on the afterlife. But I can’t let everyone else go and get themselves killed, can I? You’re going to need my brains to get through this.”

“Then you’d better put those brains to use now. It’s time,” Milla announced gravely. 

Bucc looked out towards where the Ashenna fleet had set up. They were on the move. It looked like it really was time. He took a deep breath and looked to Jesse.

“What are your orders, Captain?”

Jesse drew one of her many pistols and pointed it at the oncoming fleet. “All hands to battle stations. Prepare yourself for the fight of your lives!”

Previous – Chapter 24. The Calm Before the Storm.

Next – Chapter 26. The Last Stand.

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!”


“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.