Chapter 19: We Become Echos
~SOUNDTRACK: Michael Malarkey – Dancing in the grey~
Weeks had passed. Life on Max’s ship wasn’t becoming easier, but it was getting bearable. To her utter surprise, Ember had actually grown to like it here. She was waking up every day to the smell of salty waves and rum and went on deck to greet the sunrise. She was hearing stories that she was sure were half-made up, but she still enjoyed them like a little kid. And she’d learned that on pirate ships, the parties never really stopped. Now that she had the certainty her siblings were safe with Clarissa and that the hex was now a mere mute threat that they had yet to fix, she was breathing a little easier. And she was letting herself be carried away by the adventure.
There were but two things that still unsettled her. The first one was Christopher. He might have been helping them and he’d made it clear that he had his own agenda, but that didn’t mean she could trust him. He always kept a fair distance from the rest of them and always watched them with cautious eyes that made Ember feel as if he was constantly up to something. And of course, there was that part she tried hard not to think about, that place right below deck. The ship’s cells where they’d left Kaleb to rot.
Weeks had passed. She hadn’t seen Kaleb again after Max’s pirates had locked him up. And she was far from being ready to face him and demand the answers that would break her. So her heart ached for him, it did. It was inhumane to keep him locked up like a rat; but then again, how far from human is casting a hex over the girl you claim to have feelings for? And yet, after weeks and weeks of pondering, she was still having a hard time bringing herself to actually believe he was to blame for everything she was going through. It just didn’t fit the image she still had in her head of him. Kaleb Lahey. Green eyes. Wild hair. Stammers five times per sentence. The one who had kept her from being skinned alive by an entire village. The one in whose arms she’d danced, back when their blushes had been hidden by masks matching the colors of her red gown. The one who had shown her that field of poppies and had walked her home between the raindrops. Kaleb Lahey. The one who’d kissed her awake and back to life back when she was numb. So until she figured out how she felt about these circumstances, she preferred to keep her distance and to avoid thinking about him lying in his cell.
And of course, the highlight of these past weeks had been Maxwell Lockhart. The man was anything but a bore and Ember could tell something had shifted between them. Naturally, he was his usual idiotic self and the urge to punch his teeth out grew stronger by the day, but there were some other moments when she caught herself smiling up at him and being actually grateful for his steady presence in her life at the moment. Never would she have fathomed alliance with a pirate could fit within her plans, that she’d ever grow to almost trust a man with morals so bendable. But then again, who was she to judge? Her morals were just as flexible.
And yet, it was so much more than that. To a certain extent, there had been forged a connection between the two of them, founded on a certain relating to each other. Ember had a feeling she had somehow earned his respect in a manner of speaking. But at some point, he’d stopped looking down on her and the change was palpable in the way he talked to her. And if she had to be honest with herself, Ember had to admit that it felt nice, not having to constantly worry about making the wrong impression, because if she thought she was bad news, then Max was worse. And she found out she was fine with that. There were no pretenses between them, and for the first time in too long, Ember didn’t feel the need to make excuses for how she lived and what choices she’d made. Max didn’t care and he didn’t judge her for anything. Max got it.
But it was still so much more than that. She could not point out the precise moment when it had happened, this change. Perhaps it had been that moment on deck as the sun bid them farewell for another night, when they’d shared rum and stories until late and he’d made her laugh for hours when she wanted nothing else but to sulk over Kaleb’s betrayal. Or perhaps it had been the rest of the nights when they’d done the same; these little solitary moments they spent together over a bottle of rum had become a habit that she was growing to enjoy. Or perhaps it had been the night when she finally decided she felt bad about letting the captain sleep on the floor in his own cabin. Heavens, that had gone spectacularly.
“You don’t have to sleep on the floor, you know.”
Max’s eyebrows shot up as if she was suggesting that he invited Christopher to dance during the next sailor party. As realization settled in, that painfully smug grin of his bloomed on his face.
“Why, fire breather,” he feigned surprise. “Are you implying what I believe you’re implying?”
Ember rolled her eyes. “I believe I’m implying merely half of what you imply I’m implying. The other half you’re just making up in your sick imagination.”
Max simply shrugged, not bothering to deny. But Ember saw the doubt in his posture. Was he that concerned about her virtue? Or was he more concerned about his safety if he happened to get anywhere near her virtue? Seeing him rub the back of his neck, Ember dared to assume it was the latter.
