Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 17: Walking With Spiders

~SOUNDTRACK: James Arthur – Certain things~

The first time she’d made this trip, Ember had had a sack over her head and was aching to put a knife through Max’s skull. The last time had been too dark. Now that she could observe the surroundings, she had to admit it was quite breathtaking.

They were in a boat, heading back towards Max’s ship. Christopher was to meet them there. She hadn’t bothered to ask how he would get there, because she doubted she wanted to know. All this magic nonsense was still hard enough to grasp as it was. So for now, she was alone in a boat with Max. She smiled as she took in the view. Far ahead, the sea met the skyline and they merged into a wide blue horizon. Each wave had a choreography of its own and together they created a beautiful piece that would’ve put great symphonies to shame. She breathed in the salty smell of the sea. It caught her by surprise since she’d despised it not long ago, but as it filled her lungs now, she found that she actually enjoyed the sensation of liberation it provided.

“Look at you,” Max’s voice brought her back from her daydream. “Befriending the sea like a true pirate.”

“For a mercenary, you’ve called me a pirate more times than you’ve admitted to being one yourself.”

Max laughed, but rolled his eyes anyway. “I can’t win with you.”

Ember laughed, too and her gaze stayed glued to him. He had taken off his vest and she could see the muscles rippling through his thin black shirt as he oared. If she were to be completely honest with herself, perhaps she wasn’t entirely clueless to his attractiveness. At a closer look, the color of his eyes matched that of the horizon and blended in beautifully. That wicked smirk of his that infuriated her to no end actually curved his features into a playful expression that lighted up his whole face. And today, she’d learned things about him. Things that had shocked her more than actually seeing him murder a man before her eyes. She’d learned that he was capable of kindness. That there was more to him than stupid jokes and teasing and mockery and pirate parties painted in rum. She’d learned that he was human, a human who could feel fear and compassion and who could relate to certain situations. And she couldn’t help but feel as if, today, she’d also earned some respect from him.

He cleared his throat, startling her. She hadn’t realized she was so deeply lost in her thoughts.

“While I’m aware I am a handsome bastard, your staring is making me uncomfortable.”

Ember shook her head and smirked, looking him straight in the eyes. She refused to drop his gaze or to blush anymore. Two could play this game.

“Is that so?” she narrowed her eyes and tilted her head playfully at him; she leaned forward with her elbows on her knees and she could swear she saw him gulp a little. “Are you losing your touch, captain Lockhart? First your bones shake while drawing a devil’s trap. Then you fool around with little kids. So unlike you. And now you fidget around a girl?” She clicked her tongue. “Pull yourself together, captain.”

He huffed. “Fidgeting around a girl? What am I, 13? You give yourself too much credit, fire breather. Many women have warmed my bed, dragon girl. Your innocent mind would be unable to comprehend such things. I don’t fidget.”

“Is that so?” she repeated, not letting herself be intimidated as she rested her cheek on her palm. “I can’t help but notice you’re not denying the part about being scared or kind to the children.”

He simply shrugged. “I was. Scared as mouse. And your siblings were the only ones willing to hear my mermaid story without laughing at it.”

Ember fought a smile. “Is it true that they’re real? Did you actually fight mermaids?”

“Hell, no. But I’ve always wanted to tell that story.”

Ember laughed whole-heartedly. She felt it happening. Slowly and steadily like a river stream. Maxwell Lockhart was growing on her and getting under her skin. He felt herself get pulled in by the curve of his lips as they widened into that grin of his, revealing white teeth. Weren’t pirates supposed to be dirty and smelly and repulsive? Was it fair for him to be so distracting? Ember bit her lip and gave a shove to all those feelings, pushing them deep down. She didn’t need more complications in her life right now. And enough of those already involved Max to wrap her head around another one.

But then again, she also couldn’t ignore the fact that she’d had those moments with her siblings today thanks to him. And that he’d faced a demon and had risked his life to help her when she’d been in danger. While she didn’t quite enjoy feeling in debt towards him, of all people, she couldn’t help but feel like she was starting to owe him her life.

