Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 16: Behind the Broken Eyes

~SOUNDTRACK: Seinabo Sey – Pistols at dawn~

Ember was slowly making her way to the realization that there was no such thing as coincidence and nothing was as fortuitous or hazardous as one might think. Otherwise, she had no way of explaining how she had come in the possession of the one gem that could save her life.

The demon, Christopher, had explained it hadn’t been by chance that the dragon’s breath had ended up in her hands. He said that certain energies seek to those alike them, that the magic the stone had been instilled with had resonated enough to draw Ember in. Chances were, the poor merchants who carried it probably had no idea how powerful it even was.

But regardless of the endless explanations that made Ember’s head spin due to the amount of information having been thrown her way in such little time, their task was simple. Retrieve the dragon’s breath. Christopher had claimed he would cast a spell that would counter the effects of the hex, at least temporary. And while Ember was having issues trusting the demon or taking his word for it, she was out of options. She didn’t particularly trust Max, either, but the out-of-option-ness ran deep and given her situation, she couldn’t afford being picky.

She and Max were now headed back to her hut for the second time that day. Christopher had suggested that they should meet up later and he was going to work his devilish charm on the villagers to see if he could dig up any sort of information as to the location and identity of the witches. Ember tried to ignore the lump in her throat as she thought about the possibility of one of those Hades Brides being a person she knew and crossed paths with on a daily basis. Although, if she were to take into consideration the whole village’s stance towards her, it could have been anyone.

The two of them walked in silence, the threat hanging above their heads already thickening the air between them. Well, the threat hanging above Ember’s head. She was still a little slow on grasping his role in this whole story.

She cleared her throat, trying to get his attention. One more minute of awkward silence and she would explode.

“I take it this is a little more than what you’ve signed up for,” she tried to tease and he glared. Oh. So she’d hit a nerve.

“Perhaps I’ll choose a more cooperative dragon next time,” he mocked back. “Less talkative. Less annoying. One who doesn’t snore. One who’s in no danger of ending up as dragon meatloaf for some witch’s breakfast.”

“Funny,” she narrowed her eyes. “Let me know when you find one. I’d be more than happy to share the life threat with a more cooperative individual. And I don’t snore.”

Max huffed. “Please. I’d say you snore like a dragon, but that’s a bit too literal for my taste. I’ll let you know when I come up with a better joke.”

“By all means, don’t,” Ember teased back and she heard him snicker under his breath.

She was a little surprised at how easy it was to slip back into this bickering game with Maxwell Lockhart. She found it was rather entertaining. To such extents, that now she didn’t even feel like punching him. That much.

“It’s rather remarkable how fast you’re back to your buffoon self,” she took advantage of the situation. “You know, given the circumstances. For someone who was shaking in his fancy vest in front of a demon not long ago. A demon you summoned, might I add.”

Max pursed his lips and stayed silent. He wasn’t dumb. He must’ve clearly seen through her attempts at debriefing him. But it wasn’t like Ember had any intention of backing down, so she proceeded with her inquiries.

“Which reminds me,” she pitched her voice, not bothering to hide her suspiciousness. “How did you know how to summon a demon? Or about the Hades Brides? You seem awfully familiar with the situation.”

Max came to a halt and turned on his heels, taking Ember by surprise. She bumped into his chest and her breath caught in her throat when she realized how close they were standing. She gulped. Was it even natural for eyes to be so blue? And while she had to say he was in bad need of a shaving, she also had to admit that this rough look suited him like a glove.

“I know things,” he stated simply, and Ember glared.

“Yes, so I’ve noticed. That was precisely my questions. How do you know things?”

He ran a hand over his face. “Ember, only days ago, you had no idea what you were. It hadn’t even occurred to you to investigate why you kept waking up in the woods with no memories. And yet, you’re still having trouble swallowing that piece of information. Believe me when I say that there are things don’t know about. And pray that it stays this way. There are worse things than a coven of bored witches.”

Ember laughed humorlessly. “Indeed so. Such as demons.”

Max pursed his lips and nodded once. “For instance, yes, demons. If only that was the end of it.”

He turned on his heels again and started walking again, leaving Ember starting at his back. She huffed and hurried after him. Did he make a priority out of being insufferable?

“You dismiss me so easily?” she raised her voice. “Won’t you explain anything to me?”

He looked at her over at shoulder, smirking like the frustrating bastard he was.

“Oh, I could,” he mused. “But where would the fun be in that?”

Ember could hardly believe her ears. The fun? Bored witches? Was he even the same man whose voice had shaken in front of Christopher like he was scared the demon might have turned him into dust? Which, she dreaded to admit to herself, he might have.

