Smoke and Mirrors

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Chapter 18: The Ashes that Forged Me

~SOUNDTRACK: Linkin Park – Castle of glass~

Dozens of eyes were pointed at Kaleb. Breaths were being held. Blames were being silently thrown. Two hands shaking. No one dared move, Christopher’s words still ringing in their ears.

“What do you mean, there are traces of the hex on him?” Ember dared to ask in a small voice, her grip on Kaleb’s hands weakening.

“I don’t have the time to explain to you how basic magic works,” the demon rolled his eyes. “But when a hex is cast, it leaves a trace both on the victim and on the caster. I’d say that puts our little friend in a rather incriminating position.”

Ember saw Max’s hand touch the hilt of his sword and his jaw clenched. What were they talking about? This was Kaleb. Green eyes, wild hair, stammered five times per sentence. He was no witch, and he would have never done anything to harm her. They had all lost their minds.

“Take him,” Max motioned with his hand towards Kaleb, and his pirates moved forward.

Without wasting a breath, Ember jumped on her feet and sent her fist flying, hitting the first pirate that had reached them. She saw the rest of them hesitate, and she panted.

“No one is touching Kaleb,” she turned to Max and hissed. “He plays no part in this mess.”

The pirates kept their distance, despite Max’s death glare, and Christopher was the only one who moved forward. But demon or not, Ember stood her ground. They’d already put Kaleb through enough. She was not letting them drag him through mud.

“Don’t be a fool, little dragon,” Christopher whispered in her face. “You’re smarter than this. I can practically hear his blood humming with dark magic, as I hear yours. That’s all the proof you need.”

She wanted to laugh in his face. She wanted to grab Kaleb’s arm, pull him to his feet and take him away from their hungry sights. They were all thirsty for blood. They only wanted to humiliate a poor kid who had had the audacity of worrying about the girl he cared about. Were they truly about to convict him for this much? And yet, as Christopher spoke the words, she found doubt growing into her soul like a thorn. And then more and more, until all there was left was the wilted rose of nearly broken trust and the thorns threatening to break the surface of her skin. Could it be? Christopher was right. There was proof, and it made sense. And while she could entirely trust the demon and take his word for it, could she truly risk it all, risk her life, over blind trust? She cared about Kaleb. But she’d been wrong about people before.

With her heart breaking in two, she turned to Kaleb with shaking hands.

“Kaleb—“ she began in a small voice, and Kaleb could read the distrust in her green eyes.

“Ember, you have to believe me,” she pleaded, his first full sentence since he’d arrived on board. “I’ve got no idea what is going on. Whatever it is that you’re accusing me of, I’m not guilty. Ember—“

“Ember,” she heard Max’s voice near her ear and flinched, not having heard him approach. “I get that it’s hard. But Christopher is sensing something. We cannot take chances.”

“Shut up,” Ember hissed at Max, not taking her eyes off Kaleb. “Kaleb, say something. Defend yourself.”

“I-I can’t,” his voice trembled. “I don’t know how. I don’t even know what it is that you accuse me of. Ember, please—“

“Think about it, Ember,” Christopher whispered in her other ear. “I gave you facts.”

“Ember—“ Kaleb kept pleading.

“Think, little dragon, think. The hex could’ve been under any form.”

“Dragon? Hex?” Kaleb shrieked. “Ember, I don’t understand—“

“You would have never guessed it, as it would’ve eaten you from inside out.”

“Ember, please, I would never—“

“Any form. It could have even been a jewel, like the dragon’s breath.”

“Ember—“

“Shut up!” Ember screamed eventually, snapping and grabbing fistfuls of her hair. She was breathing rapidly and paced back and forth. “Everybody just shut up, you’re driving me mad. Let me just think.”

Christopher had given her facts. The hex could’ve been under any form. Any form. She never would’ve guessed it. Kaleb would’ve never done anything to hurt her. Kaleb cared about her. Any form. The hex could’ve been under any form. It could have even been a jewel, like the dragon’s breath. A jewel. A gem. She stopped breathing, and her hands went inside her cloak. She turned to Christopher.

“You said—“ she trailed off, clearing her throat against the lump that made it hard to swallow. “You said the hex could be in a jewel? In a stone?”

