Chapter 21: Of Men and Beasts
~SOUNDTRACK: Jamie N Commons & X Ambassadors – Jungle~
“What’s his name again?” Ember asked Christopher as they walked through the woods. The demon sighed.
“Meldon,” he replied shortly.
“And he’s a magician of some sorts?”
“A black magus.”
“And he will help us do what, exactly?”
Christopher stopped walking and came to a halt in front of Ember, his nostrils flaring.
“For now, I am considering whether I should still ask him to retrieve your memories or whether to request that he sewed your mouth shut,” he hissed at her, and then resumed his walking.
Ember followed frowning. Heavens, he was jumpy today.
“How do you know a black magus anyway?” she heard Max ask from behind her and she flinched. She hadn’t had the time to talk to him about that kiss yet. And she dreaded the moment in which she’d have to address that issue. But in the meantime, they had to keep moving through the palpable tension and awkwardness lingering between them.
“That is for me to know and for you to wonder, pirate,” Christopher retorted. “How do you know a prince of hell?”
Ember heard Max scoff and she bit down a smile.
“Point made,” Max growled, and she was about to make another comment when Christopher stopped abruptly once more and looked around.
“We’re here,” he announced.
Ember looked around and saw that Max, Kaleb and the couple of pirates Max had brought along did the same. There was nothing in sight. Just a clearing surrounded by thick woods. No evident black magus. Christopher rolled his eyes.
“He likes to make an entrance.”
As soon as the words were out of Christopher’s mouth, a loud explosion made Ember flinch and cover her head. Bright light blinded her and she was surprised when Max’s arms flew around her protectively. When the light faded, Ember raised her head reluctantly to take in the scene. Her eyebrows flew up. For how utterly insane Christopher had painted him as, the black magus looked rather normal, save for the dramatic entrance, indeed. But it was his smile that threw her off. Such a wide, unnatural smile had to be painful, what with the way it contorted his face and pulled his lips back to reveal white teeth. And the eyes. The eyes gave him away. The clear blue of Meldon’s eyes matched Max’s, except there was nothing human in them. There was just cruelty and ruthlessness and blood thirst and they were wide and unfocused. It gave Ember the chills. Yes, there was no doubt. He was entirely bonkers.
“My, my,” Meldon’s voice filled the silence, loud and sharp and screeching. “Zeya, is it my birthday? Two dragons, a demon and a handful of pirates, all for me to devour.”
Ember shuddered at his words and tried hard to convince herself that he wasn’t speaking literally. Though the way he’d said ‘devour’ seemed all too realistic for her taste. Her eyes finally travelled to the black magus’ left, to see to whom his words were addressed, and she gasped audibly. Right next to him stood the most gorgeous woman she’d ever seen. Her hair was red, skin was creamy and her eyes were wild and restless. Her silhouette seemed fallen off the paintbrush of a skilled artist. She was too beautiful a creature to be human.
“Bloody hell,” she heard Max mutter by her side and she turned to look at him.
And if she’d been shocked, Max was mesmerized. He stood with his mouth half open, looking on the verge of throwing himself on his knees before this woman, vowing to follow her to his death and beyond. There was a dreamy look on his face that sent a pang of jealousy through Ember that she tried hard to ignore. Now was neither the time, nor the place for this. She pursed her lips and tried hard to shut down these feelings when she finally felt warm fingers clasping her wrists. She turned around to see Max looking at her in desperation, as if he were trying to ground himself to her. She felt her cheeks flush under his gaze and tried to ignore the implications of the gesture, when an ostentatious chuckle brought her back from her reverie.
“Look at this, Zeya,” he chanted happily. “You made a victim. Would you like me to take him as a pet? He would make a fine pet.”
Max’s grip around Ember’s wrist tightened and it occurred to her that this whole daze of his over this Zeya wasn’t exactly natural. Max looked as if he was trying hard not to kneel at her feet in awe and Ember felt oddly relieved that he was resisting it and deeply moved that he used her as a tether. So for once, she let herself have this one moment and intertwined their fingers and gave his hand a reassuring squeeze.
The black magus let out a high pitched chuckle that sent chills down Ember’s spine.
“The rat’s standing up to the cat,” he shrieked, his sharp voice making Ember flinch and squeeze Max’s hand harder. “Because he’s enjoying the cheese. Tsk tsk tsk. Don’t take it personal, my Zeya. Nymph or not, the little dragon has him under a different spell of her own.”
Max let out a breath he had no idea he’d been holding. A nymph. That made sense. Nymphs were supernatural creatures that lured men to their deaths with their unworldly beauty. He should’ve known the second he started losing focus, with her perfect features being anything he could see before his eyes. It took all he had to snap out of it. No. It took Ember. He was vaguely aware of a small flicker at the edge of his vision warning him there was something wrong about the way he was ready to go to the end of the world for her. So it triggered his instinct, and his first instinct had been to ground himself to the only thing that could get him out of the trance. An infuriating black-haired thief whose heat he’d felt so pregnant against his body and had been yearning for ever since. A maddening self-assured prick who’d gotten under his skin like a lizard and that he’d allowed to shelter in his veins. He’d reached for Ember and the warmth of her fingers intertwined with his had been reassurance enough. Whatever it was that he was beginning to feel towards the little dragon, it had been enough to tether him to whatever conscience he had left. And it had been as if every twisted path in his head led to her.