Before she could argue with him further, they took a turn and arrived right in front of Ember’s hut. She’d figured they’d have to move fast but, apparently, they did have some time to kill while Christopher did his thing and tried to track down the witch. Ember just hoped she’d get to see Kaleb this time. She ached for him. She also hoped that Max wouldn’t traumatize her siblings permanently. She was grateful that his charisma had gotten Cathy to open up for the first time in years, but the fact that the first words she’d uttered had been ‘Are you a pirate?’ somewhat unsettled her.

~SOUNDTRACK: Oscar Isaac – Fare thee well (Original soundtrack – Inside Llewyn Davis)~

Ember opened the door and Max was quick to follow her inside. Before she could even acknowledge other presences in the room or the fact that she was home, she inhaled deeply. The rusty and dusty smell of her modest little house filled her lungs and slowed down her heartbeats. And just like that, when she opened her eyes, the panic and the rush were gone.

It only lasted but a fraction of a second and, just like earlier today, when her siblings saw her, they rushed to her side with extended arms. The hugs lasted less this time and they unclasped themselves from her arms to turn to Max. Ember gasped in disbelief. Even Bandit had sought shelter on his shoulder again. This newly found comradery between the pirate and that beast of a kitten knocked her dumb. Well, like calls to like, she told herself. Evil bastard to evil bastard.

“Hello, Max,” the twins started cornering him.

“It’s ‘captain’ to you, young lady.”

“If you’re not courting Ember, can I marry you?”

“Tempting. I’ll still take the shark.”

“Can you sing songs?”

“Only inappropriate ones.”

“Do you have a special lady that you love?”

“Why, my ship, of course.”

“That’s a not a real lady.”

“What would you know about ladies?”

And on and on they went. Max kept up with the twins honorably. Occasionally, Charles would chime in with a shy question that the captain would respond to calmly, and under Ember’s eyes, the little boy embraced a newly confidence that she’d never seen on him. She had to admit she quite enjoyed the show.

“You,” Max’s voice boomed and broke Ember’s trained of thoughts; she followed his gaze and noticed he was watching Cathy. “Why so quiet, little Blackthorn?”

Cathy shrugged timidly and a surge of panic crossed Ember. What if this morning had been a singular event? What if Cathy went back to not speaking at all? She didn’t have the energy or the emotional capacity to work through that again. She wanted so badly to know that Cathy had put all the hardship behind her and that she’d be able again to enjoy a childhood Ember hadn’t gotten to enjoy.

“Tell you what, squirrel,” Max crouched in front of Cathy. “Have you ever heard of mermaids?”

Cathy nodded.

“You believe in ‘em?”

The little girl shook her head and Max pursed his lips.

“Too bad,” he retorted, and Ember could tell he now held the interest of all four of them; Cathy, in particular, watched him with hungry curiosity. “Because they’re very real. How about I tell you a story about a mermaid I’ve crossed paths with? And a sea serpent. I barely made it out alive. Would you like me to tell you the story?”

He lowered his voice to a dangerous tone, like one would to while telling a scary story around the fire. But it worked like a charm, because the little ones were enraptured. And then it happened again.

“I would love that very much,” Cathy whispered, and Max smiled and ruffled her hair.

“Alright then,” he made himself comfortable on the floor and the kids circled him. “So I was sailing one day not long ago with my crew, minding out own business, when we heard a luring song before seeing something in the water—“

He nodded at Ember almost imperceptibly and she knew this was her cue. He was keeping the kids entertained and she had to get the dragon’s breath. Not that this was very hard. She knew exactly where it was. So she kneeled beside the bed and shoved her hand under the mattress. In no time, her fingers touched something solid and she pulled out a small sack. Her heart raced in anticipation. She took a moment to embrace the moment. Now that she knew this rock was somehow a part of her legacy, she was beginning to understand the pull she felt towards it. She visualized the exact moment when her fingertips would touch the surface of the opal.

With a sharp intake of breath, she pulled out the gem from the sack and held in her palm. For one exact heartbeat. Then it hit her like thunder. The energy, the pull, the tether. It was like the stone was imbued with magic and now that the veil had been lifted, she could feel all that energy flowing from the stone and into her veins. How could she have missed this? It was overwhelming. All that power, gathered in something that fit in her palm.

She shook her head and tried to brush off the haze it put her under. Now more than ever, she had to stay focused. She turned around and saw that Max had stripped of his vest and now used it to exemplify the way he had trapped that sea serpent in his net and she smiled upon seeing the children laughing so whole-heartedly. And the more they laughed, the more Max fooled around to keep them entertained. It was a vicious cycle.

She had to tell Max that she had the stone and that they had to go and meet up with Christopher, but she couldn’t bring herself to just yet. So instead, she tucked the gem safe into her pocket and sat next to them, enjoying the scene just a little longer.

~SOUNDTRACK: 3 Doors Down – Here without you (Tyler Ward & Madilyn Bailey Acoustic Cover)~

Kaleb missed her with every heartbeat that reminded him of how her skin had hummed against his fingertips right before she’d walked out that door a few night before. And she hadn’t come back ever since. His heart clenched and he hit his fists against the table.