“Thank you,” she blurted out as she smiled up at him; when he cocked an eyebrow at eyebrow questioningly, she hurried to clarify. “For taking me to see my siblings. Helping me with the witch.”

“Swallowing our pride, are we?” he mocked, and she rolled her eyes; count on Max to ruin a moment. “And you shouldn’t thank me. I’m the one who took you away from your siblings in the first place.”

“True,” she pursed her lips. “Let’s say I’m trying not to hold that against you, now that you’ve more or less saved my life. I will help you find your treasure, Max. I promise.”

He was silent for a few minutes, watching her with an intensity that made Ember finally shift in her seat and avert her gaze. His grin was gone and he was looking at her like she was a puzzle he couldn’t solve.

“And I’ll keep you alive in the meantime,” he spoke eventually, all trace of mockery gone from his voice. “I promise. And when all this was over, you’ll have your fair share of that treasure. You and your siblings will never again have to live another day knowing hunger.”

Ember looked at him with wide eyes. She blinked and cleared her throat, unsure as to how to shake off the awkwardness that was slowly setting in her bones under the heaviness of his sapphire eyes. He drew his lip between his teeth and started biting it as he kept oaring and Ember silently cursed at him. Yes. He was definitely distracting, to say at the very least.

“That’s a lot of trouble for some pennies, if you ask me,” Ember tried to joke, but the air had shifted between them perceptibly. “Why would you put everything at risk to protect me? Is money worth all that?”

Max simply shrugged. The ship was already coming into sight.

“Perhaps I have no wish to see you dead,” he replied, and this time, Ember couldn’t stop her blush from spreading across her cheeks. “And there’s more money in that cave than a few pennies, fire breather. You’ll see.”

Ember let escape a small smile in his direction. Maxwell Lockhart was an enigma, and yet, she found herself resonating to such extents with him that it took her aback like nothing before. Sure, she missed Kaleb like one would miss half of their heart, and she and Kaleb had had a connection that ran deeper than words. But she couldn’t deny that, for the last few days, there had been certain things that drew a link between her and the pirate. And as hard as she pulled on it, it wouldn’t bulge. And she was slowly starting to learn the ways of his being, learning the ways past the things that got on her nerves and into the things that got to her.

After a few more moments of silence, Ember couldn’t stop herself from asking the question poking at the back of her mind.

“This thing with the witch?” she spoke quietly. “Is it truly that bad? Does it pose such a great threat to my life?”

Max sighed and looked on the verge of rolling his eyes, but he kept his composure and watched her with a serious expression mixed with a tinge of his usual glee when he responded.

“Someday soon, Ember, perhaps I shall sit you down and tell you all of those stories over a bottle of rum.” Ember actually smiled a little at the thought; and not that she’d ever admit it, but at the way her name rolled off so suavely off his lips, too. “But not just yet. When you’re ready.”

Her eyebrows rose. “And I presume you’re one to tell when such occasion should arise? When I should be ready?”

He seemed unfazed as he shrugged nonchalantly.

“Occasion might arise sooner than later, dragon girl,” he smirked wickedly at her, and Ember could practically see the dirty remark coming before he could voice it. “I told you that you underestimate my charms.”


~SOUNDTRACK: Heavy Young Heathens – Lucifer~

“Took you two long enough.”

Max let go of Ember’s hand after helping her up on deck and glared at the demon who leaned casually against a barrel.

“Oaring boats ain’t no rainbow when you don’t have supernatural powers,” the captain spoke through gritted teeth, and Ember had to admit his standing up to Christopher was, if not reckless and stupid, at least a little brave.

Christopher stepped forward, the same stance to his posture, as Ember observed, with his hands tucked behind his back. He cocked his head to one side and watched both of them for a minute before speaking.

“Well,” his velvet voice boomed. “Let’s get down to business, shall we?”

