Kasa climbed up behind the mite and peered across the rim of the volcano. She now realized the significance of the ritual the night before. The ground before them was smoking and charred, littered with burning coals. The air was thick, hot, and smelled of burning oil and sulfur. Smoke steamed up from the gaping maw of Fiern Mas in black and white puffs.
Some twenty feet away, Kasa saw the firehearts in bloom on black stems. Starting from the tip the flower’s heart-shaped petals transitioned from a bright orange to red to black and were covered in a orange flame-like glow.
“The ground is extremely hot and will burn through the soles of your footwear and blister your feet. We must move quickly, grab as many as we can. If we fail to do so our feet may be to damage to return,” Broen explained.
Kasa sat down on the edge and removed her boots, wiggling her toes in the hot air.
“We won't have to rush. I am resistant to quite a bit of heat and flame. I will fill our bags and our people will have a good supply.”
Broen gave her a curious look.
“Give me your sack,” Kasa smiled.
She took Broen’s satchel and walked out over the burning ground, her bare feet leaving glowing footprints in the ash. Kasa picked the flowers at a casual pace, filling up Broen's bag. Once filled, she turned and tossed the satchel to him. Broen caught the bag with a grunt and continued to watch Kasa, awestruck. The red pirate turned back around to begin filling her own pack when she was interrupted. An arrow whizzed by her face, grazing her left cheek.
In the same language of the Lothra, a voice spoke, “That will be enough, demon.”
Kasa looked up, her eyes glowing silver with fury. Before her stood six large toads in mismatched, ill-fitting armor. They were hunched over, reaching about five feet in height. Their heads were large with a wide mouth and bulbous, protruding eyes. Two of them carried bows; the others held swords and spears. One of the bow-using Tein Tu spoke.
“Leave now, or die where you stand,” he said.
Kasa smiled, standing upright to her full six feet, holding her arms out to her sides. “Now, now, there is no need to be rash. There are plenty of flowers here for everyone.”
As she spoke her tail wrapped its tip around the belt knife on her back.
“The Tein Tu do not share anything with the Lothra or conspire with demons!” the lead toad shouted, notching another arrow.
“Then I'm afraid this will not end well for you.” In a fluid motion, the pirate captain spun while ducking low and flung the knife with her tail at the speaker. In the same motion, she fired a poisoned bolt from her own bow, Blood Biter. Neither Tein Tu had time to react and were both dead before the others could rally themselves to action.
Kasa placed Blood Biter back in its holster which immediately loaded another bolt. She stood upright again and drew Widowmaker from her hip. She took a haughty stance and gestured for the nervous-looking toads to advance.
“Well lads, you weren't hoping they would shoot me, were you? I can assume like my people, the Lothra, this ground will burn you. So you must be quick about it. Come, come I do not have all day,” she said with a fanged smile.
Rage filled their amphibious faces and the Tein Tu charged across the scorching ground. The spear-wielding toad-men reached her first, thrusting rapidly with their weapons. Kasa moved quickly, dodging one's thrust and parrying the other with her sword. Her tail pulled out the legs of the first attacker who then slammed face first into the charred ground. The toad-man squealed like a pig and rolled rapidly to his feet somewhere behind her.
Kasa drew Widowmaker closer to her before stealing the center from the other spear-toad and lunged. Widowmaker's enchanted blade pierced through the soft tissue of the Tein Tu's neck. The attacker fell back in a heap, gripping its neck, though the blade's poison was already taking effect. The sword-wielding toads attacked together as did the spear-toads. They were strong and quick, forcing Kasa back several feet as she defended against their rapid strikes.
“Lo' Threa!” Kasa heard Broen shout.
She did not dare look back but could hear Broen engaged in a struggle with her first attacker.
One of the Tein Tu got through Kasa's defense and cut Kasa across her right forearm. The second advanced, hoping to take advantage of the misstep as Kasa reeled backwards. Kasa reached into her coat with her free hand and, in an arch of brilliant flame, slashed at the second toad with Dragon's Breath.
The fiery blade cut cleanly through the Tein Tu's scavenged armor, flesh and bone. The other sword-wielding Tein Tu pressed on, slashing at Kasa’s head. She batted the sword away with Dragon's Breath in her left hand and stuck the toad-man firmly in the left eye with Widowmaker's webbed basket. The Tein Tu reeled back, clutching his wounded eye; his back to the open maw of Fiern Mar. Kasa leaped and, with a spin, kicked the toad into the volcano.
She looked up from the sight to see Broen crossing spears with the last of the Tein Tu. He was straining, fighting for his life, and Kasa could see smoke rising from his shoes. She sheathed her weapons and waited. If the young mite wanted to travel the Storm-Swept Sea with her, he would have to be able to defend himself. The Tein Tu taunted Broen.
“You will die, Lothra. Then I will kill your demon. After I have killed her, I will have my way with her corpse.”
“She is not a demon! She is Lothra!” Broen shouted back.
The two of them thrust back and forth at one another, each trying to control the center and be rewarded with the kill. Broen feinted a high thrust. The Tein Tu raised his spear to meet the strike knocking the mite’s spear head away. Broen used the momentum to roll the haft of his spear and struck the toad-man in the throat with the pommel. The Tein Tu choked and took several steps back. Broen seeing an opportunity charged at his wounded adversary. The toad-man recovered his breath in time to sidestep Broen, sweeping his legs from under him.
Broen went down with a crash and slid across the scorched ground and over the edge into the volcano.
“Broen!” Kasa shouted.