“You sure about that?” he grew a little serious, and Ember couldn’t help but cock an eyebrow at his hesitation. “Hey, maybe you’re the kind who’s stealing the blanket. And I get cold at night.”
Ember sighed exasperated.
“Maxwell, get in bed before I change my mind. Stay on your side and you should be fine.”
He grinned widely, kicked off his boots and jumped on the bed, tucking an arm under his head. Ember tried hard to look away. Damn the bastard, for being so distracting. There were moments like this when she would’ve preferred sharing a cabin with Billy Long-Legs. At least there was no danger of her ever finding Billy attractive.
“I get all tingly when you threaten me,” he smirked up at her.
Ember groaned and rolled her eyes, but when she turned around with her back on him, she was smiling. She was starting to drift off when she heard his voice a few minutes later, amusement clear in his tone.
“I’m a cuddler.”
Ember bit her lip against a smile and forced her voice to be threatening.
“Don’t even think about it.”
“Too late,” he replied, and she heard the smirk in his voice. Within minutes, they were both asleep.
They’d shared a bed ever since, and despite her expecting the worst of him, Max had been a perfect gentlemen. He hadn’t laid a single finger on her. But Gods above, she often turned around and found him looking at her with such curiosity and intensity that it felt like stripping her soul before his eyes. These small exchanges of theirs somehow managed to make her blood boil and all the anger and frustration she felt towards him, it soon and rapidly turned into undeniable attraction.
And she hated every minute of it. She was supposed to fight with him and want to gouge his eyes out, not steal glances at his lips and feel heat surging through her when she felt his body merely inches away from her in the bed. So while she had welcomed this weird relationship they had going on for now, she preferred to deny whatever else she was also feeling. She stuck to the plan. She did not need more complications for the moment, even complications as handsome as Maxwell Lockhart. Especially complications as handsome as Maxwell Lockhart.
“What’s a man got to do to get some time alone on his own ship?”
Ember started when she heard Max’s raspy voice behind her. She turned around to face him and found the captain standing a few feet away, smirking at her, a bottle of rum in his hand. As always. She was quick to return his grin.
“Not invite and befriend dazzling lady dragons on said ship. But I can go, if you’d like me to,” she smiled to let him know she was teasing. “Let you get drunk by yourself. I bet the fish are looking forward to listen to your made up stories about mermaids.”
“You can stay,” Max took his usual place at her right, leaning against the edge. “I’d hate for you to get bored by yourself in the cabin. We both know I’m a far more enjoyable company.”
“So you claim.”
“So you know,” he winked at her, handing her the bottle of rum.
She chuckled and took the bottle. It was a dance they both knew all too well. The teasing, the jokes, the confessions. Ember was a little scared by how great her trust in him had become. After Kaleb’s betrayal, she’d figured she could never come to trust another individual. But it had been weeks and Max had found safe, yet certain ways to crawl under her skin. And she had welcomed him in with skepticism, and she found that there was still room for him in that narrow range of her trust.
“You seem rather fidgety today,” he remarked, and Ember glared at him.
“I’m not fidgeting.”
“You’re fidgeting, fire breather. You’re restless. Spill the beans. What’s bothering you?”
She rubbed her neck awkwardly. Yes, perhaps he did have a point. She was growing somewhat restless by the day, but she’d made valiant efforts to hide that. She’d attributed it to a poor adjusting to being away for so long from her usual lifestyle. And yet Max had managed to see through it. She didn’t linger too much on the thought.
“I’m a little itchy,” she admitted. “The turn, the shift or however you wanna call it, it used to happen every week, mostly. I used to wake up in that clearing even every other two or three days. But now it’s been weeks and I haven’t turned. I was beginning to doubt whether I am truly the dragon you are looking for. But I feel it. I feel it like a fever crawling inside me that I don’t know how to let out.”
Max was silent for a few minutes until Ember finally turned to face his reaction. She’d expected him to look pensive and stare into the distance with his lips pursed, like he did when he was thinking hard about something. But instead, she saw it again. That look. He was looking at her once again with that expression in his crystal blue eyes that made Ember go weak around the knees. Eventually, after a few charged and intense moments, he cleared his throat and turned his head, watching the dance of the waves.