He extended his arms and Max looked around for the first time. His eyebrows rose when he realized his crew looked rather terrified. What had been going on here while he had been gone? Christopher took a few steps forward and stopped right in front of him.

“While you were gone,” the demon began, “I took the liberty to dispose of some of your crew members that I deemed unworthy of serving you. I figured rats would be better needed at the bottom of the ocean than on a ship we must keep well-guarded.”

Ember’s eyes widened. Was he implying what she thought he was implying?

“What?” she shrieked. “Disposed of them? You killed members of his crew? Max—“

She turned to him, expecting to see him enraged. He didn’t seem like the kind of man who would tolerate interference with the way he handled business on his ship. But to her utter surprise, Max looked rather impressed than angered.

“Huh,” was all he could mutter and Ember looked incredulously from the captain to the demon and back.

“Have you gone mad?” she demanded, turning to Max. “He murdered your people.”

Max shrugged. “He makes a fair point. And I’ve murdered my own people, too. We don’t need a mutiny during such sensitive times.”

“Oh, well,” Christopher grinned. “The pirate has a common sense. Humanity is full of surprises. Also, there would be one more issue.”

Ember glared at Max and crossed her arms over her chest, incredulous. She took back whatever half-assed compliments she’d mentally attributed him. He was back to cruel pirate in the blink of an eye. As Christopher gestured for a few of the pirates to fetch something for him, Ember found herself quickly drawn into the curiosity she shared with Max as to what issue the demon had encountered. She loathed this rush and how easy it was to give in to these instincts of letting go of morals, but in all truthness, the situation truly was sensitive, and there were decisions to be made that could have made the difference between surviving and falling prey to those ‘bored witches’.

The pirates came back dragging a man along with them, with the same sack on his head that Ember had had the first time she’d been brought aboard. She frowned. What was this about? And what was so familiar about his body built?

“I found this,” Cristopher announced in a bored tone. “A rat. It seems to have traced down the ship with a boat and your men found it hiding on deck. No one seems to make of it.”

It. For Christopher, the poor boy was truly no more than a rat that he could dispose of as easily as he had those sailors that had been plotting against Max. But there was still something about his silhouette, something oddly familiar that she could not entirely place. That muscular chest, those toned arms and she could have sworn she’d seen that tunic he was wearing before.

“Interesting,” Max clicked his tongue. “Take off the sack. Let’s see if our rat has a tongue, too.”

The men revealed the boy’s face and Ember could see in slow motion as the features of his face came into view. Full lips. Pointed nose. Sharp cheeks. Emerald eyes. And that ever ruffled hair. She gasped.

~SOUNDTRACK: Aquilo – Silhouette~

“Kaleb,” she breathed out.

And their eyes met. She couldn’t tell what she saw in his eyes. There was a bit of shock and disappointment, but she didn’t want to think of that just yet. There was that ever-lasting spark in the depth of the green of his eyes that lit up every time at the sight of her. What was he doing here? Did he have a death wish? Did he long for her as much as he longed for him? Did his fingertips itch to touch her as much as hers did to touch him? What would become of him if she couldn’t get to him before Christopher and Max?

She didn’t even have time to process everything that was going out as she broke into a grin and her heels dug into the wooden deck, ready to reach for him and jump into his arms, rip out those ropes around his wrists with her bare teeth. Kaleb. Kaleb. Kaleb was here.

“Kaleb,” she gasped breathlessly again, lunging forward.

She willed her skin to anticipate the contact before they touched. She visualized his cheek next to hers, his lips to her ear and hers to his neck, smelling his rusty smell and running her fingers through his hair. But the contact never came. Instead, other arms circled her waist and held her in place. Her muscles moved, but her body wasn’t getting closer to Kaleb.

She looked down and saw arms covered in black sleeves that she traced back to Max’s body pressed against hers. She pursed her lips and shot him a death glare, struggling to break free.

“Let go of me, Max,” she sneered. “I know him.”

“I’m moved to tears,” the captain hissed in her ear. “But he sneaked on my ship, dragon girl. He’s under my jurisdiction.”