As she ran toward the edge, Kasa withdrew Blood Biter and planted a bolt into the back of the last Tein Tu's head. The toad slumped and fell into the magma-filled abyss. Kasa came to a rapid halt and peered over the side. Just below the edge, a bruised and burned Broen was clinging on for dear life. Kasa dropped down flat on her stomach and reached out for Broen.
“None of that, mister. There will be no dying on me,” Kasa told him as she heaved the wounded mite back up to the surface.
She stood and picked him up off the ground, much to his protest.
“I am not a child.”
“No, sweetie, you are not. Or have you forgotten the first time we met? You are, however, not impervious to the heat of this ground and have been burned enough.” She sat him down on the path they had taken up the mountain. “We still need to walk out of here. Is there anything special that has to be done to make the fire-hearts usable?”
Broen groaned. “No, just eat a little bit.”
Kasa grabbed a few small petals “Then eat some. I'll get rid of the bodies and fill up my pack.”
“I, uh...” Broen hesitated. “Thank you, Lo' Threa. You are a great fighter. Far better than I would have guessed.”
“You’re welcome; now eat. I'll be right back.”
Kasa left Broen there and proceeded to dump the remaining bodies into the volcano. She held on to one of the spears and returned to filling her pack, as she had planned before being rudely interrupted with attempted murder. She returned to Broen whose wound had all but completely healed. As she handed him the spear, she recognized it as Falaian-made.
“Here, this is your reward to show our people your bravery.”
“But I did nothing...”
“You kept that Tein Tu busy while I fought off the others. This is a good weapon made by the beast-man of the Falas rainforest, which is to the southwest on the mainland,” she added for the benefit of the untraveled Broen. “They specialize in spear combat; you will not find a finer spear,” She forced the weapon into his hands.
“Thank you, Lo' Threa. It is an honor.”
“Blah, blah...” Kasa said, reaching into the pack and grabbing a single petal for herself.
The petal was spicy and tasted a bit like ash, but its effects were immediately noticeable. A tingling sensation coursed through her body and she felt revitalized, as if she had just awoke. The cut on her right arm and under her left closed, and Kasa could no longer feel the sting of pain.
“By Daskan's grace, that is fantastic.”
“The fire-hearts are truly powerful,” Broen agreed.
“OK, let’s get back. Kleine needs this herb.”
Broen nodded and strapped the new spear to his back. The pair of them worked their way back down the mountainside. Full of energy, they took a swift pace and were able to climb down in half the time it took to ascend. The small fires caused by the Devourer had gone out and the forest was dead silent. Broen, without words, motioned toward the trees. Kasa agreed with a nod and the two quickly bounded to the treetops.
They continued south and did not leave the trees until they were well out of the Devourer's territory. Their adventure ended with shouts, cheers, and rejoicing as they returned to the Lothra village. They were carried before the chieftain, who honored them both with high praise. The many villagers cheered in the twilight of the evening, wanting to know the details of their journey.
Kasa let Broen tell the story and enjoy the praise. She took her pack and headed out of the village. Priestess Finata stopped her.
“You are leaving, Lo' Threa?”
“The sole purpose of this adventure was to get the fire-heart to cure my friend. She has been alone all day with none but a mad ancestor to keep her company.” Kasa thought using the word “ancestor” would work better than a “ghost of a pirate king.”
“I understand, Lo' Threa. I must ask, did Broen present you the gift of water?”
Kasa laughed. “No, Priestess. Your son did not propose marriage.”
“Ah, that was part of the plan. Marry me to the next chief. You do know I intend to leave, priestess.”
“Sadly, this I know. I also know my son. He has no desire to be the next chief. I felt that he would propose to you in order to ensure that you would take him with you,” Finata said.
“You wish for him to go?” Kasa asked, still walking toward the end of the village.
“The chief has seen Broen's heart. It is not to lead our people. Even if he were to stay, Mata would be named next chief.”
“Then it will please you to know that I intend to take Broen with me when I go.”
The priestess's eye's lit up and watered a bit.
Kasa continued, “The Lothra, after a few challenges, have been good to me. It will be an honor to take one of our people into the world beyond.”
“Thank you, Lo' Threa, the ancestors will be honored.”
The pirate captain gave the tiny priestess a hug on a bent knee, then rose and darted into the jungle, back to the hidden cavern. Once there, she dashed down the rope ladder and barely stopped to pull the lever to retract it. She rushed through the cavern, up the gangplank, and into the captain's cabin. Kleine laid on the bed just as Kasa had left her.
“Welcome back, lass,” the shade of Briarbeard said as he materialized next to her.
Kasa grabbed a small clay bowl from the table and a small, round grinding stone. She took several petals from her pack and placed them into the bowl. Kasa rolled the stone over the still-glowing petals until they were a fine paste. With the tip of her finger, she eased the paste into Kleine's mouth. Unconsciously, Kleine licked the finger and swallowed the healing herb.
Kasa watched as the scar from the arrow on Kleine’s chest vanished, leaving a blue, star-like mark where the crystal had sustained her. Kleine's body arched and shuddered violently as blood trickled from her mouth.
“No dying on me! That’s an order, second mate Kleine!” Kasa shouted, tears in her eyes.
Kleine's body fell still, lifeless, no longer breathing. Kasa could not bring herself to move. She laid her head on Kleine's chest and wept openly. Nothing else in that moment mattered. She had failed the one person that had not failed her. Rage began to eat her sorrow. The ship began to react to her anger: the ropes creaked, the wheel spun, the rotor sloshed in the waters below, and the cannons rustled about as if restless
“I didn't know you cared so much, captain,” Kleine said in a soft whisper.
Kasa looked up into Kleine's tired eyes and everything fell silent.