“It’ll happen, Ember. I know it feels like we’re running out of time, but it’ll happen. It’s who you are. And who you are always comes back to bite your damn arse.”
“Speaking from experience, captain?” she bumped him with her shoulder, but he didn’t return her smile.
“Perhaps. Perhaps not.”
“That’s a childish answer.”
“I’m a child at the core,” he smirked, back to sass in an instant. Ember rolled her eyes.
“You behave like a child, too.”
Max laughed whole-heartedly and Ember was quick to follow. It was unsettling how natural their bantering came these days. And how much they both enjoyed it. When had the lines become so blurred between them?
They passed the bottle of rum between them a few more times, drinking and pondering in silence. And with the stars looking down at her, Ember dared to look within herself, too. And she found that the decision she was so afraid of making had already been long since made. She just had to reach in and grab it and pull it out.
“I think I’m ready,” she spoke eventually, with a steadiness to her voice that surprised even herself, and Max turned around to look at her curiously.
“Ready for what?”
Ember shot him a sad smile before replying.
“Ready to get my answers.”
And they both knew what she implied. Tomorrow morning, she’d walk to Kaleb’s cell and finally demand everything she wanted to know. She was no longer afraid of what she’d learn. After another few more minutes of silence, Max was the one to break it.
“You don’t have to do it, you know.” He paused and looked at her again; Gods above, would she never be able to stand her ground again under the weight of his gaze? “We shall find that coven and break the hex, and you will be free. It will be over and you can take your siblings and leave. Far away. I can take you anywhere. The world would be ours to unravel.”
Ember blinked up at him. Heavens, his offer was so tempting. A lifetime of sailing to wherever her heart pleased, to see the world and have no cares for the rest of her days. A lifetime of pirate parties alongside Maxwell Lockhart. I can take you anywhere. Yes, the offer truly tempted her. The world would be ours to unravel. The prospect of it sent waves down the length of her spine and the word was on the tip of her tongue.
“No,” she found herself saying against herself and she had to take a deep breath before continuing. “No, I do have to do this. I can’t live like this. When it’s all over, I don’t want to look back and frown upon dirty laundry. When I start over, I want a clean start.”
Max nodded, his face unreadable.
“I see,” he said.
Ember watched him for a second, deciding there was a soft glint of disappointment below the hardened mask. She allowed herself to smile at him and bump him with her shoulder once more.
“But I’ll take you up on that offer, captain,” she grinned. “I’m looking forward to unravel whatever it is you want to unravel together.”
And just as she thought they were having a moment, the captain broke into yet another one of his maddening smirks.
“Is that so?” he mocked. “I can think of a few things—“
Ember punched him flat in the stomach, making him lose a breath, then she started walking away, biting her lip against a smile of her own. She hated when his stupid jokes got to her.
“Ugh,” she groaned as she was turning around. “You are impossible. Let’s go to bed.”
She heard his footsteps following and she heard the grin in his voice as he replied.
“Oh? Does that have anything to do with the unraveling?”
~SOUNDTRACK: Fleurie – Hurts like hell~
The following morning, Ember counted the steps to Kaleb’s cell. There had been exactly one hundred and thirteen steps. After eighty two steps, Max stopped.
“Will you be fine?”
She rolled her eyes and tried to hide how hard her hands were shaking. She nodded, not trusting her voice. Max gritted his teeth and nodded, too.
“Very well,” he said. “You’ve got ten minutes. After that, I’m coming down there to get you.”
So she’d taken the last thirty one steps by herself, each taking her closer to the truth. She didn’t feel ready. She didn’t think she could look Kaleb in the eye and not feel as if her heart was being ripped out of his chest when she remembered all the ways in which he’d looked at her before all of this. Like she’d mattered. Like he believed in her. Like she was the sun and he’d been blind his whole life. How can one fake such thing? How could he have made her fall for it? Fall for him?
Ember stepped closer, and then closer. Ten more steps. Then nine, then eight, and two more, and then she was standing right before Kaleb’s cell. She took advantage of him not having noticed her walking in to study him. Gods above, he’d lost so much weight. And he was still so gorgeous, still as a Greek sculpture. His cheekbones were sharper, his eyes seemed unfocused, his hair looked oily and, in all fairness, he smelled. What had they done to him? Despite herself and the efforts she made to despise him, she truly felt sorry for him. She still wanted to break him out of his cell and wrap him in her arms until he was whole again. But she couldn’t do that. Because she wasn’t whole herself. He still had a great part of herself that she needed back, but didn’t know how to take it from him.