“And I don’t care,” she raised her voice. “Let me go.”

“Ember, listen to me.”

“Let me go to him, Max.”

“We have to—“

“Max, I will hit you some place where the sun doesn’t shine.”

“And I will tie you to the table in my cabin.”

“Max—“

“Ember, listen to—“

“Please.”

As the word left her lips and her voice lowered, she felt him stop struggling and the pirate held his breath. She turned her head to look at him and she saw the hard expression on his face. But as his sapphire eyes dug into hers, he must have seen her plea there, because with a loud sigh, he let go of her and even handed her his dagger, motioning towards Kaleb.

Ember let out a breathless laugh and wasted no time in getting on her knees in front of Kaleb.

“Ember—“ he started, his voice shaking. Gods, she’d missed that voice for so long.

“Hush,” she prompted him .”Give me your hands.”

He extended his tied wrists and she started working on his ropes shakily.

“Ember—“ he tried again. “What’s going on? Who are these people?”

“I’ll explain everything,” she nodded, wishing she could just work through those ropes faster and feel those strong arms of his around her, sheltering her from everything evil that was to come her way. As long as he had him by her side, she could face it all.

“But—“

Christopher’s loud sigh interrupted Kaleb’s retort, and Ember turned to glare at him, though it did nothing to faze the demon.

“Well, as lovely and dramatic as this was,” Christopher spoke, “I’m afraid our honorable rat guest may need to explain himself first.”

“He’s tied down, Christopher,” Ember hissed. “He can offer whatever explanations you need later. There’s no rush. Let me have this one moment.”

She turned to Kaleb, whose expression was unreadable. It pained her to some extent. Perhaps she would’ve expected him to be a little more joyful and relieved about seeing her again, even if it wasn’t under the most appropriate circumstances. But he must have been in shock. Gods, he must have seen her in the village and followed her here. Did he know no boundaries when it came to chasing her? She didn’t feel as if she was worthy of it, still not yet.

She dared cast a glance in Max’s direction before the last snap of the rope. She found him watching the scene with a hard, unreadable expression on his face. Her shoulders tensed. She had no idea why it affected her to see him so within himself, so unlike the way she knew him. But she couldn’t think about that now. All she knew was Kaleb, Kaleb, Kaleb, Kaleb’s shaking fingers, hers grasping them, only a few more inches between them, between their lips, regardless of the dozens pairs of eyes watching them.

Christopher cleared his throat behind her. She sighed frustrated. Prince of Hell or not, she was going to punch his teeth out.

“I’m afraid this cannot wait,” he spoke, almost an amused tinge to his tone. “While I am fairly certain that your friend isn’t acquainted with your true beastly self, I’ve got reasons to believe he isn’t quite estranged, either. At least, not with the hex threat above your head.”

“What?” Kaleb shrieked breathlessly, barely having any energy to fight back. “Are you all insane? I’m not… What are you—”

Ember squeezed his fingers reassuringly and turned to Christopher.

“What nonsense are you talking about?”

Christopher wasted no time and asked for no permission before grabbing Kaleb by the collar of his shirt and pulling him to his feet. Ember tried to fight back and have the demon free Kaleb, but she was no equal to a Prince of Hell. He held Kaleb’s frightened face close to his as he spoke.

“Hello, Kaleb,” he started mockingly. “Are you the witch we’re looking for?”

“What?” Ember shrieked incredulously, freezing in place, and she felt Max moving to her side in an instant. Kaleb looked utterly terrified.

“W-Witch?” he mumbled. “What are… I don’t…”

“Christopher, what are you talking about?” Max managed to ask calmly, keeping his composure.

Christopher let Kaleb’s body drop to the floor and he fell on his side with a loud thud. Christopher turned to Ember and Max, straightening the folds in his vest like nearly choking a kid had bothered his inner harmony. Ember rushed to Kaleb’s side.

“I believe a proper debriefing of the boy is due,” he spoke, the same boredom of his back to his features. “I sense traces of the hex on him.”

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