The worry had been soon replaced with anger. At himself, at his helplessness. He’d done his best caring for Ember’s siblings while she was gone, but it didn’t erase the fact that he couldn’t do anything to get her back.

He was certain something had happened to her. At first, he’d thought Clarissa had offered some sort of business and that she was going back on her word of laying low for a while. He wouldn’t have judged her if that were the case. He couldn’t have ever. But then morning came and she hadn’t showed up. So he went to Clarissa, who claimed he hadn’t seen her in days.

And the realization settled deep in his chest like an ice storm. Somehow, he knew there was something wrong. And when she didn’t come home that night either and the kids were looking up at him with concern in their eyes, Kaleb knew what true despair is. He couldn’t help but think the worst. He kept telling himself Ember knew how to talk care of herself and that she was perfectly capable of self-defense. But deep to the core, he kept hearing a voice telling him that she wasn’t invincible.

“Kaleb,” he heard his father bark beside him. “Put an end to this sulking around and get to working. Clients are waiting and money don’t grow on trees, boy.”

Kaleb gritted his teeth. Ever since that episode in the market, he was having trouble going back to the same obedient boy who was afraid of his father. Somewhere between that moment and now, it had occurred to him that he was no longer frail and small and that he had the means to stand up to the bully. He turned around and faced his father, all that anger boiling inside him scratching the surface.

“If clients are waiting, I suggest you get to working yourself, father,” he spoke with fierceness he had no idea he was capable of; his father’s eyes widened. “I have other business to attend to.”

William Lahey stepped forward, his eye twitching. Kaleb swallowed hard in anticipation; he knew that gesture all too well. It always preceded a beating he wouldn’t recover from for days. But those times were gone. He wouldn’t let his father intimidate him ever again. With Ember out there and not knowing whether she was still breathing, Kaleb was in no mood to endure these behaviors.

“Watch your mouth, boy,” his father spat in his face, the muscles in his arm twitching and Kaleb saw the blow before he could land it.

In one swift motion, he caught his father’s arm. Oh, how he enjoyed the terrified look on the almighty William Lahey’s face as he was being stood up to.

“Isn’t it irritating to feel powerless, father?” he let go of his arm. “All your anger can’t match mine. And I’ve held it in for years. Not once again will I stand victim to your rage. Pray that you don’t get to know mine.”

The old man’s eye twitched again.

“Is that a threat, boy?”

Kaleb grinned viciously. “Damn right, it is.”

He turned on his heels and walked out of the shop, not waiting around to face the aftermath of his words. This small victory was not fruitful without Ember to share it with. She would have been proud of him. He had come a long way from weeks ago when he’d been a scared boy whose throat she held a knife against. Who was shaking in his pants when he offered her that orchid.

It was as if her presence had shed color on everything that surrounded him. Like he’d been blind and she’d been the lightning piercing the night sky. Like he’d been deaf and the first thing he heard had been the echo of her thunder. And then everything started different shades until the world was an explosion of colors with a red cloak and green eyes in the middle. And now she was gone and he was sick with worry and the world had gone back to being painted in shades of black and white.

He didn’t even realize he was headed towards her house until he found himself standing a few houses away from it. He sighed. Where was she? Why wasn’t she coming back? He had to believe she was somewhere out there, fighting to make her way back to him. Because he missed her like crazy and his hands were already starting to feel like empty shells without hers to hold.

The door to the hut opened. He exhaled sharply. He was thinking about how he should have explained to Charles and the girls that they were not to go out alone, without Ember to watch over them. But he stopped mid-thought and stopped breathing at all. The kids hadn’t come out of the house. Instead, red cloak pulled around her, Ember emerged on the doorstep, eyes scanning the distance cautiously.

Kaleb felt something inside him snap and scorching flames were ignited in the depth of his chest. She was back. He broke into a wide grin and was about to run towards her. He’d sweep her off her feet and spin her around, because these days without her had felt like a long dull winter. But he never got around to it.

He saw another presence following Ember shortly. A young man, perhaps merely years older than Ember and himself, with a beard and dressed in black and leather from head to toe. His stance screamed dangerous, and yet he kept close to her. Their moves were frantic and rushed and it looked like they were running from something.

Kaleb frowned. He tried to look past the jealousy bubbling in the pit of the stomach, thinking that during these days when he’d been going out of his mind, she’d been running around with a smoldering stranger. But that was not like the Ember he knew. Ember would have never abandoned her siblings in the middle of the night. And he liked to think that Ember wouldn’t have abandoned him without as much as a warning.

He counted five heartbeats before he made up his mind. He had to get to the bottom of this and he had to get Ember back home. Back to him. So he kept a safe distance and followed Ember and the tall dark stranger.

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