She let out a shaky loud breath and Kaleb’s eyes flew towards her.
He started fidgeting, his eyes growing wide and lips parting slightly. She had thought she could do this. But she’d overestimated her power of will. So much. She turned her back on him and willed herself to stop shaking. When she realized she had no control over her body, she leaned against the iron bars and let herself fall down until the back of her knees felt the reassuring coldness of the floor.
“You came,” she heard Kaleb on the other side of the bars, and she figured his position mirrored hers. She felt his fingers slowly, tentatively grazing hers and her first instinct was to lean into his touch. But then she remembered what she was here for and took her hand out of his reach, rubbing it where his fingers had touched it. She still felt the warmth of his skin against hers. She hated the way her body reacted to him, as if it remembered his imprint he’d left in her very core.
“I shouldn’t have,” she brought herself to mutter, and she heard him exhale sharply.
“I’ve waited,” he spoke. “I have waited for you every day. And it’s been 43 days. I’ve been waiting for you to come see me 43 times. Perhaps the 44th time is a charm.”
“I shouldn’t have,” she repeated, trying to convince herself to get up and leave rather than him.
“Then why did you?” Kaleb inquired. “I cannot seem to convince you that I would never hurt you. You won’t take my word for it. So why bother listening to what I’ve got to say?”
“I don’t know,” she admitted, and it struck her dumb, how true it was.
“They say you’re a—“ he trailed off, swallowing hard, and Ember clenched her fists.
“A what?” she spat. “A dragon? A flying lizard? So it would seem. But you knew that, didn’t you?”
“Ember, I do not know how to spell it out for you. I’m no witch. And I would never do anything that would cause you harm. Ember, I love—“
“Don’t say it,” she grabbed a fistful of her hair, resting her forehead on her knees. “Gods above, Kaleb, don’t say it. I cannot take more lies. Coming here was a mistake.”
She got up to leave when she felt Kaleb’s warm fingers circle her wrist.
Before she could reply, Ember heard the all too known raspy voice behind her.
“Hey!” Max roared. “Hands off, mate.”
~SOUNDTRACK: Mikky Ekko – Who are you really~
Max had waited for precisely ten minutes. Then he waited two more minutes as courtesy. But when Ember still didn’t show up, he took Billy and headed to the jeweler’s cell. He arrived just in time to see Ember get up to leave and the boy grab her wrist trying to turn her around.
But what he hadn’t expected was that, right after he’d screamed at him to take his hands off, both him and Ember turned their heads towards him. And two pairs of eyes flashed golden in the dim light. It had been unmistakable. It had been fast, but both Ember’s and Kaleb’s eyes had glowed in the dark for just a second, enough to make Max lose a breath and question everything he thought he knew. Bloody hell. It couldn’t be. Ember was the last remaining dragon. The last of her kin. It couldn’t be.
Ember yanked her hand free from Kaleb’s grasp, her teeth gritted.
“I’m fine, Max. Let’s go.”
But when Max didn’t move, she frowned.
Max didn’t waste another minute. If his suspicions were correct, and he was fairly certain they were, then this changed the fate of the entire game. War. The fate of the war. Things were getting far from playful battles.
He rushed to Ember’s side and grabbed her wrist the same way Kaleb had just done earlier.
“Ow,” she exclaimed. “Max, have you gone mad? You’re hurting me. Max, let go.”
And he saw it, like he’d expected to. A small pentagram drawn on the inside of her wrist. The pattern was a little faded, a little smudged, but he would have recognized a cloaking symbol everywhere. It was perfectly justified. Since Ember was supposed to be the last dragon, it made sense to have her cloaked and with her memory wiped in order to protect her from those who meant to harm her.
But then Max let go of Ember’s wrists and grabbed Kaleb’s. The boy took it stoically, clenching his jaw and glaring, but not fighting him off. Max turned his wrist and saw the exact same symbol he’d seen on Ember’s. Bloody hell. His was a little sharper, the edges better contoured and the shade more intense than Ember’s. Of course. That was why Christopher had sensed what Ember was right away, but hadn’t been able to tell with Kaleb. His cloaking still held.