Christopher nodded and her fingers grazed a smooth surface on the inside of her cloak. She gulped, and her fingers squeezed the stone. When she got the dragon’s breath from her house, she’d taken the pendant from Kaleb, too. Call it sentimentality. In what felt like slow motion, she pulled it out and held it out for the demon to inspect it. And for the first time, she saw Christopher’s face twist in surprise. Gods above. She’d prayed so hard that she wouldn’t be right about this.

“It’s in it, isn’t it?” she asked, her voice broken, not daring to look in Kaleb’s direction. She was vaguely aware of the fact that Kaleb was shouting at her, still trying to explain himself, still claiming that he didn’t understand. But all she could focus on was the demon’s head nodding, confirming her greatest fear.

“This is no regular cursed object,” Christopher explained. “It’s the Hope Diamond. It’s imbued with so much dark magic that it is said to have corrupted and have brought to perdition kings and queens. It’s centuries old. The raw power in it combined with a hex cast by a powerful witch… It’s a miracle you’re still alive.”

Ember let out a shaky breath. So it was true.

“Ember, no,” Kaleb was shaking his head fervently. “I would never hurt you. It’s a lie, it’s all a lie.”

She turned to him abruptly, her eyes holding hardness in them that silenced Kaleb immediately. He’d never seen her so fierce, and it fazed him now that this fierceness was directed at him.

“You gave this to me, Kaleb,” she spoke slowly and articulately, making his blood run cold in his veins. “You insisted that I keep it. It all points at you. And I want to believe you. But give me one good reason why I shouldn’t feel like you betrayed me.”

His mouth opened and closed a few times, as if making up his mind as to what to say and how to defend himself. But the more she looked, all that Ember saw was that he just kept bringing the blame upon himself. With every passing minute, her trust in him grew weaker and weaker.

“You don’t believe me,” Kaleb stated eventually, and Ember didn’t bother to look into his eyes, to read the pain seeking shelter there, she didn’t bother listen to more empty explanations.

No. She didn’t believe him.

So she turned around on her heels and kept her back turned to him. She came face to face with Max, who watched her with eyebrows raised. If he dared to tease her about this, she would rip out his tongue and feed it to his sailors. For his sake, she hoped he knew his boundaries.

But Max said nothing. He kept watching her for a few seconds, as if seeking approval in her eyes, but she didn’t have it in her to make eye contact. There was rage in her, pulsating in her veins, and she felt herself breaking piece by piece. The knowledge of Kaleb’s betrayal was sinking its teeth deep into her flesh. He was the only person she’d come to trust in a very long time. And he’d dragged that trust through mud and had tried to kill her. There was no coming back from that.

Eventually, she felt Max’s eyes leaving her and he turned to his men.

“Take him,” he ordered.

She didn’t ask where they were taking him. She assumed he was to be kept under lock up until further notice. Her heart shrunk a little. Perhaps Max and Christopher wanted to kill him. She felt betrayed, but she could never bring herself to watch the only man she had come to care for be murdered in cold blood.

Max’s pirates seized Kaleb and started to drag him away, and though her back was turned, Ember heard him fight back.

“No,” he screamed. “No! No, Ember. Please, you have to believe me. Ember! I’m innocent. Ember!”

She did her best to ignore his calls until he was out of ear sight. And only then did she release a breath she didn’t even know she was holding. She ran a hand through her hair, feeling the sharp sting of tears in the corners of her eyes; she blinked against them. She would not cry.

“Gods above,” she murmured in her palms, still unable to fully grasp what had just happened.

“What’s there to be done next?” Max asked from behind her, and she finally turned around to face the demon and the captain.

Max looked like his usual smoldering self, but the crease between his brows betrayed his slight concern, if any. Ember didn’t pause to analyze that. Christopher, however, looked rather entertained by the whole story, like he’d just had front row seats to a Greek tragedy. There was an amused expression on his face that Ember just wanted to punch off. And she would’ve, hadn’t she been worried he’d skin her alive.

“Well, knowing that the curse is in the Hope Diamond, we must first destroy it in order to have the hex removed.”

Ember shrugged. “Marvelous. I’m sure Max has some hammers or pickaxes lying around.”

Christopher kept watching her amused and she frowned at his content. Max groaned by her side.