“I have no time for games, Meldon,” Christopher’s voice broke the thick tension building up. “I believe my request has been made rather clear to you when you were summoned.”
The magus broke into a feral smile.
“Oh, yes, old friend. Clear as day. Perhaps a bit too clear and graphic for my taste, as your messenger is currently lying decapitated on the side of a dirty road.”
Christopher surprised everyone by returning the cruel smile. “I expected nothing less of you, old friend.”
Ember let out a small choked gasp. These men – not men at all, come to think about it, but merciless killers, despicable monsters – spoke of murder as one would speak of the weather. The gasp didn’t go unnoticed, however, and she soon felt Meldon’s eyes on her, watching her with entertainment. He started walking, steady as a mountain lion and feral as one, until he stood before her. Ember tried hard not to step backwards, away from him, not wanting to show how intimidated she was. But she was, oh, how she was. His frozen eyes dug holes into her skull and he smelled like ashes and tombs.
“Are you frightened, child?” he asked, his breath hitting her cheek and she tried so hard to tell him that she wasn’t, to stare right back into his eyes and hold her ground, but those crazed eyes staring so intently at her made her nauseous.
The black magus started circling her and she felt his cold breath on the nape of her neck, sending chills down her spine. He let out that blood-chilling chuckle again.
“Oh, she is,” he chanted happily. “I can smell it on you. You’re a beast hiding beneath a child. This world has yet to see your fangs, lizard girl.”
Ember clenched her fists and stared blankly ahead as Meldon’s voice rang behind her.
“I’m no lizard,” she hissed through gritted teeth, expecting to be punished for her insolence, but the black magus merely let out a feral laugh.
“So they all say, so they all say,” he chanted. “But we’re all beasts, we’re all mad, we’re all monsters. And you’re no more than lizards. You and your pretty boy, aren’t you, pretty boy?”
Ember glanced sideways just to see Kaleb gulping, too frozen to be reacting. And before Ember could snap again at the magus for his remark, both of them felt him place his hands on their heads and all that followed was blinding pain. Sharpest pain Ember had ever felt, numbing her whole body and making both her and Kaleb fall to their knees, screaming in agony. She vaguely heard Max moving and yelling something, but she could focus on nothing else but the pressure building behind her eyes, in her skull, that threatened to crush her head. Yet within seconds, the pain was gone and images started flashing before their eyes so fast they could hardly keep up with them.
~SOUNDTRACK: Rhodes – The lakes~
A little girl sat in a clearing, not far from a remote village in the mountains. She looked up and her gaze skimmed across the blue horizon. Birds flew high, spread their wings and teased the winds in utter defiance with their grandeur. And as they got closer, they grew bigger. And as they fell into a well-played danced, the little girl realized they were not birds. But whatever creatures they were, they owned the horizon as if it were rightfully theirs.
A little boy played with a little wooden horse, hidden behind a barrel. The village was loud and the people could not be bothered by a scared child who did not fully grasp yet what he was to become.
“Why are you hiding here?”
The little boy flinched and looked up. A little girl looked at him with curious green eyes. He knew her. She was the Blackthorn girl. The way he heard it, she was quite important around here. As was he. He did not know what this great future would bring upon them, but if he could keep dodging it for a little while longer, he’d have been grateful.
“I’m playing,” he replied shortly, hoping she’d just leave him alone. But she did not go. Instead, she sat next to him on the ground and hugged her knees.
“Can I play with you?” she asked, and her wide eyes seemed so genuine, so sincere, that the boy blinked dumbstruck.
“Why?” he blurted out, and his newest friend smiled shyly.
“The Onyx Valley is boring. I could use a friend.”
“Kaleb, who was the girl you spoke to today?”
The boy gulped, looking up to his mother sheepishly.
“A friend,” he replied shortly, and his mother shook her head at him amused.
“Nothing would please me more than for it to be so, darling,” she kissed the top of his head. “Because that was the daughter of Mary Elizabeth and Alexander Blackthorn. She and you shall rule the Onyx Valley one day.”
“Mother, I met Kaleb Middleton today,” the little girl announced proudly, and Mary Elizabeth Blackthorn chuckled lightly.
“So I’ve heard, monkey,” the woman replied. “But be patient with him. I hear he’s quite the lonely child. Don’t scare the poor soul away, will you?”
The girl giggled happily. She would have normally brushed such comment off and would have hit the boy with everything she had. She preferred her friends a bit more enthusiastic. But seeing as the Middleton boy didn’t strike her as the type, she would learn to lower her voice if he couldn’t raise his. They needed to be in tune. After all, like her parents never forgot to remind her, the two of them would rule the Onyx Valley one day.
A boy and a girl stood hand in hand, facing the ocean. They were scared. They were terrified. But they were excited. This was the day where they stepped in line to inherit their legacy. Dozens dragon clans had gathered here today to watch their future leaders take their first flight.