Max let go of Kaleb’s wrist and stepped forward. Then he turned to Billy.
“Take him on deck and keep an eye out for land. We need to dock as soon as possible.”
“Max,” Ember hissed at him. “What the hell is going on? You’re being strange.”
“Things have changed, love,” he whispered back, his hand unconsciously going to the hilt of his sword. “He’s one, too.”
“One what?” Ember shrieked, already exasperated. “You’re not making any sense.”
Max paced back and forth. How could he explain this to her? It made no sense whatsoever to him, either.
Max looked behind him, just to discover that the voice belonged to Christopher. He stood there, his hands behind his back, watching them amused. Max clenched his fists.
“You knew?” he lowered his voice to a dangerous tone.
Christopher surprised him by bursting into laughter. “Of course not. I learned just now, as well. Quite the plot twist, is it not?”
“Quite the plot twist?” Ember shrieked, and Max saw her reach for the demon; he grabbed her arm before she would do something that would get her killed and he felt her muscles relax a little under his touch. “Quite the plot twist?! Is this all you’ve got to say? How about a gods damned explanation? You can’t simply drop it on us like that without saying a thing.”
Max looked at the boy, who looked utterly terrified. Perhaps he was wondering what else they were going to pin on him next.
“Sorry, love,” he turned to Ember. “This will have to do for now. You’re both dragons. And this changes everything. Doesn’t it?”
He addressed the question to Christopher, who kept smiling entertained and looked like he could not be bothered by the recent discoveries. Did nothing faze him?
“Indeed,” the demon replied. “With no witch and with two dragons, we’ve got a double threat. I’d say you’re looking at quite the war, little dragon.”
Max saw Ember gulp and cast a glance at Kaleb. He saw the heart-wrenching look on her face when she realized she’d distrusted Kaleb for the wrong reasons, when he was a part of the same mess she was. But he couldn’t afford thinking about that. They were running out of time. Now more than ever, they needed to find that cave and they had no more time to waste waiting around for Ember and Kaleb to turn. They needed extreme measures.
He turned to Billy.
“We’re docking as soon as we find land. We’re getting to that cave by tomorrow.”
~SOUNDTRACK: Of Verona – Breathe~
Ember didn’t know how many more shocks her heart could take. Kaleb was a dragon, too. Gods above. She was trapped between the surprise of knowing she’d fallen for the last one of her kin and the mortification of having doubted him. She hadn’t had a chance to talk to him since Max had made the great reveal, because Billy had taken him up on deck and she’d been left behind to scream at Max, to fight with him and to demand explanations and to be yelled at in return. Two hours later, Billy had announced they had found land and before Ember could even have time to process everything, they were sitting in a boat heading to God knew where.
It was all happening too fast. She didn’t have time to catch her breath. She didn’t have time to blink or to exhale all the charged air burning her lungs, because at every corner, something had to happen that would knock her dead every time.
Max had been quiet the whole way, hardly answering Ember’s questions with vague answers and never bothering to tell them where they were going. In no time, they were standing in an open field, on the edge of a cliff. Looking down, Ember could see it was a long way down, she could see the waves hitting the massive rocks. She and Kaleb were standing side by side, surrounded by Kaleb, Christopher, who looked utterly bored and at loss of interest, and several of Max’s pirates.
“What is the meaning of this, captain?” Ember hissed, holding her chin up defiantly. “This is no time for games and shenanigans.”
“I agree,” Max replied, and before Ember could realize what was going on, the captain and his pirates had their swords out; Ember and Kaleb gasped when they all pointed the swords at them. “But I’m not playing, fire breather. This is an extreme measure. You’re gonna turn now.”
Ember glared at him and clenched her fists. She considered putting up a fight, and even with her skills and supernatural strength, she may have been able to take a few of the pirates, but never Max. What had gotten into him?
“You know it doesn’t work this way, Max,” she raised her voice. “I can’t control it.”
“You will,” he offered simply. “Because you and your lover boy are going to jump off this cliff.”
Ember counted three heartbeats. She let out a sharp breath.
“Are you out of your mind?” she lowered her voice, feeling the urge to rip his limbs off. “Max, this is—“
“This is the only way,” he cut in. “Your instincts will take over. So off you go. Or we will make you.”