“There’s a catch, isn’t it?” the pirate asked and the demon pursed his lips.

“The Hope Diamond is an ancient cursed object. Protected by a powerful hex. You don’t expect it to be so easy to get rid of it, do you?”

Ember ran her hands through her face. No. Of course not. Why would it be so easy? Why make it easy when you can crawl from hell and back trying to stay alive? Why should the universe be fair for once?

“Then what are we to do?” she asked, tired.

“The hex can be broken with a counter spell,” Christopher explained. “But the ingredients are, let’s say, difficult to provide, given your condition.”

Ember’s eyebrows flew up. “My condition?”

“Your inability to transform, love. I need a dragon scale to cast the spell, and I need a dragon in dragon form to get that, not a skinny girl, scared, useless and with an attitude.”

She frowned at his words and she saw Max grit his teeth.

“Watch it, demon,” Max spat, and Ember was surprised by the sudden act of defending her honor he was putting on. Christopher stepped forward and smiled teasingly in Max’s face.

“Watch it, pirate.”

Ember rolled her eyes at the pointless display of masculinity and went to stand between them, forcing them to move away, keeping a hand on Max’s chest to pull him away. Christopher didn’t even blink.

“Knock off the pissing contest,” she hissed at them. “If I wanted ill-behaved dogs, I would’ve let you know. Christopher, go on. What else do you need for the spell?”

Christopher cast an amused glance her way before replying.

“The rest of the ingredients of the spell are not difficult to come across. The remaining issue would be the fact that the fire in which the Hope Diamond must be destroyed is to be ignited in a golden cup hoarded by said dragon.”

Ember frowned, confused, and she saw that Max’s expression mirrored hers. A golden cup that she’d hoarded. For a magical fire that was to destroy the rock. Would the madness never stop? She sighed.

“Then I assume finding the cave has become a rather urgent matter,” she turned to Max. “It looks like your treasure hunt has just become a priority.”

Max nodded. “Aye. Except that is also the main issue. We can’t find the cave if you’re in human form.”

“Right,” Ember scowled, having forgotten this slight detail. “Because I don’t remember a single thing. Then what do we do?”

Max shrugged. “We stick to the initial plan. You’ll turn eventually and lead us straight to the cave. Perhaps now that you know what you are, the dragon will have the human conscience, too.”

“Here’s to hoping,” she muttered under her breath, turning on her heels.

She felt tired. So very tired. She wanted to go to sleep and wake up after all this was past. She yearned for safety and for a quiet afternoon, painting and watching her siblings play. Simplicity is often underappreciated.

~SOUNDTRACK: Nathan Bell – Howling~

She made it to a secluded side of the ship and leaned with her elbows on the edge of the ship, looking in the distance. The sun was setting, oblivious to the tragedies it had shed its light upon. The sea looked so tranquil and her soul felt so treacherous.

She closed her eyes and breathed in the salty scent of the sea. She kept it in until it burned her lungs. How had she fallen so low? She let it out. Rock bottom wasn’t as obliterating as she’d figured. So if it wasn’t yet as worse as it could get, that meant there is more past rock bottom. Perhaps nothingness. Perhaps abyss. She was afraid to look down and find out. Her balance was too fragile for now.

“Ember,” she heard a raspy voice behind her.

She didn’t turn around, but she knew it was Max. She realized his presence fit into the salty fragrance of the sea, like he’d been born on the tip of its waves. She wanted to yell at him and demand she be left alone, she wanted to tell him to go away and blame him for every point of no return she kept sailing by. But she didn’t. Because weirdly enough, now that she felt so unsteady on her feet, this nasty pirate had somehow become a constant. He’d made his intentions clear, and they were far from being honorable. And they were selfish. But she respected that. Not once had he claimed he was a man of great honor. And she also respected that.

“Are we going to have a moment?” she tried a joke, but it came out rather harsh. “Because if so, I am most certainly throwing you off this ship.”

With the corner of her eyes, she saw Max fight a smile.

“I thought you had a strict policy against people being thrown off deck,” he commented, and Ember was surprised to find a small smile, though sad, blossom on her lips.

“I can make an exception for you,” she said, and he chuckled. “You called me Ember,” she remarked.

“I believe it is your name.”