So hand in hand, they gave in to the calling rising in the depths of their chests.
And they jumped.
And in their place, two young dragons took over the sky.
Flames took over the Onyx Valley. The boy and the girl didn’t know for sure what was going on. All they knew is that people were screaming in agony, that the smell of burned flesh filled their lungs and smoke clouded their vision. They were ripped from their beds and pulled away from each other while they were desperately trying not to let go of one another’s hands.
A 12-year old boy in tears was dropped off on the doorstep of a cruel jeweler.
A 12-year old girl was left alone with four siblings whose dragon legacies had been placed under a dormant spell.
An entire dragon race was left buried under an ocean of ashes that night.
She smiled. Or something vaguely similar to a smile. As the morning light stroked her onyx black scales, thick skin lifted to bear sharp fangs in a strange, ominous, audacious attempt at an animalistic smile. She was a ferocious creature, terrifying and graceful in her viciousness, the flap of her massive wings resonating in a glorious echo, her vertical pupils dilated with the joy of soaring across the land like the cliffs and the mountains and the valleys belonged to her and she belonged to the sky and to the wind.
She was an Onyx Dragon, Daughter of Scorching Flames and Charcoal Dust.
On an opposite mountain peak, no more than a few yards between them, sat another dragon, his position mirroring hers, two pairs of beastly eyes staring like a mirror and a reflection. And deep under scales and claws and feral instincts, even though their consciences weren’t yet aware of it, two souls resonated loud as a crack and ripple sounds of a burning fire, and smoke rose and drew patterns on the morning sky.
The two of them looked at each other and welcomed one another’s presence, feeling as if they were finally home.
~SOUNDTRACK: Nico Vega – Beast~
Ember and Kaleb gasped and Meldon dropped his hands from their heads, smirking, pleased with himself while Zeya watched the two dragons struggling to catch their breaths. Christopher was still inexpressive as usual and Max rushed to Ember’s side, helping her to her feet.
“Hey,” he breathed quickly, moving her hair away from her face. “Hey, are you alright? What did you do to her, you bloody monster?” he turned to the black magus, and Ember wished he would just shut up and not get himself killed by this psychopath.
She turned to Kaleb and found him watching her with same perplexed expression on his face.
“We were friends,” he whispered. “When we were children. We grew up together. And William Lahey is not my father. Gods above, thank Heavens.”
She forced an exhausted smile that faltered quickly. “And my siblings… They were supposed to be dragons, too. Everybody was murdered. God, the slaughter…”
She didn’t have the time to finish that thought when Meldon walked between them, moving to stand in front of them with that uncanny smile plastered on his face, excited as a child.
“Marvelous, is it not?” he cheered. “My black magic had its fun breaking the barriers of your pretty heads. What do you think, my two lizards? Was it not spectacular?”
He let out another breathy chuckle, and Ember felt it snapping within her. She was no longer the scared girl afraid of the dormant beast. She was a beast as much as she was a human, and she now knew that she had been raised in such manner to be proud of that beast. So she gave in to it, not scared in the least bit anymore. She knew exactly who she was now, and she would bow to no one.
Slowly, fixating the black magus with her eyes, she stood up and Max saw her eyes flash golden. She growled – actually growled – and lifted her chin in defiance.
“I’m no lizard,” she repeated her words from earlier, to which the black magus and his little nymph smirked. “I am an Onyx Dragon, Daughter of Scorching Flames and Charcoal Dust. I have been forged by flames and I will not be afraid. I will not be stepped on. I will not be toyed around. Call me a lizard again and I will burn these woods to the ground before you can finish uttering the word.”
She felt Max freeze by her side, probably expecting the black magus to snap his fingers and turn her into a frog, but she’d meant every word. Her kin had perished believing she and Kaleb were worth saving and having the faith of everyone put in them. She would be worthy of that faith. She would live up to the glory of those she’d been meant to rule. She would not be afraid.
But what she least expected was for the black magus to tilt his head and turn on his heels, heading towards Zeya.
“It would appear my job here is done, Beelzebub,” he shot at the demon over his shoulder. “You’ve got two functional dragons. But we’ve got mischief to cause somewhere else now. Ease down on the fire, Daughter of whatever you just said. I’ve got some death traps around these woods I would hate for you to set off.”
That having been said, another explosion blinded them all and Meldon and Zeya vanished into thin air.
“He enjoys making an exit, as well,” Christopher commented bored, as if the fate of the game hadn’t once again shifted.
“Well?” Max prompted, his hand never leaving Ember’s elbow; and she was grateful for his supporting touch, but after everything she’d just learned, she could hardly look away from Kaleb. “Have you learned anything about the cave? Do we have a lead to follow?”
Kaleb met Ember’s eyes and it was clear that their thoughts met halfway.
“I believe we need to go back, don’t we?” he gazed at her. “Wide awake, for once.”
Ember pursed his lips and Max looked from one to the other.
“Back where?” he inquired, and Ember took a deep breath before replying.
“The Onyx Valley.”