“Ember—“ she heard Kaleb by her side, clearly terrified. For his sake, she had to keep it together.
“Max,” she tried to reason with the captain. “Drop the sword. There are other ways. I will not kill myself and Kaleb for a mad theory of yours. I cannot take that chance.”
“I can,” the captain raised his voice. “I’ll take the chance. Now jump before I lose my patience and I make you jump.”
Gods above, he’d lost it. Ember saw it in his eyes, the intent, the decision had been made. He would not hesitate before pushing them off the cliff.
She knew she was supposed to reassure Kaleb and feel a little more empowered by the fact that he was in this with her, but as he listened to his plea, Ember couldn’t help but feel as if he stumbled her.
“Kaleb,” she snapped at him. “Just shut up.”
Her eyes were glued to Max’s, and she saw him grin.
“There we go,” he lowered his voice, as if these words were meant for her only. “Let the beast out, love. It aches to burst out.”
“Don’t pretend to know anything about me, Maxwell Lockhart,” she hissed. “You might learn there is more than one beast beneath my skin. And you may learn I have means to feed you to the one that’s worse than the dragon.”
“Words, words, words,” Max rested his sword on his shoulder. “We have swords. So I suggest you jump, dragon girl. I’d hate to throw a girl off a cliff. I’m known to be a gentleman.”
She glared at him, but he didn’t drop her gaze. It unsettled her. This was not the man she’d spent the last weeks with. This was not the man she’d shared a bed and so many bottles of rum with. He was unstoppable, focused on the purpose rather than the means, and Ember knew there was no getting through to him.
“Ember—“ Kaleb tried again, and Ember tried hard not to direct all of her rage at him.
“Kaleb. Shut up. Shut up and take a deep breath, alright? Deep breath. Because we are going to jump.”
She saw Kaleb’s eyes widen and she took his hand. She tried hard to focus on him, to hold on to breathing in sync with him. She tuned out Max and his pirates, she lost sight of the tips of the swords pointed at them, and she placed her hands around Kaleb’s neck. She rested her forehead on his until they breathed in the same air.
“I can’t,” he spoke, his warm breath tickling her lips.
“Yes, you can. And we will.”
“Ember, no, I…I don’t… I don’t think I am who they say I am. I’m not a… A—“
“A dragon?” she was surprised how easy the word rolled off her tongue and how she’d grown to accept it as a part of her. “You are, Kaleb. You’ve seen the marks. And this is going to work.”
He took in a shaky breath.
“What if it doesn’t?”
“It will,” she reassured him. “It has to. Because this is who we are, Kaleb. So just breathe. And let’s jump.”
He took her advice and took in a deep breath. Ember watched his chest rise and fall steadily, and she tried to copy his movements until there was a perfect symmetry between them. Then she looked into his eyes and the decision had been made. Perhaps it wouldn’t work. Perhaps Max was pushing them to their deaths. But there was no other person she would’ve rather died with. They’d been forged from the same flames. If today was their end, then at least they got to perish hand in hand, as they had been made to from the beginning.
Ember dropped her hands from his neck and her right one went to clasp his left one. They turned their backs on the pirates and took a few steps towards the edge. She sensed Kaleb shaking with his whole body, so she gave his hand a reassuring squeeze. The rocks met the waves stealthily and they teased them, willing to taste their flesh. Ember pushed the thought away.
She looked at Kaleb again and they locked gazes. She saw him mouth an ‘I love you’ to her and her heart stopped for a second. She could not offer that back, but she did smile at him. And then they took another deep breath and they jumped hand in hand.
The air hit their cheeks. The rocks were getting bigger and bigger. The waves felt closer and closer. Ember closed her eyes and waited for the impact. In the freefall, her fingers grazed Kaleb’s once more.
And then she felt something inside her snap. Like the string of a bow letting go and the arrow flying forward. Like the first cackling of a fire. Like the sound of snow beneath your boots. Like the metal of two swords meeting. And she gave in to the calling within her without hesitation, feeling like she was following the most natural course. The one she’d always been supposed to be on. She felt her body shifting and everything suddenly became sharper around her.
And just like that, with the flap of wings, as Max watched over the edge, two glorious dragons took over the sky.