She rolled her eyes. “So no fire breather? No dragon girl?”

When he stayed silent, she turned her head to find him watching her curiously. When their gazes met, he averted his and settled for watching the line where the sun dove into the crystal sea.

“No,” he replied simply. “I figured you’ve had enough dragon business for one day.”

“And witch business. And pirate business. And demon business.”

He let out a breathy laugh again, and silence settled again between them. Surprisingly enough, though she would’ve preferred being alone, Max’s presence brought a certain calmness to her storm that dissipated the gray clouds, like he was sailing his ship straight to the fog she found herself in. And it was rather odd. Max was an explosive individuality. Never would she have taken him as the kind who could tone himself down enough to reduce the hurricane to a spring drizzle.

“Are you—“ he started eventually, breaking the silence, and Ember groaned and hid her face in her palm.

“If you’re going to ask me if I’m okay, I will really throw you off the ship. Please go back to being a nasty brute.”

“I thought you hated the nasty brute.”

“I do,” she smiled at him to let him know she was teasing. “But sensitive Max scares me.”

He laughed whole-heartedly. “Nasty brute it is.”

He pulled out a bottle of rum from inside his jacket and handed it to her. Well. Resourceful nasty brute.

“Do you always carry rum with you?” she cocked an eyebrow at him, taking the bottle from his hand and taking a sip.

“It’s a pirate thing.”

Ember chuckled and gave him the bottle back. They passed it between them a few more times, until Ember felt a welcome numbness in the tip of her fingers and in her toes and warmth spreading through her body.

“You and that boy,” Max dared to say eventually, and Ember gritted her teeth and let him continue. “You had a… thing, didn’t you?”

“I refuse to answer to the implications of that question,” she replied with a straight face. “But yes. I was beginning to think we were in love. And I was finally happy, for a change.”

Max stayed silent, rummaging her words. She appreciated the fact that he knew when to shut up and not fill the silence up with unnecessary words.

“What will you do with him?” she mustered the courage to voice the question nudging at the back of her mind.

Max sighed. “I considered torturing him. Throwing him to the sharks limb by limb. Romantically offering you his heart after I carve it out his chest. Throwing him off the ship.” Ember stiffened. “But Christopher believes we might still need him. Magic is unpredictable, and if he’s the one who cast the hex, he might turn out to be some key to undo it.”

Ember let out a shaky breath, feeling her knees go weak. Max glanced sideways at her, a frown between his brows.

“You’re relieved,” he stated, not bothering to ask a question he already knew the answer to.

Ember bit her lip until she drew blood. “I don’t want him dead,” she said simply.

Max watched her curiously for a minute, most likely pondering her call. She could tell he wanted to kill him, perhaps on principle, perhaps for fun, perhaps to protect her and make good on his promise. She wondered whether he would ignore her request and kill him anyway. She stiffened again. But then he started nodding.

“So shall be it,” he said. “But why would you keep him alive? It doesn’t seem to me as if he was ever eager to grant you that much.”

Ember felt his eyes filling up with tears she refused to let go.

“There’s no denying that,” she admitted. “Perhaps he’s guilty of everything we’re accusing him of. But one day soon, after I’ll have put these inconvenient feelings behind me, I’d like to speak with him. I’d like answers. I’d like to know what made him walk into my life and try to break my spirit, too, along with my body.”

She paused, knowing this wasn’t the only reason. And Max must have known, too, because he waited until she was able to speak again.

“Also, I don’t want to be like that,” Ember continued. “I am better than that. I may be an outlaw who’s bending morals, but I will be the better woman here and show him mercy. If only for my sanity.”

Max looked straight ahead, not saying a thing. Ember’s words still rang between them, filling the quiet of the dusk.

I will be the better woman and show him mercy. If only for my sanity.

The captain couldn’t say he agreed to that. But he saw her stance. And he admired it a little. There was no righteousness or morality to her choice, and he didn’t mistake it for it. In all truthness, she was a little selfish. She wanted to keep him alive because she couldn’t have born the guilt of knowing the man she cared about dead and she wanted to keep him alive because she wanted to prove herself she had something more on him.

And he respected that, too.

So he raised his rum bottle and handed it to her one more time, smirking her way.

“I drink to that.”

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